The Importance Of Media Education: An Open Letter To MIT

December 16, 2008

From 2003-2005, I earned my Masters at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, led by its inspiring co-founders, Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio. Jenkins recently announced his departure from MIT at the end of this academic year. Henry sincerely struggled with the decision, but I — and my classmates — think he made the right one. MIT never gave CMS the resources it needed, and Henry and William could only compensate for so long. Ten years, in fact. 

Henry’s departure had a silver lining: It brought my classmates together to reflect on the importance of the kind of media education we experienced. The coming together was virtual: We wielded new media tools to collaboratively craft an open letter to the Institute. It took us weeks of writing and re-writing, emails, and phone calls. The group’s balance of effort, and sense of respect, common purpose, and fun makes me proud.

So does the result:

Why We Need Comparative Media Studies
— an open, collaboratively written letter to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

December 5, 2008

Dr. Susan Hockfield, President
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307

Dr. Hockfield:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is known globally for bringing the best and the brightest together in a hotbed of intellectual energy, innovation, and applied study. Increasingly, its reputation for academic leadership is reaching beyond science, engineering, and economics and into the humanities. As graduates of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies (CMS) Masters program, we have seen firsthand the role this visionary program plays in the wider world. Recently, CMS co-director Henry Jenkins III announced his plans to leave the Institute for a post at the University of Southern California, leaving only one dedicated faculty member — co-director William Uricchio — and an uncertain future for both the graduate and undergraduate programs. This decision has inspired us, the CMS Class of 2005, to reflect on our program’s unique and important approach to the study of media and technology. We urge you, Dr. Hockfield, and others in the Institute’s leadership, to give the support Comparative Media Studies needs to truly succeed at MIT.

Every fall, Professors Jenkins and Uricchio welcome a small cohort of students and professionals to a two-year graduate experience that will transform them into the media experts that industry and academia increasingly seek. The co-directors, whose complementary experience and leadership styles have been key to the program’s success, practice a philosophy they call “applied humanities”. With so much of our time spent interacting through and with media, applied humanities calls for a greater understanding of its historical, cultural, economic, and global context. Everyone — business and government leaders, journalists, educators, and citizens — benefits from humanities learning, including the ability to read, write, and circulate information to diverse audiences, across distribution channels that vary in their form and content demands. Applied humanities blends traditional academic research with hands-on engagement in the public and private sectors. Comparative Media Studies creates the environment for such principles to flourish by bringing together students from a wide range of fields, including education, film and video preservation, journalism, advertising, software development, and venture capital. The program’s deeply collaborative environment turns out thinking-practitioners who can translate for a broader public and ask forward-looking questions. How is social networking changing politics? What are the ethics of video games? What happens when popular cultures move across national borders? What is the future of digital reading?

Our rapidly changing times also call for the remembrance of technological and media history, lest we remain caught up in our societal fascination with newness. CMS reminds us that early radio in the 1920s and comics in the 1950s triggered moral panics over our “impressionable” youth — fears which we look back on as reactionary and simple-minded, even as the same turns of phrase are employed over certain video games and social networking sites today. Meanwhile, the asynchronous debates of Current TV and Twitter are pulling the political town hall meetings of the past into the 21st century, and Obama’s weekly online video address is bringing F.D.R.’s fireside chats to YouTube. From Herodotus, to the printing press, opera, and silent film, the CMS program’s deep grounding in history has taught us to apply an active historical frame in our professional roles shaping media business and policy.

We have had three years since graduation to test what Jenkins, Uricchio, and a supporting team of non-CMS faculty have imparted: in industry, academia, non-profits, and beyond. We’ve brought our talents for reflective communication to books, blogs, video games, and top Ph.D. programs. Many of us have created our own job descriptions. As Jenkins explains, the CMS program prepares students for jobs that may not have existed just a few years ago, yet are becoming vital to public and private sectors in flux.

Comparative Media Studies is not the only top-notch media program out there, but it is one of very few in the United States. As a field, media studies is often ensconced within humanities and social sciences departments, with limited exposure beyond pre-existing disciplines such as sociology, film studies, art history, or education. Forging a new paradigm for intellectual accomplishment means breaking down barriers between academic disciplines in non-tokenistic, durable ways. In the seemingly unlikely setting of MIT, applied humanities has flourished, with students drawing from urban studies, architecture, history, anthropology, and computer science to formulate and express their ideas. The program’s weekly public colloquia have brought leading media scholars and professionals to MIT, creating a rare opportunity for cross-disciplinary dialogue. Over the past decade, the program has also hosted several international scholars-in-residence, who have shared their expertise on topics as diverse as mobile phone culture in Japan and the history of military games in Germany. The program has also led to the formation of several major research initiatives, including the Convergence Culture Consortium (media convergence and its business ramifications), Center for Future Civic Media (social bonds in local communities), Project New Media Literacies (participatory culture) and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Lab (problem solving through video games).

With CMS, Jenkins and Uricchio created a new paradigm, yet they were never fully supported financially, physically, or emotionally by the Institute. Unfortunately, this is part of a more widespread reluctance of policymakers and academic institutions from K-12 onward to fully integrate media studies as an essential discipline of study in the 21st century. We applaud the work of programs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, the University of Michigan, and USC, where students and faculty are innovating the field. As these and other universities begin to recognize the value of applied humanities, we urge MIT to continue its leadership role in this field. Jenkins’ departure will be a huge loss for the MIT community. Let’s not compound his loss with the greater one of the entire program. Comparative Media Studies can continue into its second decade, but only with the full support — both moral and financial — of the Institute behind it. We hope that you and other decision-makers will see this time of change as an opportunity to demonstrate that the principles established by the founders are big enough to endure. We appeal to MIT to continue the Comparative Media Studies program, and we encourage other such programs to take form at colleges, universities, and K-12 schools around the world.

Yours sincerely,

The Comparative Media Studies Class of 2005
-Brett Camper
-Joellen Easton
-Brian R. Jacobson
-Andrea McCarty
-Rekha Murthy
-Karen Schrier
-Parmesh Shahani

cmsalum05 [at] gmail


5 Responses to “The Importance Of Media Education: An Open Letter To MIT”

  1. […] you are at it, take a look at the letter circulated by the department’s alums on the importance of media […]

  2. rekha6 Says:

    UPDATE: The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog has a good article about the recent developments, including a mention of our letter and MIT’s response.

  3. Emily Says:

    congrats on the publicity!

  4. This is an excellent response: well-reasoned and well-written.

    Thank you for expressing this important position so clearly.

    Jim Bizzocchi – CMS 2001

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