Archive for teaching

More Syllabus Scramble

I’m still in the process of sorting through ideas for my graduate course on “Technology in the Language Arts Curriculum,” and I’d like to jot down a few ideas and request even more suggestions. In a comment on a separate post, Maria reminded me that I should be aware of the “paranoia” that exists in some school districts regarding the use of digital technologies, and in general her comments suggested that I should perhaps leave some flexibility in assignments with the recognition that students will be coming into the course with specific needs and possibilities (and thanks to everyone who has already commented online or IRL). Many of these thoughts were inspired by conversations and panels at this year’s MLA convention, and more recently, by a number of blog posts and other materials.

One of my frustrations in thinking about such a course is the degree to which the existence of digital technologies have been used to reify an entire generation of students, to assume on the one hand that Kids Today have shorter attention spans and on the other that they are fluent in using digital technologies. These assumptions often say more about the people who articulate them and their attitudes toward digital technologies than about actual students, and in fact, I would argue that attention is relative. Take for example the attention required to play video games for hour at a time, attention I sure don’t have. At the same time, students use some digital technologies, such as texting and social networking sites, but may not others. Still, it’s clear that digital media can be used to rethink writing, argument, and other concepts commonly addressed in the freshman composition classroom (and elsewhere). To take just one quick example, Alex Halavais has an intriguing post on the role of the web in creating a “distributed memory” that will provide us with a more detailed dossier on pretty much everyone. He imagines what we will potentially know about our 49th president, who willlikley have a Facebook page, a MySpace account, and who may blog or Twitter. These questions of information literacy are important and I’m excited to be asking them with a group of current (or future) teachers.

As I mentioned in an update to my previous post, I’d like to spend some time thinking about microblogging in general and Twitter in particular. As the election season deepened, I became a much more avid Twitter user, and the Twitter panel at MLA, reviewed here by media scholar Cathy Davidson, covered many of the strengths (and concerns) about Twitter. As the panelists pointed out, a number of critics have argued that Twitter fosters an unhealthy narcissism and that it prevents deeper reflection. However, these readings often focus only at the level of the individual “tweet,” which taken out of context can seem a bit navel-gazing. Instead, the panel helped to provide a language for thinking about the connective elements of Twitter and its larger role in aggregating knowledge. To be sure, this aggregation could (and probably will) be used in some form of data mining–imagine what the two major political parties could do with all of this year’s election tweets–but the “ambient intimacy” of Twitter can be used in a variety of powerful ways, as Shaun Huston and Nick Rombes point out in a couple of recent posts.

I’d also like to spend some time talking specifically about Wikipedia and about wikis more generally. David Parry’s article, “Wikipedia and the New Curriculum,” looks like one good place to start. In my freshman composition classes, I often try to have a conversation with my students about what they’re taught about Wikipedia, and in some cases, they are still taught not to consult it. David’s article addresses how Wikipedia fits within contemporary digital literacies and looks like a good starting point for larger conversations about how to do internet research. If you have other articles or discussions of Wikipedia, both positive and negative, I’d enjoy having them.

One alternative assignment that I’m considering is getting my students involved in one of this year’s Teaching Carnivals. I’ve already volunteered to host one, and given that George is hoping to expand the concept of the carnival to include interviews with educators at all levels, getting the class involved might be a good way (1) to diversify the carnival’s contents even further and (2) to illustrate how some of the social networking and social bookmarking technologies can be used in creative ways (on a relate note, I’ll also likely encourage my students to play with some during this semester (here are my course links, so far).

I’m continuing to sort out ideas for my class wiki idea, The Fayetteville Project, which would entail using wiki software to create a hyperlinked text about Fayetteville. I’d like to avoid creating something that is either a consumer guide or an encyclopedia. Those materials already exist online. Instead, I’d like to do something closer to Benjamin’s Arcades Project, albeit on a smaller scale. Brian Croxall’s suggestion of incorporating timelines using Google docs also looks like a good activity. There are a couple of really good histories of Fayetteville, and students who wanted to identify traces of the past in the present would be welcome to do so.

Finally, I do want to spend some time thinking about how my approach to this course is invested in recent scholarship on participatory media. I think that essays such as Henry Jenkins’ “Why Heather Can Write,” is one good place to start, but I’d also like to discuss some of the essays compiled in Joi Ito’s FreeSouls collection, including Howard Rheingold’s “Participative Pedagogy for a Literacy of Literacies” and Dan Gillmor’s “Principles for a New Media Literacy” (thanks to Tama for the last two links). I’ll try to pot something more specific–possibly even a draft of a syllabus–in the next few days, and as always, I’d love any feedback that you might be able to offer.

Update: By the way, here is the course blog for English 518, in case anyone is interested.

