Archive for January, 2009

Wikis and Place

For the last couple of days, I’ve been batting around ideas for The Fayetteville Project, a class wiki project that will be produced primarily by students in my graduate seminar on “Technology in the Language Arts Curriculum,” and Krista Kennedy was kind enough to offer a number of suggestions, first on Twitter, but after the confines of 140-character posts began to seem too constraining, we moved things to email before eventually posting them to our blogs. In addition to providing some useful guidelines, Krista asks a number of excellent questions that I’ll have to address quickly for now because I have to finish syllabi for two other courses tonight (her comments are italicized):

I think [the complexity of this project] means audience analysis is more important when you teach with this sort of project than it is in a more typical class where everyone writes a paper and that’s that. Who are these students? What are their majors? What is going to suck them in and keep them engaged? What kind of parameters will explode their minds just enough but not be too overwhelming?

Secondly: How big is your class? Is everyone going to work alone or are you going to break them into two person teams? (I did the latter in the 35W project..) If, say, you have a class of 20 working in teams of two, that lets you do rather different things than a class of 25 working alone. It also makes your grading criteria and team goals quite different.

Thirdly: What sort of composition and research skills do you want them to leave with? Do you want them to gather oral histories and compose a project that is largely based on sound files? Do you want them to raid local archives, learn about publicly funded works and the public domain, and learn to edit, tag, and post images?

English 518 consists primarily of M.Ed. students, most of whom are local elementary and high school teachers, although two of the students are seeking M.A.’s in literature.  Right now, the class is very small–five students–but I’m hoping to get my freshman composition students involved late in their semester.  When I required students to produce a wiki in the previous version of the course, it didn’t quite work, and I concluded that I had failed to define the goals of the wiki clearly and had also chosen a topic that didn’t really capture their interests.  To alleviate that problem, I decided to reimagine the project this time so that it would focus instead on local cultures and spaces in order to create something that coul tap into their expertise as residents of a community in which they (likely) have some investment.

Given the focus on teachers, I think the “hidden histories”approach couldprove pedagogically valuable, especially, as Krista notes, to provide “room to talk about teaching with public projects, IRB review, ethics of conducting and recording oral histories, etc.”  But I’ll admit that now that Krista has posed some of these questions, I’m realizing that there is a lot I need to think about before getting students started on this project, especially if I have my freshmen involved, and my excitement, to some extent, is giving way to a great deal of caution.  I’ll have more to say soon, but I think I need to sort out some parameters for the project first.

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Philosophers on Screen

Via Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed’s new Intellectual Affairs blog, the news that Astra Taylor has a new documentary out, Examined Life, in which she interviews eight philosophers, in what Scott aptly describes as “philosopher-in-the-street” interviews.  The subjects include (alphabetically) Kwarne Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Sunaura Taylor, Cornel West, and Slavoj Žižek, and Taylor’s style–interviewing subjects walking down the street, riding in the back of a car, sitting in a rowboat–works well here to capture these thinkers outside the usual sites of conferences and classrooms to produce more informal conversations about philosophical principles.

Taylor proved her critical theory documentary chops with her debut feature, Zizek!, which explored the ideas of the superstar Lacanian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek.  In Zizek, Taylor worked hard to present Zizek’s often complicated, always compelling ideas in an accessible format, and based on what I can see in this trailer, she’s done that again.  The shot of Cornel West describing himself as a “philosopher bluesman” alone makes the doc worth watching.

I may be in New York in February, so if Scott’s correct, hopefully I’ll be able to catch it then.  Otherwise, I may be forced, like him, to beg Zeitgeist Films in public for a screener.

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Reel Changes, Again

Instead of rushing to assemble three syllabi–four if you consider the fact that my composition classes meet on separate days necessitating individual schedules–I find myself wanting to revise my Introduction to Film class again, and given all of the helpful advice I’ve gotten before, I’m seeking your suggestions. Given some of the arguments that I make in the book about my interest in digital cinema and textual ephemera, the current version of the class feels a bit dated .

Of course, given time and budget constraints, I can’t do a whole lot of reinventing right now, but after a rather tepid class this fall, I’d like to find some ways to keep the course fresh. I’m still teaching a film textbook I really like, Corrigan and White’s The Film Experience (and I’m bummed that I didn’t get a chance to skim the 2nd ed at MLA), and the syllabus is still packed with a few “standards” that I think are important. Otherwise, I’m trying to think of ways to make the course seem livelier this time around. Below the fold, I’ve listed a brief outline of the week-by-week course schedule with a couple of gaps (I’d appreciate suggestions) and a couple of questions about what you think the Intro course should do.

