Note: In October of 2018, we interviewed Dr. David Lightfoot about Georgetown University's Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) program. As Dr. Lightfoot is no longer the Director for the CCT program, this interview has been archived for historical purposes. Students interested in learning more about Georgetown's M.A. in CCT program, can read our interview with Dr. Matthew Tinkcom, who is currently the graduate program director for the CCT program.

About David Lightfoot, Ph.D.: David Lightfoot began his academic career as a Classicist, BA (hons) from King’s College, London University in the UK and funded his graduate work by teaching classical Greek at the University of Michigan while working on his MA and PhD in Linguistics there, obtaining his PhD in 1971 with a dissertation on Natural logic and the moods of classical Greek. Since then he has taught Linguistics and Cognitive Science at McGill University in Montreal, the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, the University of Maryland (USA), Reading University in the UK, and Georgetown University. He has had short-term, visiting appointments in the UK, Switzerland, Brazil, and Salzburg. Teaching has always been important to him: in his first Introduction to Linguistics course at McGill he had some 90 students, six of whom went on to become major figures in Linguistics or Psychology. Perhaps it was beginner’s luck or perhaps the charm of youth, but he has continued to teach students who went on to illustrious academic careers but never repeated those numbers.

Dr. Lightfoot has written extensively on syntactic theory, child language acquisition, and language change from generation to generation, writing books that include Principles of Diachronic Syntax (Cambridge UP, 1979), The Language Lottery: Toward a Biology of Grammars (MIT Press, 1982), The Development of Language: Acquisition, Change and Evolution (Blackwell, 1999), How New Languages Emerge (Cambridge UP, 2006), and is now working on one to be called Born to Parse: Invention and Variation, focusing on new approaches to child language acquisition.

He came to Georgetown in 2001 as Dean of Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and then went to the National Science Foundation for four years, leading the directorate of the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

After that experience of engaging with many disciplines, he was well equipped to direct Georgetown’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT), a very interdisciplinary program where students and faculty work on new communication technologies, their origins and their consequences for the cultures of science, business, government, journalism, and areas of society. The CCT program essentially deals with the changes of modern life, most of which are affected by our new modes of communication and their technological basis. How could anybody not be fascinated by that?

Dr. Lightfoot also co-directs (along with Dr. Elissa Newport) the Interdisciplinary PhD Concentration in Cognitive Science, another program embracing multiple disciplines: computer science, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology program, and how it is structured? What are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program, and how much flexibility do students have to craft their own individualized course of study?

[Dr. Lightfoot] Just over twenty years ago, the faculty of Georgetown University’s Graduate School recognized the need for a master’s program that takes an integrative approach to the study of communication–one that looks closely at cultural phenomena and technological change. The digital revolution had ushered in a new, networked, and rapidly changing media environment–erasing old boundaries, flattening hierarchies, and revising what we knew about how to conduct our economic, political, and social lives. The Communication, Culture, and Technology (CCT) Program was founded to enable new models for teaching, learning, and research, and open up many new career paths for students. When faculty were asked whether CCT would serve as an academic or applied program, their response was, simply, “Yes.”

CCT is structured as a 36-credit program, which full-time students complete in two years or less. What’s unique about CCT’s curriculum is that students take only 9 credits of required courses, focusing on: how to address complex problems by incorporating knowledge and methods from different disciplines; how to “unpack” technologies as socio-technical systems; and, how to identify and use research methods that are appropriate and effective in studying relationships among communication, culture, and technology. Beyond this, students enjoy wide latitude in choosing 27 credits of elective courses.

What’s also unique about CCT’s curriculum is that elective courses are organized into thematic clusters, e.g., Media and Politics, Globalization, Cultural Studies, Information and Innovation Policy. These clusters do not function as “tracks”–that is, students aren’t required to stick to one path, or take elective courses in a particular sequence. Students are encouraged to take courses in different clusters that help them build a cohesive curriculum around their particular interests, which in recent years have included political media, crisis communications, digital and computational journalism, Artificial Intelligence ethics, internet governance, human-centered design, digital product development, coding and gaming cultures, and more.

CCT’s goals for students are that they learn to integrate knowledge and methods from different disciplines; that they bridge theory and practice; and, that they are able to “unpack,” investigate, and talk about emerging forms of communication, culture, and technology.

[] For their final graduation requirement, students can choose between a master’s thesis and an additional coursework option. Could you elaborate on these two options, what they entail, and how students should decide which is best for them?

