Archive for the profession

MLA & New Years Decompression

This week’s blog silence can be attributed to a combination of several days of interviewing job candidates at MLA, traveling between several cities, and finally an incredibly late–if uneventful–New Years Eve celebration. But here’s a snapshot of the last week or so in bullet-point fashion:

  • I’m not sure I realized it until the flight home, but this year’s MLA was oddly stressful. I’m on our department’s search committee this year, so I’m not looking for a job, which should have made things easy, but by the end of the conference, I was utterly frazzled, reduced to whining and cursing at MARTA turnstiles. Part of this was a crowded, super-annoying (and somewhat delayed) flight back from Chicago to Atlanta. But I think I may also have been having flashbacks to my first MLA, which was in Chicago, I believe in 1999, and was an utterly overwhelming, alienating experience.
  • I did enjoy the blogger meetup. It was great to catch up with JBJ and Horace and I enjoyed meeting Dr. Crazy and Maude Lebowski for the first time. Come to think of it, the late night at the blogger meetup may explain why I was so tired and cranky during our (very long) interview day on Saturday.
  • I also managed to get away from the conference for a few hours on Sunday to check out the Jasper Johns exhibit at the Art Institute.  Not sure I have much to add, but I always find single-artist exhibits interesting, if only because they often help to contextualize the artist’s work better, and because Johns often refers back to certain iconic images (flags, targets, etc), I got a clear sense of how he was experimenting with different media at different points in his career.
  • My new years celebration ended up being relatively quiet this year.  Just a small number of friends, but we ended up playing Scrabble until way too late (well after 4 AM, which means I didn’t fall asleep until almost 6 AM).  But in general, the holidays and MLA were far too disruptive this year, not only emotionally, but also in terms of diet, exercise, and work.  I didn’t realize how important running had become for both my physical and emotional well-being until I skipped it for a couple of weeks (I finally went for a quick run last night at about 7 PM).
  • That being said, I accomplished a lot this year, getting one article into print, co-writing another (currently under review), finishing a draft of the book, and managing to lose 30 pounds (not to mention running a half marathon).

Hoping to have a few more substantial posts about what I’m reading and watching in the next few days.

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Blogging the University

Just happened to notice Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works blog in my incoming links on Technorati. The blog is an outgrowth of his NYU Press book of the same title. Marc is an associate professor at Santa Clara University, where he teaches courses in radical U.S. culture, internet studies, and writing with new media.

There’s some interesting stuff here about the public role of universities and public perception of higher education, including a discussion of Harvard’s plan to lower tuition for middle-class and working-class students and an interview with Michael Berube about academic freedom (and David Horowitz), both ongoing topics of discussion in our field (in fact, the latter has recently been the subject of debate on the pages of the AJC in recent days).

Hoping to have more to say about Marc’s blog and the issues he raises in the future.


Social Networking Sites and Academic Scholarship

I initially missed today’s Washington Post hit piece, I mean, article on academics studying social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace (I only caught it because danah boyd twittered it). The article, by Monica Hesse, embodies some of the laziest and formulaic depictions of professors and scholarship I’ve seen in some time, essentially painting academics as nothing more than opportunists who use arcane jargon to say little of consequence about ephemeral topics. Either that or we’re secretly harboring deep resentment against any academic who scores an interview or two with any major news outlet (or who finds herself cited in more than a half dozen articles over the course of a single year). Essentially “early adopters” of a specific subject matter–in this case, social networking websites–are painted as “sooners” or “land grabbers,” desperately staking out territory before others get there. But despite its dismissive tone, the Post article is worth checking out, if only because I think it highlights an important tension regarding the production of knowledge in digital media studies.

Of course, many academics are ambitious and often competitive, but the dismissive tone of the article towards boyd in particular and social networking scholarship in general is striking. While I am aware of the political residue of describing scholarship in terms of “exploration,” that term seems far more fitting than “land grabbing” when it comes to the kind of work being done by academics. The idea of “super-scholars” who consume all of the latest stuff, leaving only “table scraps” for the less aggressive or less hungry also raises a number of red flags for those of us who view academic scholarship as a conversation. These metaphors certainly matter, not only in terms of how scholarship is perceived but also in how it is funded.

