Marie-Louise Mares

spotlight_maresGetting to know… Marie-Louise Mares
Professor, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

What are you currently working on?

As I’m writing this (behind schedule) I have two almost completed dissertations on my desk. Reading them is keeping me busy. I am really proud of my two advisees, and a little sad that they’re almost done. Additionally, I am working on a paper with three studies on the effects of prosocial media. It’s been a long time in the making and was a good lesson in humility. We started off with an experiment where I was totally convinced that I knew what we would find, and we totally failed to find it. So then we did another experiment. Then we took about ten paces back and did what we should have started with – we tried asking parents about key moments when media had prosocial effects on their children. It’s been really interesting, and makes me reflect a lot on the iterative nature of research.

What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?

I have a lot of small, lovely memories from specific projects. I remember showing a Disney film, The Sword in the Stone, to a group of children and a little girl got up and started dancing to the songs. Her sneakers had little lights in them, and they were flashing and glowing in the dark. She seemed totally joyous, and I still smile when I think of it. It made me want to study happiness as a media outcome, which I haven’t done yet, but it is still in my mind. I also remember laughing and laughing as I was planning a study with one of my advisees. We were trying to figure out how to get behavioral measures of children’s learning from Sesame Street and it was tremendous fun.  Or I remember going to a senior center in Philadelphia the day after Tiger Woods won his first Masters tournament. There was an elderly African American man who spent most of the research session telling me how proud he was of Tiger Woods and how much it meant to have a Black man succeed at that sport. It was unrelated to the study, but it was one of the most vivid moments in my research career.

Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?

Well, hmmm. I’m going to pivot and go with gratitude rather than pride. I am still really grateful to have had the chance to come back into academia after I was out of it for almost eight years when my kids were little. I didn’t really plan to leave academia, but there I was, staring at a pile of messy diapers, wondering what I was going to do with my doctorate. I would never have made it back if it weren’t for all the help I got. My advisor, Joanne Cantor, invited me to keep working with her on book chapters and papers, even when I was “just a housewife.” One friend from grad school (Chris Segrin) invited me to come be a visiting professor for a semester. Another (Mary Beth Oliver) invited me to work on papers with her. Their kindness, combined with the inclusive attitude of my current department that was willing to accept a nontraditional career trajectory, meant everything to me. I wanted to tell this story, for several reasons. First, because I’ve always wanted a chance to thank them publicly. Second, to reassure young CAM scholars that there are lots of different paths to tenure and full professorship. Third, because I think it also affirms the warm, accepting spirit of CAM that I really like.

What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?

Well, maybe my answer is more a reflection of my limitations than the field’s limitations, but I have struggled horribly with trying to assess young children’s racial/ethnic attitudes and the role of media content in shaping those attitudes. There are all sorts of complicating issues. Race and ethnicity are taboo topics for many White families. When you try to interview young children, some of them are very uncomfortable talking about these issues and some are genuinely confused about the labels and meanings of racial/ethnic categories. Moreover, the measures that are often used in this area tend to rely on children making judgments about hypothetical cases, where the only distinguishing feature of the hypothetical target is the individual’s race. That seems problematic. On the other hand, more ecologically valid measures, like behaviors toward class-mates, can only be observed if children actually have the opportunity to interact with others of different race or ethnicity. I spent months and months gathering data with 5- to 13- year-olds and felt worse and worse as the studies progressed because I wasn’t convinced that the responses had meaning. Given the state of interracial relationships, I think understanding how children’s beliefs and preferences develop is really important. I’d love to hear more from others about ways to do that well.

What would be your work motto?

I have three, all embarrassingly obvious. One came from Mike Roloff from a colloquium he gave when I was in grad school. Basically, he told us not to reinvent the wheel, and to have the humility and basic common sense to go to the library and read first, before trying to design a study. Whenever I’m struggling with a study, it’s a good sign to me that I haven’t read enough. The second came from Joanne, who told me always to gather some of my data myself – that even when I’d be busy and have research assistance, it was crucial to have first-hand experience of the ways participants are hearing and answering the questions. It’s true. It always helps. Third is one that I thought came from Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, but I can’t find where he said it: It’s good to be good. The moments that I regret most bitterly about my academic career are moments when anxiety or competitiveness led me to be a snot or a bad colleague. Much, much better to be supportive and helpful – the boat rises for all of us.

Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?

I have a lot of papers that I love, mostly because of the people who did them with me. But I have very fond feelings for my first research project in graduate school, on social comparison versus mood management among older adults. I realized as I was doing it that media effects academia was the life for me, and that my plans to go back to Australia and pursue a romantic interest should be abandoned at once. Mares, M. L. & Cantor, J. (1992). Elderly viewers’ responses to televised portrayals of old age: Empathy and mood management versus social comparison. Communication Research, 19, 459-478. I am also very fond of a paper that was inspired by watching one of my kids watch TV, when I realized he had no idea of the point of the story. The “three-legged dog” paper that came out of that experience is still a favorite of mine, even though it’s not a very sophisticated study.  It started a line of research that has been a lot of fun. Mares, M. L. & Acosta, E. (2008). Be kind to three-legged dogs: Children’s literal interpretations of TV’s moral lessons. Media Psychology, 11, 377-399.

If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?

I’d love to do longitudinal research. It’s just horribly expensive and logistically challenging. Even though this isn’t an area where I’ve really done any research, I’d love to investigate more about the ways in which pre-teens and teens use media to explore emotions, including spiraling down into dark, intense affect. The value that they place on that experience is really interesting to me, and ties into all sorts of questions about meaningfulness and emotional well-being. I’d love to understand more about this particular developmental period. There is such a mix of idealism and goofiness and exploration.

If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?

It’s easy to be very anxious about where you fit in and your status relative to others. And that anxiety can keep with you no matter how far you progress. I mostly find it useful to try to clear my head of those thoughts and just focus on doing good work and being a good colleague.

Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?

I’d love to hear from Vivian Hsueh Hua Cha. Partly because I am intrigued to find out more about what it’s like to be doing media effects research in other countries apart from the US and Europe. But also because she is examining how to design games to promote social inclusion and psychological well-being – great topics.

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