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Tuesday Movie Links

Procrastinating on making syllabi for a bit to point to a few movie links:

  • My friend Chris Hansen, whose previous directing credits include The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah and Clean Freak, is providing a first look at his latest film, Endings, on Vimeo.  The clip is rough–Chris still has to do some sound and color work–but it will provide you with a sense of what to expect.  Mike, at Bad Lit, has a full synopsis of the film, which focuses on three people who, for different reasons, may be facing their last day on earth.  Also check out the official site for a blog featuring some of the Baylor University students involved in the production of the film.
  • As a former literature major and professor in an English department, I’m somewhat intrigued by the mechanics of adaptation.  Like many adaptation scholars, I’m not necessarily interested in faithful adaptations but generally enjoy films that take existing textual material in interesting directions.  In that vein, I was fascinated by the new vampire-Holy Grail-Shakespeare comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, which will be playing at Slamdance in early February mid-January.  Barring something incredibly unexpected, I likely won’t be able to attend, but the film’s trailers look like a lot of fun.
  • Finally, Sujewa has announced the world premiere of his documentary, Indie Film Blogger Road Trip, on February 17, at 8 PM, at the Anthology Film Archives.  Because I’m in the film–my world premiere!–I abstained from reviewing it, but I did write about the uncanny experience of seeing myself as a documentary subject a few weeks ago.

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Billy the Kid

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’ve decided to spend some time this year catching up (as much as possible) on all of the movies and TV series I’ve missed in recent months, and last night, I finally caught Billy the Kid (IMDB), an intimate, observational documentary about Billy, a shy, awkward Maine teenager who has an unusual felicity with language, loves professional wrestling and heavy metal, and, of course, girls.  Jennifer Venditti, the director, wisely avoids treating Billy as a case study–she mentions in the DVD extras that Billy had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a detail that is not revealed during the film–and instead focuses on the awkwardness and discomfort of teenage life, especially when you experience yourself as an outsider, someone who doesn’t always fit in.

Billy’s verbal habits–a fascinating mix of self-help discourse, fantasy novel romanticism, and SAT-prep vocabulary–combine to create someone who is unusually articulate.  We also witness someone who has developed an overarching sense of chivalry; when Billy plays a first-person shooter video game, he comments that he won’t shoot female characters out of a desire to protect women.  At the same time, we learn through fleeting references of Billy’s own guilt about not protecting his mother when she had been in an abusive relationship.

But instead of imposing an interpretation onto Billy, the film chooses to observe as he experiences many of pleasures and challenges of growing up, with the main storyline focusing on his initially tentative and then somewhat rushed pursuit of Heather, a local girl who works in the small-town diner where Billy lives.  These awkward moments–getting Heather’s phone number, talking to her parents in the diner–present a sometimes painful depiction of adolescence that will seem familiar to pretty much anyone.

Billy the Kid has been out for a while–it won one of the inaugural Cinema Eye Honors awards for best debut feature back in April 2008–but due to a number of circumstances, I’m just now getting around to seeing it, but I wanted to mention it, however briefly, here because Venditti provides an intimate portrait of a compelling individual trying to make sense of his world.  I know the film has been criticized to some extent for not getting very far outside of Billy’s perspective, other than one very brief interview with an awkwardly giggling Heather, but I think the film was wise to avoid imposing interpretations from others in Billy’s life because it shows that Venditti trusts her audience enough to see the challenges that Billy is facing and to make sense of how he’s learning to negotiate the small-town Maine community where he lives.

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Media Favorites 2008

Like a lot of bloggers I admire, I’ve been reflecting again this year on the arbitrariness and subjectivity of “best of” lists.  Given that many of the movies that aspire to the be the “best” Hollywood has to offer aren’t released to flyover audiences until mid-January at best, I’ve missed a lot this year.  And because I’ve been especially preoccupied this year by following the election and finishing the book, I’ve seen far fewer movies this year than in the past.  If it weren’t for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, I would have found it even more difficult to compile anything resembling a top ten list.  I’m still reluctant to focus solely on film in that I have strong opinions on–or deep investments in–other media, and in fact, television, with its 24-hour news cycle, and political blogs, with their constant updates, have probably been the media texts that will stay with me the most from 2008.

So instead of pretending to compile a top ten list for film or TV (or viral videos for that matter), here is an arbitrary, non-alphebatized list of media texts that mattered to me in 2008.  In some cases, I’m listing them because they were what I believe to be among the best films or TV shows.  In others, I’m searching for something slightly more elusive: texts that seemed to reflect the zeitgeist of 2008, at least as I experienced it.  There are a number of excellent top tens already out there (Jonathan’s lists of top ten TV shows, readings, etc. are a great place to start), but I’m interested in using the list format to make sense of the past year, to contextualize it through the popular culture texts that worked for me.  Favorites below the fold and read through all of them because I saved some of the best for last.

