A (Distributed) Conversation with Andrew Whitacre
Perhaps the only drawback of the Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Humanistic Studies merger was putting our magazine on hold for a semester…meaning we didn’t get to properly show off our newest faculty members, T.L. Taylor and Heather Hendershot, previously of IT University of Copenhagen and CUNY’s Queens College, respectively. Taylor, as a sociologist with a focus on the Internet and games, will play a key role with the MIT Game Lab. Hendershot, now also directing our graduate program, is well known for her work on conservative media.
Want to add your own questions? Our shared Google Doc is open at cmsw.mit.edu/power-up.
Andrew Whitacre: How did CMS, and MIT generally, come to seem, for both of you, like a good place to do your work?
T.L. Taylor: My research during the last decade has primarily focused on computer games, and in the past couple of years I’ve become more and more interested in folding that work into larger considerations of network culture. For me this is a bit like getting back to my roots by connecting up digital play spaces with broader themes around culture and technology, computation and expressive human action, and networked life. I’ve also become increasingly interested in how as scholars we might engage with visual forms, both in terms of our research practice and in communicating our work out to the public. CMS, and MIT more broadly, offers some great opportunities to connect with students and researchers who are working in a variety of domain areas but who have their eye on this intersection between culture, social practice, and technology. I’m also very excited for the collaboration opportunities with groups nearby like the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research (where I was a visiting researcher in the fall). Finally, there is a really exciting and vibrant game community here made up of terrific researchers and practitioners. Putting all the pieces together, and with an eye on where I’d like to take my work next, joining MIT was a fantastic opportunity.
Heather Hendershot: The critical mass of scholars in CMS interested in the intersections between culture, social practice, and technology is tremendously appealing to me. My own work is largely historical—I’ve been researching conservative and right-wing media for some time, and my current project centers on William F. Buckley, Jr.’s public affairs show, Firing Line, which aired from 1966 to 1999. I say that my work is “largely” historical because media history has a strange way of not staying put and becoming “contemporary” when you least expect it! For example, my most recently published book is on cold-war right-wing broadcasters, and the more work I did on this project the more I began to see parallels between the old anti-civil rights, anti-communist broadcasters and the contemporary crowd on Fox News. Many of the issues are different today, but the one-sided, aggressive rhetoric often sounds quite familiar. When I was interviewing at MIT and presented my research, I was thrilled to see the high level of interest in the historical-but-contemporary kind of work that I do. Further sealing the deal for me was meeting the CMS masters students, a wonderfully perceptive and enthusiastic bunch.
AW: Heather, what do you expect in your role as the grad program director?
HH: As the proverbial new kid on the block, it’s hard to fully predict what my role as graduate program director will bring. I’m excited, of course, about examining the new batch of applicants. Our program is very competitive, with numerous highly qualified candidates vying for a relatively small number of spots. In addition to working with my colleagues to select our new students for next year, I’ll be making sure that our first-year students stay on track with their courses and that our second-years stay on track with their thesis-writing. And, of course, one of the major activities that our graduate students do together is attend our colloquium series on Thursday nights, so I’m involved in that. In addition, this spring I’m teaching our “Media Theories and Methods II” class, which culminates with the production of thesis proposals.
AW: Who would you guys consider your influences, whether purely academic or other people who’ve inspired you in your work?
TLT: The domains I study shift from project to project—for example, from a social virtual world to a massively multiplayer online game to professional e-sports—so I tend to not have fixed easy-to-pin-down influences or theoretical anchors I turn to for all projects. I actually lean on, and am influenced by, different literature depending on the themes that emerge from the field. So, for instance, Stebbin’s work on serious leisure became an useful waypoint for me in my research on competitive gaming, as did a number of pieces from the sociology of sports. Where I’d say I’m more consistently influenced and inspired is via frames to approach research and the methodological implications that follow. For me this means weaving together things like a critical sociology of culture which challenges us to investigate the complex and negotiated engagements people have with media, culture, and institutions, all the while making sure to keep an eye on power; ethnographic traditions that strive for a nuanced understanding of practice and meaning-making from the “inside”; and science and technology work that asks us to really engage with the notion that technologies may be central social actors worth careful consideration.
HH: Charting my own influences is also tricky, insofar as I have often gravitated to research topics about which there is little existing scholarship. That means that rather than looking for scholars who have already written on a certain topic—for example, Betty Boop, Strawberry Shortcake cartoons, direct-to-video Christian apocalyptic sci-fi movies, or Texas-based anti-communist radio broadcasters—I often have to think pretty creatively about what kinds of work will be helpful for my own research endeavors. The sources I drawn on range from archival documents to history books that have nothing directly to do with media. When I read within the field of media studies, I do find work that is directly helpful to me in terms of topic, such as Derek Kompare’s Rerun Nation: How Repeats Invented American Television. On the other hand, one of my favorite TV studies books is Lynn Spigel’s Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. The topic is only tangentially relevant to much of my own research, but Spigel’s book is a strong methodological model; I read Spigel’s book while gearing up to write my dissertation, and I thought “Eureka! This is how to write about TV!” The book is not only a model of good scholarship, but it is clearly and compellingly written. I am increasingly drawn to nonfiction writers who are thoughtful about structure, narrative, and the fine art of sentence construction, such as Annie Dillard and, oddly enough, Norman Mailer.
AW: T.L., what can students look forward to in your qualitative methods class?
TLT: While it will have some higher level conceptual discussions related to doing qualitative social science research, it will mostly be very hands-on and focused on learning various techniques, from interviewing to working with visual material.
AW: And Heather, what’s been your take on MIT students after being here for a semester? Is there something you’d like to develop further in the near future?
HH: My first MIT class—Silent Film—was great fun. I was tremendously impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and sense of intellectual curiosity. Next year I plan to teach a course in film and TV science fiction, and hopefully my course on American independent cinema as well.