The week that John L. Jackson Jr. officially took over as dean of Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, front-page headlines announced a suicide-screening program from Facebook, censorship in China, photos from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, and podcasts in Hollywood. They also touched on sexism and racism, a divided government, and the 2020 presidential election.
Topics like censorship and privacy in social media should drive discourse at a communication school, but Jackson, who is the school’s fifth dean, wants Annenberg to be part of conversations about politics and those other heady issues, too.
“There might have been a time when people could have imagined that issues central to a communication school weren’t necessarily the most fundamental issues. But now, no matter where you turn, all the questions we have—cultural, political, existential—the most pressing are so often about communication,” he says. “Being at Annenberg now means being somewhere designed to help guide these fraught and difficult discussions.”
Though he’s just a few months into his tenure as Annenberg dean, Jackson has high hopes for further cultivating a culture that encourages broad conversations about challenging topics. He wants to support students and faculty as they incorporate social justice into their work—something he championed at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice—and provide an opportunity for Ph.D. students across campus to carve out a year for film history, film/media theory, and intensive film production as a way to inform their theorizing. Oh, and he plans to teach, too.
“We’re thinking together about these issues in ways that should have an impact on the policy decisions and practical questions we ask about the media landscape,” he says. “The stakes are high; it’s not just an academic discussion. This is where the rubber hits the road in the real world.”
Learning the power of media
Jackson’s path to Annenberg started long before he arrived in Philadelphia. During his junior and senior year at a Brooklyn, New York high school, he hosted a comedy radio show, “The Jackson Attraction,” giving him his first window into the power of media. As an undergraduate at Howard University, he switched mediums. “Howard taught me how to make films,” Jackson says, though he clarifies it wasn’t like today’s digital video. “Back then, we were still changing magazines in black bags and sending them off to the lab, hoping we got the right exposure.”
Though Jackson understood how to tell stories, he didn’t feel he had any particularly great ones to share. Visual anthropology and ethnographic filmmaking offered the best of both worlds, providing fodder for strong narrative through the people he met and a vehicle to showcase those characters. So, despite little previous pertinent experience, he began applying to anthropology graduate programs.
“I told them I wanted to make ethnographic films about cultures and communities all around the world,” he explains. No one took the bait—that is, until a lucky break: A new Columbia University faculty member, one who specialized in film and anthropology, was about to start. “If they hadn’t hired that person,” he concedes, “they probably wouldn’t have accepted me at all.” Jackson went on to complete two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. at Columbia, all in anthropology.
Each of those programs helped him hone his voice and his storytelling skills, but it quickly became apparent that writing—not filmmaking—was the prized format of the day. “I’m stubborn enough that I kept making movies, but I did it under the cover of darkness,” Jackson says. “I really only came out as a filmmaker once I was done and headed off to my postdoc” at Harvard.
That’s why it was so important to Jackson that any job he took allow him to engage with students about film. After three-plus years teaching anthropology and documentary studies at Duke, Jackson came to Penn in the spring of 2006. He’s been here ever since.
Filmmaking, front and center
Barbie Zelizer, who runs Annenberg’s Center for Media at Risk, was on the search committee that first picked up the CV of a young academic named John L. Jackson Jr. “None of us knew him when he came in through the application process,” she says, “but we all felt like we kind of hit the jackpot.”
Jackson felt it, too.
The intention was to hire him as a media ethnographer at Annenberg, to study and think about mass media and teach ethnographic methods. “But once the process began and we started talking to the dean and the provost, when the dust settled, I also had an appointment in the Department of Anthropology,” he explains. He was the first Penn Integrates Knowledge professor, a program Amy Gutmann launched shortly after she became Penn president in 2004 aimed at recruiting important scholars whose work crossed multiple disciplines.
Finally, Jackson had the freedom to ask the kinds of questions he’d wanted to ask since his academic trajectory began and the opportunity to teach both undergraduates and graduate students about film. He continued to push the envelope, creating a program that asked Penn doctoral students to spend at least one full year, maybe longer, focusing intensively on film theory and practice.
