In medias res

WEEKEND

Hailed as a bastion of the liberal arts, Yale prides itself as a school where you can learn virtually anything within the realm of your imagination. Students boast an overwhelming amount of choice when it comes to the subject matter they pursue: courses are offered in anything from sexuality studies to immunobiology, global health to chemical engineering. But even with 75 available majors, not everyone’s interests make the cut.

Since her senior year of high school, Taja Cheek ’11 had wanted to pursue media studies: an interdisciplinary field that involves the analysis of digital media across literature, film, and even video games. When Cheek arrived at Yale as a freshman, she immediately made an appointment with the director of undergraduate studies for the special divisional major, Yale’s alternative for students who want to pursue a curriculum outside of the College’s existing major programs. Cheek asked Dean Jasmina Besirevic-Regan about creating a major that would embody her interest in digital literature and alternative modes of communication.

“I was basically laughed at,” Cheek said of the meeting. “I think her exact words were, ‘We’re not Brown.’”

Besirevic-Regan said that she does not recall meeting with a student who requested to do a special divisional major in media studies.

Cheek had, in fact, been hoping to recreate Brown University’s Modern Culture and Media program. The major, known by the abbreviation MCM, is a combination of two former branches of study at the school: Semiotics, and Literature and Society. Students in MCM study both theory and production, eventually choosing between tracks in production and critical analysis.

Although demand exists for a Media Studies program at Yale, it remains a question whether it would be true to the University’s character to pursue a nontraditional, modern and pragmatic discipline like the study of digital literature in the modern world. Cheek’s experience highlights a central tension within institutions such as Yale: How many new modes of education can be adopted before they begin to compromise the well-established and fabled learning structures of old?

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In the 1940s, Yale began offering its first courses in film. By then, commercial film and Hollywood had already become a popular topic among everyday consumers and academics alike: It was clear that the analysis of film, similar to the analysis of literature, would eventually become a subject of intellectual discussion — not only at dinner tables, but also inside schools of humanities and arts. It was not until 1987, however, that Yale approved Film Studies as an official major within the College.

“The general feeling was that the faculty as a whole did not regard film studies as a proper academic discipline at the time,” said Aaron Gerow, the major’s current director of undergraduate studies.

Gerow noted that while Yale now stands as a leader in the study of film, the school was “late” entering the race. While other institutions had been readily adapting their curricula to fit the mould of new media and the digital age, Yale was still clinging desperately to the past.

Among faculty interested in advancing media studies, there is a consensus that the larger Yale community is either unprepared for or resistant to adding the discipline to its academic canon.

“There isn’t a lot of momentum as far as I can see,” English professor Jessica Pressman said. “In terms of the digital realm, Yale has to do a lot more.”

Pressman is the coordinator of an on-campus faculty and graduate student reading group called the Media Studies Collective. Comprised of 15 to 20 regular members, the group meets monthly to discuss published works on the subject of media studies. Last year, members of the group hailing from different academic departments presented panels discussing media studies through the lens of their respective disciplines, which ranged from English literature to American studies.

Although the reading group gives students an opportunity to read and discuss works that they wouldn’t normally encounter in their classes, it is not very accessible to undergraduates. Without public announcements about meetings, most undergraduates interviewed who are interested in media studies did not know of the group’s existence, and the few that have attended meetings were referred by Pressman.

Samuel Huber ’13, who has taken three media studies-related courses, expressed frustration over the lack of coherence within the field’s offerings at Yale. As an undergraduate, he said that he has often felt lost in finding a path that would match with his interest in the field. Although he is now a committed English major, he said he wishes there were more avenues available for students wanting to take a serious approach toward the emerging discipline.

“We all had these frustrations about not knowing how to do it and not knowing how to fulfill this interest at Yale — which is ridiculous, because there are over 2000 courses at Yale, and this isn’t some obscure field,” said Huber.

Huber noted that while his experiences with media studies courses have been generally positive, it is disappointing that there are no courses available for students with more advanced knowledge on the subject.

“Anytime a professor enters a media studies class, s/he has to assume that it is the first such class the student is taking,” Huber explained. “You end up doing a lot of the same initial theoretical leg work, reading the same background material over and over again to get people on the same page.”

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As is common with new curricula, media studies is both widely recognized as valuable but also undervalued because of its lack of definition. The term “media studies” is both broad and vague, but it is more than just that: as Film Studies Department Chair John MacKay GRD ’98 said, “It’s a term that, when you start looking at it, agglomerates layers and layers of history.”

Around the world, the field known as media studies is regarded as highly interdisciplinary, drawing from across the spectrum of the social sciences and humanities. Gerow, whose research centers around media culture in Japan, said academics in Japan regard media studies as crucial to understanding their modern literary and artistic landscape. In Germany, media theory has become one of the most popular academic avenues for university students who aspire to careers in journalism or television. Within different institutions — let alone across different countries — perceptions of what subjects encompass media studies vary widely.

