Watercooler streams internationally

By Lisa Schulz

In the contemporary office, the water cooler is a key place for the free flow of information. At Columbia, however, WatercoolerJournal.tv is an online undergraduate- and instructor-run academic journal the Television Department started in September 2010 to stimulate critical dialogue.

TV episodes are critically analyzed by students, but due to an increasingly international following, the journal is accepting submissions from undergrads worldwide. But even as the journal grows, the prioritization process means an uncertain future.

“There are two memes that go around that I vehemently disagree with,” said Elissa Fineman, a lecturer in the Television Department and the website’s founder and editor-in-chief. “One is that young people today don’t think. That’s not true. I’ve been teaching college enough to know that. Two is [that] television is garbage. And that’s not true. So this journal takes on both of those.”

The Watercooler plans to expand its website with more articles, interviews and future media like YouTube video analyses. The monthly publication recently began conducting interviews with TV industry luminaries, including Jane Espenson, producer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The O. C.” and TV critic Maureen Ryan from the Television Critics Association.

The academic journal, published with WordPress, is unlike the opinion content found on most TV critics’ blogs, said Daniel Castro, junior television major and executive site manager.

Fineman said she sparked the idea of a critical publication when she reviewed students’ work in the Critical Studies and Aesthetics course she teaches. Fiction writers, film critics and graphic designers are enrolled in the writing-intensive class, and students are encouraged to submit academic papers from class assignments.

“Everyone assumes undergraduates [don’t] have original ideas,” Fineman said. “With a lot of fields, [when] you take something like biochemistry or even history, you have to study for many years before you’re going to come up with something original. Undergraduates have been watching TV their whole lives. They’ve been studying all of these years.”

The possibility remains of expanding beyond TV analysis and being recognized as a club, but those decisions won’t be under Fineman’s supervision.

She recently received her doctorate and is looking for a tenure track position elsewhere, she said.

The publication will continue under new management, but Fineman declined to name who because the decision is not final.

“We’re leaving it in good hands, but it was definitely [Fineman’s] baby and her brain-child,” said Devin Mainville, senior television major and senior website editor, who gained interest in the journal after Fineman’s class. “I think she’s left enough of it intact for it to still be what it was supposed to be even when she’s not there.”

Though the Television Department has been very supportive, Fineman said she’s unsure of whether the prioritization process will affect The Watercooler’s future.

“Cultural Landscapes,” an undergraduate, graduate and scholarly academic journal in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, recently experienced the after effects of a budget reduction, said Jaafar Aksikas, associate professor in the HHSS Department.

Aksikas, also the journal’s founder and current chief editor said he is concerned with the possible removal of the cultural studies major due to the prioritization process and the annual pay reduction from $2,500 to $200 for the journal’s student editor position.

“If you don’t pay students, they’re not going to take the work seriously,” Aksikas said. “Not because they [don’t] take the work seriously; they need to pay their bills. The first job of a student is to study really hard stuff … If people are juggling two part-time jobs, they’re not going to be able to focus on work.”

Full-time faculty members are required to teach six courses per academic year. In the past, one course was waived for faculty who worked as editor-in-chief of the journal. However, this incentive has since been removed, Aksikas said.

Columbia ranks fifth on the list of Top 10 U.S. programs in the field of Cultural Studies, according to Education Portal.

“[Volunteering] would amount to no one wanting to do the job, and therefore leading to the death of this project, unfortunately,” Aksikas said. “We’re concerned. It’s a lot of work to produce a journal.”

Only a few students on The Watercooler staff are getting paid, Fineman said. However, Castro said volunteering still pays off.

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” he said. “I remember Day One when I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Look at us now.”