These metaphors also suggest that these new academics are staking out territory that may be completely ephemeral, that instead of grabbing a nice plot along the Red River, we’re grabbing a puff of smoke that may not be here tomorrow. Hesse does little to acknowledge how academics are addressing how social, political, and familial ties are being transformed by social networking sites, or how the questions that are asked are part of a larger project of media history. To name one example, the phrase “YouTube election” (here are three significant examples) now generates nearly a million hits on Google, and it seems well worth asking how, or if, the YouTube debates have changed the 2008 election in any significant way. And certainly the mediation of “friendship” and other social ties on Facebook is worth asking about, even if Facebook itself fades into obscurity when The Next Big Thing comes along (especially now that Facebook has apparently Sold Out). Hesse also seeks to caricature academics by cherry-picking phrases or sentences to suggest that academics are poor writers who intentionally obscure meaning, something that may very well be easy to do by lifting single sentences out of much longer articles (I’m not sure it’s worth addressing the specific examples here).

To be fair, the article does tap into what I think is an important tension right now in the production of scholarship (even if that tension is relegated into the piece’s final paragraphs). As Nicole Ellison points out, the changes in the practices surrounding social networking sites present unique challenges for those of us who teach and study these topics, with Ellison observing that she “certainly couldn’t dust off the same syllabus every semester.” My guess is that scholars who engage in this kind of innovative teaching would be rewarded. But the complaints that some of danah boyd’s most influential articles are not peer-reviewed should not be read as a critique of her work (one anonymous professor suggests that her work has not been vetted) but as a critique of how scholarship functions in the digital age. Boyd’s comments about class differences between MySpace and Facebook users quite clearly struck a chord, provoking a debate that might not have taken place with nearly as much energy had the article gone through the lengthy peer-review process.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been raising important questions about the process of peer review for some time, pointing out the need to move from thinking about publication in terms of an “electronic press” to a model based on a “scholarly network,” in which “peer review” could take place, in part, in the comments and discussions that take place about the article (one example of this scholarly network is the website MediaCommons, where I am an editorial board member). And I think it’s clear that the study of social networking could be better served by aspects of both the traditional peer-review model and of the scholarly network. Thus, instead of dismissing boyd’s (well-informed, in my opinion) blog essay on class and social networking websites, use the response of academics in the field as a measure of its importance.

I’ve probably been a little harder on the Post article than I needed to be, but that’s probably because of the dismissive tone that seemed to permeate throughout. Beneath the surface, however, there were some important questions about the challenges to the practices of scholarship, especially when the subject of research seems to be changing faster than the mechanisms of peer review.

Update: This blog post was picked up by Slate, where there are links to a number of other interesting articles and blog posts on Facebook.

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Rethinking Scholarly Publishing

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has an interesting new article about the new online publication technology, CommentPress. The article, “CommentPress: New (Social) Structures for New Networked Texts,” addresses the many challenges associated with delivering, storing, and organizing scholarly content in the age of electronic media. The article was written in the CommentPress format, allowing individuals to comment on individual paragraphs within the essay, so please do check out the essay and participate in this very useful conversation (also check out this Chronicle article on CommentPress and related electronic publishing issues).

Update: I finally got the chance to give Kathleen’s article a (relatively) close read, and I just wanted to highlight her arguments about the role of blogs in facilitating what she calls “scholarly discourse networks” and how those networks can be used to facilitate the kinds of interactions and conversations that are vital to our profession (with blogs functioning as what she calls “conferences-without-walls”).  The bigger question that she’s asking, however, about whether (and how) the interactivity associated with blogging and the scholarship associated with books can be merged is especially interesting.  Like her, I think CommentPress (see her article for an example) is an important gesture in that direction.


New Flow Column and Other News

 I have a new Flow column up, this time asking a more general question about the role of viral videos and other internet technologies in shaping political discourse.  I think that what is most interesting about the column is the discussion of “just-in-time participation” (after Matt Hills’ concept of just-in-time fandom), the idea that political participation on the internet has a temporal rhythm, that viral videos create a brief explosion of activity that fades quickly.  I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately, in part because I’ve been discussing the rhetoric of political videos with my students this semester in my freshman composition class (in a modified version of my Rhetoric and Democracy course) but also because of a couple of longer articles I’m writing on the topic.  More later as I begin to get a better handle on those ideas.

Still working on several large projects (including a stack of papers waiting to be graded), but realized I hadn’t updated in a while. In addition to my book project (and the Flow article), I’m revising for a book collection an article I wrote some time ago on the “alternate-reality” films, Run Lola Run, Me Myself I, and Sliding Doors, all of which came out within a year of each other in 1998-99. All three films use concepts of alternate realities (or, to use Brian Greene’s phrase, the multiverse), in remarkably similar ways with regards to their female protagonists. I’m not really interested here in the physics but in how the alternate-reality plots map onto the “database identities” of the films’ major characters. I then try to map those questions back onto the late 1990s debates about the role of digital media in fragmenting film narrative, with Jeff Gordinier (in an Entertainment Weekly article) and Godfrey Cheshire representing two competing versions of that debate. It’s probably a little too much for a 7,000 word article, but I think there’s a lot of interesting material here.

