material studies

Jennifer Terni, Associate Professor of French (Literatures, Cultures, and Languages)

screen-shot-2016-10-18-at-1-20-12-pm1. What initially intrigued you about research/teaching in digital humanities or media studies?  

My interest in media studies is a longstanding one and is no doubt rooted in my inter-disciplinarity.   My MA in history was about the ideological valences of one of France’s most successful early pulp fiction writers, Eugène Sue.  Working on Sue forced me to consider the problem of distribution and audience. I realized from correspondence about him that different groups had very different investments in Sue’s work. Because of the difficulties of describing reception, the explanations of these differences were often uncomfortably reductive (class interest, commercial distraction for the masses, etc…).  As I developed a potential subject for my Ph.D., about the ways in which theater was rooted within Parisian cultural networks, I realized that what I was really after was to imagine new ways to account for and describe these differences.  This is how my Ph.D. project evolved into a much broader study of early mass culture.  The research has led me, over the years, to explore the countless ways that media in the 1830s, ’40s and ‘50s transformed how people were positioned—and positioned themselves—in terms of a reality that was increasingly defined by large numbers of other people. And though it is true that media could be a weapon, what we find when we look more closely was that it was more often—and very self-consciously—a resource that helped people to make sense of how they were being redefined as individuals and as collectives.  The active investments of individuals in media as well as in countless other practices that media helped support played a major role in propelling the rise of a culture increasingly defined by scale.

2. Has entering the DHMS realm changed your approach to research and teaching in general? If so, how?

This past semester I taught a new graduate course on 19th-century media.  It would have been impossible to give this course even a decade ago, since it was built on the shoulders of major digitized archives including Gallica at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Hathi Trust, and ARTFL, to name but a few.  To make use of them effectively, however, I had to build an extensive website as a platform from which to organize the many primary sources that we explored as a group as well as to give a picture of what 19th-century media would have looked like. What is more, I tried, as much as possible, to get the students to experience what it would have been like to consume media in the 19th century, for instance, by reading a pulp fiction novel in installments in a newspaper.  This experiment was more successful than I could have hoped.  What is more, occasionally I sent the students to the Dodd archive to encounter 19th-century artifacts more directly (illustrated newspapers, daguerreotype, stereoscopes, photographic technology).  The impact of those encounters was intense in large part because the students had been engaged with primary sources throughout the semester: they had seen the exploding variety of media forms in the 1800s, but also knew firsthand how even very disparate forms were interconnected. They had also read theoretical and historical articles that helped them think about what kinds of cultural work these different genres and platforms were performing.  Touching the actual artifact was meaningful because to them it was already embedded in a web of references and ways of thinking about media, but also because it contrasted with all of the digital content they had been using throughout the semester.  It was thus doubly a material encounter with material culture.

3. You have three (commitment-free) wishes to receive support for your research/teaching in DH or media studies: what are they?

  1. I would love to get support for teaching students how to conduct big-data research on historical sources and to also become critical about the strengths and limits of such research.
  2. I used a digital lab for this graduate class.  It was essential to the conduct of the course.  Each student was seated at a desktop computer.  We often looked at things together in class (illustrations, plays, newsprint, exhibition sites, audio and early film recordings) either as a group or did individual research on a question that was raised in class in real time (this is where the website I built was indispensable as all the resources we needed were centralized and accessible).  Making sure such classrooms are available was essential (and it was, it turns out, a struggle to find such space especially for a graduate class).
  3. I put in a good hundred hours building my website.  Some support for this would have been great too.

4. First struggles and successes: do you have any best-practice advice?

  1. Imagine your course as an overall process of active engagement and experimentation as opposed to being about a set of materials or themes.  Organize it it in terms of activities versus readings.
  2. Try to step out of your normal reflexes in designing your class.  As I got more deeply into the selection of my materials, I worried about the quality of individual samples — their canonicity in other words.  It finally dawned on me that this was exactly the wrong approach.  Letting the students be exposed to media more randomly and giving them tools for engaging with it meaningfully was far more useful pedagogically in terms of the development of their critical and interpretive skills.  They learned how to make fine distinctions between medium, platform, genre, device, formula, topos, so they actually learned to become better readers in a literary sense.  Even as they became increasingly fluent in these distinctions, they also became aware of how much, especially after the 1830s, the development of one genre and platform affected the development of others, even if they did not seem to share obvious affinities.
  3. Do not worry about the interest of any one artifact.  It turned out that the students were interested in everything, precisely because it fit into a whole web, both at the level of 19th-century media production, but also in the conversations we were having about it in class.

5. How would you like to challenge yourself in DH or media studies? Or what is a project you most seek to realize?

To learn about a new media form as a tool for teaching, but even more as a subject for research.  This applies as much to 19th-century media as to the latest platforms.  I am most invested in considering the problems media raises and solves in terms of communication, cognition, socialization, cultural impacts.  I am always interested in mastering new digital tools to be able to create new learning environments (while noting that in many of my classes I have a “no computer/phone” policy).  Ideally, I’d love to happen upon a question in my research that might lead, organically, to being able to develop a meaningful crowd-based research project. qa