Archive for January, 2009

DTV OMG

Gail Collins, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite major newspaper columnists, has a sharp and sharply funny New York Times column on the digital TV transition scheduled to take place on February 17.  While Collins quickly covers the motivations for the transition, she reserves some of her more stinging criticism for how the DTV transition was handled.

While there was quite a bit of information out there–this DTV infomercial played in the Raleigh-Durham area–the conversion process has often been poorly explained, leading to tons of confusion.  In fact, a number of my students last year were convinced that they needed to purchase HD TVs (of course that may have been a wishful justification for buying a flat screen TV on their parts).

Collins’ bigger point–and I think it’s an important one–is that several other countries, including Britain, Finland, and the Netherlands have handled the transition smoothly through extensive government support and assistance in order to ensure that all of its citizens were well-informed about the switch and provided with the necessary equipment and assistance to make it happen.

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Saturday Links

Some quick annotated links on a (so far) lazy Saturday:

  • The Rutgers University page for my book is now online.  My Amazon page has been up for a while, but each step in this process makes the reality of the book seem more tangible.  The Rutgers page even has a screen shot of the book’s cover for those of you who haven’t seen it.
  • It’s a few days old now, but I’ve been meaning to mention Sharon Waxman’s “Hey Hollywood, Welcome to Your Future,” focusing on the possible internet futures of the film industry.  Waxman published the article in the newly launched entertainment industry magazine, The Wrap.  More recently, Amy Kaufman discussed the declining profits in the print news media and the challenges that journalists face in reporting on the monetary and job losses in their own profession.
  • Two of my recent interests recently came together when a couple of documentary filmmakers experimented with the microblogging tool Twitter.  Acknowledging its positive uses as a tool of self-promotion and community building, Jarrod Whaley also adds that Twitter offers a “a sustained and hyperfocused glimpse at the inner workings of the average human mind,” referring to the site as a kind of “textual vérité.” Louis Abelman also brings a documentarian’s eye to Twitter, noting the linguistic codes and cultures that Twitter users learn.
  • Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris also covers a subject I find fascinating: the role of documentary in representing the Bush administration.  In this New York Times blog/column, Morris interviews three photographers and asks them to select a series of photographs that depict Bush’s presidency.  Some of them are iconic–Bush in front of the Mission Accomplished banner, Bush with bullhorn soon after 9/11–but others are more eccentric.  What makes the column most compelling, however, are the close readings offered in the dialogues between Morris and his subjects.
  • I enjoyed revisiting Pamela Cohn’s terrific, far-ranging interview with Examined Life director, Astra Taylor, after watching the film the other night, in which Taylor describes a childhood experience that provided one source of her interest in ethical philosophy, as well as her teenage discovery of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus.  Also interesting to note that Taylor had originally planned not to appear in the film but that both Avital Ronnell and Judith Butler wanted her to appear onscreen, in part so that their segments would be consistent with their philosophical approaches.

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Examined Life

The manifest thesis of Astra Taylor’s compelling new documentary, Examined Life (IMDB), is embedded in the title’s citation of Plato’s Apology, in which the philosopher writes, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Cornel West, the self-proclaimed bluesman-philosopher, quotes this passage, chapter and verse, in much the same way that a church pastor might refer to a sacred text. West goes on to add that philosophers operate from a “critical disposition,” challenging us to see the world differently, to question the unquestioned habits and practices that guide our daily life.

To complete this exploration of philosophy’s function in the social world, Taylor conducted ten-minute interviews with eight prominent philosophers in locations they saw as illustrating or resonating with their ideas.  Peter Singer takes us on a stroll down Fifth Avenue in New York to reflect on the ethics of purchasing designer clothing.  Is buying that $1,000 suit a harmless act or is the failure to donate that money to alleviate poverty potentially unethical?  Similarly, Michael Hardt rows a boat in the midst of Central Park in order to discourse on the possibility of revolution in the midst of some of the great monuments of capitalism.  Martha Nussbaum also walks through a city park in order to reflect on the social contract and its failure to consider the problem of bodies with various forms of ability, while asking how this social contract might inform political ethics.  Kwame Anthony Appiah takes us to an airport to illustrate his argument that globalization demands a new ethic of cosmopolitanism, reminding us that a typical airplane passenger would likely encounter more people in her journey than some ancient peoples would meet in their entire lives.  Perhaps most famously, the Slovenian psychoanalytic philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, the subject of Taylor’s previous philosophy documentary, Žižek!, takes us to a dump in London in order to reflect on his theory of ideology.

In all cases, the philosophers and theorists seek to address the very possibility of meaning, but the film is at its strongest when addressing the problem of political ethics, especially as it applies to human bodies.  Although a number of commenters at Crooked Timber have expressed some skepticism, Taylor manages to keep the film moving at a brisk pace, and much like Errol Morris, whose films often feature philosophers, researchers, and eccentrics theorizing about the world, Taylor subtly draws connections between concepts discussed in the film, posing as a kind of inquisitive student in order to draw out ideas from her subjects (in fact, the CBC referred to Taylor as “the Errol Morris of the egghead” set).

These questions about the possibility of meaning are introduced in an early segment featuring Avital Ronnell, the deconstructionist literary critic, who interrogates the very possibility of meaning, slyly joking that it would be a “scandal” if she were limited to ten minutes while also addressing the impossibility of knowing where, how, and under what conditions the film would be received, in a faint echo of Jacques Derrida’s Post-Card (which was itself inspired by an image of Plato and Socrates).  Although Ronell’s segment is perhaps the weakest in the film, it does serve as a reminder that Taylor’s documentary is a constructed object, that the conversations we see have been arranged, cut, and reassembled in orer to make meaning.  Brief glimpses of the camera casting a shadow on the ground may appear to be accidents.  With Ronell speaking, these shots seem to serve as a gesture toward the role of the filmmaker herself in making meaning.

Perhaps the most compelling segment was the film’s final section (excluding a brief denouement featuring West), consisting of a conversation between Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor.  Butler, of course, is best known for her work on gender and performativity, while Taylor is an artist and activist in the disability movement.  the two of them walk through the streets of San Francisco and discuss the idea of what Butler calls “the human as a site of interdependency,” a concept they develop out of the recognition that all humans, disabled or not, need assistance to navigate the physical and social world.  This realization emerges from Taylor’s explanation that despite using a wheelchair, she describes her movements across the streets and sidewalks of San Francisco as “going for a walk,” with Butler recognizing the degree to which all walking depends on various modes of support.  I think this segment works well, in part, because of the way in which the two thinkers place their ideas and experiences in dialogue, and I would have enjoyed seeing more of these conversations, especially if the two ubjects might have ideas that seem initially incompatible.

If I’ve made Examined Life sound like a dry philosophical treatise or a filmed version of the midnight meanderings of drunk, or stoned, graduate students, it’s far more than that.  There are some genuinely human moments, with many of the philosophers grounding their theories in their personal experience.  Hardt’s interest in and skepticism about revolution builds, in part, from his experiences in Central America in the 1980s.  West, perhaps playing to the crowd a little too much, conveys his love and appreciation of many of the material things of life, especially music, both classical and blues. Finally, the scene in which Butler and Taylor shop at a vintage clothing store is a lovely moment, with Butler assisting Taylor with trying on clothes and joking about her “queer eye.”

For readers who are overly familiar with the philosopher interviewed by Taylor, it may feel, initially, as if there is nothing new here, but in fact, I think the use of film to create juxtapositions between these thinkers is a worthwhile endeavor. When I watched the film with a couple of friends, both of whom are graduate students at my university, we all wanted to stop the film at various points, to argue ideas, to make sense of or take apart various arguments. But I think the montage of ideas, the result of the film’s anthology structure, actually allowed for a subtle reflection of philosophy and ethics, something that might have been missed by artificially chopping up the film. Examined Life is far more than a mere recording of philosophers engaging in their craft.  It is, in fact, offering an ethic of philosophical engagement with the world, bringing philosophy into the streets and bringing the streets into philosophy.

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Barack Paper Scissors

This is fantastic.  Thanks to @gybe2388 for the link.

