Print Edition: March 26, 2014
I’ve seen a shift in academia, even comparing my first year of university to my last. It’s gotten cooler; with the constant creation and propagation of new works, there is no shortage of material to study. Do you want to study memes? You can do that. Do you want to study the themes and societal meaning in The Simpsons? UFV offers a class.
But just because you can study almost anything doesn’t mean it will be accepted by the academic community.
Academia is like an old cat; persnickety, temperamental, and pretty sure of what it likes and dislikes.
Take most English courses; for a long time, if not forever, English courses have had a fixation with the classics, which generally translates into a syllabus full of dead white men. Most works have been around so long that there’s no way there can be anything left to say about it. By now, everything about Romeo and Juliet or “Ode to a Grecian Urn” has been said, not that this fact stops the production of thousands of undergrads theses in Introduction to Shakespeare classes every semester.
Which makes English an interesting subject for comparison to media and communication studies.
Better known as MACS, media and communications takes the same analytical approach from English and applies it to everything created and consumed by society. This ranges from television shows to movies to memes to social media. Perhaps you’ve heard of UFV’s Simpsons course, or the even-newer course that parses the meaning and themes of professional wrestling.
This is something that English could take a hint from. Contemporary studies are a rare bird in UFV’s department; despite the sheer amount of words that are written and published every day, English continues its obsession with the old and the dead.
This is a problem that extends into academia as a whole; there is no priority placed on being accessible, or even necessarily interesting.
This presents a problem for any research that falls outside the acceptable limits. Sure, it sounds cool to research television shows or the propagation and meaning of memes, but where is that really going to get you?
For author, professor, and PhD graduate Anne Helen Petersen, the answer was BuzzFeed.
Petersen’s academic research centres around celebrity culture. It’s interesting, engaging, pertinent to contemporary society, but also narrows her academic job prospects from slim to none.
So she found another form of groundwork that would support and publish her work.
“I might burn some bridges with it, but here goes: much of academic writing prides itself on being as inaccessible as possible,” she told the Hairpin. “But as a friend of mine said amidst her time on the market, ‘academia is drunk’ — not belligerent or irresponsible so much [as] single-sightedly focused on things that may or may not ultimately matter.”
Switching to BuzzFeed from academia sounds like selling out, and Petersen says some of her peers have had that reaction. But the long and the short of it is that she can’t get taken seriously in her field; universities are reluctant to hire her or fund her research because it doesn’t sound like real research. After all, how can an article about Jennifer Lawrence’s place as the “cool girl” be real research?
The point of information is not to keep it exclusive and inaccessible, but to share it — something academia seems to have forgotten, as any university student slogging through scholarly journals can attest.
In this way, as with all other platforms that refuse to stay current, academia risks becoming outdated. We’ve already heard that degrees are worth less than ever; why pursue academia at all if it’s not only going to be worthless, but boring as hell?
Internet platforms — like BuzzFeed, like Wired magazine — are quick to snap up the researchers and writers and authors that academia doesn’t want. As a result, popular media is more informed and accessible than ever, leaving academia’s convoluted language and structure looking worse for wear.
“As more and more people with PhD behind their names find themselves in situations similar to mine, we’ve been forced to radically reconsider what we thought ‘teaching’ and ‘dialogue’ looks like. But I think that might ultimately be for the best?” Petersen says in her Hairpin interview. “I guess I just don’t see the need for strict boundaries of what’s ‘academic’ or ‘public’ work, what’s ‘pop’ or ‘intellectual,’ what does or does not ‘belong’ on sites like BuzzFeed. My work tries to be all those adjectives, and I think it belongs wherever people will support and ask questions about it.”
Because given the choice, I pick contemporary works over old white guys. I pick zombies over sonnets. I pick professional wrestling over Shakespeare. I pick the internet over academia, because maybe — just maybe — the internet is where the new academia will actually get read.
And that’s not a bad thing.