Welcome to the 2019/20 academic year at Comparative Media Studies/Writing. Recent months have been filled with wonderful moments as we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Comparative Media Studies program. It’s a program that even before its merger with Writing and Humanistic Studies in 2012 had become an influential collection of scholars and practitioners.1 In part because it was a “program” long before it became a permanent humanities section, it has had a chance to experiment with a model not seen in the humanities at MIT or, really, at other schools. Namely, under early leadership by professors Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio, it went beyond the classroom and created research groups funded by both internal and outside sponsors — foundations, companies, government agencies. That was partly to test and prove the worth of humanities research in having an effect beyond the academy but also partly out of simple necessity. We wanted to cover master’s students’ costs, and you do that by providing them with research assistantships that others value. Over the years that has meant (correctly) anticipating all kinds of new research topics with applications beyond a university campus. Just a sample: experimentation in uses of play, games for education, digital humanities, civic media, V.R. in documentaries, artistic applications of A.I., new approaches to teaching digital literacy, and using MOOCs to train educators.
In the same vein, CMS has pushed the field forward through ambitious things like large conferences (Media in Transition, the Future of News and Civic Media, Futures of Entertainment) and more targeted ventures like our visiting scholars and postdoc programs, which have given space for people to develop their research at the same time they cross-pollinate ideas and approaches with our faculty and graduate students.
None of this is to say its success over the last two decades was predictable, let alone a straight line. The steps taken to ensure the health of the program by merging with WHS is a story told well elsewhere, but the mini-stories in the next piece told by the people who have been here all twenty years is the first time we’ve highlighted the improvisation of the early days. All their stories have in common some version of “I was asked if I was interested, and I said yes, though, honestly, I had no idea how it would turn out.”
But for a minute let’s look at success using data points from Day 1 versus today. It started off as a couple professors carrying over some of Literature’s film and media studies subjects. But twenty years later it has been home to over six hundred people — graduate students, faculty, visiting scholars, administrative staff, and others — and that doesn’t include undergraduates, who have provided incredible energy as majors, UROPs, and contributors to community initiatives like the Media Spectacle, which gave students a chance to screen their own productions. And I mentioned conferences earlier but that’s not to overlook the huge number of other events we have hosted; a recent count put it at over seven hundred. Many of them have been collaborations with other departments and other schools, helping to give more weight to the comparative in our name. Many have been Independent Activities Period offerings, which non-academic staff have often used to share their passions. And a few have been enormous public draws. I’m thinking of when we’ve hosted Neil Gaiman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Of course you can also measure success in terms of funding. MIT as an institution, in particular our school’s dean’s office, has provided key financial support, but let’s look just at external funding for research projects: by a conservative measure, it adds up to over $36 million. Support from the National Science Foundation, MacArthur, Microsoft, and dozens of others has meant not only being able to generate high-impact research but fully fund every graduate student, nearly unheard of for humanities master’s degrees.
About the CMS graduate program specifically, I should acknowledge the outstanding quality of the scholarship produced by its students. I’m sure many of them would agree that the thesis requirement (“a substantial research paper or comparable exercise that satisfies MIT’s scholarly standards and uses methods appropriate to the topic and fields”) feels a bit like a Ph.D. dissertation compressed into two years, but the payoff is really something. Several theses have been expanded into books. Many played a direct role in alums’ landing their first post-graduate jobs. It’s also a testament to the commitment shown by faculty thesis advisors, as well as readers who are often from outside MIT.
Last, I simply want to acknowledge how impressive this past year has been and what an honor it is to begin my term as Head following Professor Ed Schiappa’s six years in this position. I have been part of this place since the early days, connecting with Henry Jenkins during iCampus and Games to Teach, and enjoyed joint faculty appointment for many years. As you will see in these pages, CMS/W as a whole is a thriving community, with undergraduates winning writing prizes, faculty continuing to think through hard questions, and alumni making great leaps in their careers. Let’s keep up the good work.