Update: I was heading off to teach when I originally posted this video and just wanted to add that I find it a really creative way of using the interactive links embedded in the video.  Also interesting to see the amount of work involved.  According to the videomakers, there are at least 400 videos and over a thousand annotations.

Oddly the first time I played, I kept tying my “opponent,” which led me to believe that the game was fixed.  But after going back and replaying, I realized that there were multiple permutations in each game.

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Monday Links

I’m hoping to get back into a more consistent blogging habit in the next couple of weeks.  I realized this weekend that I needed to slow down a bit and spent much of the day on Saturday assembling bookshelves to hold the books that had been piling on my floor and dining table for the last few months, but I’m working on my review of Astra Taylor’s excellent new film, Examined Life, and hopefully a couple of other posts as well.  I’ll also have an In Media Res post up on Tuesday (but for now check out last week’s sport-themed posts).  For now, though, here are some links:

  • Via Eli, a link to “One Flew Over the Dead Poet’s Nest,” which at first glance appears to be yet another fake trailer, mixing two romantic heroes rebelling against the institutions of the asylum and the school.  Creative enough, but the “Poet’s Nest” trailer is actually a trailer for a 53-minute movie combining the two older texts.  Eli also has information about a call for entries for the Los Angeles Filmforum’s 2009 Festival of (In)appropriation, which will feature works that assemble or incorporate older material in “collage, compilation, found footage, detournement, or recycled cinema.”
  • A couple of examples of self-releasing and movie tours just crossed my radar.  Jeffrey Goodman describes his decision to self-release his film, The Last Lullaby, and Kelley “The Angry Filmmaker” Baker announces his spring tour, which combines screenings and public lectures.
  • Interesting and provocative essay in the Virginia Quarterly Review by Morris Freedman titled, “Why I Don’t read Books Much Anymore.”

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Creating a World without Poverty

Fayetteville readers might be interested to know that Nobel Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus will be speaking at Fayetteville State University’s Seabrook Auditorium on February 5th at 4:30 PM.  Yunus is the author of Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism and one of the chief innovators behind the micro-credit movement.  The lecture is free and open to the public, and the first 200 students with valid Fayetteville State student ID cards will receive a free copy of Yunus’s book.  Check the university website for more details.

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Snow Day Links

So, my previous post was just supposed to be a links post, but my excitement about the inauguration left me wanting to write more.  Now here are some links:

  • Via George on Twitter: The New York Times has an incredible graphic timeline looking at the language of presidential inaugural addresses.  The graphic lists each word both by frequency of use and relative frequency as compared to other presidential addresses.  Interesting frequently used words from Obama’s speech: work, generation, work, crisis, hard, and endure (implicitly echoing Faulkner, as Forest Whitaker did at the Inaugural concert).  Clicking on a word allows you to see each use in context.
  • Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” as transcribed on the BlueSkyWriting blog.  I’ll admit that I didn’t find the poem to be that impressive on Alexander’s initial reading, but a second gance suggests some nice moments.  Still, it was nice to see an inauguration in which so many poetic voices–and I include Reverend Joseph Lowery’s humorous, heartfelt benediction here–were heard.
  • Due to a Twitter post about Jill Biden’s doctorate, I did some digging and found her Rate My Professors page.  Obviously this is a bit voyeuristic, but I was fascinated and pleased to see that so many of her students apparently appreciate the work that she’s doing in the classroom (if these ratings can be fully believed).  But for a more official account of her impressive educational credentials, the White House biography page has a lot of information.
  • Finally, in non-inauguration news, the Cinema Eye Honors nominees were announced the other day.  I’m hoping to write a longer post later, but I’m glad to see Man on Wire and Order of Myths, two of my favorite films from the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival included in the best nonfiction film category.  The latter, especially, deserves a much wider audience.  I haven’t had a chance to see Waltz with Bashir–it came to Atlanta after I left for the holidays–but it looks like a major favorite with seven nominations.