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Sunday Links and Update

While haven’t taken an official hiatus from blogging, I have been incredibly busy with all sorts of things lately. I’d hoped that one last writing marathon would get me to a complete draft of the book. In fact, I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t get a haircut until said draft was done. That’s turning out to be a potentially bad idea as my hair gets bushier by the day and as other, similarly immediate deadlines approach. I’m also increasingly finding myself caught up with university service obligations, including one university-wide committee focusing on revamping students’ first-year experience. I’m currently pushing for the use of a blog or forum of some kind to help foster campus community, so if there are any good examples of campus community blogs out there, I’d love to have them (I mentioned the Davidson College student blog, which now appears to be defunct).

I’ve also been busy with teaching stuff. In addition to my (relatively standard) Intro to Film class, I’m doing an election theme in freshman composition and currently have students doing rhetorical of campaign videos housed on YouTube. And I’ve been pleased with the increasing interest in and knowledge of the election that my students are demonstrating. I didn’t get a chance to put together a course blog this time, but may try to do a course blog for my fall 2008 classes. My senior seminar on documentary is also going well enough (I’ve really enjoyed teaching Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, even though many of my students have complained about not liking James Agee. or at least his “character” in Famous, very much).

And, for the first time in a few days, I’ve taken some time out to scroll the web (or at least my RSS reader) for a few links:

  • Via TV Squad, this amazing montage of TV production company logos, featuring everything from the “CBS Sunday Night Movie” lead-in to a number of Hannah-Barbera logos to some local logos. Like the video’s creator, I’m most intrigued by the 1970s-style futurism of many of these logos, with many of them setting off waves of nostalgia for past shows. The video is a bit rough in places, but I’m guessing that’s due to the fact that they were taken off videotape, possibly 25-30 years ago.
  • Eli has a pointer to a nice little “War on Terror Remix” by the folks at Total Recut. Turns out the video is about a year old, but it’s still pretty amusing, kind of a Don DeLillo’s End Zone for the YouTube/war on terror age.
  • Kathleen and Jason have both been talking about some of the discussion over the acceptance of innovative modes of electronic publishing, especially when it comes to tenure decisions. Kathleen points out that humanities scholars are more likely to accept online publications than their peers in social sciences, life sciences, etc, and that senior faculty are more open to innovation than junior scholars. The latter can be explained, I’d imagine, by fears about tenure expectations, something I found myself thinking about as I put together my portfolio for reappointment this year. Jason offers a useful model from his self-evaluation that helps to contextualize the kind of work we’re doing at sites like MediaCommons. And, yes, I promise to start blogging there more consistently in the very near future.
  • The folks at if:book have a blog post about Charles Ferguson’s video editorial to The New York Times, the first video editorial published by the newspaper. Ferguson, who directed the important new Iraq documentary, No End in Sight, is responding to many of L. Paul Bremer’s claims about who made the decision to disband the Iraqi army after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The video letter itself is sharply edited and thoroughly researched, one of the best features I’ve seen in the Times in a long time.
  • Finally, Chris Hansen’s incredibly fun mockumentary, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah, is now on sale at DVD Empire. Currently on sale at $9.98, it’s definitely a bargain, and you’ll be supporting a truly independent and interesting filmmaker.

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SCMS Doc Studies Interest Group

Via the Visible Evidence listserv, news of a proposed documentary studies interest group within the Society of Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS).   As documentary continues to find increasing prominence in film studies, this seems like a good time to organize such a group.  Stephen Charbonneau, a professor at Florida Atlantic University is the point person behind organizing the group, but I’ve already expressed interest in both supporting and organizing, so if you’re interested in becoming involved, let me know (chutry[at]msn[dot]com), and I’ll put you in contact with Stephen and the other organizers.



Sunday Links

Via Dr. Mabuse, news that the Visible Evidence community now has a list-serv. Visible Evidence is an academic community focused on the study of documentary images. They have an annual conference (next year’s conference will be in Bochum, Germany) and an associated book series published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Brian Flemming points to the YouTube interview with Phil de Vellis, creator of the Hillary 1984 video and raises an interesting point: “The weird thing is that YouTube is giving its implicit endorsement to a video that probably could have been red-flagged off of YouTube back before it was popular.” I don’t think YouTube’s behavior is that unusual here. Isn’t their usual practice to leave content online until somebody complains? No matter what, Brian’s larger point that such content should be protected under the fair use doctrine is the more important issue.

