Skip to content ↓

Comparative Media Studies program getting off the ground

MIT is now accepting applications for the new Program in Comparative Media Studies (CMS), the first program of its kind in the United States. The new SM degree program was approved by the faculty last May.

More than 25 faculty members from various disciplines in the humanities, arts and social sciences will be involved with CMS, which is jointly administered by the foreign languages and literatures, literature, and writing and humanistic studies sections at the School of Humanities and Social Science.

"MIT has been a leader in the development of new media technologies throughout the 20th century. With this program, the Institute will take a leadership role in understanding the social, cultural, legal, political, and ethical implications of those technologies," said Henry Jenkins, the Ann Fetter Friedlaender Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science and director of CMS.

"Our program is designed to train the next generation of professionals in business, government, journalism and academic life to 'think across media' and to engage critically with core issues related to media content, form and impact," he said.

According to Professor Jenkins, understanding the current moment of dramatic media change requires awareness of its larger cultural and historical context.

"The CMS program will play a vital role in explaining the potential and consequences of the digital revolution. It may also reflect the potential for new kinds of partnerships between the humanities and the private sector," he said.

"When corporate leaders and young entrepreneurs speak about digital media, they talk about 'storytelling,' 'interactive cinema,' 'virtual communities,' 'digital democracy' and 'the global village.' The real expertise on these issues -- and the language itself -- can be found in the humanities and social sciences.

"Comparative Media Studies also hopes to confront the changing nature of news and news organizations. As new genres of journalism and information emerge, the program will become an important training ground for reporters covering the 'cyber beat' as well as for editors seeking to better integrate coverage of stories across broadcast, print and web-based media," said Professor Jenkins.

While digital media dominate contemporary interest, the goal of the new MIT program is theoretical and practical study of the relationships among media over time. It is this integrative and comparative approach which distinguishes the CMS program from other American media education programs, where study of one or another medium dominates.

"The validity of studying one medium is currently being challenged on all sides," said Professor Jenkins. "New patterns of media ownership encourage the movement of characters and stories from one medium to another. New configurations of media technology encourage the interweaving of different entertainment and information structures. New modes of entertainment encourage consumers to read one medium in relation to another. These changes call for a new generation of 'corporate humanists' who can translate contemporary academic insights about media, culture and society into practical solutions."


Students in CMS will study communications media ranging from oral storytelling to the emergence of the book and print culture, to theatre, photography and art history, cinema, broadcasting and digital media.

They will develop new models for thinking about the complex and often contradictory relationships among different media, their producers, their audiences, and the larger cultural context. Students will also be taught to understand media within a global context, recognizing both the contributions of many different cultural traditions to the evolution of modern communications and the impact of digital media on different cultures around the world.

The Comparative Media Studies program will combine theoretical research with hands-on courses where students work directly with digital media to develop projects in humanities computing and interactive pedagogy. These projects build upon MIT's track record of accomplishments in the use of digital media to teach foreign languages and cultures, technical writing, literary studies, film studies and cultural history.

CMS students will be encouraged to develop a thesis in digital form so their theoretical insights can occur as new models for presenting information through computers. Imaginative use of on-line resources will help make the research of the program more accessible to the general public.

"At the present moment, the general public is baffled by conflicting claims about the so-called 'digital revolution'," Professor Jenkins said. "Some are predicting a more utopian society. They see digital media improving global communications, ensuring better education for our children and producing a more democratic society. Others are predicting social apocalypse, projecting a world in which digital media alienates us from each other, exposes our children to lurid pornography and destroys the last vestiges of civility and rational thought. The truth lies in between. What we need now are public intellectuals who can help explain and evaluate the nature of these changes. The Comparative Media Studies program will train a new generation of public intellectuals."


An important offshoot of the Comparative Media Studies program is the Media in Transition project, which has sponsored an array of conferences, forums, readings and talks intended to focus attention on the relationship between the digital revolution and earlier moments of dramatic shifts in media technology, including the introduction of the printing press and the rise of modern mass media. Speakers in the series have ranged from science fiction writers such as Bruce Sterling and Octavia Butler to the president's advisor on Internet policy, Ira Magaziner.

CMS is now recruiting graduate students to begin course work in fall 1999. Students interested in enrolling in this program should contact the Comparative Media Studies program office at x3-3599.

Application forms may be downloaded from the Graduate Admissions web site or obtained by contacting the office at or x3-4897. CMS is headquartered in Rm 14N-430 and can be reached at x3-3599 or

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 9, 1998.

Related Topics

More MIT News