Update: Via Jay Rosen’s Twitter feed (here’s his blog), a link to a nice overview of the renovations to the White House website by Saul Hansell.  As Hansell, points out, many of these changes are cosmetic: we’ve long been able to view the text of bills on the House and Senate sites, and there have always been means for communicating with the president (although the five-day discussion period for non-crucial bills is impressive).  Still, as this CNN article points out, these cosmetic changes matter in creating a more inclusive, participatory government (scroll down for a quote from fellow academic blogger, Dave Parry).

Update 2: Text and video of Derek Wolcott’s “40 Acres,” a poem for Barack Obama.  Wolcott won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992.

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Obama Inauguration

Watching Barack Obama take the oath of office this morning and then listening to his bracing call for national responsibility, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by a variety of emotions: Relief that it snowed today so that I could enjoy this moment from the comforts of my apartment rather than spending a day of distracted teaching on campus; excitement that President Obama’s election signifies, for so many people, that one element of Martin Luther King’s dream has been realized; sadness at what eight years of conservative rule have done to our country; apprehension at what the next eight years will demand.  In fact, even as Obama talked about what he called “the price of citizenship,” I found myself reflecting on my role as an educator, as someone involved, however minimally, in the process of preparing students not only for a beleagured work force but also for participation in a larger national, and even global, dialogue.

If you’ve read my blog, you may know that I don’t wear the “teacher as hero” mantle very comfortably.  I’ve often expressed ambivalence about movies that depict teachers who come in and rescue students from the ghetto, from middle class conformity, or from established gender roles.  And I don’t think I’ve reimagined my role as a professor significantly after watching Obama’s speech, but it’s difficult not to feel some sense of encouragement–for lack of a better word–at hearing Obama endorse values that might be regarded as intellectual: curiosity, seriousness, dialogue.  Or to hear various pundits describing someone as “professorial” without intending it as a pejorative. No matter what else happens today, I can’t pretend that today’s events aren’t meaningful for me.  For the first time in ages, I feel like my values are being affirmed by the people who run our feeral government, a feeling that is only strengthened by seeing the millions of people lined up for miles along the National Mall.

There are other things about the day that are exciting as well: the reinvention of the White House website, complete with a blog run by a director of New Media (Macon Phillips), seems to promise a more inclusive, participatory government.  In fact, Phillips’ first post emphasizes three priorities that are enticing for any of us who have felt excluded from the direction the country has taken for the last eight years: communication, transparency, and participation.  Obviously, these principles are ideals and may be difficult to achieve.  The cacophony of blog comments and video responses may complicate any desire for participation, and promises of transparency often fade as the real challenges of governing emerge. But as an ideal, it’s truly impressive.

And although there are many reasons to be enthusiastic, I’ll admit to some wariness.  Inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at today’s inauguration feels like a rejection of all of my gay and lesbian friends.  And like Marc Bousquet, I’m concerned about Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, because I’m concerned that Duncan’s results-driven educational models that may not lead to actual learning.  Of course, if Obama is sincere about increased participation, then this is an opportunity for educators at all levels to contribute to a national dialogue about what eductaion should do.  I’m also aware of how my own emotions have been shaped by the scriptedness of the national ritual and the affective accounts of the day’s events from pundits attempting to convey the scope of this transformation.  But, for the first time in a long time, I’m cautiously optimistic about where things are heading, and judging by the crowds gathered in front of the Capitol and lining up around the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” forty-five years ago, I’m guessing that others feel the same way.

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Reinventing Film Festivals

Over the last year or so, there has been an ongoing debate about the future of independent film.  As more and more films are produced and the theatrical bottleneck tightens, a number of independent filmmakers, most famously Mark Gill in his Los Angeles Film Festival keynote address, have warned that “the sky is falling,” while pointing to the closure of a number of high-profile indie distributors. Now, as Karina Longworth has noted in a couple of recent posts, these worries about the future of indie have reemerged at Sundance, as the independent film industry finds itself revisiting the question of the social and economic role of film festivals.

