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Michael Schudson at UCSD office

Ground zero for Professor Michael Schudson is his office on the UCSD campus. What appears to be a den of isolation is in fact an intellectual Grand Central Station. But the molecules bouncing around this 12- by 12-foot space are usually just Schudson's and those of a solitary student. Still, the energy flowing through the office is extremely active. It is the passion generated by ideas, of what professors love calling "the life of the mind."

Books are everywhere. They do more than just fill the black metal, utilitarian shelves that occupy two walls of Schudson's office. Paperbacks and hardbacks of all shapes and sizes dominate, enveloping, surrounding, tumbling out hundreds of the assumptions that Schudson loves to crack open like walnuts.

Holder of a Harvard doctorate in sociology, now employed in UCSD's Department of Communication, Schudson, like every professor you'll ever meet, will promptly assert how his scholarship embraces many disciplines. The books back up the claim. Certainly there are dozens of sociology standards, as well as many works devoted to Schudson's specialty, American media and culture. Tucked away are versions of the six books Schudson has written and edited. But there are also, to cite a few, Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, Thomas Mann's Felix Krull, William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Michael Herr's Dispatches, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

Scattered throughout, particularly on Schudson’s large desk and side table, are photocopies of articles, research papers in progress, and assorted notes. Up over one row of bookshelves are back issues of the journal of Communication. Down on the ground, inches from where Schudson rests his feet, are copies of the Nation and the New Republic. These are just a few of the 15-20 publications Schudson receives, from the San Diego Union-Tribune to the New Yorker, New York Times, weekly Washington Post, and a half-dozen professional journals. “No,” he shrugs, “I don’t have time to read them all.”

His desk faces a window that looks out onto a small plaza where a crowd of six constitutes a traffic jam. On the desk rests a Macintosh Performa com'puter, the kind that includes a color monitor and CD/ROM drive. Schudson loves the way electronic mail has enabled a return to the intellectual tradition of letters — so much the better to continue his life as a yeoman farmer of the information age. A small table holds an IBM Selectric typewriter. In the middle of the office is an orange plastic couch, right next to an orange felt swivel chair, each kwking vintage 1973. Half of the couch houses a foot-high stack of papers. Against another wall stand four large tan-and-beige file cabinets, bulging with Schudson’s notes.

What’s remarkable about all this literature is the way it is deployed. These books are not first editions for status, nor are they hardbacks for display. The strewn magazines and papers represent more than chaos (although Schudson is no doubt aware of the biblical concept that out of chaos comes order).

Pages are underlined and highlighted. Notes are scribbled in margins. Scraps of paper poke out of dozens of volumes. Others are partly open, folded over, resting on the floor, sideways on shelves, in stacks of two, three, or six. The creases in many volumes indicate that Schudson has reread and reassessed his thoughts on these thinkers dozens of times, picking and poking his way through assumptions, assertions, and evidence.

Take the case of Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a work sociologists virtually memorize as grad students. You’d think by now Schudson could just relegate Weber to back-shelf duty. But there’s a dog-eared copy on Schudson’s side desk, close at hand in the same way you might keep the Joy of Cooking nearby on a Sunday afternoon.

What chefs do with cookbooks is a good analogy to what Schudson does with his books and articles. Like Julia Child’s masterpieces, or any of the cookbooks a chef dips in and out of, Schudson’s books and papers rest on an intellectual chopping block and are splattered with grease. They are living, breathing, dynamic entities. Books wander in and out of here from many eras. It suggests a community, a democracy of ideas. Should a book enter the Ellis Island of Schudson’s mind, there’s no question it will become a citizen in a land of plenty, a nation where ideas will be given a thorough opportunity to make their mark on his brain and earn their share of intellectual capital. But they’ll also have to work rather strenuously.

A William Faulkner line that Schudson quotes in his book Watergate in American Memory is vividly demonstrated in Schudson’s office: “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Signs of Schudson’s 50 years on earth adorn the space. There’s a wall calendar from his undergraduate venue, Swarthmore (class of ’69). Above the desk are pictures of his family, including his wife. Sue. On a wall are several drawings by his three children. “I love my Dad,” reads one, "because he gives me popsicles.” And, of course, everywhere there are great authors, a rolling narrative of intellectual consciousness that began for Schudson decades ago in the public libraries of suburban Milwaukee.

Contrast all this with a corporate office, where executives are encouraged to essentially airbrush all signs of intellect and history from their workspace. A consulting firm I worked for once requested any books be placed out of view. In business, the more senior the executive, the more austere the office, decorated at most with a neutral painting, perhaps a glass table, two tasteful family portraits, and a coffee-table book (or maybe a few how-to volumes related to the business). Considering how much the world of contemporary business values information and trumpets such concepts as “the knowledge worker,” it is remarkable to see the way the raw ingredients that compose mental output — books, publications, notes — are kept under wraps, as if bringing these materials front and center would desecrate the world of commerce. “Those liberal-arts professors who teach communications,” says a public-relations director at a $500 million company, “they’re all into theory. A professor is ‘book-smart.’ We’re practical.”

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