The History of Media Studies at Vassar College

by Sarah Leung (Class of 2012), and Eva Woods, Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies, William Hoynes, Professor of Sociology, Michael Joyce, Professor of English and M. Mark, Adjunct Associate Professor of English
November 2011
Program Website

At the dawn of the 21st century, we live in a society increasingly saturated by media and arguably, formed and defined by them. For most, print, photography, television, radio, film, and music have long been central to everyday life. At the same time, the growth of new technologies is altering the very meaning of mass media in a way that makes that term inadequate to describe the complex interrelationships among existing media and emerging "new media." The digitization of information and the continuing expansion of the Internet are transforming the media landscape––a landscape that we have a tendency to take for granted. New forms of networked media have sparked fundamental cultural and social transformations, occupying a prominent role in our political arena, in the constitution of our sense of community, in the growing globalization of culture and the economy, and in the daily lives of our students.

An enthusiasm about media has very deep roots at Vassar. Looking back, there were early expressions of interest by such innovators as Helen D. Lockwood '12, professor of English and founder of Vassar's American Culture Program. She taught at Vassar from 1927-1956 and created a Contemporary Press course in the English department that focused on the "philosophy of free speech and communicating today's world." Professor Ted Nelson, another pioneer, taught at the college in the 1960s and coined the term "hypertext" well before the Internet developed. Other examples include Vassar's Technology of Writing Program (funded by the Sloan Grant from 1985-1989) or classes like Transformations of the Word, taught by Rachel Kitzinger, Jeff Opland and Bob DeMaria.

In 1992-1993, a grant from the Pew Foundation directly impacted the study of media through the English Department's curriculum. The Pew lecture series brought major figures in hypertext theory, criticism and creative writing to campus and involved faculty from other departments including Philosophy, History, Religious Studies, and Science, Technology and Society. As Professors Paul Kane and Michael Joyce conducted freshman classes that used computer programs and texts as both the subject and medium of course work, other instructors (like Heesok Chang, Beverly Haviland, and Barbara Page) included hypertext elements in their own teaching.

As Vassar scholars explored the terrain of media, it became clear that only a broadly based definition of media could embrace all of the various critical approaches employed by our faculty. A core group emerged who realized the need for Vassar to subject media institutions and their verbal and visual productions to the kind of rigorous, multidisciplinary scrutiny that is the hallmark of a liberal arts education. Thus, it was in 1999 that Michael Joyce and Bill Hoynes initiated the Texts and Media Development Program (TMDP) at Vassar, which brought together faculty from several different departments to establish an ongoing seminar with invited outside experts, in which to comparatively analyze aspects of this rapidly emerging field. The program was also an opportunity to investigate the study of media at other liberal arts schools. The college received a small grant from the Mellon Foundation in 2000 to support the initiative, which evolved into the Media Studies Development Project (MSDP). The MSDP engaged faculty in a wide variety of disciplines in research and teaching about the role of media in contemporary society, from historical analyses of the relationship between technology and literacy to research on the news media's role in facilitating public dialogue to explorations of new multimedia discursive models.

MSDP Faculty Seminar

An initial step in the MSDP was to organize a Faculty Seminar for the 2000-2001 academic year to analyze multidisciplinary aspects of verbal-visual literacies and media and to pursue lines of inquiry which already influenced their research and teaching. This seminar, consisting of approximately 25 faculty participants, served as a forum for Vassar faculty to initiate a multidisciplinary, collaborative study of media. Faculty presented their own work to the seminar with the aim of identifying the range of media-related expertise at the college and forging connections across disciplines and perspectives. The year's speakers also included Michael Schudson, Professor of Communication and Sociology at the U.C. San Diego, Diane Gromala, Associate Professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech, and Liz Diller, Professor of Architectural Design at Princeton University. In November 2000, faculty members also attended an Archeology of Multimedia conference at Brown University.

Another goal of the faculty seminar was to focus on curriculum development, with the intent of forming a program of study at the college that was distinctive to Vassar and that would build on and expand the college's existing curricular strengths. The seminar was charged with the task of creating the framework for a team-taught media studies course, to be offered in the 2001-2002 academic year. The faculty seminars continued to be an essential part of the development of Media Studies at Vassar until the 2003-2004 academic year.

