David Thorburn (scholar)

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David Thorburn
Born David Thorburn
Occupation Scholar,
MIT Communications Forum, director
Language English
Nationality American
Education Stanford (M.A., Ph.D.)
Alma mater Princeton (A.B.)
Genre Literary criticism,
Media studies,
Modernist literature
Notable works Initiation
Notable awards MacVicar Fellows[1]
(top MIT teaching award)
Woodrow Wilson
Rockefeller foundation

David Thorburn is an American professor of literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is notable for media studies,[2] literary criticism,[1] and teaching.[1] He has published poetry in Slate Magazine,[3] Threepenny Review, and The Atlantic.[4] He was one of the first academics to study the medium of television as an academic field of inquiry.[5][6] He is the director of MIT's Communications Forum.[4][7] He is regarded as an authority on modernist literature, and he was selected by the Teaching Company to teach a course on entitled Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature.[8]

Early years[edit]

Thorburn received a bachelor's degree from Princeton and an MA and PhD from Stanford and taught at Yale.[6] A student, Thomas E. Ricks, described Professor Thorburn as a challenging and thought-provoking teacher, remembering that one of his challenges——to tell why Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury was not a great novel——was one of the "best assessments" he ever got during his studies there.[9] After ten years at Yale, he joined the faculty of MIT in the literature department.[6] His research interests included modernist writers such as Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce as well as later writers such as John Updike. His fiction anthology entitled Initiation; stories and short novels on three themes became a popular source for high school and college students.

Media studies[edit]

Thorburn, in his Teaching Company course entitled Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, made connections between impressionist painters and modernist literature. He suggested that modernist writers, like Monet's impressionist paintings of water lilies, showed an awareness of art as art, rejected realistic interpretations of the world, registered the limitations of art, and dramatized "a drive towards the abstract".[10]

Thorburn joined MIT in 1976. He was the founder and first director of the MIT Film and Media Studies program which is now known as the Comparative Media Studies program. In 1996, he became director of MIT's Communications Forum, which sponsors panel discussions with particular focus on how communications is affect by politics and culture, with special attention to emerging technologies such as the Internet. As director of MIT's Communications Forum, Thorburn helped bring conferences on controversial topics to MIT, such as the views of V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai, the MIT email inventor, regarding the future of the U. S. Post Office,[11] as well as the fate of the newspaper industry in the digital age,[12] and copyright issues featuring Richard Stallman.[13] He brought television writer David Milch, who served as a writer and producer on Hill Street Blues, to a class he taught on the media.[14] He suggested in a 1977 critique in the Georgia Review that television drama should be studied with the "same care and attentiveness we bring to the study of literature, music and film."[15] Regarding the future of newspapers, he forecast that national brands would survive but regional and local papers might have to struggle, although he remains optimistic about the possibilities of technology:

The new technologies can empower ordinary people in ways that have not been anticipated. One of the great things that we are learning about the new technologies is how they exponentially enlarge the principle of unexpected outcomes of unintended results.

— David Thorburn, in Scientific American, 2006[2]

Thorburn is regarded as an authority on how media influences politics. His course American Television: A Cultural History, examined the medium in a context of humanism and, along with his essays, he was one of the first scholars to analyze television from a scholarly perspective. In 2008, he described the world wide web as not as powerful as traditional media such as television, although it was increasingly a major source of fund-raising for candidates.[7] In an essay in The American Prospect, he wondered whether the human disposition to view new technologies through the use of metaphor might be limiting our understanding of the intrinsic qualities and possibilities of the Internet.[16]

The computer encourages joining, interaction, sharing, the creation of communities of interest; yet it is also congenial to our uncivic preferences for isolation, the avoidance of human contact, solipsism, "lurking," voyeurism. Through its power to confer anonymity, it feeds instincts for scandal, revenge, name-calling, surveillance, pornography.

