CMS: Born for Collaboration

Image from Phorm, a game developed jointly by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

Image from Phorm, a game developed jointly by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory

From its early days the Comparative Media Studies program has worked with partners from all over MIT. It has collaboration written in its genes.

It’s on everybody’s lips: collaboration. In education, academia, the professional and especially creative industries, and even in politics, people have been joining forces and talents to form a new group-based work ethic that has gained momentum over the past year.

CMS is by definition “collaborative and cross-disciplinary to the core,” as CMS co-Directors Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio wrote in In Media Res last year. Insisting on going solo in areas where cooperation is encouraged may spell slower progress and missed opportunities. Whenever others are involved, flexibility, openness, and a multi-perspectival approach are key.

This is a recipe for success in today’s media landscape, one CMS has used from the start.

Born out of traditionally disconnected areas of study, the program has welcomed students from a range of disciplines and departments, both traditional and experimental. Sitting at the intersection of disciplines and resources within the Institute, the CMS community benefits from contact with people beyond its academic walls, Jenkins says. And this was the plan.

Jenkins predicted collaboration’s growing importance in the marketplace. “By design, the CMS program is a deeply collaborative venture. We wanted to build a research culture which regularly brought together people across multiple disciplines and which got our students regularly consulting and collaborating with people beyond the academic realm,” he said in a January interview. “We knew that our students would be moving into a workplace where collaborative work is the norm and we had heard that teamwork was a weak point in humanities-trained people, where the ‘lone wolf’ scholar remains the dominant model. We knew that with a relatively small and over-extended faculty, we could not provide all of the expertise our students needed, and so we wanted to broaden the social network around the program.”

Philip S. Khoury, MIT’s Associate Provost and Ford International Professor of History, offers his own high praise. “Comparative Media Studies is the most creative program to emerge in the MIT Humanities in my nearly thirty years on the MIT faculty,” he said. “It fits snugly with MIT’s mission. It creates dynamic linkages to different disciplines and departments within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and far beyond it, and CMS strengthens everything that it touches. What impresses me most is that CMS is shaping a new Humanities at MIT and, by extension, across higher education and research nationally and internationally, while remaining deeply attached to the core humanities values on which CMS was founded.”

Center for Future Civic Media logo

One example of collaboration in practice is between CMS and the Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM), itself a joint effort with the Media Lab funded by the Knight Foundation. In January, the Center invited local “cyberscholars” to a session of talks. The Harvard-MIT-Yale Cyberscholar Working Group, a monthly forum for fellows and affiliates of the CMS Program at MIT, Yale Law School Information Society Project, and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School is a high-caliber event that seeks to aggregate and share knowledge among top scholars in the spheres of new media and information technology and their related fields.

The working group was founded by Berkman Center Executive Director Urs Gasser when he was a Berkman Fellow and Eddan Katz and Nimrod Kozlovski when they were Yale Information Society Project Fellows, and was brought to MIT by CMS alum and current Berkman staffer Steve Schultze.

This year the group is run by CMS student and C4FCM research associate Colleen Kaman and ISP Fellow Ben Peters, and are joined this term by Berkman Student Fellow Lokman Tsui.

“One of the really great aspects of the Cyberscholars event is that it allows graduate students and scholars working within or across a variety of disciplines to present their work and gain valuable feedback from their peers,” said Kaman.

C4FCM Principal Investigator and Professor of Learning Research Mitchel Resnick mirrored Kaman’s feelings when he said of the Center, as led by Research Director Ellen Hume, that it “provides a great context and opportunity for the Media Lab and CMS to collaborate. Both the Media Lab and CMS have strong traditions of exploring how new technologies can empower people as active participants within their communities. In the Center for Future Civic Media, we are building on those traditions with particular focus on civic participation. Our goal is to expand the ways that people can share ideas and expertise with one another in geographically local communities, to strengthen social bonds, and improve the quality of life.”

Asked to describe the ways in which students and researchers from each entity have been working together, Resnick said, “the Media Lab and CMS have complementary strengths. In its research, the Media Lab has traditionally focused more on the design and invention of new technologies, while CMS has traditionally focused more on the study and analysis of new technologies. At the Center for Future Civic Media, we try to bring all of these elements together.”


Elsewhere, The HyperStudio for Digital Humanities is collaboration embodied. Director Kurt Fendt said that HyperStudio covers over thirty collaborative projects, including not only research initiatives conducted locally with other departments at MIT, but also with universities in other countries.

The multi-disciplinary, inter-departmental project, sponsored by Foreign Languages & Literatures in close collaboration with the CMS Program and the Literature Faculty, seeks to “enhance teaching, learning and research in the Humanities, Social Sciences and the Arts, by working with MIT faculty to conceptualize, develop, and use collaborative digital media environments at MIT and beyond.”

Among HyperStudio’s most extensive ongoing collaborative projects is the Comedie-Francaise Registers Project, led by Fendt and Jeffrey Ravel, Associate Professor in History at MIT and its initiator, in close collaboration with Mark Bannister, Professor of French at Oxford Brookes University, Christian Biet, Professor of the History and Aesthetics of Theater at the University of Paris-X (Nanterre), and the Bibliotheque-Musee de la Comedie-Francaise.

