Remembering Jacob

Portrait of an academic anomaly: Telecom remembers Jacob Koruth

by Mike Lang and Ken Rosenberg

Each of us has our own idiosyncrasies. “Oh, lord,” Jacob Koruth would exhale before diving into a difficult task.

Oh, lord.

Often seen with a half-finished New York Times crossword puzzle nestled under one arm of his tousled coat, Jacob embodied what it means to be a non-traditional student. As a Ph.D. student in his sixties, some undergrads might have mistakenly considered him to be one of their professors. Few would expect a man of his age to be a student, but then Jacob was not one to be limited by traditional expectations. In fact, in addition to his prescribed scholastic duties, Jacob added lessons of his own; no moment was wasted. Though he sometimes had to resort to a “cheat sheet” for the nuances of pronunciation, Jacob frequently stopped former Ph.D. student Satoko Kurita in the hall for a quick exchange of words in Japanese – and then Zheng Wang, for a round of Chinese. Because Jacob was always eager to connect with people, language was a barrier he deemed worth overcoming. However, Jacob would have extended his multilingual capacities regardless of external motivation. He was driven to learn for the sake of learning. “We talk a lot about intellectual curiosity in this business,” said Julie Fox, Telecom professor, “but Jacob embodied it.”

In 2010, Jacob earned his doctorate. A little over a year later, he died.

This blog has never covered death. Still, as someone who touched the lives of so many people in the department, someone who covered so much territory in his seven-year tenure at the university, Jacob we had to tread into that reality of life. Therefore, it fell on us to write about a good man but one that, sadly, we did not have the chance to meet ourselves. From the stories of those who knew him, we have learned so much about who he was and what he did in, with, and for the department. Even so, we cannot claim anything more than acting as a conduit for all the stories that keep his memory alive. We convey them here, in respect.

Formerly an engineer in India, Jacob eschewed the comfortable life of retirement to continue his lifelong pursuit of learning and achievement. In a twist on the familiar familial flow into the university system, Jacob actually succeeded his daughter, Mary Ann, as a student at IUB. Mary Ann was a MIME (“Master’s in Immersive Mediated Environments”) student in our department.  This is how, over phone calls with his daughter, Jacob became acquainted with the work of Annie Lang, Betsi Grabe, Julie Fox, Rob Potter, and many other Telecom figures – including the man who would eventually become the chair of his master’s committee, former IU professor Thom Gillespie.

“He reversed everything,” Thom said, recounting his time spent with Jacob. This was not merely in reference to the unconventional daughter-father progression of university admission, but also the relationship that was forged between teacher and student. After several classes together, “we were just friends,” Thom said. The two of them worked together in MIME, which meant that not only was Jacob an older man returning to school, he was coming back to study new media – a field most older people do not properly grasp, as Annie quipped. Unlike most of his contemporaries, who often struggle with just sending an email, Jacob was knowledgeable and enthralled enough to intelligently question the cultural and societal implications of such media.

After his master’s, he went on to pursue a PhD under Annie’s supervision.  Befitting his technical and meticulous nature, Jacob’s research is a reflection of Annie’s tutelage. His dissertation was methodological in nature. He focused on heart rate variability and its potential to separate influences of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by their unique frequencies, in order to separate attention from arousal. Not only was this new to media research but, at the time, it was fairly new to psychophysiological research in general; Jacob was one of the first to explore this avenue of study in our field.

Jacob also served as a research assistant to Julie for a semester. Since it was his first semester delving into psychophysiological measures, Jacob was keen on making sure he got everything right. Not only did he succeed, he also found a potentially costly mistake while pouring over the data. When rearranging variables, another researcher had accidentally pasted some incorrect data into a particular field. Because he was new but, more importantly, because he was Jacob, he found that discrepancy. In general Jacob had his own modalities. For instance, unlike his peers, Jacob wrote his comprehensive exams longhand. “Only with Jacob would I actually agree to read that,” Julie said. His contributions to others work also had a special touch. When it came time for Betsi to publish her book, Jacob was the second acknowledgement and was cited as a “tireless worker.”

This zeal was not limited only to research; it applied to Jacob’s teaching experience, as well. He remembered students’ names, even specific details about them, well after the semester had passed. Grad student Mark Bell recalled his optimistic outlook on students. While it is common to bemoan one’s undergrads in grad-to-grad “backstage” communication, which is rife with comments of “can’t believe they couldn’t …” and “when will they learn,” Jacob would say things like “students are doing amazing things; they’re full of energy.” According to Mark, “He never had anything but enthusiasm and wonder for the undergrads and other graduate students in our program.” As excited as he was about his students, his praise was not blind; it carried a price, an onus of expectation. Because of his kind nature and passionate stance on learning even undergrads towed the line. As a grandfather-type figure, perhaps the youngsters realized the wisdom of following the wise. Whatever the reasons, according to Rob, “they bought it. It was cool.”