In one post for Spout.com, Karina observes that a large number of journalists have decided to skip Sundance this year.  Many of them cited the economy as a major factor: for freelancers, the expense of traveling to Utah and paying for a hotel for a week simply isn’t worth it.  Others cited the “pain in the ass” factor, the idea that the festival is too crowded and that it’s too difficult to navigate the crowds, especially when there are plenty of other festivals out there.  Add a couple of unusual social and political circumstances–a historic inauguration and a Proposition 8-motivated boycott of Utah–and more journalists than usual seem willing to stay away.  Karina starts with this notion in her Daily Beast report, but questions one of the basic assumptions Sundance: that it was never anything more than “about sales.”

Festivals are certainly partially “about sales” (something I’d imagine few people would dispute), but they also seem to be about various aspects of the industry representing themselves to journalists, to film audiences, and even to themselves.  It’s probably no mistake that some of the more crucial meta-industry commentaries have emerged from festivals, and one recent example of this is an article on indieWire written by Geoff Gilmore, the Director of the Sundance Film Festival.

In general, Gilmore echoes many of the questions that Gill and others have already asked: Where is indie going? How do we deal with the theatrical bottleneck?  But he also poses some significant questions about the social role of indie cinema for younger audiences.  He is quick to point out that younger viewers are often more knowledgeable about world cinema than previous generations but observes that these viewers

seem to have less interest in [indie film]. Or at least they have a greater range of activities to engage in and thus are more selective and demanding about how they are going to spend their hard-earned dollars. It’s difficult to say whether the new generation will continue to harbor the passion for film that we had. Independent film has broken a lot of ground and had a lot of success in the last two decades.

Like a lot of observers, Gilmore emphasizes the value of long tail distribution and calls for new web venues and new marketing strategies.  But I think that Gilmore’s comments about the social and economic role of festivals are also worth highlighting.  Festivals continue to serve the function of creating greater visibility for films, especially those that otherwise might be difficult to market.  That role may change depending upon the political economy of new media, as newspapers and magazines continue to weigh the value of covering these events.  Still, I think the social role of these festivals, the desire for audiences to feel as if they are part of something larger than themselves (or at least the desire to be in the know about the Next Great Film), will continue to inform many of these festivals.

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Documentary, Collective Memory, and the Inauguration

There seems to be little debate that the inauguration of Barack Obama will attract the largest audience of any presidential inauguration in U.S. history.  Some estimates have the crowd exceeding two million people while tens of millions of others watch at home on TV, or at work on their computers.  At the same time, there also seems to be a widespread acceptance of the idea that Obama’s inauguration will also be one of the most documented events in recent memory, with thousands of digital cameras poised to record various aspects of the ceremony while others microblog the event on Twitter or Facebook.

But there is something about the documentary-mania that has been leaving me feeling a little skeptical, and I haven’t quite been able to place it precisely.  I’ve written and deleted at least two bog entries on this topic in the last couple of days, and I’m still not convinced that I have anything coherent to say about what might be described as a massively collaborative documentary project.  I am excited to see such collective activities as a Flickr group dedicated to collecting photographs of the inauguration, and the P.O.V. blog also lists a number of resources where people will be documenting the inauguration online, including a Flickr stream set up by the Presidential Inauguration Committee designed to document various aspects of the day, including a set devoted to inaugural balls and another devoted to parade rehearsals, among others.   They also have a Twitter feed.  In addition, The Washington Post also has an Inauguration Watch page devoted to following a documenting all of the action at the inauguration, including a webcam and a blog designed to keep readers apprised of the day’s events.

And, in one of the more ambitious documentary projects, CNN plans to use the new Photosynth technology to document, or perhaps create, The Moment, which will combine user submitted 2D photographs to create a 3D simulation of the inauguration moment.  Users are asked to submit photos taken precisely as Obama raises his hand to take the oath of office, and the Photosynth technology will map similarities within each photo to create a 3D image.  This latter documentary project is doubly fascinating in that it offers the (illusory?) pleasure of collective authorship while also offering the (equally illusory?) fantasy of presentness at the making of history, at the historical event itself.

To be sure, there is a long history of seeking to document these key historical transitions.  Thomas Edison famously used the then-nascent medium of motion pictures to record William McKinley’s inauguration and, later, to re-enact the execution of his assassin, Leon Czolgosz (I wrote about these films many years ago).  So it’s no surprise to see CNN and other organizations use the newest technologies to preserve these latest historical transitions for future audiences.

