Humans of PCC: An Interview with Matt Stockton
Matt Stockton has been teaching at PCC since 2001 and became a full-time faculty member in 2010 and recently became the Faculty Department Chair of Philosophy and Psychology at the Sylvania Campus. He got his undergrad at University of Oregon and after some years of travelling he earned two Master’s degrees; one from University of Montana and one from Lewis & Clark College.
KSR: What brought you to PCC?
MS: I never really set out to specifically teach Philosophy or be at PCC. Both seemed to happen organically. A long time ago when I was trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grow up I resolved to myself that I just needed to continue to pursue things that I was passionate about that made me happy. In doing so I trusted that I would inevitably end up in a place and at a job that would best suit what I had to offer the world. That seems to have worked out pretty well in that through good fortune, hard work and perseverance I now find myself here at PCC doing something that I love. For me, that love stems from caring deeply about serving our students and getting to work alongside many amazing people who are equally passionate about advancing the mission of PCC. I feel a little braggadocious sharing with others that I’d still be working here even if I didn’t need to be, but it’s true. I wouldn’t teach anywhere else even if I had the opportunity. I love having the opportunity to create and share with students the insights that Philosophy offers as they strive to bring out their better selves. It is a true honor and privilege.
KSR: Why do you think PHL 197 should be taught as early elementary/high school level classes?
MS: As much as I enjoy offering PHL 197: Critical Thinking & the Media here at PCC I do think our society would be far better off if we embraced and promoted media literacy more robustly at a much earlier age. The course itself is one that really emphasizes the need to think critically about how we learn throughout our lives and how various institutions attempt to influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in an attempt to gain economic and/or political clout. To understand that we need to recognize the various ways media exercises the power to both suppress and stimulate our ability to answer philosophical questions. The technological affluence of media has essentially saturated us with information as soon as we were born. This inundation of information has been cognitively overwhelming for most which has contributed to a bit of an epistemological crisis in our society where things like “truth”, “facts”, and “reality” are increasingly deemed a matter of subjective preference. The uncertainty and ambiguity about what terms such as these even mean has made us incredibly vulnerable to manipulation through the media. People tend to utilize the media primarily as consumers looking to acquire some degree of satisfaction that makes them feel good or, at the very least, to feel affirmed. When we think critically about media we realize that the core motive being acted on in most cases isn’t to make us better people. It’s to acquire our time and attention as a means for generating profit. Most of us recognize this as we grow older, but because most of the damage has already been done we end up understandably feeling resentful, disempowered, and cynical. Were we to start promoting questions and skills earlier in life we would essentially be vaccinating them against the dangers of such manipulation. In doing so we can invert our relationship to media by using it more for our purposes than it uses us for serving the purposes of others.
KSR: What’s the best way to find the “truth” in the media?
MS: In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave he compares our sensory experiences as humans to be analogous with prisoners fixed in the back of a cave who are only able to observe shadows on a wall in front of them. Those shadows are meant to represent the idea that we don’t really know the truth unless we start to realize our ideas are just incomplete representations of reality that are being produced by events beyond our perceptions. He puts an emphasis on reason and empiricism as the best tools to understand reality as it actually is. And while I’m in disagreement with the idea that we can ever fully understand “reality” or “truth” beyond the shadows our brain casts for us, I do think critical thinking at least allows us to bring many of these shadows into focus and understand which ones have merit and which ones are being misunderstood. “Truth” isn’t found in something. Rather, our sense of “truth” is a product of our brain trying to understand our experiences. Simply recognizing that our understanding of “truth” is one that has been created both for us and by us empowers us to start being more skeptical and inquisitive toward our own thinking. From this process of thinking critically about philosophical questions informed by media we begin to formulate more reliable judgments about the world we live in. For some I imagine this is kind of a boring and abstract way to think about “truth” but these distinctions are important to understand if we are to have healthy relationships with media, ourselves, and others.
KSR: What advice would you give PCC on how to read/view the news media?
MS: Simply recognizing that media is constructed and delivered to enact certain political and economic agendas is a good start. Regularly asking “why” something is being presented and identifying “how” it is attempting to manipulate your thoughts, feelings and behaviors allows one to start pulling back and seeing things more coherently. Most of us only engage with the media as consumers where our preferences are driven by pleasure seeking and pain avoidant motivations. We too easily judge it based on whether or not we agree with what it does for us. Instead, I promote the idea that to really understand media we need to distance ourselves from thinking of media only as something to be consumed. We should approach it as an anthropologist who is seeking to understand the various cultural systems and practices that are in play. Only from that understanding are we able to acquire a more lucid understanding of how our answers to various philosophical questions regarding reality, truth, and morality are affected by media.
KSR: Was there a show/movie that was ruined for you since you started teaching PHL 197?
MS: I don’t know if any films have necessarily been ruined by my teaching Critical Thinking & the Media but my interest in the subject has transformed my perspective of many films I grew up with and feeling an affinity for. In particular it has been an illuminating experience to re-watch many of these films alongside my daughters who are age 12 and 10. John Hughes’ movies in particular have evoked a mixed set of emotions given their propensity to elicit feelings of nostalgia about the angst of being a teen all the while often doing so with a variety of tropes and narratives that would never be considered as morally acceptable today. “16 Candles” in particular uses racial and ethnic stereotypes for comedic purposes while also endorsing date rape as a viable way to get a girl to like you. Yet, it’s still a very watchable and entertaining film that isn’t entirely bankrupt of any moral value. Reconciling those conflicted points is a difficult task but also one that can be done effectively if approached the right way. My position is that I think eliminating our exposure to films such as this deprives us of the opportunity to learn from them. They can act as an effective illustration of how far we’ve come socially on such issues as well as how far we still have to go. Films such as “16 Candles” provide us with valuable opportunities to have meaningful discussions with others about very real issues that are transcendent of the media. So I wouldn’t say the film is ruined for me. Only that my experience watching it now is different. It’s a far more meaningful and worthwhile experience since the ensuing discussion is less about the narrative and more about why the narrative matters in its ability to affect lives both positively and negatively.
KSR: Where did you go to college?
I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon with a major in Cultural Anthropology and a minor in Philosophy. After a couple of years travelling I studied at the University of Montana where I earned a Master’s Degree in Philosophy with a Teaching Ethics Emphasis. Additionally, I have since earned a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology (MFT) at Lewis & Clark College which was completed in 2006.
KSR: How long have you been teaching at PCC?
I started teaching at Philosophy at PCC as an adjunct instructor in 2001 after being a finalist for a full-time position they were hiring for in Philosophy. I taught as an adjunct instructor for almost 10 years while also running my own counseling practice from 2006-2010. In 2010 I was fortunate enough to be hired on as a full-time faculty member and I’ve recently assumed the role of Faculty Department Chair for Philosophy and Psychology here at Sylvania
KSR: How did you end up in Portland?
I grew up in Gresham, Oregon before moving to Eugene for college. After college I lived in Jackson, WY, Washington DC, and Missoula, MT. I moved back to Portland in 1999 after completing my graduate degree and deciding to be closer to friends and family.