In Medias Res 2016

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Greetings and an enthusiastic welcome to everyone to this election-free publication. This past year has provided us, as media scholars and writers, countless degrees’ and tenure cases’ worth of presidential (or unpresidential) material to work through. The surreality of so many election moments may account for the focus of this issue of In Medias Res and indeed of CMS/W’s work since 2015 and 2016: the long-awaited breakthrough of virtual reality technology and storytelling, now in widespread use by artists, journalists, hobbyists, and, really, anyone with a smartphone.

Our cover story, then, is one of three pieces on virtual reality you’ll read in the coming pages. It features the collaboration, as written up by the New York Times, between CMS/W Associate Professor Fox Harrell and visiting photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, who together developed a project to use an Oculus Rift VR headset as the platform for an experiment into empathy. “The Enemy” attempts to overcome what Ben Khelifa saw in places like Afghanistan, where there “was a culture of warfare that often perpetuated itself through misunderstanding and misinformation, with no mechanism for those of opposing sects or political forces to gain a sense of the enemy as a fellow human being.”

We then take a step back for more context and get a peek at work produced by our Open Documentary Lab following its conference “Virtually There: Documentary Meets Virtual Reality”. The summary included here acknowledges the growing influence VR, as a medium and set of production practices, has on documentarians but cautions that “we’re not there yet. Technologies, like investors, come and go.”

The third piece is a deeper look.

Open Documentary Lab director William Uricchio joins his old colleague (and co-founder of our program) Henry Jenkins, and together they discuss ODL’s 2015 report “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism”. Throughout its history, CMS/W — with great credit to both Jenkins and Uricchio — has managed to identify early on realignments and reimaginings of media forms and methods seemingly thought to be nailed down. That has been true of games as a transdisciplinary field, of civic media, and now too of documentary journalism. Their conversation touches upon documentary journalism’s role in American democracy, its future funding models, and the enormous challenge of constructing documentaries that complement today’s ways of creating, curating, sharing, and consuming stories.

As in last year’s magazine, we are making a bigger point of featuring student work — not just reports from the field but academic and creative writing. The merger three years ago between Comparative Media Studies and Writing and Humanistic Studies has foregrounded the extraordinary writing produced by MIT students who aren’t “our” students. A piece on fusion was written by an Aeronautics and Astronautics major for one of our introductory writing subjects. Another is a story by a now-graduated major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who won one of our Ilona Karmel Writing Prizes, in the science fiction category.

We highlight excellent graduate student writing as well, with recent grad Lily Bui’s conference paper on climate change through the lens of mourning and Evan Higgins’ on “The Wire”.

And for the first time, we include a research paper by a faculty member, with Sasha Costanza-Chock’s co-authored work on youth civic engagement in the Scratch programming community. We’re also pleased to share some of Professor Heather Hendershot’s writing on conservative icon William F. Buckley, who throughout his years hosting the public affairs show Firing Line could be a harsh critic of feminism while being one of the few people willing to give feminists a space to present their arguments to a national audience. (Hendershot’s book Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line was published this fall.)

You’ll find our updates on research groups and community members, though there’s one name not yet mentioned that we should. Professor Lisa Parks, whose research focuses on satellite technologies, surveillance media cultures, and more, is joining us as a faculty member after heading the Film and Media Studies department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We’re thrilled to have her join us as a colleague and teacher; keep an eye out for her new book, currently titled Life in the Age of Drone Warfare, to be published by Duke University Press) next year.

And a big note of congratulations to professor of science writing Tom Levenson, who this year was awarded a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. It’s a highly competitive mid-career prize and will allow Tom to develop his work exploring the 18th century “South Sea Bubble” and, by extension, the role the scientific revolution played in modern financial capitalism and the “wealth and woe” that proceeded. The fellowship is especially meaningful in the Levenson family: Tom’s father J. C. Levenson was an awardee in 1958 for his work in American literature.

Last, November always marks our information sessions for the master’s programs in Science Writing and Comparative Media Studies, and we would love to have you there, whether you’re a prospective student considering applying or you’re looking to learn more about the work we do; the CMS information session on November 17 will be followed in the evening by a public event featuring four alumni. Learn more about it all at cmsw.mit.edu.

Edward Schiappa

Edward Schiappa

Head of CMS/W
John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities