On Monday, I announced to the members of the Comparative Media Studies Community –our graduate and undergraduate students, staff, researchers, faculty, and alums — that I will be leaving MIT at the end of the current academic year to accept a new position at the University of Southern California. I have decided that the phrase “bitter-sweet” is inadequate for such a moment, prefering to adopt the phrase, “Brutal-Sublime” to capture the extreme highs and lows I feel at what is for me a significant transitional moment in my life. This turned out to be one of the most agonizing decisions I’ve ever had to make.
On the one hand, accepting the USC position means leaving a school which has been my intellectual home for almost two decades. MIT was willing to give me my first academic position, just out of graduate school, and it has provided me with an intellectual context for doing my work. It’s a safe bet that none of my digital work would have taken place if I had not landed in Cambridge in time to experience some of the early years of the Media Lab or to live among the ultimate community of early tech adapters or to have a chance to meet with the digerati as they passed through campus. I’ve learned so much from MIT students — those in my classes and those who live in Senior House, the dorm where I have been housemaster for 14 some odd, some very odd years — and from my MIT colleagues. I have taken great pride in making the case for humanists as being every bit as geeky as any other sector of the Institute and I have been inspired by a long history of media research done in various sectors of the Institute. Moreover, I have helped to build something here which I will always cherish — a deeply collaborative and creative community which has been free to explore our current moment of media change from many disciplinary perspectives, which has been committed to the goal of translating our insights as media and cultural scholars into a language which can speak to a larger public and to apply them to the development of projects which have real world implications. Through this program, we have formed a powerful network of alums and affiliates which stretches around the globe and straddles between many different sectors where media change is having an impact. I’ve had the chance to form an intense intellectual partnership with my co-Director William Uricchio which has been the most rewarding collaboration of my life. Collectively, we’ve done paradigm-shifting research and we’ve helped launch many careers. I love CMS.
But I have also struggled with the reality that we do not have the level of faculty commitment from MIT to allow us to sustain this kind of activity long term. Despite a decade of arguments, we still have only two dedicated faculty members on whose back all of the activity you’ve been reading about here has rested. I’m often asked how I manage to do everything I do and now you know the sad answer: I can’t — at least not year after year. Even Green Lantern needs to recharge his ring now and again. When I began this process, I had the body of a 37 year old. I woke up one morning and discovered that aliens has swapped it out for the body of a 50 year old. We had enjoyed dramatic expansion over the past few years, but with it has come dramatic increases in my responsibilities, until I reached a point where it was not humanly possible to continue to work at the pace I have been working.
This summer, I went around the country visiting academic programs, trying to figure out if any of them might represent a different kind of home for me. In the end, I lost my heart to USC.
I was profoundly inspired by Ernest Wilson, the charismatic and visionary new Dean of the Annenberg School. I found that I already had a wide array of friends there who were ready to greet me with open arms. USC offered me a truly interdisciplinary position, one which straddles the Communications and Cinema Schools and which is designed to encourage collaboration and conversation between their diverse faculty. What I discovered is that between the two schools, USC is already doing exciting work along many of the axises which has defined my own research interests — media literacy, civic media, games, creative industries, and fan culture/audience research. Moving there allows me to at last have a chance to work with PhD students. And it’s hard for anyone who works on media to resist the attractions of being so close to the heart of the American entertainment industry.
Once I had a chance to spend time with their faculty, I knew in my heart of hearts that I had found a new home, one which would allow me to explore some new directions in my work and one which would allow me to reclaim aspects of my intellectual interests that had been abandoned during nearly a decade and a half struggle to get CMS launched.
So, what does this mean for CMS? There’s a lot we are still trying to sort through. I will be making further announcements here soon.
We have developed plans for all of the research centers we’ve created — some of them will gradually move towards the west coast with me while others are deeply rooted at MIT and will continue to operate under different leadership. My own deepest commitment right now is to Project NML. I plan to devote more of my time working on the intersections between participatory culture and education.
For the next year or so, I will be in transition, continuing to commute back and forth between LA and Boston to make good on my commitments to our first year students, many of whom came to MIT specifically study under me, and we will be keeping all of the research groups in action next year so as not to compromise the quality of their education.
We are still making decisions about what to do about admissions next year and beyond that, what decisions will be made about the future of the CMS program. If you are interested in the CMS program, you should definitely still apply. There’s some chance we will freeze admissions for next year but also some chance that this is not going to happen. We’ve checked and MIT will refund application fees for anyone who chooses to apply if the program later decides not to accept new students. But you should also keep in mind other alternative programs, including fine programs at Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Queensland University of Technology, and, oh, yes, USC, programs we’ve long considered important sister programs to our own.
I’ve seen some speculations from local folks that this might mean the end of the lecture series which we host: the CMS colloquium series and its podcasts should continue for at least one more year; the MIT Communications Forum is under the leadership of David Thorburn and will not be effected by my absence, though I will obviously not be moderating events anymore.
I wanted to share this news — both the good and the bad — with those of you who are regular readers of this blog. I’ve appreciated your support through the years and look forward to sharing with you the new chapter of my life’s adventures.
Next year, we will celebrate the graduation of the tenth class of Master’s Students from our program. We will have a homecoming celebration, have some laughs, and toast our many successes. What happens after that is any one’s guess.