The Comedie Francaise Performance Archive, which lets one visualize the complete records of the registers of the Comedie Francaise Theatre Group (1680-1800), allows researchers to study more deeply seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French theatre practices.

“The most recent development is that the Comedie-Francaise has agreed to give us full access to the 113-year run of original registers that form the basis of the project,” said Ravel. “The hope is that the three partners—the CF, MIT, and the CESAR project at Oxford Brookes University—will have twenty years of register data digitized and available to searchers worldwide on an MIT website by summer 2010,” Ravel said.

The US-Iran Relations project is another example of a thriving HyperStudio partnership: it involves a collaboration between HyperStudio, the Center for International Studies at MIT, the Watson Institute at Brown University, and the National Security Archive to develop a critical oral history of US-Iran relations. Its innovative research platform allows US and Iranian scholars to collaborate on the investigation and interpretation of hundreds of English and Farsi documents and seeks to understand the missed opportunities in US-Iranian relations.

“The CIS-HyperStudio partnership on the Iran project came about through mutual contacts within the Institute, but I recognized immediately how HyperStudio would benefit the U.S.-Iran project immensely,” said CIS Executive Director John Tirman. “We are dealing with many documents, interviews, transcripts, and other information media, and with people all over the world. Building the HyperStudio platform innovatively archives all that material but also permits participants to be involved with how data is annotated, linked, and so on,” he said. “Comments and discussions can occur on the platform, which has tremendous potential for a project that, for various reasons, has difficulty bringing everyone face-to-face. The CMS graduate students have been very professional and sophisticated in their work with the project—in ways I don’t fully grasp, I’m sure, as one who is barely cyber-literate.”

GAMBIT logo on white

Another active collaborative relationship of CMS, and more specifically the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, is with CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab. One of GAMBIT’s most prominent cooperative projects with CSAIL to date is the single-player puzzle game for children twelve and older, Phorm.

The storyline of Phorm centers around Osmo, a miniscule amorphous alien imprisoned in a huge laboratory and trying to escape from his captors using his ability to morph. Players have to help Osmo escape by drawing avatars with useful physical attributes for him to shape into and under whose form to try to escape.

Daniel Vlasic, a Ph.D. student in computer graphics at MIT whose research focuses on model-based performance capture and one of the product owners, said that Phorm resulted from a collaboration between GAMBIT and CSAIL’s Computer Graphics Group (CGG).

“We started by identifying an existing CGG research project that would provide the technology for a compelling computer game. That project was Pinocchio, done by CGG graduate student Ilya Baran. His method automatically places a human skeleton into any 3D shape, and enables humanoid animation of that shape,” Vlasic explained in an email interview.

Vlasic said his team consisted of one scrummaster, three programmers, two artists, one game designer, and one quality assurance lead. Additional support was provided by GAMBIT’s audio designers and voice actors.

“My team members were excellent: driven, skilled, and hard-working. Besides the overall project goal, I tried not to constrain their imagination. With minimal guidance, they have managed to produce a very polished and genuinely fun game—which you should try out,” he added.

“Without GAMBIT, we would have not been able to produce a working game featuring cool artistic direction, cute user interface, immersive sound, and an overall fun environment,” he said, declaring the project a “great success.”

“There is a possibility that, in the future, a fully featured game will be produced based on our prototype,” he said.

Education Arcade logo

Another partnership is The Education Arcade (TEA). Creative Director Scott Osterweil said that the TEA research initiative, which studies videogames that promote learning through active play, is always collaborating with other departments. He says that the Education Arcade, as a joint project of CMS and the Teacher Education Program in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), focuses on exploring the wide-ranging educational applications for games, adding that it therefore makes sense to seek out partnerships throughout the Institute.

Osterweil cites the Open Language Learning Initiative, where Margarita Groeger and Josh Aresty from Foreign Languages and Literature (FL&L) are consulting. Josh is involved in the design of language learning games, and Margarita has facilitated prototype testing in her classes here at MIT.

“We are also about to ramp up the creation of a game about undersea micro-biology, in collaboration with Roman Stocker of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Environmental Microfluids Group,” Osterweil says. “And we are collaborating on a proposal for English/Mandarin language learning with Victor Zue and Stephanie Seneff in CSAIL.”

As with any collaboration, Osterweil explains, there is always a challenge in finding what is truly game-like in a given field of study. “In CMS, we examine the relationship between play and knowledge, and the ways people dynamically make and share culture. This approach gives us a broad perspective, and creates the perfect context for engaging our colleagues in other fields.”

Project New Media Literacies logo

Project New Media Literacies, another research initiative based within the CMS’ program and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, is studying participatory culture and the social and new media skills young people need to navigate its fast-changing and interconnected landscape, and teaching them those skills—or what the group calls “new media literacies.” With this goal in mind, NML has been collaborating with classrooms and after school programs and other researchers at Indiana University, Global Kids, Zoey’s Room, Common Sense Media, University of California-Berkeley, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“In relation to collaborations with other departments-programs-research centers at MIT, we’ve worked closely with Wyn Kelley for over a year now on our Teachers’ Strategy Guide: Reading in a Participatory Culture,” said Erin B. Reilly, NML’s Research Director, citing one of the group’s main collaborative projects.

