April 28, 2006
Convergence in the Academic Realm

For those of you who follow this blog regularly from the academic world, you all know the struggles of interdisciplinary interests in academia. And for those of you from industry or from fan communities or just with a general curiosity, you can imagine how the idea of convergence at it is taking place in the media industry is in some ways being mirrored in the academic realm.

Where do you study media studies? Where do you study popular culture? Is it sociology, anthropology, literary studies, history, communication, broadcasting, etc.? At MIT, we have a department dedicated to interdisciplinary study related to the media--Comparative Media Studies. But, of course, we only have a handful of faculty that works full-time in our department and then a plethora of associated faculty in most of these other areas, who are officially parts of anthropology or literature departments.

On April 14, I was a member of a four member panel at the National Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Atlanta, where we discussed these very problems, of how academia can reflect these changes and can adapt outdated molds of distinctive "disciplines" that never meet and that define themselves often by being "NOT" the other disciplines, with specialized argot and academic rules to keep boundaries clear.

My presentation was about "breaking those walls down," but...as people wonder with convergence, whether in the media industry or in journalism (both of which are talking about convergence endlessly), if we break those walls down, what do we have left?

Henry Jenkins, in his new book Convergence Culture, warns about what is called "The Black Box Fallacy," where people believe that everything will just become one. Journalists fear the "uberjournalist," that corporations are going to try to make one person do broadcast, print, Internet, etc. But these situations are not what convergence is, and the same is true of academia. Blurring distinctions doesn't mean that the anthropologist, the literary critic, or the historian doesn't exist. It just means that we will have a more open flow of communication.

We had about 25 or 30 people present for an hour and a half discussion, a great turnout for an academic panel. My colleagues from Western Kentucky University, Ted Hovet and Dale Rigby, and my wife Amanda Ford, all participated in the panel, and we discussed how academia needs to make these interdisciplinary links by reconceptualizing the way that the idea of "disciplines" work.

Does anyone have any thoughts about how this idea of "convergence" affects the academic world in terms of disciplinary boundaries?