But, as Liz Losh points out, with the inauguration fast approaching, it is probably worth reflecting on how this material will be archived for future audiences.  The survival of the Edison footage is a useful reminder that significantly less than half of the movies filmed before 1950 have survived in a viewable format. For example, she cites Dan Cohen’s concern about posting images to social networking sites that are “not in the forever business,” as well as concerns that pictures posted to Facebok may be restricted only to friends and acquaintances, making them inaccessible for future historians and researchers.  One solution that Liz offers is to submit material to government and non-profit sites such as Change.gov and the Internet Archive, which will also have volunteers in the crowd documenting the day’s events, in order to make sure that this material is preserved and stored in away that will make it available to all, hopefully in a navigable fashion.

I realize this entry has ranged all over the place, but I think that comes from my own fascination with how these events have been documented and concern with how those texts will be used (or not used) to provide us with a full tapestry of such an important historical moment.

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SAG Strike Videos: Two Aesthetics

Back during the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007, I wrote about my fascination with the strike videos produced by striking writers.  At the time, I expressed interest in how the videos used web video not only to convey their talent as writers but also as a not-so-subtle reminder of the stakes involved in the potential profitability of web video.  One of my favorites, “The Office is Closed,” used writers and actors from TV’s The Office to curry favor with viewers who faced the problem of having their TV schedules disrupted.

Now, a similar situation is playing out in the debate focused on whether the Screen Actors Guild should go on strike, a debate that hinges, in part, on new media residuals and one that has divided the SAG into two factions.  Because I haven’t been following the story terribly closely, I don’t yet have a position on the proposed strike, but I was interested to see two recent videos produced by SAG members taking positions on the strike (both videos courtesy of Nikki Finke).  The first video, featuring actors James Cromwell and Kaley Cuoco, uses the genre of the “backstage film” to illustrate the argument that a strike could cripple Hollywood economically, sending more productions away from Hollywood.  The video is polished and professionally produced and uses a two-minute long tracking shot reminiscent of the opening scene of Robert Altman’s The Player to provide a sweeping overview of why the contract ought to be ratified.

The second video, “Save the Biz Redux,” remixes the audio and video of the original to make it appear to be a press video made by the studios in 2011 gloating about beating SAG.  By chopping up the video and playing with the color, the pro-strike video transforms the Hollywood aesthetic of the original to depict conditions at a “non-union new media production.”  A set supervisor chastises workers for taking more than one doughnut and glances at a document before telling her assistant, “Oh, that’s a SAG voucher. We don’t need one of those anymore.”  As a remix, the video works best only if you have seen the original, but through the use of a vaguely menacing female voiceover oddly reminiscent of the voiceover in the McCain “Celeb” ads, the Keep SAG Relevant video presents an interesting–and often convincing–counterpoint to the original video.

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Virginity Auctions and Freshman Composition

At George’s request, I’ll be focusing this week’s teaching carnival post on a recent activity I conducted in my freshman composition classes.  The activity, which was designed to encourage students to think about issues of genre and audience and their relationship to writing, seemed to work well, and because it was conducted on the second day of class, it also proved to be a pretty effective icebreaker.  As I was preparing for what would be my second day of class, in which I planned to lead a discussion of “rhetorical situations” based on readings from The Norton Field Guide to Writing, one of my colleagues happened to mention the recent news story that a 22 year-old college student, Natalie Dylan, had announced that she was auctioning her virginity to the highest bidder in order to pay for her graduate school tuition.

Dylan, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in marriage and family, reports that bidding has reached $3.7 million dollars and that she came to the idea of selling her services after learning that her sister had paid for grad school by working as a prostitute. In most interviews, Dylan has depicted herself as making an empowered choice, one that will benefit both her and her customer.  Ultimately, the story raised a number of questions about the ethics of Dylan’s actions, about female empowerment, and about the legality of prostitution–among many other topics.  Perfect for a class activity focused on argument.

