Go West, Henry

Henry Jenkins recently announced he would be leaving MIT for sunnier and smoggier USC. Jenkins is a pioneer in the field of media studies, having been termed a modern-day Marshall McLuhan for his visionary and highly influential work. Having helped found the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, one of the few graduate programs of its kind in the country, Jenkins termed his feelings at leaving for USC as “Brutal-Sublime” (instead of “bittersweet”).

I know very little about Jenkins’ decision to move to Los Angeles, but I do know about him as a scholar and a thinker. He is, in a word that he would probably rightfully view as a compliment, a complete nerd. His blog is titled “Confessions of an Aca-Fan,” he encouraged his son to dictate fan-fiction at the age of 4, and counts a conversation about Star Trek as one of the early formative discussions he had with his wife. However, Jenkins also describers himself as “a humanist with a math phobia.”

And what a humanist he is. He is a prolific scholar, seemingly involved in endless numbers of projects and interests, which he blogs about with a truly jaw-dropping degree of thoughtfulness, eloquence, and creativity. He is even more impressive when speaking, as podcasts of lectures, talks, and presentations aptly demonstrate.

One of my favorite aspects of Henry Jenkins is his willingness to engage with such a wide audience. As the author of Convergence Culture and a proponent of the power of participatory culture, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Quick story: in one of his talks, Jenkins discusses how pop culture fans remix media. As an example, he pointed to the ability of internet and hip-hop musical phenom Soulja Boy to build a phenomenally widespread fan base through Youtube and MySpace largely through encouraging other users to remix and remash his work. Jenkins somehow managed to discuss it in a down-to-earth, incisive, and unpatronizing way. Too often commentators of pop culture, especially academics, come across as far too removed and clinical. Jenkins managed to turn it into a conversation that beautifully demonstrated the point he was making.

I am a scholar of history, first and foremost. But as one with a strong interest in how technology can enhance our approaches to studying history, I count Henry Jenkins as a strong intellectual influence. In history circles, USC’s graduate program is seen as up-and-coming. While I can’t speak to how accurate this perception is, I can say for certain the school as a whole just landed itself a remarkable catch. I wish Henry Jenkins all the luck at USC, and am confident he will continue his leadership in contributing to how we understand media and culture.