Pitzer Media Studies is the Natural Arena
in which Students Can Engage Their Communities and Fight for Social Justice
In our consumer society the mainstream media acts as a market engine, driving the economy with shills, pitches and product placements in every conceivable venue. Television shows, network news, T-shirts, the tattooed foreheads of shameless eBay entrepreneurs, even the movies—once hallowed ground but now more and more used as vehicles for products—all want to sell you something.
“The dominant media’s job is to sell you stuff,” Alex Juhasz says, “So they want you to be comfortable. Its function is to say the status quo is exactly how it should be. ‘You should be comfortable here now like this,’ they tell you. We’re told, ‘This is the way it is and this is the way it should be,’ as opposed to being told, ‘Well, this is what our society looks like right now and here’s something wrong with that.’”
Professor Juhasz should know. She has been studying the media for more than 20 years and teaching Media Studies at Pitzer for a decade. Juhasz was initially attracted to the College because of its unwavering commitment to integrating social responsibility and action with the study of theory and practice.
“I am a scholar who makes and I am a scholar and a maker who wants to work in the community with real people,” she says. “The being in the community part would have been frowned on in other places I worked at. The making and the hands-on part already had been frowned on. I knew at Pitzer, that part of my work would be supported and encouraged.”
Pitzer expects the same thing of its students: action in the community and involvement in social justice. Media Studies is the natural arena in which that can happen, Juhasz explains.
“We study photography, film, video, digital works, print journalism, advertising and critical analysis and theory. Media Studies is the study—the history, the theories, and for us, the hands-on efforts, the contextualizing, the aesthetics and the politics—of the many media in our culture. That fits into Pitzer’s educational objectives quite elegantly and naturally.”
“This has to do with the way we teach Media Studies, which is different from any other school in the country,” Juhasz continues. “We emphasize hands-on learning and the traditional liberal arts approach. Typically those are separated so you do your hands-on training in an art department and you do the media studies in a liberal arts education. We do them both in our major. Our students go into the community and engage in work for social justice and intercultural understanding using the media as a tool both locally and internationally.”
Pitzer’s use of the media defies conventional and traditional commercial modes of expression. Observation and participation, critique and production are fused together in the interest of countering the prevailing attitudes in the dominant media.
“The way to fix the media is to become aware, first and foremost,” Juhasz says. “One of the things we believe at Pitzer that usually is not true at other liberal arts programs is that you must become a participant in the system. You are not just a critic. Being a critic of the system is completely viable and very important. But you also become a participant through our program. You don’t look at it and say, ‘This is what’s wrong with it.’ You enter the system and you change it by practicing within it.”
“The mainstream media has abandoned 90 percent of the valuable things it can contribute to society,” Juhasz states, referring to the question of the role of media in society. Media, she explains, is the dominant force in the culture. “The media creates the commonly held ideas of what a culture is, what it should be, who is valued in that culture and what a culture values. The big ideas and the most important things in that culture are expressed and often regulated in the media, which is not to suggest that the political spectrum or economics aren’t important. But as we all know, more and more of what we used to call politics happens in the media. More and more of what we used to call the economic realm happens through the media. Ideas, money and power are relayed through these forms of communication.”
“A Pitzer graduate would say that it is the place where if you’re going to contest power you need to be doing your work,” she says. “You want to speak to power in the language of power. It is one thing to go out into the world and change something. But it’s another thing entirely to represent something differently in the media, to allow someone to have a voice in the media whose voice is not there, to allow people to become more critical viewers of media so they can understand the ways their ideas are being shaped. You need to know how the dominant system works and the entry points into that system. There is lots of room for individuals and counteropinions in this big thing we call media.”
The Media Studies program at Pitzer and the Claremont Colleges creates critically knowledgeable participants in mediated culture, Juhasz says, to provide the point of balance between commerce and industrial products on the one hand and projects outside the mainstream media.
“We all know what we’re doing,” she explains. “Our students know what we’re doing. This is how young people need to be educated about this massively significant and powerful force in contemporary existence. We want our students to leave being better able to analyze the dominance of the media, to understand how the media works, why it works that way now in American history and in global history.”
Her point about the media is not completely cynical, Juhasz explains. It is possible to imagine a nearly perfect state in which the media reflects back to us exactly who we are, she says, or a media with a constantly balanced flow of light entertainment and critical awareness.
“It is important to understand that any time we represent something it will always carry with it that representation, other ideas, whether they’re conscious or unconscious, marked or unmarked. What we want people to know about the media is that that’s just part of what it does. And if you see that, then there’s a kind of clarity. Given that it can’t be objective, what is it? What is the media like here? What is it like in England? What is it like in Africa? What is it like in the Soviet Union? Each one of those systems is not objective.”
“Look, I love a good movie,” she says. “I’m not against Hollywood films. I enjoy going to the cinema. But entertainment over a bowl of popcorn is only one thing the media can provide. And that’s a good thing. It can also provide education, representation, big ideas; it can create beauty and incredible feelings. It has all these great functions and most of them have been lost in the dominant media.”
And that, most people here would agree, is where Pitzer comes in.