The Getting of Wisdom or Orientation MIT Style

Sorry that the blog is getting very little of my attention this week. Yesterday is one of a small handful of days I have missed posting since I launched this blog sixteen months ago. But I have been very much in the business of orienting new students this week. This process takes over my life both at home (I am a housemaster in Senior House, an MIT dorm where we have no frosh and their parents arriving this week) and at the office (I am co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program).

On the home front, Senior House welcomes new students by dropping thousands of bouncy balls from the roof of our building while “Go Ask Alice” blares from the sound system and strobe lights flash in their faces. It can be a vaguely out of body experience but it captures the unexpected quality of life in this dorm. I put a fair amount of time this weekend getting to know some of the new students and more importantly trying to calm down their anxious parents. One of the neighboring dorm has a pair of cutting shears at their front desk where students check in with the note, “use these to cut the cord.” I know how painful it was for us to drive away and leave our son in a strange city for the first time, so I have great sympathy for such parents, but we also stress in our dorm that we as housemasters are not a second set of parents, that students are responsible for making their own decisions, and that most of the policies in the house originate from the community of student residents and are not imposed top down by administrators. One of our primary jobs is to try to insure that students have the space to make their own decisions, including make their own mistakes, within what has historically been a highly libertarian dorm culture.

Today, the new CMS graduate students arrive for a two day orientation process, designed to introduce them to both the academic and research side of the program. Today’s focus is on the academic side. Each of our students is asked to use a medium or media of their choice to prepare a brief introduction of themselves to their fellow classmates. We very much want their first experience in the program to be one which bridges between theory and practices and encourages them to reflect on both the nature of identity (how to express who they are to someone who doesn’t know them) and the nature of medium (how to creatively deploy the affordances of media to express some aspect of themselves). Students come with a wide array of different skills and experiences with media. Past presentations have included comic books, story boards, animated films, remix videos, chalk talks, costumed performances, power point presentations, sound mashups, and everything in between.

Another highlight of today’s events will be our book discussion. Each year, we choose a recent book in the field of media studies (or a sampler of recent articles) which we ask all of the students to read over the summer. The books are selected because they embody key themes or topics which shape our instructional and research efforts for the coming year. The books become a shared reference point for our community — in the weeks leading up to the student’s arrival and in the weeks that follow.

This year, we selected Charles R. Acland (ed.), Residual Media. If you read my work earlier this summer on retrofuturism and Dean Motter, you will know that I have already found this book to be a useful intellectual resource myself. As a program which deals so often in the space of New Media, we felt this book set the right tone for our students. The new focus on Residual Media gives us a more layered and dynamic picture of the process of media change, helping us to focus on the ways that the emergence of new media impacts the entire ecology of existing media technologies and practices. When one medium becomes new, it typically means that another medium becomes… well, old. The writers in this collection draw on a range of different theoretical models for thinking about the concept of residual media and for offering models for understanding the process of media in transition (including McLuhan, Williams, Innis, Benjamin, and others). We like the broadly comparative approach the contributors take — many of them discussing the range of media in place at a particular historical juncture — as well as the mix of very different media discussed across the different contributions. The Comparative Media Studies emphasizes an approach which thinks across media, across historical periods, across disciplines, and across national borders, and we see Acland and his contributors to be very much exploring this same space.

In case you are interested, previous year’s books have included Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media, Hamid Nafficy’s Home, Exile, Homeland, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins’s Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, Marie-Laurie Ryan’s Narrative Across Media:The Languages of Storytelling, and Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Each of these books makes a valuable contribution to the development of comparative perspectives in media studies. Taken as a whole, this list would represent a pretty good starter set of readings in our field.

Tomorrow, we will take our students on a tour of the various CMS research initiatives, before settling down for extended meetings within the research teams.

Orientation isn’t all hard work, though: our students will also enjoy a retro evening at a local 50s themed bowling ally tonight and tomorrow we are getting a tour of Boston’s newly finished Institute for Contemporary Art. I have to race off now to actually attend these sessions but I hope you’ve enjoyed this window into our orientation process. (It’s the only thing I have on my mind this week in any case so I couldn’t think of anything else to write about).

Comments

  1. Scott Ellington says:

    This was a very stimulating post. I found myself vicariously compare-contrasting initiation into Skull and Bones (courtesy of The Good Shepherd), and thinking of entrance into Senior House as a major plotpoint in each personal narrative; contemplating debriefing and the exit interview as splendid inspiration for entrants, whose identification presentation during orientation probably forks between who they’ve been and who the aim to be; the crystal ball of that retro-futurist process really materializes on two Moving Days, when personal infrastructure (residual media…)is re-prioritized while moving in and moving out of Senior House. And the integration of personal narratives into a vaster historical perspective strikes me as downright thrilling.

  2. Assuming you’re willing to share, I’d be curious to hear (and I suspect other readers would be interested to know, too) why you decided to become an MIT housemaster….