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A Pair of Losses

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Date posted: June 7, 2012

The community of media literacy educators lost a friend, mentor, leader, scholar, author, and, most of all, a teacher. Barry Duncan passed away June 6th after a long battle with Parkinsons. Coincidentally, the great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died the day before.

Both were icons and visionaries who had outsized influence on their fields.

Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Farenheit 451 became instant classics that became movies and part of popular culture. Both also made important comments about science, society, and people. There are powerful scenes from both novels that I recall even now.

Bradbury wanted to be buried on Mars and was convinced it would be possible. While that didn’t pan out, you can have your ashes shot into space. He did live to see some of the other things he imagined in his books and short stories come to pass and he left a wonderful collection of novels and stories.

Duncan was also an author: his Mass Media and Popular Culture became a best-selling textbook and media literacy classic. He studied under Marshall McLuhan, brought McLuhan’s insights about media to high school courses, and helped thousands of teachers learn about media literacy. Duncan became a leading advocate and passionate evangelist for media literacy education and his influence spread far beyond his native Ontario. Frank Baker, Neil Andersen, and Don Richardson collaborated on a tribute here.

I’ll never forget spending an afternoon in San Antonio, Texas, with Barry and fellow Ontario media literacy educator Neil Andersen back in 2001. As we toured the Alamo, the two dissected the symbols, signs, images, living history displays, movies—in short, everything about the historic site (or “shrine” as Texans call it). It was a fascinating, funny, and most informative running commentary on how all of the elements of a historic site and museum combine to tell a particular narrative in a certain way. A great example of media literacy in place you wouldn’t think of as “media.” That was Barry. You learned things just being around him.

There was a long-standing tradition of closing media literacy conferences with Barry imitating the call of the loon. His death closes the door on one chapter in media literacy education, but his legacy is in the many other doors he opened for the field of media literacy and for many of us who benefitted from his tutelage and friendship. There will be other memorable ways to close a conference, but there was only one Barry Duncan. He will be missed.

Photo: The Association for Media Literacy