Looking Back: The Re:Constructions Project

In the fall of 2001, my graduate media theory seminar at MIT met every Tuesday and Thursday at noon. Classes had started a week before 9/11. The opening discussion focused on Thomas McLaughlin's concept of vernacular theory. I had emphasized that all kinds of groups for all kinds of reasons both produce and consume media theory, although they do so with different languages and with different institutional norms. From here, we had discussed the ways academic theorists might more fully engage with other producers and consumers of theory and how this would require a shift in rhetoric. We talked a lot about the concept of applied humanism, which is one of the cornerstones of the comparative media studies approach--the idea that insights from the humanities and social sciences need to be applied and tested at actual sites of media change. MIT has applied physics, applied math. It was time it had applied humanism. We challenged our students to do projects that had real-world impact and that confronted pragmatic challenges. I had to go almost immediately from hearing the news of the tragedy on 9/11 to conducting a seminar. As I walked toward the classroom, I passed graduate students huddled around radios or reading information off the Internet, many of them openly weeping. Afterward, everyone focused on New York City, but at that moment Boston was profoundly affected because the airplanes that had crashed into the towers had departed from Boston's Logan Airport. No one felt like class, yet nobody wanted to be alone. Since I live on campus, I phoned my wife to tell her I was bringing the class home to watch news reports.

Most of the students came with me. Some made calls on their cell phones to friends and family members; others channel zapped before focusing on BBC America, which MIT Cable had just added a few days before; and some used wireless laptops to glean information from the Web.

The students gathered in my living room hardly knew each other. Most had arrived on campus a week or so before. This was the most heavily international cohort we had attracted since MIT's Comparative Media Studies (CMS) Program had been launched three years earlier. The students were acutely aware of the tragedy's international dimensions and frustrated by how intensely nationalistic much of the coverage was.

Over the next several days, e-mails flew fast and furious on the departmental discussion list. When the class gathered again on Thursday, the students demanded to know what role theory might play now and wondered whether there was any way they as students at the beginning of their professional training could make a difference. We talked a lot about ways the program might respond and about some of the statements issued by public intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and Edward Said. Many students found these statements unsatisfactory in their abstract tone and their "told you so" attitude. A meaningful theoretical response needed to be humane, to acknowledge the author's own emotional experiences, and to respect the reality of several thousand deaths. Political analysis might come later, although the Bush administration was already cutting short the mourning process and preparing us for military action.

We called a "town meeting" of all our faculty and students. Several ideas surfaced, the most compelling being to produce a Web site that would provide resources for people who wanted to lead discussions about the media coverage. Although the Web project, operating under the title re:constructions, would involve faculty, students, and staff, it was voluntary, outside formal class requirements.

Many of us--faculty and students--gathered the following day in an MIT classroom, where we outlined topics we wanted to cover and divided up the tasks. All the blackboards were covered with chalk and post-its by the end of the discussion. William Uricchio, then CMS's associate director (now my Co-Director), recalls:

What impressed me about the experience was that fellow faculty and students were bound together in a shared project far different than the classroom. In the classroom, we approach one another from different sides, with different agendas. In the case of re:constructions, we worked side by side, exchanging insight and expertise without ever sliding into the collaborative opposition that typifies the classroom. That this happened so early in the semester made for an excellent set of working relations for the rest of the year.

Some of the students formed teams to videotape events on campus and elsewhere, the more experienced students teaching novices how to use the equipment. Other students began scanning media coverage in their home countries or reaching out to friends and family members around the world. Our goal was to provide summaries and links to media coverage in as many countries as possible. We contacted additional faculty members and urged them to write short essays modeled after Raymond Williams's Keywords to explain the historical contexts behind some of the language being used to describe what had happened. Others read essays about news and propaganda, developing questions teachers could use to generate discussions. Students circulated drafts of their essays electronically, giving each other advice and feedback.

The work went on all weekend, with students coming in and out of our offices at all hours, day and night. One student, Philip Tan, did all the coding for the site himself, working eighteen-hour shifts, pasting in text as quickly as the other team members generated it. Alex Chisholm, a member of our staff, proofed everything as it passed across the mailing list. Sometimes, students and faculty would huddle for quick discussions about core theoretical concepts. Sometimes, faculty sent e-mails with advice. A few faculty expressed reservations, concerned that a programmatic response might be inappropriate or ill timed. Each of these exchanges produced animated conversation about what we were doing and why.