As part of this initiative, NML has developed the first of several planned strategy guides for use in the classroom. The guide, called “Reading in a Participatory Culture,” offers strategies for integrating the tools, approaches, and methods of CMS into the English and Language Arts classroom. It includes a set of lesson plans using Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick as the sample text and a theater adaptation by Ricardo Pitts-Wiley entitled Moby-Dick: Then and Now as an example of a contemporary adaptation.

“Henry Jenkins writes about transmedia migration of stories in his book Convergence Culture, and the novel Moby-Dick is a fantastic example of this phenomenon,” said NML Curriculum Specialist Jenna McWilliams.

“Even though the book is less widely read today than it was twenty or more years ago, everybody knows the basic plot—Captain Ahab heads to sea on a mission of revenge, chasing the white whale that took his leg. We know the story because it has been taken up by mediamakers in a variety of platforms, and not just movie adaptations. We see comic books, music videos distributed through YouTube, fan fiction, and even more subtle allusions to the story or the characters.”

In addition to this project, NML has had “some great partnerships outside of MIT,” Reilly said, two of which are key to NML.

One of them is with Dan Hickey at Indiana University. Hillary Kolos, a first-year graduate student in CMS and a Research Assistant at NML who is working on the project, said her team was working on curricula in several schools and that Hickey was helping it assess how it is working.

The second key outside partnership is with Howard Gardner at Harvard on his GoodPlay Project, which is funded by and part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, and is exploring the ethical contours of young people’s digital lives, said GoodWork Project Research Director Carrie James.

“The collaboration with Harvard works so well because we have such different research cultures,” said Nick Seaver, also a first-year CMS graduate student and a NML Research assistant who has been working on GoodPlay. “NML is able to bring a technological edge to the excellent survey work that GoodPlay does, and our differing cultures really come together in the materials we produce,” he said.

Convergence Culture Consortium logo

Last but not least, the Convergence Culture Consortium [C3], a CMS project that seeks to connect researchers from the CMS program with companies trying to decipher and harness the new business environments and to act as a bridge between academic cutting-edge research and the leaders in the fast-changing new industries, maintains its closest partnership with MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

“Yes, C3 will be collaborating with Sloan students on a management consulting evaluation of C3 as a strategic market research/strategic think tank for the media industries. Sloan students will also have the ability to apply C3 concepts and ideas to a project idea,” said C3 Researcher Manager Daniel Pereira. “Also, C3 will be collaborating in 2009 with the 5D Conference on the Future of Immersive Design. C3 will lead an annual panel over the course of the two-day conference in October 2009 in Long Beach,” he said.

If one had to sum up CMS’ philosophy, it would certainly include the idea that today, technology without collaboration will not lead you very far. This is a point that was made very clear during one of the most recent, popular and adventurous participatory enterprise produced by the Media Lab-C4FCM: its IAP class “Call for Action! Mobile Technologies for Activism (CfA),” which given its subject matter attracted a fair number of CMS students, among a varied audience of students, staff, media professionals and researchers from MIT and other universities, including Harvard.

The four-day intensive class led by Chris Csikszentmihályi and Ph.D. Media Lab student Nadav Aharony examined tools for social change and covered techniques for mobile hacking, and formulated its mission on its website as “to collaboratively create new sociotechnical repertoires for social change and technical activism.”

Kaman, who took the class, commented on the CfA collaborative experience: “Just as the class was wrapping up, Chris C. made a powerful point that clearly extends beyond mobile activism—that successful projects are based on solid strategies, and technologies are just tactics. How true.”

Florence Gallez

About Florence Gallez

Florence Gallez is an independent documentary photojournalist and black-and-white photographer from Brussels, Belgium, currently based in Paris. Gallez received a BA degree in English and Russian from the University of London in 1996, an MSc in journalism from Boston University in 1999, and a digital media-focused MSc in Comparative Media Studies from MIT in 2012. She spent eight years as a Moscow-based journalist covering Russian politics, economics, society, and culture for The Moscow Times, the U.S. publisher Bureau of National Affairs (Bloomberg BNA), and most recently CNN's Moscow Bureau. In December 2017 Gallez published her first photo book, 'Flow and Reflections', a photographic journey through Russia, Cuba, Belgium, and the United States, whose photographs were first presented in her debut exhibition of the same name in Moscow on March 13-15, 2015. As a photographer of social documentaries, she seeks to bring more visibility to people who are in challenging situations and often not cared for by society, especially women and children. In Paris, she is contributing local and international news and social documentaries to the French photo agency Wostok Press. Her other clients include Dodho Magazine and Social Documentary Network. Website Thesis: A Proposal for a Code of Ethics for Collaborative Journalism in the Digital Age: The Open Park Code


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