Initial participants included MacDonald Moore (American Culture), Colleen Cohen and Tom Porcello (Anthropology), Jacqueline Musacchio and Molly Nesbit (Art), Bert Lott (Classics), Tom Ellman (Computer Science), Philippe Roques and Sarah Kozloff (Drama and Film), Peter Antelyes, Heesok Chang, Bob DeMaria, Michael Joyce and Patricia Wallace (English), Daniel Chávez and Eva Woods (Hispanic Studies), Sabrina Pape (Library Director), Michael Pisani (Music), Giovanna Borradori, Jesse Kalin and Michael Murray (Philosophy), Adelaide Villmoare (Political Science), Bill Hoynes and Leonard Nevarez (Sociology), Lisa Brawley (American Culture and Urban Studies), and Mark Lipton (Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow).

Curricular Development: Approaches to Media Studies

In the fall of 2001, the MSDP offered an innovative, team-taught Media Studies course: Approaches to Media Studies, which was taught by Lisa Brawley (American Culture and Urban Studies) and Mark Lipton (Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Visual Literacy). This class served as an intensive multidisciplinary examination of the theories, methods, and substantive issues in the field of Media Studies and was taught in the Library's Electronic Classroom. The course was the product of the monthly Faculty Seminars, especially a 3-day curriculum building colloquium in May 2001. Its aim was to provide a survey of key critical approaches to media anchored in specific case studies drawn from a variety of media technologies, objects, and industries. In subsequent years, the Approaches course continued to offer students a variety of disciplinary lenses for the study of media, incorporating co-teaching by a diverse range of faculty members to introduce students to the rich multidisciplinary field of Media Studies. The Approaches course remains one of the foundations of the Media Studies curriculum today as the Program's introductory class.

Another important locus of the development of Media Studies at the college was a series of faculty-student summer projects (from 2001-2004) that aimed to develop new multidisciplinary Media Studies courses and to do research. This Media Studies Summer Institute included a variety of activities, including curriculum development seminars, faculty-student research, student training in digital media production and design, and a student-run group project. These endeavors had the support of facilities and staff in Vassar's Media Cloisters, an innovative, networked media presence on campus.

Becoming the Media Studies Program

Vassar has a noteworthy record of developing successful multidisciplinary programs that concentrate on a problem that cannot be approached effectively by one discipline alone. In this tradition, faculty members from several disciplines initiated a discussion of how to integrate Media Studies into the college's liberal arts curriculum. As part of that process, participants sought innovative ways to build upon the faculty's current strengths, invigorate the project by bringing distinguished scholars and practitioners to campus, and engage the broader public discussion about our mass-mediated society. The program's curricular goals were twofold: 1) To build student competencies in "media literacy," giving students tools and laboratories to critically analyze their media environment; and 2) to nurture resources at the college to articulate this emerging media studies framework to a broader public.

The MSDP continued to build a Media Studies curriculum bit by bit, cross-listing various courses with other multi-disciplinary programs and departments. Such courses included: MSDP 181a. Citizenship, Intercultural Communication and Global Media (with International Studies); MSDP 240a. Technology and the American Music Industry (with American Culture); MSDP 281b. The Medium of Print and the History of Books (with English); MSDP 282a. Virtual Reality: Myths, Texts, History, and Practice (with Film); MSDP 350b. Media(tized) Language (with Anthropology); and MSDP 382b. Looking After Walter Benjamin: The Surfaces of Everyday Life (with Urban Studies). In 2004, the MSDP Steering Committee submitted a proposal to CCP, and subsequently the College faculty, to establish a new degree-granting multidisciplinary program in Media Studies. . The proposal was approved in May, and the 2004-2005 academic year was the first in which Media Studies had full program status. Vassar's first Media Studies major graduated in 2006, and the first full class graduated in 2007.

The Media Cloisters

The Media Cloisters, founded contemporarily with the Media Studies Program, served as the program's "public sphere" for networked interaction. It was a gathering place for students, professors, librarians, and CIS colleagues engaged in planning, evaluating, or reviewing the efforts of research and study utilizing a wide range of technology. A cloistered space on the library's second floor, this area provided a commons for Media Studies faculty and students to develop programming and projects thanks to the media production and editing resources made freely available on its state-of-the-art computers. It was also home to the Media Studies Summer Institute in 2001-2004.