Often, we had to make quick decisions about how to deal with evolving controversies. For example, many different people sent us reports that CNN had recycled footage from the earlier Gulf War to give the impression that Palestinians were celebrating the attacks. We also received a detailed rebuttal of these charges allegedly issued by CNN insisting that the Palestinians were chanting Bin Laden's name and that he had not been a figure in the previous conflict. We were left uncertain which was more likely--that conspiracy theories with little foundation might quickly circulate on the Internet or that a major news organization might lie about its own production processes in order to manufacture consent. All of this gave us a greater appreciation of the decisions practicing journalists made as they generated the news coverage our site was critiquing.

As we read earlier attempts to theorize catastrophe, some rang remarkably hollow, preoccupied as they were with describing and critiquing discursive practices that they lost sight of the human costs. In other cases, theory proved enormously comforting, much as my colleagues in the arts and humanities took comfort in poetry or music.

Some of the most interesting discussions centered on the design of the site itself. Candis Callison, a second-year student, was the primary designer. She has written this description of her process:

Quite honestly, my original instinct . . . was to stay away from images entirely, fearing their power to repel, and mesmerize. But after receiving an e-mail from one of my classmates requesting the use of photos, I realized I was probably alone and quite likely misguided. Against my own desires, I plunged into the photo archives of Time, CNN, and others. This was a task I dreaded. The devastating impact of watching these acts of terror live on television or on video is one thing. Seeing these acts suspended through the lens of a still camera is another. Still photography often provides more detail, and more time for the enormity of the recorded events to sink in and stay awhile. I chose photos representative of what I had seen most often on television, thinking rightly or wrongly that if people had to see these photos, they might as well see those they most associated with September 11. From these photos, I created the first iteration of a collage for the front page of our Web site. I purposely blurred them and removed the color, trying somehow to dim the impact of the horror they represent. The response from our CMS team was overwhelmingly against this collage. Why? In a nutshell: too stark, too shocking, and not the right tone. What we were going for was reflection, compassion, and something different than what was available anywhere else. . . . I skimmed through images shot by my fellow classmates of MIT's Killian Court memorial gathering, the dedication of MIT's Reflecting Wall, and other gathering areas within MIT. What I found were compelling images of grief, compassion, and gestures that grasp at that understanding and hope in humanity we all so desperately desire.

We preserved both collages on the site to provoke discussions about the ethical implications of digital design.

By Monday morning, the site, http://web.mit.edu/cms/reconstructions, had launched with more than one hundred essays, including summaries of media coverage in some twenty countries or regions. Many of the students and some of the faculty found they were unable to complete projects they had started, but the efforts had drawn the community together, and the process of producing the site had enormous educational payoffs for everyone involved. Our introduction offered this rationale:

As millions of people around the world sit glued to their television sets, even as we write, we feel it is important to encourage critical analysis of the words, images, and stories which fill the media--as well as the ones we are not hearing or seeing. We hope this site will be used to help inform discussions in schools, places of worship, union halls, civic gatherings, and homes as people struggle to make sense of what is happening and to sort through their competing emotions about these events. We are not offering answers here so much as encouraging people to ask hard questions before they rush to judgment and action. We do not present these essays as the work of experts--although in some cases we have included pieces from important commentators, past and present. Most of us are still learning how to think critically and theoretically about the media ourselves. All of us are too torn apart by these events to have any certainty about the adequacy of our words and our knowledge to respond to such a situation. But we want to share what we know and what we think and what we feel. We want to see if these ideas might be useful in helping someone else begin a similar process of exploration and examination.

The MIT home page saluted our efforts, remodeling its logo to reflect elements from Callison's design. Within two days, word of the site had spread outward to major mailing lists for educators in the United States and elsewhere and Yahoo had chosen re:constructions as its site of the day. We continue to receive regular mail from teachers using the site.

Scholars and students elsewhere responded to the site's provocation to "let's think this through together" and contributed their own essays. One of the most compelling responses was a thesis project produced by a Massachusetts College of Art master's student, Kate Brigham, who developed a digital tool that allowed users to redesign the screens from a television newscast, the front page of a newspaper, and the layout of a news-magazine story on the events, enabling students to explore the ideological consequences of the different graphic choices that the news media had made.

Re:constructions has been referenced again and again across a range of classes and research activities. We put our ideals to a test and proved to ourselves that it was possible, at least for short bursts of time, to move theory out of the academy and into a larger public dialogue.

This article was written in 2003 and appeared in a 2004 issue of Cinema Journalfocused on academic responses to 9/11. We still receive a limited number of requests to reproduce some of the essays written during this intense period of activity. I am posting it here today so that we will never forget -- not only what happened on 9/11 but the many different ways we, as a society, could have processed and reacted to these events.