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College anticipates long-awaited media studies major

Budding journalists, filmmakers, television producers and other media buffs at the University soon may find a new home in a proposed interdisciplinary major, media studies, which might be implemented as early as the fall of 2001 or 2002.

While the media studies degree still has a few hurdles to clear before it becomes a full-fledged major, it has picked up some momentum from the hiring of Director Johanna Drucker last spring.

Plans for the program have been in the works since 1995, and while the major will not be official until 2001 or 2002, the core classes may be available in the fall of 2000.

By that timetable, interested students who are currently first and second years will be able to major in media studies. Already, many interested students have contacted Drucker.

"I fear [interest] will be alarmingly high," Drucker said.

The English department hired Drucker to coordinate the new interdisciplinary major, which she says will involve many different academic departments and focus strongly on media culture, history and criticism.

Board of Visitors member Timothy B. Robertson and his wife, Lisa Nelson Robertson, donated $500,000 in 1997 to create the Robertson Professor of Media Studies position that Drucker now holds.

Robertson said he hoped the program would teach students practical skills in communications while still offering a broad liberal arts education.

In his work experience, Robertson, the former president of the International Family Entertainment cable network, said he noticed that many prospective employees had graduated from journalism or communications programs but had a limited understanding of fields like politics, literature and humanities.

He said the observation led him to believe that a well-rounded education is as important for a student of communications as practical knowledge such as how to write a news story or operate a video camera.

"If people could sample a little wider liberal arts curriculum, they'd come out of school a little better rounded," Robertson said.

Timetable

College officials said while they hoped to get the basic media studies courses established by the fall of 2000, there still may be impediments that could delay its implementation.

"It has to be academically sound, invented in an intelligent way and has to be cleared through a variety of bureaucratic channels," said Jessica Feldman, associate dean for personnel and planning. "It has to go through a committee at the University of Virginia and it has to be cleared by the state."

Former Assoc. College Dean Bernard Mayes planned to bring a media studies department and major to the University as early as 1995, but was unable to do so because of a lack of funding. Mayes taught classes on documentary filmmaking and TV script writing while pushing for the creation of the major, but the lack of money remained an obstacle.

Drucker called Mayes a "godfather to the project" and said she continues to consult with Mayes, who now is retired.

In 1997, the Robertsons' donation made it possible to hire a director of a media studies major, said Adam Daniel, assistant to College Dean Melvyn P. Leffler.

That donation also paid for the high-tech Robertson Media Center in Clemons Library.

The construction of the center "built momentum" for the creation of the major, said fourth-year College student Anna Robertson, the executive editor of the University news web site The Angle.com and a member of the committee that helped to select Drucker.

In the spring of 1999, a selection committee of students and faculty members with a special interest in media formed to screen candidates for the director position.

Fourth-year College student Adam Popp, member of the search committee, said he felt the University was making good progress with the plans for the program.

"You look at top schools and they have similar programs," Popp said. The University "realized it was behind the times."

Although hiring Drucker was a leap forward for the program, it still must be cleared by University and state officials.

As a result, the major might not be in place until as late as 2002, Feldman said.

Despite the many years it has taken - and still may take - to establish the major, she said the amount of time is not unusual for such a project.

"Although it sounds far in the future, that's good progress," she added.

Blue prints

Drucker said her plans for the media studies curriculum include a core series of classes on theory and methodology, a competency course to teach students hands-on skills such as screenwriting or filmmaking, and several different specialty areas - like media history, aesthetics and media policy - that students can choose to study in depth.

She said she now is coordinating the core classes for the major, while taking existing classes into account. Other people involved in the program have their own ideas for the curriculum as well.

Timothy Robertson said he hopes the University can raise funds to hire visiting professors straight from the working world, such as print journalists, directors and writers.

Wyatt Andrews, a CBS news correspondent and 1974 College graduate, is an example of someone the University might try to recruit for such a professorship, Robertson said.

Anna Robertson said she wants to ensure that the new program serves students specifically interested in journalism.

She said she was concerned that journalism faculty members did not have heavy involvement in the process and that other forms of media such as film would be emphasized more.

She added that she planned to meet with Drucker to discuss strengthening the journalism component of the media studies curriculum.

Jill of all Trades

With the hiring of "a qualified professor to direct the program," the University now has the "backbone" of the new major in place, Anna Robertson said.

Drucker's qualifications in the media studies field come from years of eclectic experiences in the fields of teaching, publishing and art.

Most recently, Drucker set up a graduate studies program in media studies at State University of New York at Purchase. Prior to her stint at SUNY Purchase she spent a total of 12 years teaching art and art history, first at the University of Texas-Dallas and later at Harvard, Columbia and Yale Universities.

She has written several books on the printed word, exploring topics ranging from the alphabet to typography, and says she recently has taken a special interest in digital media.

Drucker also said she is encouraged by the University's abundance of digital media resources.

(Cavalier Daily Focus Editor Nicola M. White contributed to this story.)

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