Update 2: I’ve started a new post on “Wikis and Place” in order to continue the conversation that started here and to respond to Krista’s blog comments on her 35 W Bridge Collapse course wiki, comments that started out on Twitter, evolved into an email conversation, and then found another form as a blog post.

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Saturday Links

Thanks again to everyone for their thoughtful suggestions on the graduate course I’ll be teaching in the spring, “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom.”  I’m still working through ideas but will incorporate many of your suggestions.  I’m also becoming even more excited about the “Fayetteville Project” idea.  More on that in the next few days, hopefully.  For now, though, a few links:

  • First, from Smashing Magazine, 30 Unforgettable Movie Title Sequences.  As you might imagine, Saul Bass makes a number of appearances.  One notable exception off the top of my head: the opening to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums, a great mix of Alec Baldwin’s storybook narration, the montage of character introductions, and the Mutato Muzika Orchestra’s “Hey Jude.” But like them, I’m a big fan of those stylized ’60s animated sequences (Charade, Psycho, North by Northwest). 
  • Speaking of opening sequences, Sujewa posted the opening nine minutes of his documentary, Indie Film Bloggers Road Trip, on YouTube.  I’m featured in the movie, and here’s my take on the documentary and my experience of watching myself.  Just FYI, I don’t appear in this section of the movie.
  • Patrick Ruffini of techPres has an interesting post on the role of Twitter in mediating the internet, arguing that the microblogging service has become “an outpost that favors the scrappy, authentic outsiders.”  I’m not quite sure I buy the metaphor.  After all, there are relative power hierarchies on Twitter, just like anywhere else, but I also think the focus on popularity may obscure some of the other, more important, aspects of just how Twitter functions within multiple, overlapping internet groupings.
  • J.D. Lasica has a pointer to Mark Glaser’s MediaShift post on alternative business models for newspapers.  The financial crisis of the newspaper industry is well-documented, but at the same time, it’s impossible to dismiss the importance of a vibrant, critical newspaper industry with energetic local reporting.  Glaser covers a number of challenges, classified advertising revenue lost to free services such as Craigslist, and potential alternatives, such as crowdfunding and hyper-localized ads.  As Lasica notes, there are no silver bullets here, but Glaser offers a thoughtful overview of some of the more prominent models.  On a related note, Tama Leaver points out a New York Times article on The Media is Dying, a Twitter feed about the decline of the media industry founded by an anonymous public relations worker.
  • Tama also led me to this list of the ten most pirated movies of 2008. No surprise that the most pirated film involved a certain caped crusader, but that’s also not necessarily evidence that piracy isn’t a problem.  what is surprising: Iron Man, despite being a major youth-oriented blockbuster, didn’t make the top ten.  The Bank Job, a film I barely remember, did.  
  • Finally, Georgia State University media scholar, Alissa Perren, has joined the media studies blogosphere with Media Industries (and Other Stuff).  The blog also mentions a book she co-edited with Jennifer Holt, Media Industries, coming out from Wiley-Blackwell Press.  the collection features articles by Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, Toby Miller, Michelle Hilmes, and Thomas Schatz, among others.   

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Syllabus Scramble

I just found out at the last minute that I will be teaching English 518, “Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” a required graduate-level course for students seeking a Masters in education here at Fayetteville State.  I taught the course a couple of years ago (here’s the long-abandoned course blog) and had some success with it, but I’d like to rework the course in a number of ways, so considering this post to be a mix of brainstorming and a request for suggestions.

First, unlike last semester, I’d like to make the course operate much more like a workshop where I am more involved in directing student work in class, whether that is designing wiki pages, writing blog entries, producing podcasts, or whatever.  Quite often, I found that my original plans–introducing key media studies texts separately from the technologies themselves–led to a kind of disconnect.  While my students were willing to engage, I struggled to match theory and practice.  I’m still working on that, but I’m drawing from a number of syllabi, including David Parry’s Networked Knowledge and Digital Rhetoric and Contemporary Politics.  Given the goals of my students, some discussions worked really well.  I found the conversations about Wikipedia (and related discussions about teaching internet research) to be incredibly productive, but again, I’d like to revise things a little.

Second, while many of the students seemed relatively comfortable with blogging, I had a lot of difficulty in getting them to contribute to the course wiki.  At the time, I attributed this to the students’ reluctance to have their work edited by others, but in retrospect, I think that my expectations–asking students to create a course wiki about course readings–were both too vague and too ambitious.  Given that these pages also would have covered material already on Wikipedia, they were also somewhat redundant.  With that in mind, I’m considering having my students produce something along the lines of “Depicting Dinkytown,” instead, but asking students to focus on Fayetteville.  As you can see from entries such as this one focuisng on a Burrito Loco, the wiki format can be used to include written, photographic, and even video texts, and instead of Wikipedia’s objective overview, a localized wiki could allow students to engage in more interpretive work.  Because I found out that I will be teaching this course in just the last day or so, this project is very much in its formative stages, so I’d appreciate any suggestions you might have about how to make it work.

