MIT Reports to the President 1998-99


Established as a graduate program in 1999—2000, Comparative Media Studies aims to integrate the study of contemporary media (film, television, digital systems) with a broad historical understanding of older forms of human expression. The program embraces theoretical and interpretive principles drawn from the central humanistic disciplines of literary study, history, anthropology, art history and film studies, and aims as well for a comparative synthesis that is responsive to the distinctive emerging media culture of the 21st century. Students in the program are taught to explore the complexity of our media environment by learning to think across media and to see beyond the boundaries imposed by older medium-specific approaches to the study of audio- visual and literary forms.

The comparative and cross-disciplinary nature of both the graduate and undergraduate programs is embodied in a faculty drawn from Art and Architecture, Anthropology, Foreign Languages and Literatures, History, Literature, Music and Theater Arts, Philosophy, Writing and Humanistic Studies, Science Technology and Society, Media Arts and Sciences, Political Science. Approximately 35 faculty members teach subjects in Comparative Media Studies.

The graduate program comprises a two-year course of study leading to a Master of Science degree. The program aims to prepare students for careers in fields such as journalism, teaching and research, government or public service, museum work, information science, corporate consulting, media industry marketing and management, and educational technology.

Professor Henry Jenkins is the Director of Comparative Media Studies. The program is under the auspices of three Humanities sections–Literature, Writing and Humanistic Studies, and Foreign Languages and Literatures. Administratively, CMS is housed in the Literature Section.

The program is governed by a Steering Committee, chaired by Professor Jenkins, which also includes Professor Peter S. Donaldson, Head of Literature; Professor Suzanne Flynn, Head of Foreign Languages and Literatures; Professor James Paradis, Head of Writing and Humanistic Studies; Professor of Literature David Thorburn; Professor of French and Film Studies Edward B. Turk; and Senior Lecturer in Music and Theater Arts Martin Marks.

During its start-up year, Comparative Media Studies had five active committees, besides the steering committee: the Search Committee, chaired by Professor Jenkins; the Curriculum Committee, co-chaired by Professor Thorburn and Senior Lecturer Marks; the Admissions Committee, co-chaired by Professor Jenkins and Senior Lecturer Ed Barrett; the Technology and Space Committee, co-chaired by Professor Donaldson and Professor Shigeru Miyagawa; and the Orientation Committee, chaired by Professor Diana Henderson.

For its first hire, the Dean for Humanities and Social Science authorized a Faculty search on the senior level. All efforts were made to recruit minority and women candidates through targeted advertising. After reviewing over 120 candidates, the CMS Search Committee brought six finalists to MIT to speak to the faculty. The Committee unanimously agreed to offer the position to William Uricchio, who is Professor and Chairperson, film and television studies, new media and digital culture, at the Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands. Uricchio has tentatively accepted a joint appointment in Literature and Foreign Languages and Literatures, and a tenure case is underway.

After considering a number of student applications for the first class of CMS students, the Admissions Committee decided on five students, two of whom are women. All five have accepted.

Four encompassing themes are at the center of the CMS program. These themes cross academic disciplines and involve both traditional and emerging communications media, establishing a focus for public presentations, research agendas, and curricular initiatives. The four primary research themes are: Interactivity/Narrative/Hypertexuality; Childhood and Adolescence in a Mediated Culture; the Informed Citizen and the Culture of Democracy; and Media in Transition.

Professor Jenkins traveled extensively during the year to introduce CMS to key contacts and donors in northern and southern California, the Pacific Northwest, and New York Metropolitan Area. Individual donors have provided gifts to supplement MIT funds that will launch the program as it welcomes its first group of graduate students to campus this September; in addition, Jenkins and faculty have identified several corporations to involve in CMS research and begun conversations to establish projects and educational programs.

The undergraduate program–established in 1982 under its former name, Film & Media Studies–can serve as preparation for advanced study in a range of scholarly and professional disciplines and also for careers in media or industry. The curriculum consists of some forty subjects arranged in three tiers and broadly subdivided into three areas or fields: comparative media, film, and digital studies. Concentrators, minors, joint-majors and majors may specialize in one of these areas or map a coherent combination of subjects across these borders. Current undergraduate student enrollments for the academic years 1999—2002 stand at 7 majors, 17 minors, and 31 concentrators. More information on the undergraduate program can be found on the World Wide Web at

In 1999 the MIT Communications Forum relocated from the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development in the School of Engineering to the School of Humanities and Social Science where it became the conference and outreach component of the CMS program. Directed by Professor Thorburn, the Communications Forum sponsors lectures, panel discussions and conferences on all aspects of communications.

For the past three years, operating under a grant of $550,000 from the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, the Forum has sponsored the Media in Transition project, a series of forums, readings and conferences that have helped to establish the intellectual ground for CMS. Highlights of the past year's activities include an ongoing series of readings by leading science fiction writers who have explored the subject of changing media; a forum about "public intellectuals" featuring Stephen Jay Gould and Professor Alan Lightman; and a national conference on "Wiring the Classroom" at which specialists in computing and education from MIT and elsewhere met with teachers of grades K through 12 to explore computer use in the classroom. When it concludes with a culminating conference in October 1999, the Media in Transition project will have sponsored some 35 separate events, involving nearly 200 scholars, journalists, corporate executives, political figures and writers. A sampling of the material generated by the project is available on a web site that will continue to serve as a "publication" and outreach element for the CMS program. A book series, titled "Media in Transition," drawing on the conferences and forums sponsored by the project, is in preparation. The Media in Transition project has more information on the World Wide Web at

Throughout the year, Comparative Media Studies also hosted a series of brown bag lunches, for faculty to present talks and discuss research interests in an informal setting.

Numerous faculty members affiliated with Comparative Media Studies published books this year. These include: Gary Lee Downey & Joseph Dumit (eds.), Cyborgs & Citadels:Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies, University of Washington Press; Robbie Davis-Floyd & Joseph Dumit (eds.), Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Totss, Routledge; Henry Jenkins and Justine Cassell (eds.), From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, MIT Press; Henry Jenkins (ed.), The Children's Culture Reader, New York University Press; Leslie Perelman, James Paradis, and Edward Barrett, The Mayfield Handbook of Scientific and Technical Writing, Mayfield Pub. Co.; Irving Singer, Reality Transformed: Film as Meaning and Technique, MIT Press; Susan Slyomovics, The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village, University of Pennsylvania Press; Edward Baron Turk, Hollywood Diva: A Biography of Jeanette MacDonald, University of California Press.

On the administrative side, Chris Pomiecko was promoted to Program Administrator, Shari Goldin was promoted to Senior Editorial Assistant, Alexander Chisholm was hired as Communications and Development Officer, and Rachel Adams was hired as Film Office Assistant.

More information on the program is available on the World Wide Web at

Henry Jenkins

MIT Reports to the President 1999-99