With this issue, we welcome our ninth entering class of masters’ students for what promises to be an exciting and productive year. Each summer, we send our graduate students – entering and returning – a book to read and discuss, a book that will open the conversation and generally set the tone for the year to come. In the past, we’ve sent nonfiction books, such as Remediation, Residual Media, Rethinking Media Change, or Convergence Culture.
This year, we surprised some people by sending a novel – Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Díaz has been a long-time supporter of CMS, and we are all justly proud of the extraordinary critical response to the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, but what does this novel have to do with media, some wondered?
Folks recognized the novel is full of nerd-core references to things like anime and comics, which they presume to be the exclusive focus of our attention and interest. But Díaz’s novel isn’t of interest just because it knows what is meaningful to say about Planet of the Apes lunchboxes. Oscar Wao poses questions that are central to the field of media and cultural studies including those surrounding genre, taste and identity; it asks how we construct a sense of ourselves as we move through the worlds of our everyday cultural experience; and it asks questions about what kind of persons Dominican-Americans are allowed to be.
At an even deeper level, assigning this novel is a powerful reminder that books, too, are a form of media, one with a long history that is central to our program. Literature Professor David Thorburn founded the Film and Media Studies Program out of which CMS emerged. His forceful reminder of the importance of older forms of expression has shaped our Major Media Texts class. No other media studies program in the country requires its students to spend as much time engaged in pre-20th century forms of representation – the oral epic, the folk and fairy tale, painting, opera, theater, dance, the novel, other forms of print culture.
And as this issue of the newsletter illustrates, we don’t just pay lip-service to those traditions; they are central to the research being done by our faculty and students.
Start on the cover which depicts graduate alum Sangita Shresthova performing a classical Indian dance in a sequence from her recent documentary Dancing Khatmandu. Shresthova’s film explores dance as a storytelling medium and as a vehicle for globalization, offering a vivid portrait of what it means to dance in Nepal. Alongside Shresthova, we have current graduate student Talieh Rohani, whose most recent film Rebirth was inspired by Iranian poet Forough Frokhzad.
Look elsewhere and you can read about Peter Donaldson’s collaboration with HyperStudio researchers to develop a digital archive of recent Asian adaptations of Shakespeare’s works, or about James Buzard’s work with the same team to develop a resource for researching the serial publication of 19th century British fiction.
Something not in this issue is the fact that the Project NML team spent a good deal of the summer helping to prepare a teacher’s strategy guide about reading in a participatory culture, one which takes Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and a recent stage adaptation, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley’s Moby-Dick: Then and Now as points of inspiration. Here, Literature Professor Wyn Kelly’s detailed consideration of Melville’s sources exists side by side with Henry Jenkins’s considerations of how Moby-Dick has been taken up by recent hip-hop performers and science fiction producers. Look for coverage in our next issue.
The Media in Transition conference, now in its sixth iteration, embodies this idea that old and new media can be studied side by side productively as we seek to understand the processes of media change. The conference, subtitled “stone and papyrus, storage and transmission,” examines how teachers, scholars, artists, librarians, and archivists respond to shifts in the circulation, distribution, and preservation of media content.
Check out our colloquium series, where the print historian Robert Darnton, the puppet artist and historian John Bell, and print journalist Tom Rosenstiel appear alongside computer games programmer Michael Mateas, comics creators Ho Che Anderson and Tak Toyoshima, and MTV’s Rock the Vote producer Ian Rowe, to cite just a few examples.
To be sure, we are also helping to invent media’s future. GAMBIT and The Education Arcade are exploring the outer limits of video games; the Convergence Culture Consortium is exploring how content spreads in the digital environment; and folks in CMS and the Media Lab are collaborating to invent future civic media. This future orientation is part of what makes MIT such a perfect place to do what we do. We are geeks and damn proud of it.
But prick us and do we not bleed – in fact, our hearts throb on books, theater, dance and paintings just as often as we gush about popular culture. Take a look at the profiles of our entering students and you will see a rich mixture of media in their backgrounds and interests. We even have two bookbinders in the same entering class, and many of our graduate students hold undergraduate degrees in literature.
So, start the year with a novel. Of course!