Vitals: Associate Professor,
Senior Fellows Classes Taught:
Communication and Community,
The Marriage of Sports, Media and
the Metropolis, 2000
City and Country Music as
Communication, 2003, 2005
CARmmunication: The Car as
Communication and Culture, 2006
Media Technology, ElectriCity,
LuninoCity, and Urban Communication,
Favorite Senior Fellows Moment:
Taking his "ElectriCity" class to the
Austin power plant
Link to photo gallery:
By Dave Junker, Senior Fellows Director
Nearing 80 -- with 40 of those years spent at The University of Texas at Austin -- legendary journalism professor Gene Burd has an energy that belies his “chronological” age. And nowhere is this more apparent than when he's in the classroom -- or out of it -- with Senior Fellows students.
While Burd’s contributions to the College of Communication and journalism education are well known, less so is his legacy as a Senior Fellows teacher. In the 24-year history of the honors program, no one has taught more often (seven times) or more seminar topics (five, tied with Dana Cloud). He can also lay claim to having the most unusual courses, with the most unique names, doing the most unconventional things.
“Gene really shines in Senior Fellows classes,” says former Senior Fellows director Robert Jensen. “He’s quirky, and the students love him. In Senior Fellows, he’s in his element.”
Burd clearly revels in his role as teacher, which might be described as equal parts Socratic guide and Zen trickster. “I love those fringe areas,” he tells me, “to raise questions and think about things we haven’t thought about.”
Recounting the times he took Senior Fellows students on field trips to the Austin power plant and area parking lots, Burd says students naturally didn’t know what to think at first. But as he delights in explaining, the refrains of “what does this mean?” inevitably gave way to “Gee! I never thought of that.” His trip to the power plant was part of his class, “ElectriCity, LuminoCity, and Urban Communication” (2009, 2010), which he says forced students to think seriously, and often for the first time, about the “role of light” in media technology.
“When I first registered for Dr. Burd’s class, ElectriCity, I had no idea what I was getting into, “ says Senior Fellows alumna Lena Proft, who graduated in 2011 with degrees in communication studies and government. “The class covered so many interesting topics that I had never considered before.” Proft says Burd’s approach fostered students’ own curiosity, so that “in a sense, [students themselves] became groundbreakers.”
Burd’s class trip to the parking lot was for “CARmunication: The Car as Communication and Culture” (2006). The point was to “give students a feeling of place for understanding the content,” he says. For example, the point of their visit to the parking lot was to impress on students the car’s impact on our ability to connect across great distances, the car’s impact on the spaces in which we live, and the car’s place in the stories we tell about ourselves. “People are conceived and born in cars,” he reminds me. “It’s a world of it’s own. Think of the technology that goes along with it: the car radio, the car as a medium of advertising.”
His other Senior Fellows courses include “Communication and Community” (1994), “The Marriage of Sports, Media and the Metropolis” (2000) and “City and Country Music as Communication” (2003, 2005). Just as there’s a clear motive behind his unconventional field trips, there’s a clear theme in all his classes. “It’s all right there” in the title of his first Senior Fellows seminar, “Communication and Community,” he explains.
What’s also evident in these courses is his interest in how the city intensifies the relationships between communication and physical space. He traces this interest to when he moved with his family from the Missouri Ozarks to Los Angeles when he was 13, during the Great Depression. “To go from a place that was just absolute rural, I mean country, and to move to a place like Los Angeles: Man, you talk about radical change,” he says emphatically.
There’s an autobiographical component to his classes, which anyone who meets him well attest is one of the things that makes him so indelible as a person. “The thing I enjoyed most about Dr. Burd was his amazing memory,” recalls Proft, his former student. "He told us intriguing stories involving his first encounters with various forms of electricity. My favorite was his first encounter with a stoplight. He was mystified as to why so many people let the simple color of a light control their actions.”
When I ask him if new media is collapsing physical distance, and diminishing geography’s importance on communication, I get an emphatic, but nuanced no. He says we’ve never paid enough attention to geography. But, ironically, “it’s the new technology” that is forcing us to see the intractability of space. “Geography is holding on,” he asserts. “Physical space is not going to disappear.”
His life-long focus on the relationship between communication and communities has made him appreciate the “wonderfully terrible” changes new media has introduced. Considering what we now have access to, the dusty and remote artifacts we can now summon with a click, “it’s just magical,” he admits. “It just makes you tingle. The Internet is the most important thing since Gutenberg. Period. It gives great control to individuals and takes it away from the high priests. It’s a threat to the establishment, just like printing was a threat to the church.”
Despite the personal joys and social rewards of the Internet, Burd laments the loss of a “human touch” in online communication. “We’re so obsessed with the technology, but what we’re missing is the sociology,” he says with rhythmic emphasis. “What’s happening to communication spaces is disturbing. Privacy is a big issue, as well: we can get out to that big world but it can get in, too. And it’s moving so fast that there’s no time for history. The future is already history before you get there, and we’re wrestling with our sense of time and place.”
Happily, discussions with Burd never lack memorable turns of phrase, or the intangible human touch. Springing catlike on his toes, raising his eyebrows higher than you thought possible, lowering his voice like a blues singer, Burd embraces the full range of human expression in the service of a thought. Burd’s sensibility might be called poetic. That, in fact, is the way he thinks of himself, which is certainly appropriate when you write poetry, which he does.
“When I tell fellow journalists that I’m a poet they say ‘oh, it’s too subjective,’” he says, stretching out the last word derisively. “But if you’re a poet and live the poetic life, have a poetic mind, it infiltrates everything you do.” He’s grateful to Senior Fellows students for being even “more receptive than graduate students” to his poetic turn of mind and more willing to step across sometimes arbitrary boundaries.
His poetic approach is no doubt another reason he’s been able to compel so many students throughout the years to see something new in the ordinary. “In our age of specialization -- which I think is important -- sometimes students go into a class and it’s kind of walled off,” he says, carving out the shape of a wall with his hands. “There’s a wall here and a wall there, and they miss these unstudied cracks and crevices.”
When I ask him about his next great Senior Fellows idea, I’m not disappointed. He says he’s playing around with the idea of the “odors of cities.”
“When I’ve talked about the significance of smells to some of my students, they asked me what I’m talking about,” he laughs. “I say, of course, smells. Have you ever smelled Pittsburgh?”
While he's not asking me directly, I can't help but imagine myself as one of his students over the years. Pressed by his sage provocations, I'm a little unsure of the question itself, but quite certain it will be worth pursuing.