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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Lit Enthusiast Founds Arts Publication in the Panopticon

English%2C+1988

English, 1988

In 1986, Margot Backus watched the Metropolitan Opera perform Tosca from a press box at the Wang Theater. She observed the patrons, and whisked two columns out that night. 
“It was impossible not to wonder whether the wealthy aristocracy who attended were not struck by the similarities between the occupation of Rome by the Bourbons, and the repression in, say South Africa, the site of origin of 90 percent of the diamonds that were present in such staggering quantities on the necks and wrists of the city’s most influential women,” she wrote in one.
The other was a straight up review in honor of her mother, an opera fan. 
Backus published both columns together. One literary social critique, the other frank. 
“I would sometimes get little fan letters from the faculty,” Backus says. “I had a pretty strong op-ed column going on in the Mass Media. I wrote a number of things that I enjoyed writing, and people did respond. It was fun.” 
Out of high school, Backus wanted to become a veterinarian. She started college, majored in zoology, but wasn’t ready, so she stopped going to school and did other things. She planted trees in Montana, worked for an Acorn affiliate in San Francisco and in Berkley. Finally, she settled into a job shelving books at the Boston Public Library. 
“I remember finding Lillian Fodderman’s “Surpassing the Love of Men,” which was a cultural history of woman-woman bonding, prior to Freud, during a time when people didn’t think of women as having any kind of sexual drive of their own,” Backus says.
“I was completely intrigued. I remember cultural studies stuff about comic books, a Freudian reading of the American Revolution, so I would see these amazing books and I thought, ‘Where are these coming from? Who does this?’ That was this glimpse into this alternate world that there were people who could spend their time thinking about these incredibly cool things that I was completely interested in, so I took some night classes at Harvard. I took a folklore and mythology class at night school, and made a decision that I was going to go back to college.” 
Backus majored in French at the University of Massachusetts Boston, at first. She wanted to become a medievalist, to learn to read folklore in Middle French and discover how folk legends became literature. 
“I wanted to do this thing on middle ages folklore and goddess worship and how it moves into literature, and the English people said, ‘Great! You sound great,’ so that’s where I camped out.” 
She submitted work the student newspaper, and started publishing at least one article each week. 
“I got to do some early trials on the kind of literary and film criticism, and the kinds of political and social analysis that I now do professionally. The Mass Media is where I got started as much as in my classes, learning how to have a public voice and to make arguments.” 
Backus particularly remembers the “horrible” buildings, designed like prisons. 
“It had bad Feng-Shui, the whole mentality of it being this kind of Foucauldian control thing of if the students try to rise up, how can we shut the whole campus down by seizing control of a few strategic passageways… so much of the United States after the sixties was retrofitted to make sure that the sixties never happened again. It feels very different than being on a campus that caters to the children of the elite, where there’s no such fear that they’re going to rise up and attack you.” 
There was a little pub that served coffee, beer, wine and vegetarian food in the back of the Wheatley Building. They had a balcony, and Backus loved spending time back there.
“Any part of UMass [Boston] at that time that could exploit how beautiful the exteriors were, immediately became much more beautiful because you’re looking out onto the harbor,” she says. “I spent most of my afternoons hanging out over there, and then in the Mass Media office where I wrote up all of my essays, all my assignments for class; I did those sitting around in the Mass Media, which I made my office.” 
Backus also helped start Howth Castle, a literary arts magazine. She helped fundraise for it, and worked to produce a magazine with Donna Neal who was running an in-shop printing facility for student publications. 
“Another thing I learned was how feasible it is to do things, that I could type something up and get it into print,” she says. “I learned a lot about seeing the world as a place that it was possible to get my voice out.” 
She skyped last spring from Belfast, Ireland, where she was teaching a class on Anglophone Irish literature at Queens University, and reflected on her lifelong love of literature and drama.
“I grew up with a mother who had been educated in opera, and I grew up in the 60s, so she and I grew up very much at odds,” Backus says. “She’d yell at me, ‘Turn that stuff down,’ because I was listening to Patty Smith or David Bowie, and I would yell at her to turn down Verite. Each one of us regarded the music that the other was listening to as just noise, valueless noise.”
As an academic, Backus explores many strange tendrils of life through literature. In 2013 Backus finished a book called “Scandal Work“, on James Joyce and late 19th century sex scandals used as political weapons in Ireland’s struggle to become independent from the United Kingdom. Now she is coauthoring a book about sex scandals involving children in Ireland.
“Ireland has all of these novels and short stories that take what are recognizably sex scandals, and retell them as they’d be seen by children,” Backus says. “Showing these scandals through the eyes of children who don’t know what it is they’re doing forces the reader to slow down and say, well, what are we seeing? What can we tell is actually happening? Is it bad? How bad is it? Who’s doing the bad thing?” 
Backus graduated from UMass Boston with honors, Summa Cum Laude, and went on to get an MA and PhD from the University of Texas. It took her five years, and after graduating she got a teaching job at another large urban working class university, the University of Houston. 
“I took a job at a place that was as close to UMass as I could find,” Backus says. “I work with students who haven’t been groomed to go to college their whole lives, but who happen to be really bright and have the drive, so that’s how I got here. UMass launched me into exactly what I do.”

About the Contributor
Caleb Nelson served as the following positions for The Mass Media the following years: Editor-in-Chief: Fall 2010; 2010-2011; Fall 2011 News Editor: Spring 2009; 2009-2010