The chapters from the text ask that students think about how issues such as purpose, audience, genre, stance, and medium affect writing, and as a teacher, I often find it difficult to reinforce these ideas in a concrete way, so my solution was to create an in-class activity in which students were expected to think about these parameters for writing in the context of Dylan’s story.  First, I read with students one of the articles about Dylan.  Then, I divided the students into groups of two and asked them to write an argument about the story given certain conditions: One group was the president of a campus women’s studies organization writing a letter to the school newspaper. Another group was assigned to play Natalie herself, writing an email to her mom to defend her choice.  A third group was to play a friend of Natalie’s trying to convince her not to go through with the auction using text messages only.  Another pretended to be a church youth pastor using the story to teach teens about the sanctity of marriage.  A final group was asked to pretend to be executives from eBay issuing a press release explaining why they were taking down Natalie’s auction.

Because the students didn’t have to commit to any position themselves, they jumped into the task pretty energetically and fairly quickly showed that they have some grasp of how we write in these various media and contexts.  I then had each group present their text to the class.  One point of interest was the debate over whether Natalie would send an email to her mom about the auction.  One group said that it would be more appropriate to have such a conversation face-to-face, but another student observed that sending a written text would make it easier fro Natalie to make all of her points without the risk of interruption.  The eBay students gleefully adapted the dry corporate rhetoric used in press releases, while my students also had fun imitating the vocal styles of their preachers and the lingo of text messagers.

I think the activity generally worked pretty well.  More than anything, I hoped to start a conversation about the challenges of writing for specific audiences and hoped to get them to recognize that they often practice these skills in their daily lives by adopting different tones with parents, teachers, peers, and employers.  If I do a similar activity in the future, I’d likely have to focus on a different news event, but I this particular controversy worked well because it touches upon issues that were familiar to them: premarital sex, financial security, gender relationships. In fact, one student came into class the following day and excitedly told me that “your article” was on CNN.  At first, I thought she meant that something I had written had been mentioned on CNN, which left me taken aback, but she was referring to a Nancy Grace discussion of the story, so it seemed to stick with some of them, at least.

If I had more time–I planned the activity about two hours before class–I would have given them the articles in advance so that they could anticipate some of the major arguments earlier.   And I would want to do a slightly better job of making sure that the debates themselves–over legalized prostitution, for example–didn’t outweigh the main point I wanted to make about audience, but I think it did help to make the idea of audience, genre, and purpose a little more concrete for them.

By the way, I’d like to encourage all of my readers to contribute to some of the upcoming teaching carnivals.  The first carnival will be hosted by George Williams on January 26, and I’ll be hosting one on March 23.  Contributions are welcome from anyone involved in education.  Just follow the very simple instructions on the Teaching Carnival blog.

Update: A few days after this assignment, Dylan’s story continued to develop.  According to Film in Focus, Dylan may receive as much as seven figures for the rights to make a movie about her story, enough money that she’d consider not going through with her original proposal.

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Slamdancing at Home

No time for a longer post, but i just wanted to point out that the Slamdance Film Festival will be streaming many of the features films from the festival, in cooperation with Indieroad.net.  For those of us who can’t afford the journey out west, this is a cool opportunity to be able to check out some up-and-coming films.  I haven’t had a chance to watch any of the films from the festival yet, but I’ll try to watch a couple this weekend, perhaps.

In addition to providing audiences with the opportunity to enjoy many of the films at the festival, I’d imagine that the use of streaming video might also help filmmakers find a wider audience for their work.  It’s not quite a substitute for attending festivals in person–I love the experience of watching four films in a single day and wandering from theater to theater, blinking into the mid-afternoon sun–but, as usual, I’m curious to see how the “virtual” Slamdance works for both filmmakers and audiences.

Update: I forgot to mention that it costs $9 to watch a single film.  That seems a little high to me, especially given the conditions of watching at home rather than at the festival, but i could be wrong about that.

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DTV PSAs

Via an email tip, I was finally able to track down a local infomercial I mentioned back in April that focused on the upcoming digital transition.  The infomercial, broadcast periodically on Raleigh’s WRAL, depicted the transition by anthropomorphizing both analog and digital television, presumably to make the shift seem less threatening.

