New civic media program to bring in 4 faculty members

by Hunter Harris / Beacon Staff • February 13, 2014

Emerson will hire four new professors to focus on the intersection of new media, civic engagement, and activism, to fulfill the civic engagement aspect of President M. Lee Pelton’s strategic plan introduced in fall 2012.

Although the four professors will belong to different departments — the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, Visual and Media Arts, Communication Studies, and Journalism — the searches are being held in tandem because they are the results of simultaneous departmental requests for new faculty members, according to Amy Ansell, dean of liberal arts and the executive director of liberal arts and interdisciplinary studies.

The new faculty members will collaborate across their departments as part of Emerson’s new Civic Media Initiative, and will help create new programs with a focus on using media to promote civic engagement, according to Phillip Glenn, interim dean of the school of communication. They will also work with the Emerson Engagement Lab, a group of on-campus applied research labs focused on better understanding civic life and will potentially teach courses from a new proposed minor, Digital Media and Culture, if it is approved, said Ansell.

According Ansell, this “cluster hire” — the first of its kind at Emerson — was initially spurred by summer 2013 discussions regarding hiring needs between Chief Academic Officer Michaele Whelan, department deans, and others.

“The idea is to have a cluster of faculty working on civic media from these diverse disciplinary perspectives,” said Ansell.

The proposed Digital Media and Culture minor, currently pending approval by Emerson administrators, has been in development for at least two years, according to Ansell and Glenn. Even if the minor is denied, because the professors will be hired through separate departments, they will still have responsibilities within their respective departments. 

 “[The new faculty members] will have things to do whether that minor gets approved or not,” said Glenn. “Even if [the minor] somehow didn’t get through, they’re all teaching to the majors in their departments as well as creating new courses that will contribute to this interest in civic media.”

 Glenn said conversations with current and previous students about a desire for civic engagement, student social media use, and an analysis of course enrollment prompted him to look into creating a new minor. Glenn said he expects a Digital Media and Culture minor, which would have an emphasis on civic engagement and new technologies, would be well received by students.

“[This] seems like a great chance to bring in people who will connect back to different departments but also connect to each other,” he said.

Sophomore writing, literature, and publishing student Jess Stamey thinks professors who can specialize in civic engagement through digital media would be beneficial to social justice programs that many student groups begin themselves.

“A lot of stuff Emerson does with activism and social justice is started by students. The school doesn’t do much in terms of faculty-run programs, and these professors could help solidify student efforts [outside of the classroom],” Stamey said.

Eric Gordon, an associate professor of visual and media arts and executive director of the Engagement Game Lab, led the Civic Media Initiative search committee, which included representatives from the four departments hiring faculty members. Gordon was chosen in the fall by search committee members and worked with them and Whelan to craft job descriptions that would be appropriate for each of the involved departments. According to Gordon, the search is taking place this year because it meets President Pelton’s strategic goals.

Sophomore Ryan Stranieri said he has seen what he called a deficiency in programs like the Civic Media Initiative at Emerson, and thinks it would be good for the school’s curriculum. 

“Emerson has been lacking in new media programs, and this sounds like a good opportunity to inspire students to cross majors and work in a more interdisciplinary way,” said the visual and media arts major.

Each department has already conducted most of its interviews on the Boston campus, with finalists found by the search committee. According to Ansell, only one of each of the finalists from the journalism department and the institute for liberal arts have yet to have on-campus interviews. 

The communication studies department has made an offer to a prospective faculty member and is now in a final stage of negotiation, said Ansell.

“I would say that within the next four weeks, all of this will have been wrapped up and all four offers will have been made,” said Ansell.

According to Ansell, it is uncommon for a search committee to convene before a minor that the new faculty will be expected to participate in is approved. Ansell said it was more important that the coinciding faculty searches be completed as a group, than to wait for the approval of the minor.

“It’s perhaps somewhat unusual, and maybe we would have waited another year to do the Institute’s search,” said Ansell. “But given that [journalism, communications studies, and visual and media arts department] searches were going on as a cluster, we made the decision that it would be better for all four searches [to happen concurrently].”