Celebrating the Life of Media and Cultural Studies Alum Dr. Christopher H. Smith

The Department of Communication Arts is saddened to hear of the passing of esteemed University of Wisconsin – Madison alum Christopher Holmes Smith. Dr. Smith earned his PhD in Media and Cultural Studies from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2001, under the supervision of Professor John Fiske. He briefly served as the director of primary research for Ruder Finn Public Relations in New York City and went on to spend over twenty years as a clinical professor of communication and the founder of the Media, Economics & Entrepreneurship (M{2e}) program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

While you can read more about Dr. Smith’s illustrious career and contributions to his students, his department, and the broader field here, Dr. Smith’s peers from his time as a graduate student in the Department of Communication Arts have their own insightful memories to share. Dr. Jason Mittell (now Professor of Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College) fondly recalls his “sincere warmth, infectious smile, and brilliant eloquence during seminars.” As Dr. Pam Wilson recalls, Dr. Smith was “a special person who made such an impact on everything he touched.” Dr. Michael Kackman (Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame) also remembers that “Chris was kind, generous, and smart – exactly the person you wanted to have in the conversation, whatever the topic, and whatever the hour.” Dr. Ron Becker (Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism, & Film at Miami University) adds, “When I think of Chris, I think of someone who exuded curiosity and warmth. He made seminars feel like we were all part of an exciting intellectual adventure.” 

And he was known for taking his colleagues, students, and friends on all kinds of “intellectual adventures.” Dr. Elana Levine (Professor in the Department of English at UW-Milwaukee) says that “Chris was an amazing grad school colleague and long-time friend. Preparing for MA comps together was really something, and he was such an intellectual inspiration. I learned so much from him in Madison and across the years.” Dr. Derek Kompare (Chair and Associate Professor of Film and Media Arts at Southern Methodist University) adds that “Chris was a deep yet generous thinker and scholar and always exuded the joy of discovery and sharing.” For example, Dr. Bill Kirkpatrick (Professor of Sociology at the University of Winnipeg) reminisces about how, “of all the great papers I saw at colloquium over the years, Chris’s paper on TV dinners has stuck with me the most profoundly. It was so creative, complex, and expansive, tying together everything from postwar gender roles to the economics and technologies of the food-freezing industry. I remember him saying, ‘I’ve researched this thing within an inch of its life,’ and I continue to find that so inspirational: his dedication to finding every angle and perspective on a topic and synthesizing all of that into a fascinating study.” To add to that, Dr. Jennifer Wang, Lecturer in our Communication Arts department, notes that “no one could wax philosophically in seminar like Chris. He was such a generous, positive, and loving presence.”

Dr. Smith is survived by his wife, Salaam Coleman Smith and their children Asa and Nina. As Dr. Kompare recalls, “his love of his family was an inspiration.” Both Dr. Kackman and Dr. Kelly Cole (Advising Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences at Georgetown University) remember “how over the moon he was to build a life with [Salaam]” and, as Dr. Norma Coates (Associate Professor in the Department of Faculty of Media and Information Studies and the Department of Music History in the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University) adds, “Chris was so proud of his kids; I enjoyed seeing them grow, and how happy he seemed.” Dr. Lisa Parks (Distinguished Professor Film and Media Studies and Director of the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab at UC Santa Barbara) also notes that, beyond his love for and dedication to his family, “he was a warm, generous, and brilliant person who touched many lives and mentored and supported lots of students.”

Dr. Daniel Marcus (Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College) sums up how many of Dr. Smith’s Communication Arts peers felt upon learning the news of his passing: “From the day we met him, when he visited Madison as a prospective student, we could all see Chris was someone special, with a keen intelligence, a generous heart, an illuminated spirit. A terrible loss.”

The Department of Communication Arts extends its condolences to Dr. Smith’s family, colleagues, students, and friends. We mourn the loss of this brilliant scholar, dedicated mentor, loving family member, and good friend, and we celebrate his life and the legacy he leaves.