Third, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t used blogging in a couple of years in any of my classes (despite my earlier enthusiasm for them), so I would be curious to hear how my readers are currently using them.  In the past, I have used individual blogs, a single course blog (to which all students contributed), and small-group blogs involving 4-5 students.  The class itself will be relatively small (5-6 students, I’d imagine), so I’m wondering whether having students create personal blogs is warranted.

I’m approaching this course without a lot of experience with secondary education students, so I’m still sifting through ideas about how to translate my interests in digital media into something that current and future teachers might find rewarding.  I’m also operating under the recognition that the teachers themselves may face certain limits–including access to technology and constraints imposed by curricular requirements–in implementing these activities in their own classrooms.  I’ll try to post a tentative syllabus soon, but any suggestions you have would be more than welcome.

Update: When I went to post this entry to Twitter, I remembered that I will likely require my students to use Twitter, something I’ve never done before, so I’d like to hear from my fellow Twitterers: how have you used Twitter with your students in your courses and are there any readings on Twitter that I should teach?

Update 2: I’ll write a longer, separate post later, but I attended some great panels at MLA, including one on Twitter and several others on the digital humanities, so I’m starting to get some ideas.  George’s planned revival of the Teaching Carnival series also seems like a great opportunity, not only to get some ideas but also to get some of my MA students, many of whom are high school teachers, involved.

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Is There a Digital Generation?

They’re behind a pay wall, but I just wanted to mention two engaging Chronicle of Higher Education articles on the so-called digital generation.  Mark Bauerlein, author of the provocative book, The Dumbest Generation, offers a scathing critique of the over-reliance on digital technologies as teaching tools.  While I think that Bauerlein’s account of a “digital generation” underestimates differences within current college-age students, some of his larger arguments about why we need to reconsider current educational practices are well worth addressing.

In the same CHE issue, Siva Vaidhyanathan counters the generational myth, pointing out that not all students are equally “wired,” pointing out that “the levels of comfort with, understanding of, and dexterity with digital technology varies greatly within every class. Yet it has not changed in the aggregate in more than 10 years.”  I’ve had the opportunity to teach in a variety of university settings, and this observation strikes me as basically right.  More to the point, generational arguments obscure the different ways that students use digital technologies (text messaging, playing games, downloading music, making videos).  Siva goes on to compare Bauerlein’s Generation to an earlier anti-media jeremiad, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which Postman argued that TV would scramble our thought patterns.  In that regard, I would agree that Bauerlein ascribes too much power to digital technologies in shaping practice.

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Sunday Links

Now that classes have started, I’m beginning to gain a sense of normalcy again.  Last night I even found time to engage in my annual tradition of watching Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused during the first week of class, which now dates back at least six or seven years (I already considered it a “tradition” in 2004).  I’m not quite sure what purpose this practice serves, but it is a fun way to enter a new semester, perhaps a reminder to slow down a bit.  As usual, I have a couple of blog entries percolating, but here are a few quick links I want to mention:

  • J.D. Lasica has an interesting post on Intel’s launch of what it is calling the “cinematic internet.”  Lasica and Intel executive Eric B. Kim discuss some of the flaws of interactive television as it has been understood for the last decade or so, namely that interactivity has usually been inseparable from marketing (you can buy Jennifer Aniston’s dress), and Lasica and Kim go on to outline the different values that are typically associated with television (ease of use, reliability, etc) and the different values associated with the internet (personalization, etc).  It’s interesting stuff.
  • The New York Times has an article focusing on the role of political bloggers at the 2008 political conventions, comparing the relatively tiny number of press credentials awarded to bloggers at the 2004 conventions with the dozens of bloggers who’ll be at the 2008 conventions.  Obviously it’s very cool that so many passionately political bloggers will be attending the 2008 conventions, but it’s also worth noting that a surprising number of bloggers have managed to raise hundreds of dollars from their readers to help pay their travel expenses.
  • Finally, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself writing more than I ever would have expected about the politics of science, especially when it comes to teaching evolution and global warming.  I was an indifferent student in my science courses throughout my schooling, but in retrospect, I think I was lucky in that I got a straightforward introduction to evolution (the county next to mine, several years after I graduated, notoriously cowed to parental pressure and added stickers defining evolution as just a “theory”).  With that in mind, I was intrigued by this Florida science teacher’s efforts to find creative ways to teach the concepts of evolution to resistant students, some of whom were taught intelligent design in private high schools and churches.  The teacher, David Campbell, came up with some fairly innovative ways to engage students and to invite interested questions.  While it’s less clear that he changed the minds of all or most of his students, Campbell was capable of communicating some of the basic elements of evolution in a creative and informative way.


