First-Hand:NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program
Submitted by A. Michael Noll, October 5, 2023, Copyright © 2023 AMN
This is the personal story of my years of teaching at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts from September 1982 to 1996. This story begins with how I was initially enticed into becoming a professor and an academic. I also include some history about the people and institutions involved. It was Dr. Martin C. J. Elton who changed my career by enticing me to teach at NYU.
Martin C. J. Elton was co-director of the Communication Studies Group at University College, London, studying human behavior in the use of new media, particularly teleconferencing. I met him in the late 1970s when he was consulting to AT&T, where I was employed investigating new telecommunication services.
Martin became involved with the Alternate Media Center (AMC) at NYU, directed by Red Burns and George Stoney. The AMC studied new media, such as two-way cable. Martin envisioned an academic masters program in telecommunications. It would be multidisciplinary, almost like an MBA in telecommunication for management professionals. The obvious home for such a program would be the NYU Business School, but there was no interest. Somehow, Martin was able to create the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. ITP was mostly a terminal graduate program of study for professionals, with mostly evening course, offering a Master of Professional Studies. Martin was chair of ITP.
In 1982, while I was employed at AT&T Consumer Products, Martin asked me to teach a technology course at ITP. I was very apprehensive, but I decided to give it a try. Perhaps I could be an academic, and some day “retire” to an academic position as a professor.
Gary Schober had been teaching technology at ITP, but took a very practical, almost technician-like approach, showing how to wire circuit boards and transistors and make things. I felt that it was essential for the students to learn also the basic principles behind telecommunication and electronic technology, such as frequency, spectrum, bandwidth, modulation, multiplexing, and digital. Gary was teaching how to make and build things – I was teaching the principles needed to manage things. Edward Goldstein, an executive at AT&T Product Management, who taught a curse at ITP, thought that these principles could not be understood or taught to non-engineers.
I remember the first day of my course at ITP. I took the chalk and wrote down the basic integral equations used to define Fourier analysis and the concept of spectrum. I finished and turned around to look at the students – to my horror, I realized that they did not understand equations or a word of what I had said. The following session, I devised an intuitive way of explaining basic concepts and principles that did not rely on equations and theory. It worked. I discovered that about ten percent of the students had problems with basic arithmetic, such as fractions and decimals. By taking the course, most were able to learn basic arithmetic along the way.
My way of teaching the principles of telecommunication technology transferred to the Annenberg School at USC when I became a professor there in September 1984. For years after I was at Annenberg, I continued to teach at ITP, usually during summers, meeting twice a week. Communing into New York City gave me the opportunity to purchase classical music CDs and visit museums.
ITP from its beginning had a dual educational nature: making new media, and managing telecommunication and new interactive media. The early graduates of ITP went on to careers at such companies as IBM, AT&T, the New York Times, and Warner Cable. The educational combination of design, management, and technology from study at ITP was of great interest to industry – back then and today.
The courses I developed and taught at ITP in the 1980s and 1990s were Interactive Telecommunications Technologies (H79.2009), Interactive Telecommunications Systems (H79.2010), and Telephone Communication (H79.2264). The telephone course resulted in my first published textbook (Artech House). The last course I taught at ITP was H79.2009 during the summer of 1996.
Around 1981, Martin Elton announced that he wanted to step down as chair of ITP. The dean of the Tisch School, David Oppenheim, met with me to offer me the position of chair of ITP. Before Tisch, Oppenheim was a CBS TV producer and also directed the Masterworks division at Columbia Records. I was apprehensive about leaving AT&T and directing ITP, and hence I suggested that I do it for a few days a week, retaining my position with AT&T. I see now that this was silly to suggest – and clearly was unacceptable, since directing ITP was a full-time responsibility.
With my knowledge from my days at Bell Labs of computer animation, computer art, digital processing, coupled with my interests in classical music and computer choreography, I would have indeed been appropriate to direct ITP in the Tisch School of the arts. I would have made strong connections to these art, film, and dance programs within Tisch.
