In 1999, I was sitting in a hotel, the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, Canada – contemplating my future. I was working for the Ministry of Advanced Education and was in the Canadian capital for a meeting on educational technology policy. Important as it was, though, the meeting was not the main thing on my mind. My thoughts were focused on my recent acceptance to a new graduate program in media studies – at MIT of all places.
For someone whose undergraduate experience was three decades in his past, this was pretty stunning news. My immediate priority was to phone Janet Murray, whose book Hamlet on the Holodeck had accelerated my interest in learning more about digital media. I had met her the year before at a conference in Banff, and she told me about the new program getting off the ground at MIT: Comparative Media Studies.
Her description of this new program was compelling – studying the development of new media in a context of humanities scholarship. Unfortunately, when I reached Janet on the phone I received some bad news. She would not be at MIT when I arrived in the fall. She had been offered a position at Georgia Tech, and it was too good for her to pass up. I was disappointed, but Janet urged me not to reject MIT. The program was a very good one, she said, adding: “I think you’ll like Henry.”
If the phrase “truer words have never been spoken” ever applied, this was one of those times.
I did like Henry Jenkins, the founder of the program, and I did indeed like the CMS program. In fact, participating in CMS has been the most important and transformative event in my professional life.
Coming to CMS and graduate studies late in my professional career, I was more than a little intimidated by MIT. I screwed up my courage and decided to pursue it. I contacted Henry and said I would like to attend but explained that I only had funding for one year, and could not guarantee that I would be able to come back for a second year. Henry was generous enough to say “let’s give it a try and see what happens after a year.”
When I arrived at MIT, a bit of fear remained, the overall experience exceeded my expectations. The classes were rigorous but absolutely engaging. The instructors were exacting but always supportive. Chatting after one of our class meetings with the CMS-affiliated faculty, Literature Professor Pete Donaldson asked me if all my questions had been answered. “Yes,” I replied, “and all my answers were questioned!”
Despite the emphasis on academic rigor and discourse, there was never any doubt that everyone wanted us to succeed. I also found, somewhat to my surprise, that I thoroughly enjoyed the scholarly readings. The volume was challenging, but the ideas were fascinating. I fell under the spell of the “MIT firehose.”
Ideas were everywhere: from the readings, the lectures, the CMS Colloquium, the Communications Forum, the Media in Transition conference series, and a variety of additional sources. Plus, I had not just CMS but the whole Institute on which to feast: the Media Lab being the foremost – but not the only – added attraction.
Almost every night there was something interesting to see or hear somewhere on campus. The few times there was nothing at MIT, I would make the trip to Harvard. I’m a city guy; I love the action and excitement and Boston is a great city. But I lived in Cambridge for almost two years and never once crossed the Charles River. I never even wanted to.
The Right Place
I did suffer, however, from occasional, and sometimes acute, anxiety. For most of my first term, pleased as I was to be there, part of me wondered whether I could really achieve at this level or not. I had two particularly challenging classes: Jenkins’ CMS graduate seminar and Donaldson’s Technologies of Humanism. I had decent ideas for term papers but hadn’t really tackled serious academic writing in years.
I did some short papers in these classes, but they were nothing like the challenge of a summative term paper. On some of these smaller assignments, I had failed what Jenkins called the “so what?” test – he and Donaldson would both expect our writing to have substantive conclusions pointing to some broader significance.
When classes ended, I barricaded myself in my apartment for ten days – and just wrote, and wrote, and wrote. As I proceeded, I found myself enjoying the work and I also found myself understanding the course readings in a much deeper fashion. In the process, I proved to myself I could construct a good academic argument and that I could meet my professors’ “so what?” test in the process. When I finished the two papers, I finally felt confident that I was in the right place, and I knew that I wanted to continue.
My time at CMS and MIT proceeded well from that point. When I finished my second term, I was determined to return. I worked all summer for a new Canadian educational venture – the Technical University of British Columbia – to afford further residency at MIT and finish my degree. When I returned to MIT for a second year, the experience was as engaging and rewarding as I remembered. MIT was still an intellectual fire hose, but now I knew I had the scholarly chops to drink without drowning. I also relied to the considerable support of the CMS faculty: Jenkins and Donaldson to be sure, but also William Uricchio, David Thorburn, Edward Barrett, Kurt Fendt, and a number of others in the School of Humanities and in the Media Lab.
After I graduated from CMS, the relationship with the Technical University of British Columbia became even stronger. My earlier summer job now led to an offer for a full-time position. I had a bit of a decision to make: my college instructor’s job was enjoyable and secure, a considerable advantage for a fifty five year old armed only with a brand new master’s degree. However, CMS had spoiled me. I loved scholarship and academic writing, so I accepted an assistant professor offer from the Technical University.
Things became complex after that. The Ministry of Advanced Education decided that there wasn’t room for a new specialized institution and incorporated the Technical University programs within a more traditional academic institution, Simon Fraser University.
The Tenure Track
Like any junior professor, I needed to build a research portfolio for my tenure case, and I threw myself into that task. The CMS curriculum had given me a solid background in the theory of digital media, and my thesis was an exercise in the classic humanities methodology of “close-reading.” I was able to use this background and methodology to write a series of conference papers that were gradually converted to journal articles and book chapters.
CMS had also provided me with a network of highly accomplished professional contacts – the many guest lecturers and visiting speakers that came through Cambridge during my time at MIT. I used my conference trips to consolidate and build upon this network, to the benefit of my own understanding and scholarship. I also worked to bring some of these experts to Simon Fraser, which my students and colleagues appreciated. At the same time, I had to look after the other components of faculty work – teaching and grad student mentoring. Once again, my CMS courses provided models for teaching and mentoring as well as the initial raw materials for the reading assignments in my own classes.
In the end, I was successful. At the completion of a three-year limited term contract, I applied for and won a tenure-track position, and after four more years I was granted tenure. So, here I am. I’ve got a good publishing record, I’ve been successful with funding applications, and I’m about to start a new research direction: the aesthetics of stereo 3-D cinema. I’m enjoying my own video art and extending my creative output to include computationally generative video pieces.
Best of all, I am continually rewarded and renewed through the gift of teaching undergraduates and mentoring graduate students. I see this part of my job as a blessing: when you’re sixty five years old, and researching the future of digital media, it’s a very good thing to be surrounded by smart young people who want to discuss and analyze what they experience. Teaching and mentoring becomes a two-way street, and that’s the way it should be.
It has been a long time since I left CMS, and I’ve been busy and active every moment of the journey since I left. You need to do that to succeed in any career. At the same time, though, this is just as true: every day, at every step, I have drawn upon and, in the process, relived my days at CMS.
I renew this connection every chance I can – going back for conferences, tracking the blogs and papers of the CMS researchers, following the podcasts of the CMS Colloquium and Communications Forum. I still ask my MIT mentors for advice, and the same people who helped build my intellectual foundation are generous with their ongoing support, keeping the CMS perspective central to my world-view and my ongoing scholarship and teaching.