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Henry Jenkins Returns

Mar. 6, 2014

MIT Communications Forum

Around the world Henry Jenkins is known as a prolific force in media studies and as a champion of fandom and fan culture. He has written thirteen books — canonical texts for media scholars — including Textual Poachers and Convergence Culture. At the Institute, Jenkins is known for establishing and directing the Comparative Media Studies program and for his time as a Senior House housemaster. Jenkins left MIT in 2009 to become the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

Jenkins returned to MIT’s campus last Thursday evening to give a talk hosted by the MIT Communications Forum. Students and faculty alike gathered at the event. Professor Jenkins spoke of the two things he missed most about MIT: CMS and Senior House.

At first glance, it may be hard to see the connection, but Jenkins explained what they held in common for him. Jenkins is a self-proclaimed (and well-recognized) scholar of popular culture, a designation confirmed by his written work. Jenkins claimed that both CMS and Senior House were places of expression and exploration of culture. Culture is as evident in the research and theses produced by CMS students as it is on the painted walls and crowds at Senior House’s Steer Roast.

In both spaces, it seemed like Jenkins had to fight for recognition of the applied humanism of CMS and the autonomy and self-expression of Senior House. While Jenkins probably can’t claim a single-handed victory, Senior House still stands and students graduate with degrees in Comparative Media Studies each year.

As expected, Jenkins made several comments on fandom, including thoughts on derivative work, successes of fandom, and challenges that fandom will face in the future. Professor Jenkins addressed criticism of fans’ use of existing elements of pop culture to create new stories and media, such as fan fiction, fan art and other fan derivatives. He claimed that every element in our culture — every story and piece of art — is influenced by what is already here. He likened the situation to Renaissance painters, asserting that their many works depicting the Madonna and child were derivatives of the Bible.

Professor Jenkins lauded the progressive effects of fandom on issues such as gender and sexuality, but claimed fandom has more work to do regarding issues of race, stating that fandom is largely a “white space.” Jenkins pointed out that shows such as “Sleepy Hollow” are doing a good job of promoting discussion of race issues in fandom.

In accordance with the structure of MIT Communications Forum talks, Jenkins spent a large portion of the event taking questions from the audience. Professor Jenkins considered questions from professors and students regarding the nature of the CMS program, comparing USC and MIT, and the role of money and labor in media. Jenkins claimed that the goal of the CMS program was to prepare graduates for jobs in both academia and in industry, invoking the term “applied humanism” to describe this balance.

Jenkins praised MIT’s meritocracy and expressed distress with USC’s struggles with providing a diverse student body, particularly in a place as diverse as Los Angeles. Both schools however, according to Jenkins, have excellent graduate programs in media studies.

Jenkins suggested that he did not have a satisfying answer yet to big questions of money and labor in media but suggested that the addition of commodity culture practices changes how we feel about the commodity, in this case the media. For example, would our perception change if we discovered our favorite popular YouTuber was being paid to create engaging vlogs?

The evening ended much too quickly (for my liking at least). It was certainly a pleasure to hear Henry Jenkins speak at MIT, and the MIT community would definitely benefit from having Professor Jenkins visit more often.