At Yale, the lack of an established definition has translated into a lack of coherence in the approach taken towards media studies across different departments. While some departments offer media studies-related concentrations and majors, these programs, taken together, are still not an official media studies major. For example, Cheek ultimately found her niche within the Program of American Studies, which offers a concentration in “visual, audio, literary, and performance cultures.” There is also a Computing and the Arts major which combines the practical skills of computer science with the theoretical background of the humanities.

Apart from both of these, of course, remains Yale’s nearly 25-year old Film Studies Department.

“If you just rotate the issue a little bit, you can say that the whole Film Studies Department has been doing this the whole time, just in different terms,” said Jesse Ramirez GRD ’13, who is currently teaching the residential college seminar “Technocultures.”

But is it truly the same thing?

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Beyond the structuring of a potential media studies program, there is the larger dilemma of the place that technology holds inside the classroom. This debate is particularly relevant at Yale, where much of the educational curriculum is based on the traditions of the past. New teaching methods are viewed with abject rejection at worst and skepticism at best. Even as the topic of digital media becomes more and more relevant, the issue remains hard to broach with those who think that technology is a threat to Yale’s educational foundation.

“This is the new elephant in the room: if you’re studying humanities at a high level, then you need to consider digital media,” Pressman said. “But everyone is afraid to talk about digital media.”

Last spring, Ramirez attended a conference in Seattle, Wash. organized by the Modern Language Association. It was one of his first experiences with media studies outside Yale, and he said that it opened his eyes to whole groups of people who were not only intensely interested in the subject, but also passionate about bringing digital material into the classroom.

Ramirez said that he felt out of place at the annual conference, where people were encouraged to speak candidly about how to integrate technology into the mold of everyday life. One segment that Ramirez found particularly interesting was the panel on video games. He said he was struck by the degree of interest that people demonstrated toward the topic. It was then that he realized that Yale’s general dismissal of new media is incongruous with the growing interest among other educators, he recalled.

“I will venture a guess that when I teach ‘Call of Duty’ in my seminar, it will be the first time that a video game has ever been taught and critically analyzed at Yale,” Ramirez said.

Film Studies Chair MacKay reiterated that there exists a divide between those who adhere to old practices and those who advocate for the new. As an example, he outlined the debate over whether laptops should be allowed in classrooms. While some instructors regard them as valuable learning tools, others refuse to see them in any light beyond their power to distract.

“The proliferation of screens,” MacKay said, should be a central concern for educators today. Yet many choose to ignore their presence, as if in the hopes that doing so might diminish their existence, MacKay noted. This choice to ignore how media has affected academia means disregarding the context within which most respected modern works are created.

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The Digital Media Center for the Arts at Yale is hidden within a grey facade of tinted windows and looming concrete awnings. With all the blinds shut and a nondescript inscription at the front door proclaiming “149 York,” the center hardly possesses the appearance of a place that inspires creation. And yet, it is just that. The former home base of YouTube celebrities Sam Tsui ’11 and Kurt Schneider ’10 and the current launching pad of 17O1 Records, the DMCA has provided equipment and guidance for a variety of digital productions across campus. But like most sought-after resources, its services are only accessible to a select few.

While most buildings on campus are open to everyone during the day, the door of the DMCA is locked at all times, restricted to those with card access. The center houses everything from digital video cameras to lighting kits and video game consoles. The silent film portion of the annual Yale Symphony Orchestra Halloween Show, for instance, is created almost exclusively with equipment loaned from the DMCA.

The center’s services are available to undergraduate students in the Art, Theater Studies, Music and Architecture majors, or to students enrolled in courses within any of the respective departments. Its services are also available to students of any of Yale’s professional art schools, such as the School of Drama.

Since the onslaught of economic downturn, the DMCA has been understaffed and less funding has been available for the purchase of new technologies. Due to budget constraints, the center was unable to hire a new director after the retirement of the former one. The DMCA’s three remaining staff members now shoulder the responsibility of catering to 1,200 students over the course of a semester as well as managing regular administrative duties.

“Sometimes the goals of students are too lofty for us to support,” Anna Loar, a technical specialist at the DMCA.

Lee Faulkner, one of the DMCA’s two associate directors, agreed that because the demand for the center is entirely dependent on its ability to provide hands-on technology, budget cuts put it at risk of becoming an ineffective resource for students.

At the heart of the center’s difficulties is the University’s struggle with reconciling its liberal arts mission with the need for more development in digital media production, which hinges on practical, vocational training.

“It’s a schism, really, between the theory and practice of media,” Faulkner said. “It’s a shame because it’s so needless; it defies understanding how you could be an effective member of either field without having basic knowledge of both.”

