Media Studies and the Academic Elite

[Published in Quest of a Discipline:  New Academic Directions for Comparative Literature. Cambridge University Press,  Feb 2012]

American actor and recent Academy Award co-host, James Franco, has in the past eighteen months been arguably one of the most productive people of celebrity on the planet.  Just a brief mention of a few of his projects of late:  he has finished two MFA writing programs at NYU and Columbia University; conducted a video interview of Marina Abramovic for the Wall Street Journal in which he is seen with the artist wearing matching lab coats, peeling almonds, and eating gold; appeared and is set to re-appear on US soap opera General Hospital playing a character “Franco”, a psychotic artist wherein his last episode he escapes Jason and Dante at a giant art show by publicly faking his death; has made an installation piece for New York’s Deitch Projects based on his General Hospital stint; he is currently pursuing a PhD in Yale’s English department at the behest of Harold Bloom and about to work on a degree at the Rhode Island School of Design.

As Franco’s acts of interdisciplinary feats and his freelance approach to the stage, arts and scholarship has divided Hollywood pundits and pushed cultural and media studies critics to the limits of skepticism mirroring the reactions which arose when “Madonna studies” was announced in the early 1990s as a subdivision of media studies, I am struck by two truisms.  First off, that people–to include if not especially scholars–do not like change.  Secondly, that to resist the winds of change is to resemble that Quixotic figure who lances his body and might against the oncoming wave of change. Yet, academia is consistently divided in its “mission” as departments across North American universities have for well over the past decade been forced to re-evaluate their curriculum.  In the once plumped up economic environment of the 1990s when book publishing was less onerous than that of today’s market and when funds appeared overnight in many institutions for the purpose of creating new departments, the embrace the multi-cultural and interdisciplinary domains in North America implicated academia in this sudden shift towards bringing cultural and sexual margins to the fore while also acknowledging the need to revise how we view cultural production as new departments were born: gender studies, queer studies, cultural studies, American studies, Africana studies, film studies, and most controversial of all, media studies. Born out of a true commitment to open up academic discourse to the burgeoning sites of identity politics and production, these new departments and degrees seemed to indicate that academia was capable of change.  But has academia really stepped up to the challenge of a changing reality in cultural literacy and literary studies given the back peddling current in the restructuring of the Liberal Arts across North American and European universities?

In recent years, universities under the stress of a flailing economy and budget cuts have taken their shears to the humanities where some of these very departments created in the 1990s as well as other more traditional departments (ie. literature and philosophy) are now facing forced extinction–from the State University of New York at Albany, a campus with 18,000 students, announced in 2010 that ceasing its degree programs in French, Italian, classics, Russian and theatre (a decision motivated, according to the university president3, by budget cuts and the recognition that relatively few students enrolled in those programs); last year the University of Toronto Comparative Literature Department barely survived being shut down in an effort to close a $55 million deficit; and in 2010 Middlesex University decided to close its philosophy programs at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.   In response to Middlesex University’s closing of its philosophy programs, Jean-Luc Nancy wrote an open letter to the university administration ironizing the prioritization of business and commercially focussed curriculum in academia :

Choisir entre supprimer le français et supprimer la philosophie… Quel beau choix ! Enlever plutôt le foie ou le poumon ? Plutôt l’estomac ou le coeur ? Plutôt les yeux ou les oreilles ?

Il faudrait inventer un enseignement strictement monolingue d’une part – car tout peut être traduit en anglais, n’est-ce pas ? – et strictement dépourvu de toute interrogation (par exemple sur ce qu’implique la “traduction” en général et en particulier de telle langue à telle autre). Une seule langue débarrassée des parasites de la réflexion serait une belle matière universitaire, lisse, harmonieuse, aisée à soumettre aux contrôles d’acquisition.

Il faut donc proposer de supprimer l’un et l’autre, le français et la philosophie. Et tout ce qui pourrait s’en approcher, comme le latin ou la psychanalyse, l’italien, l’espagnol ou la théorie littéraire, le russe ou l’histoire. Peut-être serait-il judicieux d’introduire à la place, et de manière obligatoire, quelques langages informatiques (comme java) et aussi le chinois commercial et le hindi technologique, du moins avant que ces langues soient complètement transcrites en anglais. A moins que n’arrive l’inverse.

De toutes façons, enseignons ce qui s’affiche sur nos panneaux publicitaires et sur les moniteurs des places boursières. Rien d’autre !

