Susan Douglas was shopping in Chicago with actress Barbara Billingsley, television’s June Cleaver, when a saleswoman in a department store recognized Douglas as the lady on that day’s episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
For someone who has made a living analyzing mass media, there may be no better barometer of success than seeing herself on television alongside the queen of all media, and then being recognized for it while in the company of a true television icon.
Douglas, an award-winning author, is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication, professor of communication studies and chair of the Department of Communication Studies. She came to U-M in 1996 after teaching at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.
Her classes include an introductory-level course on mass media and a 400-level seminar on celebrity culture. Part of her focus is to give students a way to properly judge advertising and cultural stereotypes and assumptions.
“Young people have been surrounded by every ploy in the book,” she says. “Our goal (as a department) is to give them a language to analyze what’s around them.”
Douglas graduated from Elmira College in New York (she grew up in New Jersey). She earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from Brown University, where she first gained an interest in being a teacher.
She taught her first course on mass media and culture while at Brown. Douglas says it was a sought-after class, as no others were being offered at the time that incorporated popular culture into the conversation.
Douglas, who identifies herself as a proud feminist, says that one of her main interests was the depiction of women’s issues in the media.
“It’s hard to think of a social movement that has done so much (but) has been so effectively vilified by the mass media,” she says. “Women of my generation who are professionals owe everything to feminism.”
Douglas says she was drawn to the movement by the massive, legal and widespread discrimination of women in the society she grew up in.
This interest inspired her first book, “Where the Girls Are,” named one of the top 10 books of 1994 by NPR and Entertainment Weekly.
Since the book was published, she has received several emails from male college students thanking her and saying that she changed their minds about feminism.
“It was a different world,” she says. “Feminism, for me, was about having a life, being allowed to get a Ph.D. and be a college professor instead of being told, ‘no, you can only teach first grade.’”
She also was a member of the board of the Peabody Awards for six years (2004-09), and chair of the committee in her last year. She lives in Ann Arbor with her husband, T.R. Durham, and her daughter was a 2011 Michigan graduate.
The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Susan Douglas, professor of communication studies, on what inspires her: "My students inspire me. I love teaching undergraduates: their energy, their optimism, their openness to new ideas."
Face of Our Time exhibit, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through Feb. 5, U-M Museum of Art.