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“I can’t see Yale becoming Brown or MIT,” Pressman said of her vision for Yale’s media studies environment.

But what does it mean to Brown or MIT, and what does it mean to be Yale?

The media studies experience at Brown has been immortalized in Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides’ newest novel, “The Marriage Plot.” Himself a graduate of Brown’s semiotics program, Eugenides’ book tells the love story of three students at Brown, one of whom is studying semiotics within the English department — at the time in which the book is set, semiotics had yet to be combined with literature to create Modern Culture and Media.

According to Lynne Joyrich, a professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown, the school’s transition from semiotics and literature to media studies was smooth.

“At the beginning, there was more excitement than there were problems,” Joyrich recalled. “Our program is defined by its combination of creative thinking and culture, so I think we fit very well with other aspects of Brown.”

If Yale were to create an official media studies program, it would probably be more similar to the major at the University of California, Berkeley. At Berkeley, the Media Studies major has been established since the late 1970s and is now among the college’s top 12 most popular majors, with an enrollment of 400 students despite its having a minimum GPA requirement. But when it comes to resource allocation, the university’s supply doesn’t match the major’s demand, according to Berkeley’s Media Studies Program Director Tom Goldstein ’67.

“Resources have not been forthcoming because the people who allocate resources decide that they should be given elsewhere,” Goldstein said.

Even at a school where the department has existed for decades, it can be difficult to compete with more universally-accepted fields. A successful media studies department at Yale would have to prove its mettle within an already skeptical environment.

“Since we’re just throwing our hat into the media studies ring at this point, what can Yale provide that other schools cannot?” asked Matthew Rager GRD ’16, one of the primary organizers of the Yale Media Theory and History Graduate Conference.

Rager suggests that the University’s long and rich history could be its selling point. Whereas other schools may focus more on the practical applications of media, Yale could contribute a critical perspective toward the subject. “What we want to emphasize at Yale is the historical element of it: even though it’s a new discipline, it is also a mode of study that has historic roots,” he said.

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Currently, the state of media studies at Yale has reached an impasse. With neither enough faculty interest nor energy to develop a major, for now, undergraduate students interested in pursuing the field must settle for the myriad opportunities scattered across departments.

Ironically, while most of the media studies resources at Yale are available only to graduate students, it is the undergraduates, by virtue of the nature of their generation, who are most interested in exploring the new academic discipline. Ramirez received 120 applications for his “Technocultures” seminar, a class that was capped to foster more engaged discussion. Although the class has only met three times this semester, the in-class debates have already gotten rather heated, Ramirez said. The more he listened to students’ opinions on the subject of new media and technology, the more he felt that it was a conversation that needed to be had.

Two graduate students interviewed said that they had heard talk of a push to create a department or major for media studies, but these rumors were quickly dispelled by two professors spearheading Yale’s Media Theory and History faculty working group.

“I don’t foresee the creation of a media studies major or department, because I haven’t experienced a whole lot of support,” Pressman said. “Yale, for good reason, is about tradition.”

Professor Francesco Casetti of the Film Studies and Humanities departments was adamant that he has no plans for a more concrete media studies program. “What I want to focus on is a broad and organic point of view — no more than that,” he said.

Before Casetti arrived at Yale in 2010, he served as an editor and board member of several digital communications organizations at Italian universities. He has done extensive work to raise public awareness of media studies. Soft-spoken and quietly brilliant, Casetti rejects all speculation surrounding his plans for the subject at Yale.

“I want to be very clear on this point,” he insisted. “I do not want a department of media and I do not want a major in media. We have to expand our current vision, not create something entirely new.”

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Last year, MacKay led a group of faculty that successfully petitioned for a media studies section in the Yale College Programs of Study. In the physical Bluebook this year, you can find “Media Theory and History” sandwiched between Mechanical Engineering and Middle East Studies. It’s a triumph for undergraduates forging their own path toward an undefinable, undervalued field — a small luxury that students like Cheek had not known.

Current junior Samuel Huber hopes that undergraduate students serious about media studies will eventually create a collective of their own, uniting under their interest in a field growing in prominence.

“It would be nice for people to come together and develop a sense of shared intellectual enterprise that is usually provided by a major or department,” Huber said.

In “Technocultures,” Ramirez shows a PBS documentary called “Growing Up Online.” The program presents the Internet not as a separate realm but as a continuation of our reality. Digital media is so woven into the fabric of our lives that to ignore it would be to deny one facet of the whole. Like media studies’ divergent definitions, current students are of the generation that embraces multi-tasking not out of necessity but as a rebellion against order.

MacKay questions whether the debate over definition should ever be resolved: “Doesn’t it make sense to be loose and decentralized? In one way, the vagueness is disturbing — but in another way, it’s exhilarating. Media studies is not something you want to lasso.”

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