Monday Links

Gearing up for a longish day of book revisions but realized I hadn’t posted a link post in a while:

  • In the Washington Post, Abdullah Al-Eyaf, a Saudi film critic and filmmaker writes about moviegoing practices among Saudis, many of whom go to great lengths and travel great distances just to see films on a silver screen. But despite these challenges, Al-Eyaf offers some hope as websites such as provide space for film discussion and as a generation of Saudi filmmakers themselves have begun to emerge and see their films play at festivals in Saudi Arabia and abroad.
  • On a similar note, Anthony Kaufman reports for Film In Focus on attempts to revive film production in Iraq. Kaufman describes the attempts by Kasim Abid and Maysoon Pachachi to teach filmmaking courses in Baghdad, often on the rooftops of building amid the satellite dishes in order to avoid the fighting on the streets below. Unfortunately, the fighting has forced Abid and Pacachi to leave Iraq and set up shop in Damascus, Syria.
  • An interesting Ars Technica article about a study by Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis that challenges the arguments that text messaging and IM are harming students’ writing abilities after all. I’ve been skeptical for a while about claims that that IM is to blame for the perceived decline in literacy, in part because they seem to be based on relatively simple assumptions about how media effect behavior (via Kairosnews). There’s also a Chronicle of Higher Education article on this study that I’d planned to blog a few days ago.
  • Girish has started the conversation about The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, the inaugural selection for the new Film of the Month club started by Chris Cagle. I just got the movie from Netflix the other day and I’m hoping to contribute to the conversation soon.
  • Thanks to the Film in Focus blog profile, I’ve just discovered a cool new-to-me film blog, Kimberly Lindbergs’ Cinebeats. Kimberly writes about the interview and her reasons for blogging about film here. The Behind the Blog profiles are one of the more interesting features of the Film in Focus site and generally do a good job of mapping what is happening in the film blogosphere.

Update: I wanted to mention this news earlier, but Andy Horbal has put together a very cool tool for navigating film blogs, a Google Custom Search Engine, Film Blogs, Etc., that focuses exclusively on film blogs and a few prominent film publications such as Senses of Cinema and indieWIRE. The argument behind such a tool is that we have a variety of means for finding professional reviews (IMDB, Metacritic, etc), but few ways of easily finding many of the well-written blog reviews that are out there. So far, Andy has indexed 117 film blogs and related websites.

Update 2: I’ve been digging around in some of the Pew Internet and American Life Project studies today and was reminded of another significant claim about the relationship between emails and text messaging and literacy. According to the Pew Report, “Writing, Technology, and Teens” (PDF), most teens do not associate the material they create electronically as “real writing” (emphasis in the original). Also significant: most teens strongly believe in the importance of developing good writing skills. I’ve only had time to skim the study, but for academics involved in the teaching of writing, the entire study is well worth a read and potentially challenges a number of assumptions about declining literacies while also illustrating the vital need for good writing skills.

Update 3: Edited to correct some terrible typos in my sentence about “good writing.”  Doh!

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Smart People

Just to prove that I occasionally watch movies that aren’t documentaries, I’ll offer a brief review of Noam Murro’s Smart People (IMDB), the indie comedy-drama starring Dennis Quaid as the frumpy, self-absorbed English professor Lawrence Weatherhold and Sarah Jessica Parker as the soft-hearted medical doctor whose past schoolgirl crush on Weathehold is renewed when she treats him in the hospital. Ellen “Juno” Page joins the party as Vanessa, Weatherhold’s overachieving young Republican daughter (think Alex P. Keaton as a girl), and Thomas Haden Church pops in as Chuck, Lawrence’s adopted slacker brother (why, again, is Chuck the default name for slacker guys on TV and in the movies?).

As Village Voice critic Robert Wilonsky points out, Smart People is meant in part as academic satire, and because I’ve already acknowledged my inability to resist films about academics, I ended up seeing the film, against my better judgment. All of the classic stereotypes are there: the teacher who intentionally forgets his students’ names, who pushes the clock ahead to skip out of office hours, who has no awareness of fashion (or razors, for that matter). You get the idea. The film’s plot centers on Lawrence’s attempts to belatedly come to terms with his wife’s death after an accident almost too goofy to describe gives him a concussion, preventing him from driving for six months. Enter Chuck, the charming pot-head, beer-drinking slacker brother who makes money by stapling diet ads to telephone poles (not polls, as I originally wrote). Chuck becomes Lawrence’s unofficial chauffeur, and of course, in the process coaches Lawrence and Vanessa in getting in touch with their emotions and becoming (slightly) less self-absorbed. Throw in Lawrence’s initially tentative relationship with the good doctor, Janet, who also seems emotionally isolated, and you have pretty much every element of the quirky indie comedy drama about dysfunctional smart people. It’s About Schmidt meets The Squid and the Whale with a Sideways twist.*

Aside from hitting so many indie drama cliches, Smart People fell into other traps as well. We get absolutely no backstory for Janet, other than one brief conversation with a sympathetic colleague. She wrote a paper for Lawrence’s class; he gives her a C, and she is so traumatized that she chooses to major in biology instead. That’s about it. And [spoiler warning] Smart People is yet another indie film that resorts to pregnancy as a means of providing redemption for one or more of the film’s characters. Like the Seth Rogen character in Knocked Up, Lawrence essentially sheds his self-absorption only after a condom mishap leads to the inevitable responsibilities of parenthood. And Smart People spends even less time than Knocked Up and Juno in considering abortion as a viable option. But at least Chuck’s porn ‘stache was cool.

