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Published May 18, 2020

Progress and Polemics

Noted feminist critic and author looks at how media influences culture

Acclaimed author and cultural critic Naomi Klein is the inaugural Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies. Klein first soared to prominence in 1991 with the publication of her bestselling book The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, which Steinem called “a smart, angry, insightful book, and a clarion call to freedom. Every woman should read it.” Its basic premise is that, despite the tremendous strides women have made in the past several decades, they are hindered by increasing pressure to attain unrealistic standards of physical beauty dictated by the media.

photo of naomi klein
(Photo by Kourosh Keshiri)

Her other books include On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal; The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists; No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need; This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate; The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; and No Logo. Her work has been translated into more than 30 languages.

Klein’s tenure in the chair comes at a critical time in history as women play an ever-growing role in addressing the social, political, and environmental challenges faced by our nation and the world. During her three-year tenure, she is helping educate the next generation of thoughtful, responsible leaders, some of whom will go on to help shape the media and the ways in which it reflects and impacts society. In addition to teaching, she will organize public events, conduct research, and immerse students in discussion and scholarship on a range of issues, including the role of activist journalists.

The chair was established by a consortium of alumni and friends to honor Gloria Steinem, the journalist and political activist who became the leading voice of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s. A unique collaboration among the Institute for Women’s Leadership, the School of Communication and Information, and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, the Steinem chair focuses on the complex ways information technology and new media are reshaping culture.

When Steinem learned that the chair had been created in her honor, she said, “It was hard to wrap my mind around. It is both a first and unique combination of two growing fields of study and a personal honor for the work and the global movement that matter most to me.”

The chair was established by several major foundations, including the Ford Foundation; the John and James L. Knight Foundation; the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation; the Fran Zone/John Mack Carter Fund; and the Like a River Fund of the California Community Foundation, as well as more than 400 individual donors.

In the Professor’s Own Words

What most impresses you about your students?

My students are juggling so much: part-time jobs, unpaid internships, passion projects, political activism, family obligations, and honors assignments. And yet they still show up to every class hungry to engage with challenging material. It’s truly an honor to be part of their intellectual development.

What do you hope they take away from their studies with you?

I hope they take a way a sense that our relationship to information and data is in a period of profound change and that they have a unique chance to shape that change in the coming years. Ubiquitous digital surveillance, data mining, management by AI, and self-branding are all being rapidly normalized—but that does not mean these practices are inevitable or uncontestable. My hope is that, by looking at decision points and power relationships within the tech and media sectors, students will feel empowered to challenge and shape the future of the attention economy so that we have a healthy information commons in which everyone is heard and respected.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the next generation of leaders?

No matter what employment sector this generation is entering, they will be face to face with the reality of climate disruption, which will impact everything from health care delivery to mass migration to the reliability of our information architecture. We need to weave climate literacy into everything we do.

What surprised you about Rutgers and its students?

I have been moved and delighted by the warmth of the Rutgers community and the profound sense of collegiality. From my earliest interactions, there has been a sense that when something good happens in one part of the university, it benefits us all.

 

This story is part of Rutgers University Foundation’s Endowed Chairs Impact series. Supporting professorships and research helps spark innovation and creativity here in New Jersey and beyond. To talk with someone at the foundation about creating an endowed chair or professorship, please contact Christopher Needles RBS’97, vice president for development, at christopher.needles@ruf.rutgers.edu or 848-932-2227. If you would like to contribute to an existing professorship or a research project, visit our giving portal for a list of the most up-to-date funding opportunities.

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