Media Studies at Cornell Asks Questions of Culture

Jason Koski/College Photography

Trevor Pinch, Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Professor of Sociology, addresses one of his classes.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio “fireside chats” reached the homes of frightened Americans to reassure them during the Great Depression and World War II. Discussions were made possible by newly sensitive microphones which created emotional intimacy with the audience – but also required Roosevelt to use a dental implant to reduce the hiss caused by the microphone.

Scholars in the field of media studies and its sub-discipline, sound studies, examine topics such as Roosevelt’s talks and how medium and message interact. Although the field is young, technical and production-oriented media studies have been around for a long time, and media studies include everything from podcasts to the history of books to Aristotle’s interest in the way voices move through the air.

On February 29, the College of Arts and Sciences brought together professors working in the field of sound studies in a big ideas panel, part of the new century of the humanities Party. Held in the Groos Family Atrium at Klarman Hall, the event featured Benjamin Piekutassociate professor of music; Kim Haines Eitzen, professor of Near Eastern studies; and Trevor PinchGoldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Professor of Sociology.

Pinch recalls that when he taught a second writing seminar on sound studies in 2004, the field barely existed. “Now there are journals, textbooks, lectures and new programs,” he says. “This is one of the most exciting new cross-disciplinary areas of the academy.”

The Society for the Humanities has been an important hub for media and sound studies. Its central theme for 2011-2012 was “Sound: culture, theory, practice, politics”.

“At this point, sound studies felt like a new discipline that was still in formation,” says Roger Mosley, an assistant professor of music and a member of the society’s faculty that year. “For us, it was a journey of mutual discovery. As a music scholar, I had to question my assumptions about the relationship between sound and music, which meant learning new skills and unlearning some old ones.

Although Cornell does not have a dedicated sound studies program, according to Piekut, there are probably more faculty working in the field at Cornell than anywhere else in the United States.

As Pinch noted in his Big Idea talk, media studies is a highly interdisciplinary field, drawing on many methodologies and fields of study, such as computer science, physical science, psychology, fine arts, history, sociology and literature. Cornell’s long history of cross-disciplinary collaboration and successful cross-pollination of ideas is important, because the objects of media studies often defy easy categorization.

Media studies research and teaching at Cornell elaborates on traditional techniques of scholarship, bringing new objects of analysis and combining disciplines. There is a significant wing of media studies that stems from deconstruction and high theory, areas in which Cornell has a long history of strength, notes Jeremy Braddockassociate professor of English, and other approaches have developed from cultural and literary studies, history and philosophy.

“It’s a really exciting time to be in the humanities because the variety of new technologies available to us can expand the work we’ve been doing for generations,” says Tom McEnaney, lecturer in comparative literature. “We’re reinventing the basic media platforms on which we create art and stories, so that everything that’s past feels new again.”

Braddock says the invention of new technology can reshape society in ways that are unintended and not clearly seen long afterward. “That’s what media studies is all about and why humanists have a crucial role to play,” he says.

As Brett de Bary, professor of Asian studies and comparative literature, notes: “The work of interpreting new cultural developments, giving them meaning, is the essence of the human sciences. Because when you’re dealing with the new, it’s not about looking for answers – you don’t even know what the right questions are yet.

Linda B. Glaser is an editor for the College of Arts and Sciences.