The Confusion At An Interdisciplinary Crossroads

This is a major source of frustration and anxiety for me, as are all Gordian knots we haven’t unraveled or merely sliced through, but it’s a particularly difficult one because it points to a major social and academic complications that go beyond my personal field of study.

For me, this topic comes out of a simple question: “What do I want to do after The New School?” Question like this have difficult answers, and simple strategies. The answer to “What do I want to do after I get my BA?” was “Study media more, for a lot of very complicated reasons.” The strategy for that was “Go to The New School,” which is a lot simpler than the answer. But without any answer we come up with, our plans make very little sense.

I already know my answer. For me, the real issue of media studies is one of public consciousness and identity, public opinion and social mediation. There is an understanding I’m searching for that deals with the transformations of rhetoric across mediums, especially with the current “revolution” (so to speak) of decentralized, digital networking, DIY culture and democratized media activists. There’s lots of relevant, current examples, and this question of whether or not the public can be self-determining in the public discourse is something that goes back to the arguments of Dewey or Ogden and Richards vs Lippman or Bernays.

The problem then, is not my answer, but the strategy. Because while these are old arguments, there is an increasing interdisciplinary nature to these issues. First, we have media studies, which emerged as an institutional program at The New School in 1975, started

…with the founding of the Center for Understanding Media. Media education pioneer John Culkin sought to create a place that provided “consumer education for the minds and emotions of the audience for all media.” With its history of progressive education, The New School was a logical home for the center. Interest in the field and the center grew, and The New School created the country’s first formally established program in media studies.

Culkin was a buddy of Marshal McLuhan, who popularized media theory in 1964 with his hot/cool, “the medium is the message,” instantly televisible presentation of ideas. The related field of media ecology was institutionalized at NYU by Neil Postman in 1971, but these were both born out of earlier “mass communication” programs and a tradition that goes back to communications researchers and scholars like Walter Lippman, Paul Lazersfeld, John Dewey, etc. These are also semi-relatable (for our purposes) to journalism schools, film programs, and rhetoric studies, which have long, independent histories and traditions.

Rama Hoetzlein's timeline of Media Studies

Now, for the convergence. There has always been a pedagogical rift between theory and practice in any discipline. One goes to film school to become a filmmaker, and to graduate school to become a critic. However, I think there is an increasing drive to marry theory and practice (at least, there certainly is the effort at The New School). We want informed practice and people who have actually done the things they study. So, one does not just learn cinematography – they also study film theory and aesthetics and so on. Journalists still very much learn their non-professional profession as though it were a craft, but ethics, multimodal methods and more specialized knowledge has become increasingly important with the demise of the traditional news industry. Communications studies are usually for people who wanted to be PR people, designers, marketers, practical industry types. But again, as the media landscape changes, it becomes worthwhile to incorporate a broader scope of knowledge.

So when we have intersections of study, we may attempt to qualify everything in the terms of our discipline, or broach those walls in the favor of interdisciplinality. Media studies itself has no such option. As others have pointed out many times over, there is no central media theory. It effectively borrows from anything and everything it can. I took a trip to the Yale bookstore and found most of the authors from my readings under the Literary Criticism section. Media studies can’t qualify things inside the discipline because there isn’t one – it’s an amalgamation of many of the other things I mentioned. But there isn’t just a marriage of theory and practice going on out there: I think there are potential marriages of fields in the pursuit of exploring phenomenon like digital rhetoric, or political communication remediated in virtual environments. When citizen journalism becomes a necessary part of public discourse, academics can engage in action oriented research to effectively marry their scholarly theorizing with legitimate social practice.

So there are a great many possibilities to do further research in this area. We are dealing with a pretty recent phenomenon which has only begun to be studied. It’s already made the potential effects clear in very loud, very global ways – from the Green Revolution of Iran to OWS, I believe new media digital and networked political activism has demonstrated potentially profound impacts on multiple fields and disciplines.

So going back to my question, “What do I want to do after The New School?” I really want to study these. I really want to help create knowledge about it. I really want to develop our understanding as such phenomenon continue to unfold. The problem is, I don’t know with who or where! Someplace scenic would be nice though!

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