* In retrospect, I meant As Good As It Gets, not About Schmidt (I was intending to refer to the improbable relationship between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt),  but I think the point is more or less the same.

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Watching the Professors

I’m writing for a relatively immediate deadline, so I won’t have time to write a longer SCMS wrap-up, but you might take a look at Kristina’s summary of two of the panels I wish I’d been able to attend (as always, many of the panels I wanted to see were competing with each other).

Meanwhile, Siva points to a somewhat unsettling Chronicle blog post on Blackboard’s plans to expand their course management services to include a “video surveillance” service.  Ostensibly designed to help make campus security officials aware of campus emergencies, such as school shootings, the service would allow “security officials to view live and recorded video over a campus computer network.” Quite obviously this service goes well beyond Blackboard’s traditional–and rather clunky–classroom management tools, raising a number of important questions about how this video material will be used (thanks to Siva for the link).


Twilight of Academic Freedom

While skimming through my blog archives this morning, I happened to notice that Marc Bousquet, author of How the University Works (my review), has posted another video interview, this time with Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors.  Nelson talks at length about the threat to academic freedom represented by an increased reliance on contingent faculty (adjunct, part-time, and other non-tenure stream faculty).

It’s a good, quick overview of these issues in that it highlights the special vulnerability that many contingent faculty members face when presenting controversial views in the classroom.  Nelson also points out the degree to which contingent employment works against the ability of faculty to cultivate long-term mentoring relationships with their students.

Other recent and worthwhile interviews include this one with Michelle Masse on the continued gender inequality in the academic workplace and the “feminization” of certain fields and courses.


How the University Works

In his theoretically sophisticated and thoroughly researched analysis of academic labor, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, Marc Bousquet offers a sharp critique what might be called the “corporate university,” illustrating the ways in which universities have come to depend upon the very labor “crises” they claim to denounce. In fact, as Bousquet explains at length, the increasing reliance upon adjunct and flexible labor is not a crisis at all but fully consistent with the university’s desire for a flexible and cheap labor pool, while for-profit educational services have seen their profits skyrocket. In describing the increasingly corporatized management of university labor, Bousquet compares this management structure to the practices associated with managed health care. As we have seen with Michael Moore’s agitprop critique of HMOs in Sicko, this emphasis on profit over care inevitably leads to what Bousquet describes as “degraded service” (1). But while Bousquet is attentive to the degree to which the use of contingent, flexible labor has become a means of subsidizing “education profiteers,” I was equally intrigued by his discussion of how work permeates every aspect of university life, a point Miriam raises in her discussion of “the need to conceptualize academic workers as workers, and not as disembodied minds engaging in some activity that has nothing to do with other forms of labor.”

Like Miriam, I generally find this claim convincing, especially when it comes to describing the experiences of both undergraduates and graduate students. As many people have pointed out, including Cary Nelson, in his provocative Foreword, one of the most jarring moments in Bousquet’s book is his account of “Metropolitan College,” a joint partnership between UPS and the University of Louisville, that uses student labor to sort packages late at night (usually from midnight until 3 AM), with the promise of tuition breaks, especially for students willing to work five nights a week. Eventually, we realize that while this partnership clearly provides a docile, cheap labor pool for UPS–not to mention the tax breaks that come with providing tuition benefits instead of actual wages–the deal isn’t so good for the students who engage in the backbreaking and under-compensated labor for the promise of upper mobility seemingly offered by a college education (note: sections of this chapter are available here). In fact, given the low wages and inconsistent hours, many of the students employed by UPS are forced to take second jobs or live in their cars, while a majority of the UPS students drop out of school altogether. Thus, instead of serving as a means for supporting students in acquiring a college degree, the UPS partnership actually benefits from students failing to achieve their degree (144). While the Metropolitan College example may represent an extreme of sorts, it’s clear that students are facing increasing financial obstacles in their pursuit of a college degree, whether that entails working long hours in addition to schoolwork or taking on sizable student loans. But in addition to this recognition that students are workers, Bousquet is at his sharpest in identifying the “pedagogical” implications of this experience of the university. Taking his cue from Jeffrey Williams’ concept of the “pedagogy of debt” (153), Bousquet points out that the Louisville students learn to see themselves via the lens of “failure,” or believe that they “deserve their fate” when their work lives overwhelm their lives as students (147). By placing students in the position of indebtedness, by putting an increasing financial burden on them, the corporatized university is also teaching them about the limits and possibilities available to them in the future (in fact, I can speak from my own experiences in saying that student loan debt certainly has shaped the career choices I’ve made).

