Professor Jenkins Goes to Hollywood

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.


  1. We’re looking forward to having you here in SoCal! I made the move (from NYC) about 3 years ago. I hope you enjoy it here as much as I am.

  2. Congratulations and regrets, Henry. It sounds like it was a really difficult decision to make, but that you’ve chosen a path that will be good for you.

    Selfishly, I’m pleased to have you on the West coast, as I hope that means we can see one another more often. Escapade? Pacificon?

  3. Congratulations to Henry & USC, condolences to MIT and us east-coasters! I hope those of us on the MIT margins who’ve benefited from CMS associations will find ways to contribute, and continue cross-coastal collaborations.

    And this means that the MIT6 conference has to host a Henry-going-away blowout!


  4. Wow.

    We need to have dinner before you leave.

  5. Andrew Whitacre says:

    You must have 3,000-mile-long coat-tails: a friend of mine just emailed me to say this news makes his own decision to move to L.A. a little easier.

  6. You will be greatly missed.

    On the other hand, you would have been much more missed if you had worked yourself into an early grave.

    May you prosper out west!

  7. see you soon! i’ll try not to come to too many office hours. although it might be strange when i’m used to knocking on your domicile door.

  8. Congrats on the move! What a huge decision, but it sounds like the right one. I hope you enjoy the sunny climes! But meanwhile, enjoy your last winter in the Boston area, for sheer contrast.

    Very best wishes!

  9. Congratulations Henry!!!! Looking for a new academic and maybe personal live is really challenging and exciting. Thanks a lot for so many things at the MIT. People from USC are very lucky

  10. now i have to convince the powers-that-be of the necessity of an mitp west office. congratulations. you will be sorely missed at mit.

  11. Well, those are great news! Henry the entertainment industry really needed to have you closer. And now I’ll just have to go more often to California. And maybe bring one or two brazilian sponsors??? 🙂 Good luck!

  12. Henry, we’ll miss you on this side of the country. But best wishes on the move and life in sunny Cal!

  13. Mark Kelsey says:

    Henry, I’m in shock… You, and CMS, have been a beacon of light around here for so long. Your thoughtful inclusion of academics (such as myself) from that ‘other’ school on the other end of Cambridge, local new media enthusiasts, and K-12 educators has been a great gift to us all. Best of luck in your new ventures.

  14. Enelya Oronar says:

    Wow! What an amazing change and opportunity for you. I have never been so jealous of the West Coast before. I hope USC realizes how incredibly lucky they are to have gotten you and can appreciate that honor. :o)

  15. paoloruffino says:

    WHAT?? I have a train tomorrow for a IELTS test, and I’m making all this for an application to CMS!

  16. I just read this. As happy as I am for you, I’m very sad and disappointed. I was considering the CMS program and was motivated by your work there. I might have to consider moving to the west coast for you now 🙂

    Good luck Henry. I wish I get an opportunity to study under you at some point.