In Medias Res, Spring 2013

Jim Paradis

Jim Paradis

Welcome to the latest transformation of a unit focused on understanding and leading media change! As of July 1st just past, CMS is, in administrative terms, a section of the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Committee meetings will continue, but the key elements are in place. While this may not seem like a big deal, the new status brings with it a number of structural advantages over CMS’s thirteen years as a sub-program: the ability to appoint faculty, to have a formal voice in the School’s affairs, to have a realistic budget…all long-standing goals of CMS faculty.

To make this happen, CMS has joined forces with the Writing and Humanistic Studies program in a new organizational form, not only to combine their respective approaches to the study and production of media but also to seek new ways of combining media research and creative production. This merger will make far better use of the many synergies long in place between the two groups. Most WHS faculty were already affiliated with CMS faculty; recent CMS hires were administratively channeled through WHS; and the undergraduate CMS program cross-listed numerous WHS courses. The new unit will have two media-centered masters programs (CMS and Science Writing) and two of the largest undergraduate majors in the School (CMS and Writing). It will continue to have a robust research footprint, as well as a sub-unit with a communication education function at the Institute.

“The new status brings with it a number of structural advantages over CMS’s thirteen years as a sub-program: the ability to appoint faculty, to have a formal voice in the School’s affairs, to have a realistic budget…all long-standing goals of CMS faculty.”

Like any start-up that makes the transition to “the next stage,” we face new potential challenges aplenty. Our biggest challenge will be keeping what CMS founder Henry Jenkins liked to call the program’s “undisciplined” (or what others might call “radically interdisciplinary”) character intact now that we are an MIT unit like any other. Hard-baking CMS into a fixed set of methods or reifying it with a canonical approach to the field risk undermining the imaginative dynamic that made the program so innovative. Fortunately, WHS shares this undisciplined character, and together we have an excellent shot at keeping one another on a defining edge. We face another important challenge with our faculty membership. The old CMS, lacking its own faculty, pulled in affiliated faculty members from across the School (and even the Institute). Now that we have our “own” core faculty, we need to guard against administrative or perceptual barriers to participation in the CMS project. In this, we have been greatly helped by our school’s dean, Deborah Fitzgerald, and her commitment to promoting collaborative joint-appointments, which will allow many long-term collaborators formal membership both in the CMS section and in their original sections. As we broaden the pool of joint appointments, we look forward to maintaining the pluralism and diversity of perspectives that made CMS possible. Space will also bring its share of joys, since our current operations are centered both in buildings E15 (the Media Lab) and 14 (the Library), with research labs and service operations spread across another handful of locations. Time, as always, will help to get space into order.

A few of the more immediate changes that we can look forward to are, of course, our class of 2014. Amazing students as always, following higher application rates than ever! And the fruits of last spring’s faculty searches are ours at last, as Heather Hendershot, T.L. Taylor, and Seth Mnookin joined us. Long-time CMS friend Nancy Baym joined us as Visiting Professor, as has Ed Schiappa, Chair of the Communication Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

On the research front, the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab wound down its 6-year relationship with Singapore and is re-booting as the MIT Game Lab. GAMBIT had a terrific run with its integrated approach to research, prototyping, and teaching, something recognized by the Princeton Review, which ranked MIT’s undergraduate games program #2 in North America last year. Kudos to Philip Tan and Team GAMBIT and our other talented games-savvy faculty, like T.L., Nick Montfort, and Fox Harrell. The ’12-’13 year has brought no small dose of excitement as the Lab carves a new path into the future. And the Open Documentary Lab, launched late last spring, has quickly gained momentum. Folks from Sundance, Tribeca, the National Film Board of Canada, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, and more have been streaming through. The CMS Visiting Scholar program is in full swing, with a dozen participants—media faculty from across the globe— in our midst this year, along with some talented Mellon post-docs Hye Jean Chung, Gretchen Henderson, and Marcella Szablewicz. Finally, one of the two CMS directors, the one who has traveled the longest road on this project, is on leave this year (William). This leaves the other as Head with the sporting task of running the new Comparative Media Studies section, with some muchneeded support from Nick as Associate Head, and a lot of other very capable folks. This year is a full one!

Jim Paradis

About James Paradis

James Paradis is the Robert M. Metcalfe Professor of Writing and Comparative Media Studies. He works on problems of the mutually-influential rise of professionalism and vernacular culture, the public reception of science, and the way in which fields of expertise are represented in popular media. His methods are comparative, and draw on cultural studies, biographical approaches, intellectual history, and the history of rhetoric to study science popularization, science fiction, science education, two-cultures controversies, science as entertainment, and vernacular science. These interests are highlighted in his various books, articles, and edited collections, including T. H. Huxley: Man's Place in Nature (Nebraska 1978); Victorian Science and Victorian Values (with T. Postlewait, Rutgers 1984); Evolution and Ethics (with G. Williams, Princeton 1989); Textual Dynamics of the Professions (with C. Bazerman, Wisconsin 1991); and Samuel Butler: Victorian against the Grain (Toronto 2007).


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