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(Re)Visions of Students

A few months ago, I mentioned Michael Wesch’s second video in a planned three-part series, “A Vision of Students Today.” The video depicts students in a large university lecture hall silently holding up signs describing their classroom experiences (“I Facebook through class;” “My average class size is 115”), and while the video presents itself as giving voice to students via a collaboratively-authored Google document, two things about the video struck me as somewhat false. First, the mobile, disembodied camera suggests a universal image of students, one that seems to be reinforced by the students’ silence during the video. Second, this image lacked virtually any students of color. And while Kansas’s racial demographics almost certainly inform Wesch’s student population, the video raised important questions for me about how we define the normal collegiate experience when, in fact, Wesch’s vision of a technologically-enhanced lecture hall is far from the norm.

Now, as Liz Losh, among others, has pointed out, in honor of the Martin Luther King holiday, Mark Marino has made a parody remixed response, “(Re)Visions of Students Today,” which calls into question some of the (likely unconscious) visual arguments made by the original video about student life, about the “us” described in the video and the students’ privileged relationship to the digital divide. Marino does so by re-editing Wesch’s original video and writing over some of the students’ original hand-held signs in order to tease out some of these tensions (Marino discusses his intentions here). In looking back at the video, I do think that Wesch is attentive to some of these problems, calling attention to a digital divide and to the fact that many of his students are working their way through school, and Wesch’s attempt to investigate the discursive space of the classroom is an important one. As Wesch points out, whatever else they are learning, students are also learning “to sit in nice neat rows and remain quiet while the information / knowledge is delivered to them by an authority figure standing at the front of the room.” This is not to suggest–as some have implied–that we should abandon all traditional pedagogical practices or that we should replace textbooks with web pages, but an argument for thinking about how classrooms reproduce certain kinds of social relationships. But Marino’s remix is a healthy reminder that there is no singular classroom experience, that some of the broader claims in the video may not describe student experiences in other environments.

And while I’m having a difficult time connecting these points, I think it’s worth adding that both videos seem to suggest for me a need to rethink the status of higher education in general. As this video interview of University of Pennsylvania Adolph Reed by Marc Bousquet indicates, we now think about college education as a commodity and not as a right. Reed argues, cogently in my opinion, that higher education should be free and that the costs to taxpayers would be negligible, a drop in the bucket of our current budget (Reed calculates that the total cost of tuition and fees of all college students currently enrolled at public universities is approximately $35-40 billion). By redefining education as a right, many of the perceptions of education, including the “relevance” of readings, would no doubt be transformed, and the image of students today in Wesch’s video would almost certainly change.

Update: I’m reconsidering some of my original critiques of the Wesch video as the comments below indicate.  No time to write a full, new entry here, but feel free to dive into the comments.

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Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction

As documentary films persist as an important aspect of the wider cinematic public sphere, definitions of documentary and its social and political role have become increasingly important. Invariably, when I mention at a cocktail party that I am interested in documentary, at least one partygoer will corner me in the kitchen and challenge me to offer a clear definition of what counts as a “documentary” (usually this accompanies a demand that I renounce Michael Moore as a documentary filmmaker, a demand that I typically resist, depending upon how contrarian I am feeling). But as this scenario of the hypothetical partygoer implies, defining documentary opens up a number of ethical and historical quandaries that are sometimes difficult to answer. It is in this context that I read Patricia Aufderheide’s breezy but informative Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction, part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series. And while I haven’t read other books in the series, Aufderheide’s book seems to fulfill the goal of the series, providing an accessible overview of the history of documentary and the political, social, and ethical questions that emerge from that history. It’s something that could easily be read while traveling or on mass transit, but I would add that the chapters are often substantive enough that the book could also be used in introductory-level film courses, especially if you are concerned about students’ textbook budgets. The book’s conclusion, I will argue later, is especially pertinent to documentary scholars and manages to raise some important issues about the study of documentary in a way that the casual reader will understand.

