Friday, December 31, 2010

Christine Nystrom 1941-2010

It is with great sadness that I relate, here on Blog Time Passing, that Christine Nystrom passed away last week, on Wednesday, December 22. Chris was born on March 23, 1941, earned a BA and PhD from New York University, attending Columbia University's Teachers College in between for her MA.  

She was a mentor and a friend to me, and to many others in the media ecology community.  As Neil Postman's student, she produced the first doctoral dissertation in New York University's Media Ecology program that dealt with media ecology as a coherent theoretical framework, completed in 1973, two years after the program began.  As his colleague, Chris gave structure to the Media Ecology graduate program.  

For most of the history of the program, she was one of the three principle faculty members, with Neil and Terry Moran.  And for much of that time, certainly for the time I was there, she team-taught most of her classes with Neil, and they really were an awesome combination, Neil providing charm and wit, and excelling at eliciting discussion, and Chris providing structure, rigor, and intellectual depth.

Chris was a dedicated educator, served on hundreds of dissertation committees--she was the chair of mine, and also mentored Joshua Meyrowitz's thesis, No Sense of Place, Robert Albrecht's dissertation on music, and many more.  And for many of us she went above and beyond in editing dissertations (sometimes to the point of rewriting them) in support of her students.  

She was absolutely brilliant, and a gifted writer much like Neil, but she did not direct her energies to publishing, did not care for the spotlight, and instead focused on teaching, on the success of her students, and supporting her peers, Neil Postman, Terry Moran, and Henry Perkinson (she continually provided Postman with invaluable feedback, editing, and suggestions on his work).  But the few articles that she did publish were absolute gems..  

She was in many ways an unsung hero of media ecology, dedicated to serving the needs of the field in many different ways.

I credit Chris with helping me to improve my writing in very significantcways, and with teaching me how to be a scholar.  She was demanding of her students, and some found that quite intimidating, but her insistence on rigor in scholarship put her in the same camp as Walter Ong and James Carey.  She was a true intellectual, a pure intellectual, but also a woman who had an off-beat sense of humor and imagination.

The loss is a personal one for me, a loss felt keenly by all of her students, and others who knew her professionally, and as a friend.  Many more in the media ecology community know her through her writing, and her reputation as a pioneer in our field.  

I last saw her in September, she asked if I would meet her for lunch before she departed to Iowa to spend her last days with her family, and so we did.  The conversation we had was rambling, we could have talked about so many different things, it seemed as if what we did talk about was almost random.  But it wasn't about the content, it was about the medium, the relationship, one last time together.

And before we parted she looked back on the time she devoted to the media ecology program, and the students that came through it, and said that she thought that she, and Neil, had accomplished something worthwhile, something important.  And of course I said that it certainly was very important, very influential, that media ecology is not something that is going to fade away, that the effects of what they had set in motion will continue to be felt into the future, serving to make the world a better place.

Chris and I first bonded over our mutual love of Tolkien.  When she emailed me asking to meet one last time, she spoke of leaving New York City to head west towards the Gray Havens (the passage to the next world in Tolkien's mythos).  And when we met for the last time, she mentioned the song Bilbo sang in The Fellowship of the Ring:

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen,
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

For Chris, there are no more sounds of returning feet, no more voices at the door, but the messages she has sent to a time she will not see can still be heard, loud and clear and true.

I have been in touch with Christine Nystrom's friend, Anne Garfinkel, who was contacted by the Pastor at the Church that Chris attended, and he has graciously offered to host a memorial service in their chapel, a location that held special significance for Chris.  Anne is organizing the memorial, for which we all are very grateful, and I am doing whatever I can to help her.  Please share the following information with anyone you think might want or need to know:

A memorial service for Christine Nystrom will be held on Monday January 17, at 11 AM, at The Chapel at St. George’s Church at 7 Rutherford Place (E. 3rd Ave. between 16th & 17th Streets), New York, New York.  It will be an opportunity to pay our respects, share our memories, and celebrate her life.

Anne has asked that you RSVP if you intend to come, to help in the
preparations (of course if you don't RSVP and decide at the last minute that you do want to come, please do join us). Also, if you would like to come up and say a few words at the memorial, we ask that you let us know in advance as well, to aid in the organization of the memorial program.  Please RSVP via email to

Also, there have been some inquiries about sending donations in Chris's memory.  Chris's niece, Jenny, has indicated that they can be made to New York University's Cancer Institute, The Smile Train, Hiefer International, or Hospice of Central Iowa.

And here are a couple of pictures taken last year, no captions necessary...

Rest in peace, Christine Nystrom, rest in peace.


Stephanie Gibson said...

Rest in peace, Chris. You will never know how many lives you touched.

Peter K. Fallon said...

Thank you, Lance, for posting this. Perhaps more than any other person in the Media Ecology program at NYU, Christine Nystrom touched my life in a way I will never forget. She was a brilliant scholar, a passionate scholar, a disiplined scholar. I think of her often and grieve at the thought that I could not see her in her last days. Like so many others, I will miss her always.

Laura Benin said...

I entered the Media Ecology MA program just as Christine Nystrom was leaving. This is a tremendous loss to our community, but her legacy will never be forgotten.

Peter Nystrom said...

Thank you for this heartfelt appreciation of Chris. Peter