Media Studies and the Struggle for Relevance

I’m increasingly annoyed with media studies— a field I’ve devoted years to — and this is why. My plea for interventionist academics.

My colleague Rob Carr (an historian) suggested on Facebook today that academics need to ask “how is my research going to benefit society, and will it benefit society as much as another research topic?”

“Marshall McLuhan”, whose coining of the phrases ‘global village’ and ‘the medium is the message’ tremendously impacted media studies. [Source]

This is my the core of my frustration not only with the media studies establishment, but also with how it is taught to students. Rather than examining the impact and effect of media, too often we devolve to merely content studies. Doing that opens up the whole field — and the humanities more broadly — to charges of irrelevance regularly levelled by sneering commentators, penny-watching administrators and politicians.

There comes a point at which academic research needs to have a point.

Versions of my argument manifest in support for what Henry Jenkins has termed the aca-fan, an academic whose own interests are inextricably tied up with their fan behaviours in relation to the texts they study. Creative arts academics call this practice-led research. Yet neither adequately captures the kind of socially interventionist research needed.

To get at the heart of this for students, I asked them (with the prompting of Kate Bowles and following Arthur Frank) to identify “what is at stake in your project”.

The exercise was searing and uncomfortable for many students, but it brought about the realisation that (for example) a video about abandoned railway tunnels near Wollongong is actually about death and decay. This isn’t quite interventionist work, but it starts to generate thinking about how what we do is or is not relevant to wider social concerns.

You don’t know how to ride a motorbike until you crash one.

My father’s aphorism on motorbikes when I was learning to ride holds true for academic work as well. How can one claim to study 3D printing if they’ve never used a printer? Or drones? How can a journalism academic have never written for the news media?

None of this is to say all academic work should be purely instrumental; rather it is to ask that we get our hands dirty with the things we are interested in, and that work outside of journal articles count as relevant to work as an academic. By doing so, we move media studies — and humanities more generally — toward a more powerful political position and begin to insure a future in spite of those who think otherwise.