As I have suggested, one of the strengths of the book is its meshing of the historical narrative approach suggested in Erik Barnouw’s indispensable Documentary and the analytic problems raised by documentary scholars such as Bill Nichols and Michael Renov (my review: $). Quite obviously, this approach leads to both the historical and analytical approaches feeling incredibly condensed, but Aufderheide’s history of documentary’s foundational figures (Grierson, Flaherty, Vertov) and movements (cinema verite) provides a useful backdrop for contextualizing how certain practices begin to emerge, the ethical implications of those practices, and how those forms fit into larger institutional frameworks, including the subsidizing of documentary films by public television and the role of governments is producing propaganda. These sections may be especially useful in helping to differentiate between government-supported propaganda, such as Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or the Frank Capra Why We Fight series and documentaries that advocate for a specific cause (such as the Michael Moore films). Here, Aufderheide is also careful to remind readers that media effects theorists have rightfully challenged simplistic notions of manipulation (in fact, Triumph of the Will was far from a box office success in Germany, to name one significant example).

It is in this second major section of Documentary Film, which focuses on documentary “sub-genres,” such as propaganda and advocacy films, that I became increasingly intrigued with the book’s thoughtful engagement with the contemporary politics of images. Aufderheide focuses on six subgenres (public affairs, government propaganda, advocacy, historical, ethnographic, and nature). Given the popularity of documentaries on the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and even VH1 (Behind the Music) and the critical acclaim given to Ken Burns’ PBS docs, it is crucial to consider how these movies frame, shape, and often distort historical events, social relationships, or even our relationship with nature. Documentaries such as Winged Migration seem to offer us unmediated access to “nature,” but as Aufderheide points out (and as I was aware, despite my glowing review), the birds depicted in the film were trained by the filmmakers to accept the presence of the camera. Aufderheide addresses these issues while toggling back and forth between relatively mainstream documentaries and others that may be unfamiliar even for those of us who study documentary for a living, fulfilling the important goal of introducing virtually unseen films to a potentially wider audience.

There were, of course, some enticing leads that I wish had been developed further. A more explicit exploration of the lineage that followed from Vertov’s experimentalism (Marker, etc) could have been useful. And I was compelled by the idea of treating An Inconvenient Truth as a “nature documentary” and would have loved to follow out the implications of that argument in much further detail (though, obviously, that’s not the goal of a “very short introduction”). Also, the list of “great documentaries” in the appendix seems to place more emphasis on contemporary films, with nearly two-thirds of the listed films being made after 1980, although that could be attributed to the flourishing of documentary as a medium and not a presentist bias.

But what will make me return to Aufderheide’s book, no doubt, is the conclusion, where questions about the “future” of documentary are addressed. As I have often argued on this blog, internet video is radically altering the possibilities available to documentary and, quite possibly, introducing a whole host of ethical challenges that will be important to address. As Aufderheide asks,

New technologies vastly increase the volume of production under the rubric of documentary. This volume may create new subgenres or may eventually force rethinking. When political operatives, fourth graders, and product marketers all make downloadable documentaries, will we redraw parameters around what we mean by “documentary?” (127)

This will, I believe, be a crucial question for documentary filmmakers and documentary scholars to address in the years ahead, especially as websites such as YouTube continue to expand the possibilities for “documentary” production.

Finally, Aufderheide also introduces some areas where documentary scholars might engage in further research. She is correct to emphasize that cinema studies scholars are not always attentive to “the business of documentary distribution,” noting that there is too little communication between documentary scholars and practitioners, a gap I have (however modestly) sought to bridge with my blog (134). Here, however, more discussion of how the documentary business operates (including at least some mention of festivals such as Full Frame and Silverdocs) might have been helpful. In addition, Aufderheide calls for further scholarship on “sponsored” and “formulaic” documentaries, subgenres that may not be as enticing but that often represent a crucial point of access for both documentary filmmakers, who often pay their bills with sponsored docs, and media audiences, who often first encounter documentary through television broadcasts or DVD extras. In short, Documentary Film is a useful introduction to one of the most important and most difficult to define genres of contemporary film. You might even loan a copy to that annoying partygoer who corners you next to the fridge and asks you to defend Sicko.

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Obama’s Iowa Speech

I’m not endorsing, but Obama’s speech last night after winning the Iowa caucuses was absolutely electrifying, not necessarily for any political positions he took, but because of his ability to sell the “politics of hope” as a campaign theme and his ability to connect “hope” to an even wider narrative about America and about personal identity.

Huckabee’s speech was pretty solid, too, and while I disagree with pretty much every position he holds and sometimes worry that I know more about foreign policy than he does, I now understand the appeal.  Like Obama, he has been able to connect his campaign to a sense of belief (“a new day is needed in American politics”).

I’m planning to do an election theme in my composition classes again, and Obama’s speech in particular might provoke some interesting discussions about the role of rhetoric in political campaigns.