Ryan Stewart of Cinematical responds to Kristin Thompson’s discussion of A.O. Scott’s article on the future of movies. I’ve already written at length about the Scott article, but I’d like to address Stewart’s argument that “Thompson misuses Scott’s phrase ‘surviving history of movies.'” Stewart argues that Scott is talking not about all the ephemera–home movies, instructional films, etc–recorded by a motion picture camera but what Stewart calls “movie-movies.” However, even that category becomes unmanageably large when we take into account not only all of the independent titles but also the multiple versions of those titles (including versions subtitled or dubbed into other languages and versions edited for local censors). And as a film historian, I think it’s worth making a case that we should be saving the very films that Stewart dismisses as not quite “movie-movies.”

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Reinventing Scholarly Publishing

I’ll have more to say about the changes that are taking place over at MediaCommons over the next few days, but for now, I just wanted to post a couple of pointers to some of the more important discussions that are taking place. During our editorial board meeting earlier this week, we generated a number of principles that will guide the new model of “open peer-to-peer review” that we hope MediaCommons will foster. Kathleen Fitzpatrick has posted an overview of these principles on the MediaCommons (MC) blog, and we’d all appreciate your feedback on them. I’m especially excited about the discussions of how MC can foster academic community and collegial support through digital networking technologies.

Kathleen has also posted the text of a talk she recently gave at the University of Buffalo, “Scholarly Publishing in the Age of the Internet.” The talk addresses some of the problems with blind peer review and how some of those problems might be addressed by what she has been calling “open peer-to-peer review,” as well as the challenges presented by the economics of academic publishing. Kathleen’s paper models this new mode of review in that it is published in Commentpress , a publishing tool built on WordPress blogging software that allows readers to comment on individual paragraphs or pages in addition to an entire document. Obviously such a tool could be valuable for fostering conversations about academic texts (see, for example, this page from Kathleen’s paper or this version of the Iraq Study Group Report). No matter what, there are some great conversations taking place about academic publishing, and I’d like to see as much participation as possible.


MediaCommons and Post-Identity

Just wanted to mention that I have a new article in a special issue of the journal Post-Identity. The special issue focuses on the topic of “New Writing for New Media” and features what looks like a great collection of essays on videoblogging, e-cinema, and other similar topics.

I’m planning to write up a longer report about this week’s MediaCommons editorial board meeting when my allergies stop raging, but I will say that the meeting itself was very exciting. We were introduced to a number of new publishing technologies that will enable much more flexible uses of text and video, but I think we also had some valuable conversations about rethinking peer review and academic community (Jason Mittell has some valuable comments about these topics). Look for a number of exciting projects in the near future. By the way, Faye Ginsburg’s In Media Res post on Amanda Baggs’ video, “In My Language,” is worth checking out.

Oh, and while we weren’t rethinking the concept of peer review, some of us even played some serious Wii Tennis. Check out my killer backhand and my mad volley skills.

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SCMS 2K7 Blogging

I’m hoping to write a longer SCMS post later, but because of a mild cold, I haven’t had a lot of energy. Plus, I’m poaching wireless and I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to stay connected. But Tim Anderson has been blogging quite a bit. I did get a chance to catch Drew Morton (of Dr. Mabuse fame) and Michael Newman’s panel on independent cinema, which raised a number of useful questions about how we define indie cinema.

Also worth checking out: Michael has a great post about a number of films that are readily available on the web, including tons of Griffith, Melies, and Lumiere films, as well as films by Maya Deren and others. As Michael points out, there are enough films out there (on Google video, YouTube, etc) to supplement an entire film history course.

I’ll be presenting on Unknown White Male tomorrow. More on that later.

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Wednesday Evening Media Links

With Spring Break and the annual Society for Film and Media Studies conference fast approaching, I’m in full writing mode this week, but before I forget, I just wanted to post a quick pointer to a blog post at MediaCommons. In just a few weeks, the editorial board for MediaCommons will be holding its first meeting, and we’re seeking discussion of the role that MediaCommons can play in the scholarly community.

While I’m thinking about it, Michael has linked to several of fun and interesting videos, including one belonging to one of my favorite genres, the mock film trailer. This time, it’s David Lynch’s Blue Velvet transformed into “Something Blue,” a romantic comedy. But I think I’m even more intrigued by “What Does Marcellus Wallace Look Like?,” which Michael aptly describes as feeling like a form of “found poetry,” especially in the way that Tarantino’s words move across the screen. Happy viewing.