In 2009, the library underwent expansion, which gave rise to the metamorphosis of the Media Cloisters into the DMZ, or Digital Media Zone, also known as the 24-Hour Space in the library. Today, the DMZ provides public access to software and training for video, audio, web and graphic design projects. The Media Studies Program retains a close relationship with this important space.

The Media Studies Program Today

The program's wide variety of courses and cross-listed classes combine serious critical consideration of various media with a well-grounded historical understanding and––whenever possible––hands-on exploration of media production. There is broad student interest, as indicated by enrollments in media-related courses and a growing number of student projects and senior theses on questions related to media.

Every year, the Media Studies Program houses about forty majors. The program's course offerings have expanded widely and given students a range of interdisciplinary choices. Classes include Molly Nesbit's Modern Art and Mass Media, Colleen Cohen's Indigenous and Oppositional Media, Bill Hoynes's Media and War, Tarik Elseewi's Transnational Television, M. Mark's Adaptations seminar, and Tom Ellman's and Harry Roseman's Computer Animation: Art, Science and Criticism, in addition to more classes cross-listed with Media Studies and a comprehensive list of approved courses in other departments.

Majors are all required to write a senior thesis or create a senior project, which have been diverse in content, form, and approach. A range of recent thesis titles have included: "iTunes and Identity," "Vassar College as a Theme Park," "Imagining Borders: Looking at the US-Mexico Border in the Media," "E-readers and the Future of the Printed Word," "Appearance and Visual Identity: The Mediated Body," "Contemporary Chinese Art: From the Sacred to the Profane, From Mao to the Mundane," "The Big Gatsby: Adaptation and the American Dream," "Same-Sex Marriage and the Mediation-Creation of Love," "Imagining Evita: Photographs of Eva Perón in Time and Life Magazines," "Educational Television and Digital Game-Based Learning: Their Roles within Society and the Classroom," and "Homogenization, Marketing and Risk Aversion in the Animated Film Industry."

The Media Studies Program also helps its students off-campus. The generous contributors and supporters of the Steven J. Hueglin '74 Fund provide resources for Media Studies students who wish to pursue experiences in media-related workplace environments. These grants are available to support student experiences in a wide range of internships, fieldwork placements, and other professional positions. Students have worked in publishing, film, television, fashion, journalism, and other media industries at organizations including CBS, Fox, The New York Times, VH1, Sesame Street, BBC America, Glamour Magazine, and 60 Minutes.

The addition of several post-doctoral fellows has also added an influx of new energy and interest in Media Studies at Vassar. Tarik Elseewi teaches in the Film Department, but is also on the Media Studies Steering Committee. He teaches "Television History and Criticism," "Transnational Television," and "The Middle East in Cinema and Media." Stephanie Boluk teaches "Virtual Worlds and Utopia," a 200-level course that explores works on utopian theory, themes of labor within the industry of gaming, and the relationship between work and gaming.

Recent growth in our program has allowed us to offer students the opportunity to study media during their junior year abroad. The MEDS JYA subcommittee, spearheaded by M Mark, has designed the Vassar London Program in Media and Culture, in partnership with Goldsmiths College, University of London. Goldsmiths, which is consistently ranked among the most respected UK universities, is committed to interdisciplinary study, independent learning, diversity, and social responsibility. In the fall of 2012, guided by Resident Director Heesok Chang, Vassar students will take courses and live in dorms with Goldsmiths students, while experiencing a great global city as cutting-edge media lab through site visits, meetings with cultural practitioners, and London-focused independent projects.

The Media Studies Program is still evolving and will continue to do so. The challenge in this networked, multi-mediated era is to develop critical modes of thought for studying the dynamic interrelationships among media industries, cultural texts, communications technologies, policy, and the public. How to accomplish this without succumbing to a model of vocational training, beholden to market trends, remains a challenge. There is no shortage of commentary about our mass mediated world, with much media criticism itself increasingly the subject of popular media formats. Instead of simply adding to the cacophony of inbred media criticism, the Media Studies program has developed a curriculum that identifies media as the focus of serious study, drawing upon the range of theoretical insights and methodological approaches from the social sciences, humanities, and the arts.