— David Thorburn, 2001[16]

Awards and honors[edit]

Thorburn was awarded Fulbright, Woodrow Wilson, and Rockefeller foundation fellowships.[1] He won MIT's highest teaching award, the MacVicar Faculty Fellow, in 2002.[1]

Scholarship and teaching[edit]

Thorburn is a critic of over-analysis of literature with excessive focus on trivia.[17]

It is dispiriting to realize how swiftly Cliffs Notes principles have been diffused across the Web. It is even more disturbing to reflect on how minutely the canon of Western literature has been routinized and commodified, murdered and dissected by assembly-line practices, and then to think on how enfeebled must be the reading and writing skills of the poor souls who buy such papers.

— David Thorburn, 2004[17]


  • Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn, Democracy and New Media, MIT Press, 2004[7][18][19]
  • Rethinking Media Change, anthology, David Thorburn editor-in-chief, MIT Press.[19]
  • The Film Experience, MIT OpenCourseWare, lectures and teaching insights.
  • Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Fiction, The Teaching Company, 2007
  • David Thorburn, Howard Eiland, John Updike: a collection of critical essays, Prentice-Hall, 1979, 222 pages[20]
  • David Thorburn, Conrad's Romanticism[6]
  • Initiation; stories and short novels on three themes, edited by David Thorburn, an anthology of fiction. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, ISBN 9780155415119.


  1. ^ a b c d e f David Thorburn, David Thorburn, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  2. ^ a b Podcast (transcript) with David Thorburn and Steve Mirsky, November 29, 2006, Scientific American, Tomorrow's Newspapers and Next Week's Cars, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013 (quote begins at 7:25 in the podcast)
  3. ^ Slate Magazine, March 28, 2006, poem by David Thorburn, The Man I Killed, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  4. ^ a b Poem by David Thorburn, Oct. 1, 2007, The Atlantic, Lise, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  5. ^ Elizabeth Jensen, June 15, 2003, Los Angeles Times, TV gets its PhD: Academics say it's a legitimate discipline, but the scholar tribe lacks consensus, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013, “... (TV) ... a fast-changing discipline, an 'embryonic stew,' says MIT professor of literature David Thorburn, one of the first U.S. academics to study television years ago...”
  6. ^ a b c d Professor of Literature, Director of MIT Communications Forum, David Thorburn, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  7. ^ a b c Andy Greenberg, January 11, 2008, Forbes Magazine, Curtains For Ron Paul's Web Crusade, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  8. ^ Professor David Thorburn: Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  9. ^ Thomas E. Ricks, April 20, 2009, The Washington Post, Outlook: Shut Down West Point, Annapolis, Air Force Academy, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013, ...Prof. David Thorburn ... Here's a challenge--tell my why Mickey Spillane's 'I, the Jury' is NOT a great novel..."
  10. ^ David Thorburn, MIT, The Great Courses, The Teaching Company, Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Literature, see p. 12 of guidebook Part I, Accessed Aug. 24, 2013
  11. ^ Janelle Nanos, June 2012, Boston Magazine, Return to Sender, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  12. ^ Boston.com, October 7, 2010, MIT, Communications Forum: Online Migration Of Newspapers, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  13. ^ GNU.org, April 19, 2001, MIT Communications Forum, Copyright and Globalization in the Age of Computer Networks, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  14. ^ Harvey Blume, April 30, 2013, The Boston Globe, Q&A with David Milch, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  15. ^ Noel Holston, June 27, 2013, Peabody Awards, Horace Newcomb Retires from Peabodys, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  16. ^ a b David Thorburn, Dec. 19, 2001, The American Prospect, Essay: Web of Paradox, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  17. ^ a b Project Muse, from Pedagogy, Volume 4, Issue 2, Spring 2004, pp. 344-348, Who Are You, Mr. English Professor?, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  18. ^ anthology, Google Books, Democracy and New Media, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013
  19. ^ a b Note: part of MIT's Media in Transition series
  20. ^ Google Books, John Updike: a collection of critical essays, Accessed Aug. 22, 2013

External links[edit]