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U.Va. Introduces New Liberal Arts Program In Media Studies

September 19, 2000 -- The University of Virginia is launching this semester a comprehensive interdisciplinary program that focuses on electronic, print, digital and film media, including their history, effects and impacts, production methods, and ways of being perceived. The new Media Studies major will have a strong emphasis on emerging digital media.

The U.Va. program differs from many elsewhere in that "it’s a liberal arts program that takes as its object of study the fundamental role of media in our culture," says director Johanna Drucker, the Robertson Professor of Media Studies who holds a joint appointment in U.Va.’s highly rated English department. Because it emphasizes critical thinking, "our students will be prepared to do anything they want to do," says Drucker, an authority on the history of written forms of language and visual representation.

Media are so pervasive in our lives that "we forget that they are cultural artifacts," she adds. "It’s all coded and organized according to various rituals."

Although the word only came into use in its popular sense with the growth of mass media in the mid-20th century, "media" began with the earliest writing and drawing, Drucker points out. She defines the term as any means of transcribing, encoding or recording language, images or data in any sort of material support such as paper, film or electrical signals. Media Studies is concerned with understanding the ways media function rhetorically, structurally, psychologically and in other ways in our cultural life. Students in the program will examine closely the effects of media on public policy, free speech issues, and commerce and regulation of media.

Only 20 students a year are being allowed into the major, beginning in their third year, and they will need a 3.4 grade-point average to be considered. The first group will be selected

later this fall. Prerequisite courses include "Information Technology and Digital Media," a general introduction for first-year students taught by Bryan Pfaffenberger, associate professor of Technology, Culture and Communication, that examines the nature of new technology and how it is changing the world.

Required courses will include media theory and criticism, history of media, a range of advanced electives in numerous fields, and at least one course or internship in the practice of media in any of its forms.

The many Media Studies electives feature a wide range of long established courses, from anthropology and art to psychology and photography, and from "Mass Media and American Politics" to "The Impact of Printing." They show not only that U.Va. has been offering "media studies" for years but also how broad the scope of its inquiry is, says Drucker, who in addition to her wide scholarship on media history and theory is also an avant-garde artist, creative writer and publisher of fine-press books, many using experimental typography (one recent title: "Night Crawlers on the Web"). She previously taught at SUNY-Purchase, Yale and Columbia before joining the U.Va. faculty last year.

Typical of the many Media Studies offerings that are also traditional courses are the newswriting seminars taught by English lecturer William Fishback, who emphasizes that he tries to do what he has always done, "teach students to think and write effectively."

The required "Introduction to Media Studies," being taught this year by visiting English professor Michael Quinn, looks at media institutions and provides an overview for understanding media’s powerful role in contemporary society. It includes a segment on "defamiliarizing media," or learning how to look beyond their everyday familiarity.

With Media Studies as an important component, the University is also planning what would be the country’s first master’s degree in digital media in the humanities. John Unsworth, director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, is spearheading the planning for the program, in an area in which U.Va. is an international leader: using digital technology to aid in research and understanding in fields such as literature, art, archaeology and history, by uncovering new patterns, employing quantitative analysis and linking vast amounts of related material. The master’s program would be in collaboration with the Engineering School and would need state approval before it begins.

A University committee is also planning a center for "computing, cognition and culture" that would link the Media Studies program, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, the Electronic Text Center and other new-technology centers to examine the ways technology is transforming education and society. The center would be a place to reflect critically on digital media, thinking that "needs to happen," says Drucker. Among other projects, Media Studies is planning a major conference next fall on "McLuhan and Beyond," looking at how thinking about media has evolved since the influential work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

The Media Studies program itself was planned with active involvement of students, and today’s techno-savvy students are deeply involved in new media, setting up electronic publications and networks, Drucker points out. One student group, for example, is currently creating a Web site linking all the arts projects in the Charlottesville area. "The best resource of this University is our students," says Drucker, adding that the Media Studies program will be arranging internships for them with media organizations, both locally and beyond, as well as setting up a network of alumni active in media.

The time was clearly ripe for U.Va. to create a formal program in Media Studies, she says. "The awareness of the role of media in our society is high and people want understanding."

The Robertson Professorship in Media Studies and the Robertson Media Center, a state of the art multi-media facility in Clemons Library, are both funded through a gift from alumnus Timothy B. Robertson, president of International Family Entertainment of Virginia Beach, and his wife Lisa Nelson Robertson.

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (804) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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