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:

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.


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.