“I wanted them to use that time scrutinizing their relationship to the camera, so they could turn on the camera the same way they’d turn on the computer, not think twice about it,” Jackson says. Twenty-six students from at least four Penn schools took part. “When it was done, we had students who didn’t have to pretend they weren’t making films. They were saying, in the light of day, that making films was important to their scholarly goals. It was transformational.”
That’s a fair assessment, if you ask Jasmine Cobb, Jackson’s first Annenberg Ph.D. student and now an associate professor at Duke. She was already in her first year at Annenberg when Jackson joined the faculty. He became her advisor, helping her to complete a dissertation on the visual representation of free African Americans during slavery.
But they also connected over conversations about contemporary representations of African Americans on screen. “We were always talking more generally about the latest films, about different pop culture that struck us as relevant to theories of the visual,” Cobb says. “Having someone who shared my general interest as a cultural consumer, but who was also so well-versed in the theory and criticism of visual culture was really important for me.”
Cobb’s research touched another area close to Jackson’s heart, too. While at Duke, he’d been affiliated with the school’s Africana Studies Department, but until 2012, Penn didn’t formally have one. With the establishment of such a program, Jackson took on a third appointment in the new Africana Studies Department. “I was trying to work equally in all three,” he says, “bringing in students who had that interdisciplinary interest, too.”
A boundary-pushing leader
Jackson’s penchant for reaching a broad range of students and for being unafraid to experiment with the definition of “scholarship” didn’t go unnoticed. In 2007, he was named associate dean of undergraduate studies at Annenberg, which overlapped with an appointment as senior advisor to the provost on diversity starting in 2012. He was also a Penn Fellow, a program started by Provost Emeritus Vincent Price aimed at providing faculty exposure to university leadership, which led to a role as Annenberg’s associate dean of administration.
“While this was all happening, I was on the search committee for the dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice to replace Rich Gelles,” Jackson says. “I had fallen in love with the school during the search process.” When it was over, Jackson was named as dean, a position he held for four-and-a-half years.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship: Jackson was able to incorporate the film and media work he’d always done to figure out strong ways to communicate about social justice, and SP2’s students and faculty inspired him in the way they encouraged fairness and equity in every context. Jackson brought back to Annenberg what he’d learned.
Given today’s unprecedented media landscape, it’s crucial to think strategically about how to communicate heavy topics, he says. “There are so many different ways to be part of and organize larger public conversations. How does the evolving media landscape actually change? How does it influence us as individuals and as a collective? Those questions are central to today’s major debates, both political and ideological.”
Beyond that, the visuals—which fall squarely into Jackson’s wheelhouse—are having a moment like never before.
“Visuals, at least in the news, have always played a secondary role to words,” says Zelizer of the Center for Media at Risk. “But today, we see more visuals of everything, whether it’s terrorism or war or the critique of President Trump outside the kind of truth-telling discourses like news and documentaries. It’s about time we upped the ante.”
Jackson’s current students, like fifth-year doctoral candidate John Vilanova, feel it too, and feel support in their pursuit of such boundary-pushing.
“It’s clear that John has an expansive vision for what is possible in this field, what is possible as a scholar, what is possible at Penn, what is possible for grad students,” says Vilanova, whose doctoral work focuses on structural and institutional inequality in the music industry. Right now, “the field is trying to figure out what the next generation of scholars looks like. I can’t think of a better person to be leading the school when it has the opportunity to shape that.”
John L. Jackson Jr. is the Walter H. Annenberg Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and the Richard Perry University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was previously Dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice and special advisor to the Provost on Diversity at Penn.
Jasmine Cobb is the Bacca Foundation Associate Professor in the Department of African & African American Studies and the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University.
Homepage photo: Early on in his career, Jackson felt he wasn’t given the time or space to study film in the way he desired. It’s a feeling he hopes never to replicate for students across the University, offering them as much opportunity as possible to pursue their scholarly curiosities “in the light of day.”