Update: Just received an email reminder that Frank Popper’s insightful documentary, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is now on sale at the film’s official website. I remain convinced that Mr. Smith is one of the best documentaries I saw in 2006, an incredibly valuable commentary on the the challenges of running for political office. As the 2008 presidential election heats up, the lessons of Mr. Smith about the fund-raising demands and other challenges are becoming all the more palpable. The film has also been playing on the PBS “Independent Lens” series, and it is certainly deserving of an even wider audience.

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Sunstein on Wikipedia

I’ve already mentioned this in the comments section to Jason’s MediaCommons blog post, but wanted to mention Cass Sunstein’s Washington Post editorial on Wikipedia here as well.

Sunstein describes Wikipedia as “one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity, that have been made possible by new technologies.” He also notes that Wikipedia is now cited four times as often as Encyclopedia Britannica in judicial opinions, but I think his definition of Wikipedia is perhaps more useful in illustrating how the site functions for me.

Update: Not related at all, but I also wanted to mention the interesting Washington Post article on Al Gore and the Oscar buzz surrounding An Inconvenient Truth. As I’ve said elsewhere, Gore’s presence in the film is so magnetic, it’s easy to forget David Guggenheim’s excellent work in making a well-crafted documentary, but Gore is obviously the biggest star here, even if I think the speculation that he’s planning a presidential run is probably wrong.


The Great Wikipedia Debate

Via Altercation: A New York Times article on the decision of the Middlebury College history department to ban students from citing Wikipedia in their papers and exams. While I recognize that Wikipedia has its limits, I’ll join the chorus of those who think this policy is a bad idea, but this debate illustrates the degree to which educators will need to rethink how they teach academic research.

Like Jason Mittell, who is heavily quoted in the article, I think the history department’s policy misses a tremendous opportunity for thinking about changes in research methods and knowledge acquisition. In fact, like Jason, I have assignments in one of my classes requiring students to participate in a course blog and wiki. In my case, I have asked students to contribute to a course wiki rather than editing or adding to an existing wiki such as Wikipedia (others are obviously welcome to participate in the blog and the wiki). While the blog and wiki are relatively rudimentary, I think its useful to consider how these forms can inform our goals as educators and researchers. Such activities seem far more effective in thinking about information literacy than an outright ban on using certain sources.

That being said, I encourage students to think critically about such sources as Wikipedia, namely its status as an encyclopedia that offers very little in the way of specialized knowledge and one that may be more subject to factual errors than other encyclopedias. But banning Wikipedia prevents us from having some valuable conversations about how these online tools can be used.

Update: Tim Anderson has a useful defense of Wikipedia on the MediaCommons blog. I’m inclined to agree with Tim that Wikipedia can be especially useful in tracking popular culture ephemera that might otherwise fall beneath the academic radar or get caught up in academic publishing limbo. While he’s right to argue that Wikipedia may appear to be poor starting point for researching events or texts that have been discussed for decades, if not centuries, the site can be of value for those of us who teach and study popular culture.

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Taxing Thoughts

Jason Mittell alerted me to a bill currently under consideration in the Arizona senate that would severely curtail academic freedom. According to Inside Higher Ed, if this bill were to become law, faculty members could be fined for endorsing “one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.” As Jason points out, such a law would essentially make it impossible for many faculty members to do their jobs.In my media courses, I consistently take poisitions on “partisan” issues such as media ownership, media ethics, advertising discourse, and political coverage. Like him, I feel little obligation to teach “both sides” of the debate when students are usually only given one side of the story. Fauclty members could also be fined for “endorsing, supporting or opposing any pending legislation, regulation or rule under consideration by local, state or federal agencies.” Professors who violate this rule would be fined $500.

If this bill became law, questions of what counts as “partisan” would also raise questions fields such as biology (evolution) and environmental science (global warming), although pro-business (free trade, Social Security privatization) positions should also be under challenge, and while the bill explicitly forbids “hindering military recruiting,” wouldn’t supporting the war or the neo-conservative rationalizations for it also be a “partisan political position?” Quite simply, the bill would make the task of teaching virtually impossible. As Jason points out, “to speak about a subject is to take a position on it.” While I think it’s unlikely that such a bill would ever become law, I think it’s worth calling this bill out as a dangerous piece of censorship and a threat to academic freedom.

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