As Annie is fond of saying, there is no difference among the milieus of communication: “It’s all brains talking to brains.” In this same vein, Jacob’s enthusiasm for various aspects of his life was not bounded or discrete. He loved life, in all its aspects, with a fervor that few can match and all can respect. “I cannot think of a single moment that Jacob was not genuinely happy and heartwarming,” said Zheng Wang, Assistant Professor at Ohio State University, who worked alongside Jacob in the lab while a PhD student. Sharon Mayell, who helps run the lab – the Institute for Communication Research (ICR), to be precise – noted “he was kind, considerate, gentle and unpretentious.” Another former Ph.D. student and currently an assistant professor at Dong-Kuk University in Korea, Yongkuk Chung: “When I asked him why he tried to get a Ph.D. at such late age. He told me that life is long, and the life without a challenge is boring, and studying in the lab is his real joy.” When someone passes, quotes of this nature abound. Both Betsi and Julie acknowledged how her quotes and those from her fellow ICR members sound a bit cliché. “We’re typically very generous to dead people,” Betsi cautioned, “but don’t be shocked if it comes gushing,” she assessed predicatively. “I know they meant every word,” Julie said.

Being initiated into Jacob’s life was a promise to stay in touch, regardless of where he went or how much time had passed. One time, after class, Annie picked up a pen she found on the table and found it to be AMAZING. “Oh God,” she said after jotting down a few words, “I love this pen. I have to have one of these pens.” Taken with its quality, she searched the internet and discovered that it was only manufactured and sold in India and was not available for purchase or shipping to the U.S. Of course, it was a simple matter of logic to determine the owner of the pen; she went to return it to Jacob at their next meeting – but he told her to keep it. (It turned out that the pens cost about 19 cents each.) Later, after Jacob returned to India, Annie received a package. It was full of pens and refills; that was Jacob: once a friend, always a friend.

When everything was falling down, Jacob still looked up. His initial dissertation hypothesis was not supported by the data. Instead of panicking, like most grad students would, Jacob reflected and found the results “interesting.” The findings helped inspire a secondary analysis, in which he found a deeper explanation of the relevant phenomena. A good-faith inquirer always defers to the data, and Jacob did just that. Looking at the available data about Jacob himself, it is obvious that he was a kind, passionate, deeply intellectual man who “led a good life,” stated Thom. He did not mean “good” as a way of expressing that Jacob lived happily or comfortably, but richly and fully, and with an intrinsic joy that few find in this life. Reflecting on his lack of tears, Rob decided he is not sad; he ultimately concluded it is not what Jacob would have wanted, anyway. When you think about Jacob and feel “down,” do what he did: look up, instead.

Working on this blog post on Jacob proved to be an immensely rewarding task but, even as we conducted interviews and worked to collect information, we knew we were only grasping just a small portion of what he did and, significantly, the lives he touched. Unfortunately, we did not have the time or space to find and include everyone who knew or worked with Jacob – his impact at IU was too big to capture in one blog post. If you have thoughts, feelings, or specific memories that you would like to share, don’t hesitate to stop us to tell us about what made Jacob special to you.

Brown Bag

Female anchor sexuality on display: Findings of cognitive fog and brewing cat fights at the news reception end

– Professor Betsi Grabe and PhD students Ozen Bas and Leila Samson

Abstract:  Two years ago, right after an initial round of data analysis, we presented in T600 the findings of an experimental investigation of male and female news consumer responses to a sexualized and unsexualized version of a female news anchor.  Grooming and dress code conventions were rapidly evolving from underplaying to displaying female sexuality and we wondered how this trend might affect news comprehension. The results showed  that men were cognitively distracted by subtle visual reminders of the female anchor’s sexuality–to the point of poor memory for the news she presented. More interesting to us was another key finding: women had the direct opposite cognitive response to anchor sexualization.  In fact, women remembered news better when it was presented by the sexualized than unsexualized version of the anchor. Thus, subtle cues of the female anchor’s sexuality drove gender-based information processing outcomes at the news reception end.  The implications for informed citizenship and a number of theoretical curiosities prompted us to analyze open-ended responses that we had not looked at yet.

We are back to report to T600 the findings of this follow-up investigation into why women cognitively favored the sexualized anchor’s reporting. The data point to the likelihood that sexual cues sparked sexual competition in women that might have enhanced cognitive resource allocation and memory formation for the news reported by the sexualized anchor. We look forward to discussing the evidence that lead us to this conclusion and show the complexities of intra-sexual derogation patterns that emerged from this study. This was a long but rewarding road back into a large data set that produced insights well beyond what we imagined to find.

An audio recording of the seminar: Brown bag: Feb. 3, 2012 – Betsi, Lelia, and Ozen

Ozen Bas (MA, University of Leeds, UK) is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University.  Her research interests focus on the role of media in democratic processes. She has presented her work at the International Communication Association and Association for Politics and the Life Sciences annual conferences.

Maria Elizabeth (Betsi) Grabe is a Professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University and a Research Associate of the Department of Political Sciences at University of Pretoria, South Africa.  She does research at the intersection of news user demography (social class & gender) and message variables to understand information processing and its implications for informed citizenship.  Her book, Image Bite Politics: News and the Visual Framing of Elections (with Erik Bucy; Oxford University Press, 2009), received the 2010 Outstanding Book Award from the International Communication Association and the 2010 Distinguished Book Award from the Communication and Social Cognition Division of the National Communication Association. She also publishes in media and communication journals.

Lelia Samson (M.A., West University of Timisoara, Romania) is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University. Her main research investigates how various elements of identity (especially gender-, sexuality- and age-related factors) interact with media content during information processing.  Her work has been published in Communication Research, Psychophysiology, and Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media and presented at annual conferences of the International Communication Association, Association for Politics and the Life Sciences, Society for Psychophysiological Research, and The International Academy of Sex Research.

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