Courage, camarades, un monde nouveau va naître ! [1]

Many comparative literature departments which had heretofore been the epi-centers from which were born new disciplines such as film and media studies had suddenly found themselves having to shrink themselves in size to reduce the university’s budget or they were put in the position of having to compete with these very departments by rendering themselves a billboard to advertise for “cooler” courses that would attract more students.  Today it is not uncommon to see courses in literature departments being advertised around campus in the hopes of attracting higher enrolment so as to cement the department’s future.  Moreover since the late 1990s, many universities in North America as part of their internal communication have stopped referring to students as “students” and “client” is now the general term used to refer to students.  Capital competition began its encroachment in the classroom and both curriculum and departments were vying for the attention of students who would have much rather studied media than literature.

The push to include media literacy and media studies as part of a larger cultural literacy was first addressed in the sector of public primary and secondary education as media literacy education began to appear in state English education curriculum frameworks by the early 1990s resulting from the increased awareness of the importance of visual, electronic and digital media in the context of contemporary culture.  According to the Media Literacy Clearinghouse nearly all 50 states have language that supports media literacy in state curriculum frameworks and anywhere from 78% to 100% of programs in the humanities are expected to have a media component. In 1998, both Texas and Massachusetts had included media literacy in English language arts education. In 2004, Montana developed educational standards around media literacy that students are required to be competent in by grades 4, 8, and 12. Additionally, an increasing number of school districts have begun to develop school-wide programs, elective courses, and other after-school opportunities for media analysis and production.  Yet this approach to media literacy did not encroach upon the studies of social sciences, the arts and humanities in the secondary school setting.

With more than 600 members, the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), developed an influential policy document, the “Core Principles of Media Literacy Education” in the United States wherein its principles reveal a changing ethos towards media in society:

The purpose of media literacy education is to help individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today’s world. Principles include: (1) Media Literacy Education requires active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create; (2) Media Literacy Education expands the concept of literacy in all forms of media (i.e., reading and writing); (3) Media Literacy Education builds and reinforces skills for learners of all ages. Like print literacy, those skills necessitate integrated, interactive, and repeated practice; (4) Media Literacy Education develops informed, reflective and engaged participants essential for a democratic society; (5) Media Literacy Education recognizes that media are a part of culture and function as agents of socialization; and (6) Media Literacy Education affirms that people use their individual skills, beliefs and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages. (NAMLE)

What is clear from these principles is that the public sector of education viewed literacy in media as every bit as important for the subject as any other form of print media and literature.  Likewise, this policy document removed the taboo for discussing media literacy which had heretofore been interpreted and vulgarized as educators attempting to make the reading of King Lear as replaceable with the playing Nintendo games.  In essence, this document made cogent arguments for the necessity of enabling school children and high school students with media literacy capabilities.

As media literacy began to create university students versed in the consumption of media, the domain of media studies was born and had been incorporated into the scope of comparative literature departments.  In the university structure in the United States specifically, media studies have been gaining momentum because of the increased emphasis on twenty-first century literacy which now incorporates media and information literacy, collaboration and problem-solving skills, and emphasis on the social responsibilities of communication.  In the 1990s many comparative literature (not to mention English and Spanish) scholars brought media studies to students through specialized classes and concentrations in degree programs.  Soon after, media studies departments popped up all over the United States’ universities leaving many of these scholars continuing their work in both a print literature and media.  There was no question that media and print literature were not divisible domains any more than teaching literatures which originated in a handwritten format or that which was born from hypertext.  Media, culture and literature soon became part of the mandates of many literature departments, specifically that of Comparative Literature departments worldwide.

Conterminous to Comparative Literature departments incorporating media studies into their curriculum, the notion of “the canon” once again came under attack. There has been an ongoing, intensely political debate over the nature and status of the canon since at least the 1960s, much of which is rooted in critical theory, feminism, critical race theory, and Marxist attacks against capitalism and classical liberal principles. In the United States, in particular, the canon has been attacked as a compendium of books written mainly by “dead white European males”, that does not represent the viewpoints of many in contemporary societies around the world. Allan Bloom in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind took up this question regarding analytic philosophy while in later years Yale University Professor of Humanities Harold Bloom argued strongly in favor of the literary canon, and in general the canon remains as a represented idea in many institutions as the uses and its implications continue to be debated.

Defenders of the “canon” maintain that those who undermine it do so out of primarily political interests, and that such criticisms are misguided and/or disingenuous. As John Searle has written:

There is a certain irony in this [i.e., politicized objections to the canon] in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, the “canon” served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.

