Greetings as we enter the 2017-2018 academic year with some great news around the growth and vibrancy of Comparative Media Studies/Writing: we have welcomed three new faculty members into the fold, bringing a new breadth of research and educational opportunities at graduate and undergraduate levels. You’ll learn more about them on the next pages, but a brief introduction is in order here.
Professor Lisa Parks has joined us by way of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is best known for her work on media infrastructure, notably in the context of satellites and surveillance. We’re pleased to have her teaching two core CMS subjects this fall—CMS.701 “Current Debates in Media” and CMS.796 “Major Media Texts.” Assistant Professor Justin Reich and Professor Eric Klopfer both join us after time formally based in another MIT unit but with deep intellectual and professional ties to CMS/W through their work in education. Klopfer, in fact, has been a principal investigator in our Education Arcade research group since its inception in 2003 and a long-time teacher of subjects cross-listed with CMS and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, such as “Design and Development of Games for Learning.” Reich meanwhile is the first in CMS/W to incorporate research into massive open online courses; over the years, our faculty and researchers have taught MOOCs and contributed over a 140 subjects’ worth of materials to MIT OpenCourseWare, but Reich looks at large-scale learning systems rather than just online education content. Or as Reich himself puts it, he “looks at the future of learning in a networked world.”
Speaking of firsts, this past year we became the first academic unit at MIT to offer a for-credit class on virtual reality, “Hacking VR: Exploring Oculus and Immersive Media Production,” taught by Professor William Uricchio and visiting scholar Sandra Rodriguez. Uricchio will often describe himself as a history scholar; that’s true but perhaps undersells the impact his work with Sarah Wolozin and the Open Documentary Lab has had on using the history of media change to separate the brilliance of some VR projects from the hype of others.
Becoming a home for faculty VR research has inevitably supported breakthrough work by students. Ainsley Sutherland, ’15, wrote her thesis on how VR can (or fails to) evoke empathy, and filmmaker Deniz Tortum, ’16, an interview with whom you’ll see in this issue, explored the advantages of getting past VR as simply a way to reproduce reality—instead, the materiality of VR provides filmmakers with all sorts of new creative opportunities. (Uricchio was Tortum’s thesis advisor; Sutherland’s advisor was Professor Fox Harrell, whose VR project with Karim Ben-Khelifa, “The Enemy,” was the cover story in the last issue of In Medias Res.)
It’s worth mentioning too that our VR work builds in part on the augmented reality work produced by CMS students more than a decade ago, when computing power couldn’t yet generate today’s immersive experiences. You’ll have a chance to learn more about that history on November 16 at 5pm, just after our graduate program information session, when we host our annual alumni panel: one panelist this year is Dr. Karen Schrier, ’05, who at MIT studied how augmented reality could be incorporated into history education and has taken that work into her career as an associate professor in games and interactive media at Marist College.
Elsewhere in this year’s magazine, you’ll find recent writing from Professor Harrell, who with recent MIT computer science Ph.D. graduate Chong-U Lim published “Reimagining the Avatar Dream.” They propose a theoretical framework for artificial intelligence to help game designers overcome the biases embedded in how their games generate virtual identities.
Of course biases don’t just exist in virtual worlds. In other new research, lecturer Andrea Wirth worked with MIT colleagues this year to study how the Department of Mechanical Engineering was so successful in achieving gender parity amongst majors. (For context: 13.2% of all U.S. mechanical engineering bachelor degrees went to women, while MIT’s number was 49.5%.) Their big lesson? Prove to female undergraduates that there’s a career waiting for them in mechanical engineering, and do that by foregrounding MIT’s own MechE women. Like most good research, they discovered something counter-intuitive: would-be female mechanical engineering majors at MIT largely aren’t looking for role models to guide them into the major—instead, they simply want to see the “existence proof” that women get jobs in the field and that their studies won’t be for naught.
Meanwhile, you’ll see in this issue that MIT undergraduates keep writing incredible fiction and nonfiction; our research groups, faculty, students, and alums keep racking up achievements, including a “Jeopardy!” college tournament championship by CMS minor Lilly Chin; and CMS/W keeps hosting incredible speakers and other public events.
We should highlight one event in particular: This year’s Julius Schwartz Lecture features comics writer and five-time Eisner Award winner Brian Michael Bendis. Previous Schwartz Lecture honorees include major fantasy/sci-fi figures Neil Gaiman and J. Michael Straczynski. That’s on November 9 at 5:30pm. Don’t miss it!
Last, we want to thank those of you who have already donated to MIT’s Campaign for a Better World, which just announced it has raised $589 million in new gifts and pledges in just the past year. Consider supporting our research labs and student fellowships by visiting cmsw.mit.edu/giving.