Towards Clarity

I recently presented a paper at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Southeast Colloquium held at the University of South Florida, Tampa.  It is fairly typical within my discipline of media studies to project slides to illustrate various points of your paper rather than reading directly from the paper itself.  I find this method much more engaging as a presenter and as an audience member, but after this conference I realized this kind of presentation forces something else in my work, namely better organization.  I now know how to improve the structure of my paper after doing the work of deciding how and what to present.  Some aspects must be cut for time.  I will leave these nuggets in the paper itself, but the process of presentation hones my approach resulting in (fingers crossed) more clarity and perhaps publication.  I tell myself that I have 20 minutes or less to tell a story.  I guess I work much better under pressure.  I have decided that come the first or second draft of any given paper, I am going to go through the process of presentation even if I am not presenting it to an audience–right down to making the slides.

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Here I am presenting my work in the standard hotel ballroom. My kingdom for better lighting. The carpet is a lost cause.

The conference also reminded me of the value of feedback for the paper itself.  A questioner from the audience asked me how I defined diversity.  I confidently gave a two-pronged answer.  No problem!  Hit me with more!  But of course, the problem was that the question should have been unnecessary.  I am grateful for the question because I realized an opportunity or perhaps a demand to be explicit about a key term in my presentation, but most important in my paper.  Defining terms is one of those obvious academic priorities that countless professors rant about, right up there with “read the <expletive> syllabus,” but when we get too close to our work slippage occurs; the obvious becomes obscured.  Academic conferences, at their best, offer paths to clarity.  The Florida weather in February did not hurt either.

Media Studies: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace My Shiny Object Syndrome

When I tell people I study media, they tend to want some specifics.  While I should find this interest heartening, I know it’s because they quite correctly think they know what media are.  If I studied say, Quantum Mechanics, they would probably shake my hand and move on, or perhaps ask me what it’s like to be a woman in that field.  I am more than happy to talk about my passion, but I’ve learned to brace myself from the disappointment that comes when people realize I study media in a different way.  This is not to say unique.  This is to say, I do not study the particular media bit of interest to the enquirer.  At best, I’ll pique their curiosity in something else.

Take my stepmother.  Over break she asked if I studied partisan bias in the news media.  Okay, she didn’t put it exactly like that, but this is how I heard her.  That’s another funny thing about graduate school: You speak and listen in a different way.  Last night, while grocery shopping with a fellow grad student, she said, “I just think discourse analysis is more apt, don’t you?”  After a long winter break spent largely away from academics, I said, “You do realize that anyone overhearing this conversation right now should be mocking us.”  I digress.

So I had to break the news to my step-mom.  “No, I don’t study that, although there are people that do.  Partisan bias seems too (Here I deliberately avoided an overused, mean grad school word: reductive) well, let me put it this way, I think media ownership is the bigger, more interesting issue.  To illustrate my point, I showed her this link to a Daily Show segment forwarded around my department by professor Steve Miller: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-january-14-2013/investigating-investigative-journalism

The link is stranger than fiction, explaining that CNN has downsized most of its investigative journalism, and that this expert foreign affairs journalist is now consulting for the HBO show the Newsroom.  Of course, comedian Jon Oliver makes it funny, but I’m not laughing, and neither was my stepmother.  She could not believe it.  I’m pleased by her response.  Disbelief is a cousin of outrage, something I feel quite a bit in my media studies.  I’d like to think that outrage leads to collective action, which leads to change.

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Although I never really got around to explaining what I study, I certainly made an impression with the help of so called “fake” news.  The truth is I am still having trouble making up my mind; interesting media are exploding all around me.  I feel like the figure in this meme I embellished:

Media Mouthfeel

Who am I? I thought I dispensed with such philosophical wormholes after the teenage angst years. My first year as a doctoral student at Rutgers has proved me wrong. Although the angst has mellowed now in my late 30s, I still dread the ubiquitous wine and cheese filled inquisitions about my research interests. I will confess to a degree of envy when my colleagues in other disciplines succinctly explain what they study. Math, in particular, tends to shut people up. The study of media on the other hand sparks loads of questions. Everyone has opinions about it. For those who embrace the postmodern world (I myself am suspicious of the adjective), everything is a text filled with gaps available to be read, even the cheese cube in your hand. I actually like this everyday quality of media, yet it encourages my “shiny object syndrome”—my habit of knowing a little about a lot, a kind of epistemology of distraction. This mindset seems antithetical to the scholar, the learned one able to pontificate on the political economy of toothpicks.

So I must focus at least in time for my qualifying exam circa the start of my third year. I have roughly 6 courses left of my traditional student life. Scarcity breeds abject terror. As a 16th grader, the paranoia of making them count looms large. I also have the awesome opportunity to take two courses outside of Rutgers through the research consortium. I need a plan, yesterday.

Of course, I have talked to my advisors. They are ever so patient with me. I tend to ask enormous questions such as “What makes media more or less democratic?” I get cranky thinking about techno-evangelists, those who have Internet technology saving the planet, as if cyberspace were free of race, class and gender. Would we even want such a place if it were possible? This is why I like science fiction novels. Maybe I should have chosen English. Disciplines are mere fabrications, artifacts of university politics. Do you see why my professors are so patient with me?

If you pass me the pinot noir, I will tell you that I want my research in media studies to convey hope—hope for our global liberty expressed locally. I told a colleague that this was a corny idea. She disagreed, suggesting that theory leads to anger (at the disconnects?), which eventually gives way to a longing for hope. This has a truthy ring to it, one that harmonizes with my conviction that culture is what we make it; culture is essential to freedom. Media are cultural channels, spaces carved out with rich striations and sediments for study–cultural terroirs. I tend to focus on who made the channel, when, where, why and how. Media production is my bailiwick, and I am developing a fondness for ethnography—minus the transcription part. My kind of work is open to interpretation. I wouldn’t have it any other way.