One of the main objections to a canon of literature is the question of authority–after all, who should have the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching? Searle’s rebuttal concludes that one of the arguments against hierarchical ranking of books “is that if it were valid, it would argue against any set of required readings whatever; indeed, any list you care to make about anything automatically creates two categories, those that are on the list and those that are not.” (Searle)

Similarly, the question of curriculum within Comparative Literature is met with similar bifurcations embedded in arguments which attempt to reduce and simplify all meaning–from those who defend “true literature” while others promote the inclusion of media as a vernacular literature.  When one looks to the many universities which today are attempting to sterilize their literary studies, confining these fields to print formats while eliding all media, many departments which had previously opened up literature to all its polyvalent forms, specifically Comparative Literature departments, were now forced to focus upon a format of literacy that is necessarily changing, if not altogether waning.  Many departments continue to question their future existence and yet the bulwarks of academia would seemingly ensure the demise of these departments by questioning–almost as if to push the end closer–the validity of media studies.   How is it that high schools were more conscious of the need to integrate media studies into literary and social studies while university systems attempted to redefine literature as that which excludes, specifically, media?

Hypertext experiments of the 1990s were regarded as literary creations and it seemed at the time that literature as media was coming into an age of public and academic recognition just as Gutenberg’s press changed the way literature was produced and accessed.  As scholars in the field of comparative literature, we must question the authenticity of a “true literature”–especially those of us who are scholars whose focus lies in orature, myth, allegory, and ethnography, not to mention any number of literatures whose origins lie in the oral tradition.  Perhaps we are uncomfortable that our students would much rather be in a classroom asked to deconstruct the sexual politics of a Britney Spears’ video or that they might actually prefer to write a final paper examining the deconstruction of race in a Steve McQueen installation piece rather than deconstruct Quixote’s windmills?  Or perhaps we fear the inevitable–that media is quickly becoming a more preferred format for literature?  From ebooks to blogs to Second Life narratives to virtual performances of , it is apparent that literature is not singular, but plural and that if we expect for Comparative Literature to survive as a serious discipline of study, its scholars need to invigorate this field with the support for the various forms of literature that are being created within new media today.  The transition can be as seamless as our regard for papyrus and printed material on the same course syllabus, or it can be as convoluted as the arguments that some make in insinuating a “true literature” while paradoxically maintaining their position from within a department whose history lays firmly in the embrace of of the interdisciplinary.  It is not that we need to redefine literature–it is clearly being redefined for us, before our very eyes.  Our task as scholars is to keep our eyes and minds open to the changing cartography of literary studies in order to embrace media productions within the curriculum of Comparative Literature.   As media is progressively becoming a common–albeit not the exclusive–language for communicating fiction, ethnography, autobiography, performance and poetry, media’s inclusion within a larger context of literary studies will open up the necessary discussions of genre and discipline that seem to be indicated by media’s encroachment of the literary.


[1]  Translation by J. K. Cohen/H. Saussy:

So the choice is between getting rid of French and getting rid of philosophy? What a great alternative!

A choice between removing the liver or the lungs. Stomach or heart. Eyes or ears. How about that?

Someone needs to invent a kind of instruction that is, first, strictly monolingual — because everything can be translated into English, can’t it? — and also one from which all questioning (for example, of what “translation” means, both in general and in terms of this or that specific language) has been completely eliminated. A single language alone, cleansed of the bugs of reflection, would make the perfect university subject: smooth, harmonious, easily submitted to pedagogical control.

It’s time to propose getting rid of both French and philosophy, and, for that matter, all related subjects, like Latin, psychoanalysis, Italian, Spanish, literary theory, Russian, or history. Perhaps it would be wise to put in their place, as mandatory course offerings, some programming languages (e.g. Java), and also commercial Chinese and technical Hindi — at least until these languages have been completely transcribed into English. (Unless it is the opposite that comes to pass.)

Anyway, let us teach what is displayed on billboards and stock market monitors. Nothing else!

Courage, comrades: a new world is being born!


Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.

“Core Principles of Media Literacy Education” Media Literacy Clearinghouse.   HYPERLINK “”

Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Albany: An Open Letter.” October 19, 2010. Academic Life.   HYPERLINK “″

Robertson, P (1996). Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp From Mae West to Madonna. Duke University Press, London, pp. 117.

Schwichtenberg, C. (1993). Introduction to Schwichtenberg, C (ed), The Madonna Connection: Representational Politics, Subcultural Identities, and Cultural Theory. Westview Press, San Francisco.

Searle, John. (1990) “The Storm Over the University”, The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.