[Dr. Lightfoot] CCT students may take 36 credits of coursework, or 30 credits of coursework and a 6-credit master’s thesis. To pursue the thesis, students must earn an A minus in a research methods course (every student takes one methods course of choice, but may take more as electives). The student also writes a thesis proposal that demonstrates familiarity with the subject area and preparedness to research and write about the problem to be investigated. Students may also choose to pursue a “non-traditional” thesis if their academic communities tend to interrogate problems or communicate findings in different ways, e.g., programming languages, policy proposals, or documentary films.

It’s perhaps assumed that students who pursue the master’s thesis will continue in academia, whereas students who choose coursework will pivot to industry. We have seen students pursue coursework or thesis for many different reasons, i.e., students choose coursework option and still continue on in academia, whereas others complete the thesis to contribute new scholarship that aids them in their career paths. The CCT curriculum is built on premises that research and analytical skills are important for all Communications professionals, and that academia must share a correspondence with the “real” world. As such, CCT students may choose either the coursework or thesis option, as either can be appropriate for their goals.

[] What role does faculty mentorship play in Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology? Independent of faculty instruction and support, what career development resources and academic services are available to students, and how can they make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems?

[Dr. Lightfoot] Students seek out Georgetown’s CCT Program for many reasons, including its strong reputation in academia and industry and its flexible, forward-thinking curriculum. Once they visit campus, too, students can see that ours is an incredibly supportive and close-knit community. Classes are smaller than what you’ll find in other master’s programs–usually 15 or fewer students. Our students marvel at how easy it is to approach and talk with faculty, and how many opportunities there are to work with them, in graduate school and beyond. While at CCT, students work with both a faculty advisor and an academic advisor, so there’s always support for students who wish to talk through their ideas and aspirations, and to ascertain the “nuts and bolts” of making them come to life at Georgetown. The number one piece of advice we give to students seeking to make the most of their experience is: “Go talk to people.”

For CCT students, career services and events come from three main sources: the CCT Program, which has a substantial, engaged alumni network and many professional contacts; the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, which focuses on aligning students in interdisciplinary programs with established and emerging professional fields; and, the Cawley Career Center, which offers a wide range of practical information and services for developing resumes and portfolios, networking, interviewing, and negotiations. We’re very proud of high employment rates among Georgetown and CCT graduates.

While at Georgetown, CCT students may also draw on the resources of CCT’s Technology Design Studio and its many student-led initiatives. Georgetown also offers the Writing Center, the New Media Center, the Maker Hub, the Academic Resource Center, and support services for international students.

[] For students interested in Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology, what advice do you have for submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Lightfoot] CCT challenges students to make sense of technology’s impact on society. We’re looking for applicants who are energized by working in uncharted territory. Students here are naturally resourceful – they have to be to thrive in a program that offers so much flexibility – so applicants would do well to show that their response to challenges is to seek out solutions rather than wait for one “correct” answer to emerge. We want to see that they have researched CCT (read our website, watched our videos, connected with members of the CCT community). They don’t need to be techies – in fact, we accept applicants from all backgrounds – but they should be open to learning things that are unfamiliar to them.

Ours is a community of individual thinkers, so personal statements should mention research questions the applicant would want to explore at CCT. Being able to delineate an area of inquiry tells reviewers what the applicant thinks is important, and allows us to understand who they are and why this is the program for them. Strong recommendation letters are those that speak to an applicant’s solid academic performance and penchant for original observations and analysis.

[] What makes Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Lightfoot] At CCT, we don’t teach operational skills just for today’s careers. Ours is a thinking-skills program where students develop practical approaches to making sense of the new and unexplored – these they can apply to a wide variety of careers, even those that haven’t materialized yet. Employers also appreciate that CCT grads understand how technology works and are able to talk about it to a general audience.

Our alumni excel in an extraordinary range of post-CCT careers, from artificial intelligence engineers to tech consultants to designers, researchers, analysts, journalists, and more. Many came from non-tech backgrounds and would not have found these jobs but for CCT. We’re proud that our grads make their mark in the careers of their choice, and in some cases, of their making.

[] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance work, internships, coursework, and rigorous research projects. What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?

[Dr. Lightfoot] The best way to navigate grad school is to remember that what you get out of it is up to you. Your performance is not measured only in grades from classwork but also in experiences and contacts. At a program like CCT, students tend not to compete with each other because their academic interests and career goals vary so greatly. As a result, the atmosphere here is one of sharing and collaboration.

CCT students are Georgetown students. There are workshops, student groups, speaker events, and research positions across campus – each one presents valuable opportunities to meet all kinds of people. I would say to students, choose what makes you feel excited about learning. Grad school is the time to be curious and inquisitive. You learn more that way than by polishing a professional front.

Thank you, Dr. Lightfoot, for your excellent insight into Georgetown University’s Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology program!