When teaching at ITP while I was employed at AT&T, I would leave AT&T a little early, drive along the Pulaski Skyway, go through the Holland Tunnel, and finally uptown to a parking garage on Broadway, a block away from the Tisch building at 725 Broadway. After teaching my course, I would reverse my travels, and be home in about 35 minutes, since there was no traffic late at night. My classes were during evenings; ending at around 9 PM. TP was on the fourth floor of the Broadway Tisch building, where I would deposit my briefcase with my course notes. I would then leave the building to cross Broadway to get my dinner to bring back from McDonald’s, usually shopping at the classical department on the third floor of Tower Records. The first year it was still LP records, but the CD revolution soon occurred. I recall mentioning to the classical manager that soon it would be only CDs – he laughed at my apparent silliness. Some days, I would walk al the way down Broadway (or take the subway) to the J&R store’s classical department near City Hall. ITP has since moved to Jay Street in Brooklyn.
During my initial years at ITP, I was employed at AT&T Consumer Products in Parsippany, New Jersey. I was involved with new media, such as videotex (an early telecommunication text and graphics service that proceeded the World Wide Web). At lunch at the cafeteria one day, an employee who had heard of the course I was teaching at NYU, asked whether I could also teach it at the AT&T facility for some marketing employees. I agreed, and after teaching a session at NYU, I would cover the same material the day after at AT&T. The AT&T sessions were taught after work for the employees who wanted to learn the material. The AT&T sessions were informal and not officially approved in any way – it was employees who wanted to learn – usually the best-motivated students.
In the late 1980s, Martin was director of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI) at Columbia University, while Prof. Eli Noam, the founder and director of CITI, was away as a utility commissioner. I was affiliated with CITI while I was at the Annenberg School. I remember that Martin wrote a book about broadband, which back then was 56 Kbps. “Broadband,” which today means Gbps, was always a moving target, frequently evolving.
Martin stepped down as head of ITP, and Prof. Mitchell Moss, of NYU Urban Planning & Policy, became chair of ITP in 1981. In 1983, Moss stepped down, and Red Burns then became chair. Moss taught me how to write an op-ed.
Red Burn was director along with George Stoney of the NYU Alternate Media Center (AMC), which was founded around 1970-71. The growing interest in two-way interactive cable television motivated the founding of the Center, which was located on the second floor of a building at 144 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. There was growing interest then also in tele-medicine, tele-education, and teleconferencing. With the creation of ITP in 1979, the AMC was moved to the Tisch building along with ITP, and Red acquired a large corner office on the fourth floor as head of AMC.
Martin Elton was affiliated with the Alternate Media Center, as were John Carey and Eileen Connell. John would later join the faculty of Fordham University in Communications and Media Management, and co-author a book with Martin Elton.
Burns and Stoney both were filmmakers. Before coming to the United States, Red had been a filmmaker in Canada associated with the National Film Board of Canada. Although she had not attended college, she was quite accomplished in her practical knowledge and experience.
As mentioned earlier, Red became chair of ITP in 1983, following Martin Elton and Mitchel Moss, who both were academics. Red’s strengths in directing ITP were in administration, fund raising, industry support, and promotion. ITP was a very early degree program in what became known as ‘new media.”
Over the years, a myth developed that Red Burns had founded ITP, which is not correct. There were disagreements between Martin and Red when she chaired ITP. Perhaps, at the core was a personality clash between the practical, no-college, Canadian Burns versus the theoretical, doctorate, British Elton. But it was disturbing that Elton was degraded in the ITP history – he was its founder and first chair.
Red was always courteous and professional with me when I was teaching at ITP. I recall when she would treat me to lunch at a local restaurant. Martin and Red were generous in what I was paid as an adjunct professor. I donated the pay back to NYU for student support at ITP. Red passed away in 2013. Martin passed away in 2019.
Martin remained at ITP for a few years, ultimately obtained a good “retirement” package from NYU, and moved to Israel with his wife, Sarah Meron. Elton would visit the US on some consultant projects, and he and I would have lunch at a diner in Jersey City. I dedicated one of my textbooks to him, and considered him a grand mentor and friend. I could always rely on him to edit and make comments on a draft of anything I wrote.
The teaching opportunity that Martin Elton gave me at NYU ITP enabled me to hone my approach to teaching the basic principles of telecommunication technology to nontechies. I saw the need for a multi-disciplinary graduate experience combining business, technology, policy, economics, and consumer factors. ITP opened for me an academic career at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, including many published papers, op-eds and column pieces, and textbooks. In appreciation, I continued to teach during summers at ITP until 1996.
In final conclusion, “Thank you, Martin, for being my colleague and mentor.”
- The proposal to create the Interactive Telecommunications Program was signed by
- A. Michael Noll, An Introduction to Telephones and Telephone Systems, Artech House (Norwood, MA), 1986.