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

Tonight I attended a candlelight vigil for Mumbai at Boston’s City Hall. A few hundred people were there — more South Asian faces than I’d normally see in a Boston crowd, and other faces of all kinds. The service was sometimes muffled by the sounds of the city, but simply being among so many people and religious leaders of several faiths, holding candles in the comfort of a circle, felt good and meaningful.

At the bus stop next to the vigil, a bus pulled up. Along the top were images of coffee beans, an Indian man… it was an Incredible India ad. I tugged the sleeve of the man next to me, needing a witness. His eyes lit up.

After the service, I lined up to write my ‘message to Mumbai’ in a book provided by the organizers. Vigil for Mumbai, by my much taller friend, AlexisI quickly read a few other messages; they were long and heartfelt.

The attack upset me deeply. In trying to stay connected and inform my worry, I was surprised by how much the geographical distance actually mattered. The U.S. mainstream media — television, radio, and Internet — were blank. The Web provided pockets of information and corners for emotional togetherness, but searching for them became too much (though I did find a few sites I can turn to in the future).

Sometimes conversation isn’t useful, and images shouldn’t be processed alone. I am grateful to the organizers of tonight’s gathering for bringing people together, and giving us thoughtful people to listen to. I hope the people of Mumbai know just how much their loss of life and security has touched people so far away.

 

Hooray!

November 6, 2008

I watched CNN, PBS, Current TV, BET, Fox News, and The Daily Show. I tracked Facebook statuses and Twitter updates. I piled my friends into the car and drove around Central and Harvard Squares, honking my horn and cheering out the pent-up frustration of the past eight years.

And then, I checked this Web site one more time, and teared up a little with the hope, dignity, and sheer elegance of it all.

BarackAsPresident

Why are the early voting lines so long… and why did NPR’s Carrie Kahn just report about them like they’re a big block party? We’re talking three to five hours long, when more than a half hour should be considered undemocratic.

A long voting line is not an act of nature. It is not inevitable. Nor can it be attributed to surprisingly high voter turnout — after the past eight years, there’s no surprise. Besides, election officials should have methods for handling “surprises” within their jurisdictions. Even with early voting.

“This has the potential to disenfranchise a heck of a lot more people than, dare I say it, hacked electronic voting machines,” said Tova Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause, which has been monitoring potential balloting problems ahead of this week’s vote. (LA Times, 11/2/08)

I want to know how and why long voting lines happen. If we don’t ask, and we don’t know, then we can’t press for change. We’re down to the wire now. If it’s true that the presidential race looks different when pollsters ‘narrow the pool of responses from registered voters to likely voters,’ then there should be no block-party reporting where voting isn’t smooth.

John and I just returned from a month of U.S. travel (travel-logs are forthcoming). Our mutually agreed news blackout was quickly obliterated by Hurricane Ike, and we were then free to marvel at the nomination of $7 Sunday NYT on TuesdaySarah Palin and the painful circus of financial collapse and executive bailout.  Our primary sources were motel CNN, John’s BlackBerry, and the very occasional New York Times. And boy was I hungry after a week in Montana where the only New York Times we could find was in downtown Missoula. The Sunday issue. For seven dollars. On Tuesday.

We’re home for a few days before heading off again. After weeks of being teased by television, BlackBerry-friendly newspaper sites, and email forwards, I’ve finally caught up on the internet video party. In this realm, it’s no contest between the financial scandals and Sarah Palin. Wall Street execs are smart enough to keep a low profile. So here’s what I’ve watched so far: 

At this point, I decided there was no need to watch Palin’s RNC speech, or even voyeuristically dig for videos of the child she’s leading into motherhood and (possible) marriage. The New York Times put it well in a Sept 13 editorial:

If [John McCain] seriously thought this first-term governor — with less than two years in office — was qualified to be president, if necessary, at such a dangerous time, it raises profound questions about his judgment. If the choice was, as we suspect, a tactical move, then it was shockingly irresponsible.

Nearly as shocking is that Palin accepted. Sarah Palin does not know just how much she does not know. That is beyond stupid, it’s dangerous. 

I am glad to have had only a couple of days for this bullshit. She’s wasting everyone’s time. Except that of McCain and his staff, who didn’t waste much time vetting her. Seasoned journalism operations and world leaders are having to treat this joker as though she is a real player. I have enjoyed learning about this nutter, but I should have been doing it in furtive scans of People magazine while in the doctor’s office.

However, don’t think for a minute I’ll be missing that VP debate… I’m searching for pubs in Kent with satellite dishes and Tivos as soon as I hit “Publish” on this post.

I spent last weekend in Western Massachusetts, visiting my parents and enjoying a summer performance in the fresh mountain air at Tanglewood.

Freed from the seemingly endless To Do list of my Cambridge life, I embraced one of those projects that nearly always ends up at the bottom of the pile. I descended into my parents’ basement to winnow a few boxes of personal memorabilia. They were mostly grade school and college notebooks, awards certificates, and personal essays assigned by voyeuristic middle school “English” teachers who know they’re panning for gold during a rush.