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It’s (almost) the End of the Semester as We Know It…

…and I’m feeling fine. A big stack of papers awaits tomorrow, but until then, I’m a (relatively) free man, so I’m taking a quick break to import some CDs to my iPod and do a quick blog update. In addition to my stack of papers, I have a small stack of DVDs that I’ve been promising to watch and review, and I’m planning to make a (small) dent in that stack tonight. But here are some short nuggets that aren’t quite worthy of an independent blog entry:

  • Now that I’ve survived my first half marathon, I’m on the lookout for some other races in which I can participate. I’m sure I’ll do another half marathon eventually (and maybe even a full one), but there are a couple of local runs that look pretty cool and seem to support causes I appreciate. Ryan’s Reindeer 5K on December 15 is one such run. Proceeds go to the Ryan P. Kishbaugh Memorial Foundation, the Duke Pediatric Bone Marrow Unit, the Friends of the Cancer Center of the Cape Fear Valley Health Foundation and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Team in Training Program. I found the Ryan’s Reindeer 5K on the GetSetNC website, which looks like a good site for tracking upcoming races in North Carolina (although if I have any NC readers with better suggestions, I’d love to hear them).
  • Ted Z. has a link to the trailer for Michel Gondry’s latest film, Be Kind Rewind, which features Jack Black as a video store worker who decides to reshoot all of the films in his store’s VHS catalog after accidentally erasing them when he becomes magnetized. I’m a huge fan of Gondry’s, and the concept certainly appeals to my inner cinephile, my admiration of the low-tech indie aesthetic, and even, to some extent, my VHS nostalgia. Ted also points to a number of fake trailers of past films such as Robocop and Ghostbusters that are both very funny and seem to capture the mood of the film.
  • A few days ago, Jason Mittell posted an interesting entry on “Understanding Vidding” that should be helpful as I unpack similar issues in the book. I have an entire chapter devoted to user-generated videos, focusing especially on fake trailers. Jason also points to a video that combines footage from Madonna’s “Vogue” with the movie 300.
  • Brave New Films has a deleted scene from Michael Moore’s Sicko, in which Moore travels to Norway. The scene is entertaining enough as a stand-alone piece, and I’m not sure that I would have added much to the original film, especially given Moore’s travels to the UK, Canada, France, and Cuba, so this is a good example of using online video and DVD extras to the advantage of the film as it is presented in theaters while still ensuring the material finds a wide audience.
  • Scott Kirsner has an interesting (if somewhat old in bloggy terms) entry on an initiative to allow local moviegoers to program at least one screen of their local multiplex. The article echoes a number of recent descriptions of digital media allowing the emergence of a kind of “cinematic jukebox,” which is another issue I’m addressing in the book. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about Kirsner’s article in the near future, but I’m probably a bit more skeptical about the idea of a cinematic jukebox, if only because I wonder how such a jukebox will function to promote indie filmmakers (however one defines that term).
  • I don’t know if I agree with Naomi Wolf’s arguments about student political engagement in her recent Washington Post editorial, but given that I’ll likely do a variation of the election theme in my composition courses in the spring, I think it’s worth checking out and possibly discussing with my students. The article seems to fall into some of the “kids today!” shortcuts that I find a little tedious. In fact, I think she misreads her primary anecdote, in which her student is shocked (!) by Wolf’s suggestion that she run for city council. It seems plausible that the student in question actually understands how democracy works, but simply doesn’t believe that elections necessarily produce the best candidates or promote the best ideas (just look at last night’s exercise in immigrant bashing). That being said, I think Wolf’s ideas are worth taking about with my students in setting up the “rhetoric and democracy” theme.

Update: I clearly overstated things when I said it’s the “end” of the semester, so I edited the title to reflect the real state of things. I still have a week of classes, but the stack of papers I’m about to receive and the lack of energy on campus indicate that things are nearing the end. Also, for those of you who aren’t on Facebook, here are some pictures of me running the half marathon a few days ago.

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Saturday Night Links

Taking a break from working on the book to point out a couple of useful/interesting links:

  • First, Jason Mittell points to an important new document produced by the Society for Cinema & Media Studies on the issues of copyright and fair use as it effects our activity as academics.  The document, SCMS Best Practices for Fair Use in Teaching, is available from the SCMS homepage and well worth checking out.
  • Second, a quick pointer to a new John Edwards video highlighting a contest his campaign sponsored, in which the winners were given the opportunity to work with Edwards to help rebuild a section of New Orleans damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  The video generally succeeds in depicting Edwards as someone who is deeply concerned about the rebuilding efforts there, and at the very least, serves as an important reminder that in New Orleans, there is still a lot of work yet to be done.

By the way, I happened to catch the high-concept indie film, Lars and the Real Girl, last night at the Cameo and found it a little too quirky for its own good.   The basic concept, which features a delusional Lars purchasing a  somewhat life-like doll from a website and treating it as if it was a real person, was treated with a careful balance of humor and pathos, especially as members of the community seek to assist Lars’ family in preserving his delusion.  But like Manohla Dargis, I found the film a little too calculated overall, almost Capra-esque in its desire for small-town community.  I’d write a longer review, but I promised myself I’d do a lot of work on the book tonight.