Cinema Journal 43.2 (2004) 91-95
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The Re:constructions Project
In the fall of 2001, my graduate media theory seminar at MIT met every Tuesday and Thursday at noon. Classes had started a week before 9/11. The opening discussion focused on Thomas McLaughlin's concept of vernacular theory. I had emphasized that all kinds of groups for all kinds of reasons both produce and consume media theory, although they do so with different languages and with different institutional norms. From here, we had discussed the ways academic theorists might more fully engage with other producers and consumers of theory and how this would require a shift in rhetoric. We talked a lot about the concept of applied humanism, which is one of the cornerstones of the comparative media studies approach—the idea that insights from the humanities and social sciences need to be applied and tested at actual sites of media change. MIT has applied physics, applied math. It was time it had applied humanism. We challenged our students to do projects that had real-world impact and that confronted pragmatic challenges.
I had to go almost immediately from hearing the news of the tragedy on 9/11 to conducting a seminar. As I walked toward the classroom, I passed graduate students huddled around radios or reading information off the Internet, many of them openly weeping. Afterward, everyone focused on New York City, but at that moment Boston was profoundly affected because the airplanes that had crashed into the towers had departed from Boston's Logan Airport. No one felt like class, yet nobody wanted to be alone. Since I live on campus, I phoned my wife to tell her I was bringing the class home to watch news reports.
Most of the students came with me. Some made calls on their cell phones to friends and family members; others channel zapped before focusing on BBC America, which MIT Cable had just added a few days before; and some used wireless laptops to glean information from the Web. [End Page 91]
The students gathered in my living room hardly knew each other. Most had arrived on campus a week or so before. This was the most heavily international cohort we had attracted since MIT's Comparative Media Studies (CMS) Program had been launched three years earlier. The students were acutely aware of the tragedy's international dimensions and frustrated by how intensely nationalistic much of the coverage was.
Over the next several days, e-mails flew fast and furious on the departmental discussion list. When the class gathered again on Thursday, the students demanded to know what role theory might play now and wondered whether there was any way they as students at the beginning of their professional training could make a difference. We talked a lot about ways the program might respond and about some of the statements issued by public intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, and Edward Said. Many students found these statements unsatisfactory in their abstract tone and their "told you so" attitude. A meaningful theoretical response needed to be humane, to acknowledge the author's own emotional experiences, and to respect the reality of several thousand deaths. Political analysis might come later, although the Bush administration was already cutting short the mourning process and preparing us for military action.
We called a "town meeting" of all our faculty and students. Several ideas surfaced, the most compelling being to produce a Web site that would provide resources for people who wanted to lead discussions about the media coverage. Although the Web project, operating under the title re:constructions, would involve faculty, students, and staff, it was voluntary, outside formal class requirements.
Many of us—faculty and students—gathered the following day in an MIT classroom, where we outlined topics we wanted to cover and divided up the tasks. All the blackboards were covered with chalk and post-its by the end of the discussion. William Uricchio, CMS's associate director, recalls:
What impressed me about the experience was that fellow faculty and students...