James joined the Governors State University faculty in 2011 to help grow and develop the media studies program, which officially launched in 2014. “We’re in year four and we’ve had constant growth,” she said.
At the dynamic intersection of multimedia forms, content and delivery, the program she helped launch began with one concentration in Media Industry and Production with a focus on live television and cross-platform production.
Today, the program also offers a second concentration, — Social Networking and Participatory Culture, which focuses on the convergence of communication technologies, mass media, and social practices, as well as online production and distribution — along with a host of courses on trendy topics such as Netflix, and a senior seminar to help graduating students focus on their careers and internship opportunities.
Governors State University provides James an “experimental and open” atmosphere to develop the program and continue her own research, she said.
“It has given me a significant opportunity to do amazing work,” said James, whose work has been published in journals including “Feminist Media Studies” and the “Journal of Communication.”
One of her greatest pleasures is working with students in a variety of internships – from guiding interns of Sports Broadcasting in the GSU television studios, to advising students interning with industry partners in Chicago, to working alongside student interns producing the international 24-hour live-stream for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project in New York City.
James, a recipient of the 2014 GSU Excellence Award, noted the extensive internship opportunities stemmed out of a desire for her students to have a direct connection to the industry. “There’s a lot of mentoring that goes on here,” she said.
GSU Newsroom: One of your classes is about Netflix. How is Netflix changing media today?
James: Netflix is a bit of an upstart company, just over 20 years old, but it really broke with traditional American television structure and delivery in that it is a subscriber-based model for television production. In traditional broadcast television, the advertiser decides the content. In contrast, Netflix monitors their subscribes and based on what people watch they can—with a very complex algorithm—determine what people will watch or what they want to watch.
Are they the first to do this? No. Are they the best to do it? One would argue that right now, yes. From a creative perspective, Netflix has had a significant impact on storytelling and scriptwriting.
In traditional shows, you would write a season of say 13 episodes with each script written to fill time from commercial break to commercial break. Everything has to be written to accommodate those breaks. In Netflix originals, you see a different approach to story and character arc that some describe as more like a novel. They’re not creating a story made up of 13 episodes; they’re creating an epic multi-hour story, where one episode flows into another and the audience can check in or check out whenever they want. You can sit there and watch multiple episodes or one episode of the story and it’s visually pleasing and it’s intellectually engaging.
From an industry perspective, over the next 10 years, industry leaders have indicated that broadcast TV could be increasingly replaced by streaming TV, international production partnerships, and stories from around the world. Our students need to understand how these changes impact the creative production end of things and the meaning of how stories are constructed, as well as the impact of media forms of production and distribution methods. To meet this need, we offer a series of courses that focus on emerging trends impacting the meaning of television, as well as courses for our students planning on working behind the scenes within the media industry.
GSU Newsroom: How does your senior seminar fit into a student’s development?
James: This course assists senior students as they transition from undergraduate study to graduate school or a professional work environment. It provides students the tools to develop a professional portfolio, review and demonstrate what they have learned over the course of their degrees.
Students enroll in this course in their final semester before graduation at the time they are preparing for the next stage of their lives and figuring out how to fulfill their life and career aspirations. I’m a big believer in planning backed up by action and this course serves them individually by helping each student identify their best course of action. We partner with Career Services and through conducting research, attending workshops, interviewing professionals in their industry, and often applying for graduate school, internships and jobs throughout the semester, they are better equipped to make a plan of concrete steps to meet these aspirations.
GSU Newsroom: What is your current research project?
James: My area of research is looking at production practices in media, documentary or performance media.
Currently, I’m focusing on developing a research project in the Florida Keys where I have lived on and off since the 1980s. The project goal is to explore the local community and its relationship with the Florida Reef, the only living coral reef in the continental U.S. through the stories and underwater videos. Of value to both humanities scholars and the public, this project explores the unique role of underwater documentary footage and divers’ filmmaking practices and narratives to better understand how we inhabit, interact with, and interpret life within our oceans, lakes, and waterways through documentary media.
This project got started once I learned that there are over 300,000 underwater videos shot in the Florida Keys and posted to YouTube. Some have garnered more than a half million views, making anyone with the will to go diving a potential documentarian with a global audience. I find this concept of holiday action-video meets conservation at a time of climate change fascinating and worthy of study.
GSU Newsroom: What is one bit of advice you would give your students?
James: Dream big. And while you are at it, be nimble and continue to learn and change with the industry. To stand out, you need to be a strong communicator, network-builder, and critical thinker.