Even a media girl will tolerate only so many boxes of dormant paper, because someday her parents will make her store them herself. At least computers arrived partway through this lifelong accumulation of paper, creating the illusion that one is a minimalist (and then making it a reality through malfunction or obsolescence). But, with the paper that remains, it’s so hard to know what to keep and what to throw.* 

However, there was no question as to the fate of one yellowed 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper. In 1987, a summer school teacher wrote a brief evaluation of my participation in a class where we made our own magazine:

Rekha was a fast learner in the art of “lay-out” and “paste-up.” She has a good logical mind for organizing material, and likes to add her own creative touch to the format of a magazine. I appreciated the leadership she provided as editor and enjoyed working with her on her own articles.

I was thirteen years old. In the years that followed, I considered careers in interior decorating, environmental law, medicine, architecture, photography, international diplomacy, or something that would fulfill my eighth grade class designation as First to Make a Million. I eventually faced my destiny and went into media… and here I am, 20 years later, laying out digital objects and curating content with logic and creativity. I might have saved myself a lot of searching if I had paid attention to these little indicators. Then again, what I do now didn’t exist back then.

ADDENDUM
[Because I was reminded that truth, edited for narrative flow, will still be treated as truth (see comments).] There’s another story about how my earliest memories include sitting in the back of my parents’ car, listening somewhat involuntarily to NPR. And how, while a teenager, lots of people told me I had a great voice, and that I should be a journalist, and how I agreed but for many years I was too scared to try. But that’s going to have to wait until I find another artifact to peg it on.

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*I would be curious as to other people’s criteria for retaining or letting go of personal artifacts over the years.

Not too long ago, most people I knew continued to harbor a certain social prejudice well after the major social prejudices had fallen out of favor among the thinking set. This prejudice was not against a person, or a stereotype. It was against the computer.

No one ever spoke openly of this prejudice. It was transmitted subtly: a gentle roll of the eyes when someone cautiously suggested that a quick Google search might resolve the conversational impasse; a derisive snort when the token geek in the room offered to show the group what he or she was working on. When a friend said in mixed company that her local movie theater used to project video game play on the big screen for public viewing, there was an unmistakable ‘only in Maine’ undercurrent to the response.

Those of us who were less prejudiced almost unconsciously learned to suppress our impulses to introduce a computer into good old human interaction. With labels like “video game addict”, “internet addict”, and “geek” with a “dork” intonation floating around, it was best to keep demonstrations of the non-physical world to oneself.

(This unspoken rule had one exception: The showing of one’s digital photos on one’s computer with everyone gathered around. A descendant of slide carousels and photo albums. Here, eyerolls meant that the photographer took twice what they would have taken on film and edited nothing.)

I didn’t feel the oppression, as I had internalized the prejudice. There’s one keyboard, one screen, and one pointing device. Computer use is individual by design. Look inside a cafe or office and you get the idea.* It followed that introducing such a private physical relationship into mixed company would be considered unseemly.

About three years ago, however, my unconscious attitudes surfaced and changed. Martin Wattenberg came to MIT to talk about “The Social Life of Visualizations.” He focused on how people socialize around visualizations of data, the most fun example being his NameVoyager, which lets people enter a name and see a graph of its popularity over time:

When we launched the NameVoyager, we expected that it would be of interest to expectant parents… What we did not expect was that it became popular even among people with no interest in children. The site has received millions of visits since launch, and has been the subject of thousands of blog posts and online conversations. The activity around this visualization was one of the inspirations for my current research focus on the social aspects of data visualization and analysis.

Martin showed several other examples of how data visualizations inspire (mostly online) sociality, and how well-designed data visualizations inspired people to interact more deeply with the data in the process of interacting with each other.

I was totally with him on this. Soon after, I was with a pregnant friend, and she let me pull up the NameVoyager on her computer. We had a ball looking up names of everyone we knew and every name she had considered for the baby. With Martin’s emphasis on digital sociality fresh in my mind, I became acutely aware of my own different but related assumption that computers and people shouldn’t mix in physically social space. Yet here we were having so much fun. I began to feel a sort of defiant validation… why NOT bring computers into conversation?

Me in my element

My new liberation was not confined to displays of data; it was about Web surfing in general. In my self-proclaimed role as an avid media curator, I find all sorts of cool stuff online. And since my personal breakthrough, I unapologetically pull this stuff up on the nearest web-enabled computer when the conversation leads me there. I call this social surfing, not to be confused with the Web 2.0 version that assumes people are alone in their physical space and socializing only online.

As you can see from the photo, I am serious about this. I even like to think I’m particularly good at it. Usually I show the coolest new thing I’ve found. But there are some classics as well, which I especially enjoy showing to people who are easily amazed by the Web. These include:

My enduring takeaway from Martin’s talk became much broader than he intended. But I do have him to thank for it.

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*Now, of course, people are often very social online. Yet even online socializing has experienced prejudice, that of being viewed as less authentic — or simply less social — than in-person interaction.