But, as usual, watching one video on YouTube left me curious to see what other representations of the digital transition are out there.  Most of them follow a relatively standard consumer-empowerment approach, alerting TV viewers to the upcoming switch and advising them on the most inexpensive way to get continued access to a TV signal, much like this short PSA produced by Consumer Reports.  Because there are so many of these PSAs, they have naturally become the object of parody.  This video, “Switching to Digital TV,” which parodies the confusion over the government coupon program, is one of the funnier ones, mocking a program that encourages analog TV viewers to go to the internet.  That PSA led me to this hilarious anti-cable (“pay TV”) public service announcement that was shown in movie theaters, presumably sometime in the early- or mid-1970s.  The short clip, which warns of the dangers of bringing “monsters” into your living room, invited audiences to sign petitions against the pay-TV menace.

In retrospect, I now feel like I may have been a little reductive in my original characterization of the DTV 411 video in that it now looks like one of the more thorough explorations I’ve seen of the digital transition.  In addition to offer advice, the video offers a relatively even-handed exploration of the implications of the TV switch.  I’ll have to go back to it to say anything more detailed, but it’s actually a really useful text.  Props also to WRAL for putting some of their locally-produced documentary content on YouTube. For those of us teaching and dong research in these fields, this is veryhelpful.

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Lazy Saturday Links

I’m taking a little bit of a break from all my new teaching prep to take a quick tour through my blog reads, but I’d like to thank everyone for their help in making syllabus suggestions and offering advice on course assignments.  I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which the course has come together via conversations on blogs, wikis, Twitter, and even instant messaging, so I’m really excited now about how the course is beginning to take shape.  Now for some links:

  •  First, an online viewing tip from the cinetrix: PBS’s P.O.V. series has made Eva Weber’s gorgeous short documentary, City of Cranes, available online.  Noting that we rarely notice the widespread presence of cranes in our skylines, Weber sets about document their presence, capturing some breathtaking shots from the cranes themselves, as the crane operators describe in voice-over their often solitaryperspective on the world, producing something analogous to a poetics of urban space.
  • Pamela Cohn also has a viewing tip: Full Battle Rattle, another documentary from Full Frame, will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel, on Monday, January 12, at 9 PM.  Rattle, which I reviewed when I saw it a few months ago, documents a simulated Iraqi village, Medina Wasl, set up in California’s Mojave Desert, where soldiers go to train before entering combat. 
  • Pamela also discusses a number of initiatives in producing and distributing documentaries using new media technologies.  With my first book soon going to press, I’ve been finding myself interested in exploring how documentary or non-fiction filmmakers are using digital technologies, crowdsourcing, and viral media to rethink what documentary can do, so it’s exciting to see this work continue to develop.
  • On a related note, Henry Jenkins has an important new post on transmedia storytelling activities taking place in Brazil and what we might learn from them, discussing the ways in which the piracy of the film, Tropa de Elite, may have actually helped its box office by providing it with additional publicity and visibility.  Jenkins also announces the forthcoming release of a white paper that “critiques the concept of viral media and offers an alternative model, one which respects the agency and motives of consumers in actively shaping the circulation of media content through a networked society and one which seeks to better understand the interplay between consumer capitalism and the gift economy in shaping the new era of web 2.0.”  I’m looking forward to reading the report, but I think the “gift economy” framing is useful here as bloggers, remixers, and others become more actively involved in shaping the distribution and exhibition contexts.
  • Finally, Virginia Heffernan has an intriguing column on the transformed role of the critic in the age of interactive media, an issue she raises in response to her experiences with the web-based series, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, which is itself a promotion of sorts for Fallon’s NBC show, which will take over Conan’s old time slot.  Naturally, there are a couple of points I’d like to complicate, especially the concept of interactivity, in that, in principle, at least, most (all?) older media allow some form of interactivity, whether through letters to the editor or whatever.  But I am interested in the ways that critics and reviewers can become implicated in the text(s) that they set about to critique, and Heffernan’s column captures the allure–and occasional frustration–of making sense of these new textual structures.

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