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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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New Year Links

I’m finally starting to recover from holiday travels, MLA activities, and holiday revelries, and starting to think about spring semester in earnest.  As I mentioned before, I have some tentative plans for my grad course on “Technology in the Language Arts Curriculum,” and I’ll discuss those in detail later, but I’ve really enjoyed taking some time just to read blogs and a couple of books–David Crystal’s txtng: the gr8 db8 and Jill Walker Rettberg’s Blogging–and to do a little reflection before diving back into things.  Here are some of the things I’ve been reading (and I wish I had time to write longer posts about all of these items):

  • I’ve mentioned my enthuisasm for Chris Marker several times here on the blog–and, in fact, one of my first published essays is on Marker’s Sans Soleil–so I’m excited to see that there is now a blog devoted to Marker’s films and videos. Some great viewing tips, including the news that one of Marker’s short films, Junkopia is available on Ubu.  You can also check out Marker’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
  • Scott Kirsner also has a report on some of his research for the Independent Television Service on new distribution and promotion strategies for independent filmmakers. The research focuses on seven case studies, incluing some that I mentioned briefly in my book and in my recent talk at MLA, including Hunter Weeks and Josh Caldwell’s 10 MPH, although I’ll be interested to see what Kirsner has to say about the promotion of Katy Chevigny’s Election Day and Curt Ellis’s King Corn, as I’m a big fan ofboth of those films.
  • Kirsner also has an interesting dicussion of a new low-budget 3-D horror film, My Bloody Valentine, which will check in with a relatively modest $20 million budget.  If it’s a decent horror film, it shoul make that budget back without much difficulty, and while Kirsner cites Cameron’s concern that 3-D could fall back into the exploitation and schlock “ghetto” it occupied in the 1950s, I actually think it’s exciting to see a variety of potential uses for 3-D.  I’ll admit that I’m not that interested in the horror genre, but I’d likely make an exception for a 3-D film.
  • Alisa Perren addresses a challenging question about teaching a Media Industries course in the face of (1) declining advertising revenue and (2) a looming actors’ strike that could further hurt “the industry.”  Alisa’s remark provoked a useful comment from Mark Deuze (who also has a new-to-me blog), who points out that media scholars often have a habit of treating the media inustry monolithically rather than looking at the creative activities pursued by smaller studios and production houses.
  • Via Agnes, the cool news that the New York Public Library is the latest organization to put some its archival materials on Flickr Commons.  Obviously, this material could prove valuable for media scholars and teachers (I’ll certainly introduce my students to it), so it’s exciting to see it becoming publicly available.  And as Agnes points out, the library’s blog is, itself, a great resource.
  • Another interesting film distribution story: Roger Ebert writes a positive review of fellow Urbana, Illinois, native Nina Paley’s animated film, Sita Sings the Blues, but notes that the film cannot be distributed because of copyright clearances on songs performed by Annette Hanshaw songs, which are instrumental to the film’s plot.  After the positive attention from Ebert, Paley develops a plan to distribute the film under a Creative Commons license by making promotional versions of the film available on and several other web sites. More later, but this is a really cool idea, a nice variation on the “Raiohead” model used by Weeks and Caldwell on 10 MPH.
  • More online viewing excitement: the PBS series POV has made its groundbreaking documentary, Silverlake Life, available online as a streaming video from now until February 22, 2009.
  • Anne Thompson reports that Robert Epstein’s 1984 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, has regained a new life onlinem thanks to the popularity of Gus Van Sant’s Milk.  I’m probably a good example of this: I’ve had Epstein’s doc in my Netflix queue for over three years but kept putting off watching it until the release of Milk gave me an excuse to sit down and watch it.
  • Harry Tuttle has a terrific overview of all of the “film criticism in crisis” articles and blog entries that have been written in 2008.  If you’re doing research on these crisis narratives, this is an excellent place to start.*
  • Finally, Karina, responding to a Kansas City Star column by Aaron Barnhart, takes a look at MSNBC’s use of documentary as cheap off-hour programming and asks a useful question about how these programs may be “redefining” documentary.  I’ll quickly add that I’m skeptical about MSNBC programmer Michael Rubin’s spin that viewers make no distinction between high-brow content such as Dear Zachary and exploitative fare such as the Lockdown series. That sounds like a cheap justification for putting programming that is one step away from COPS on a “news network.”  In fact, it’s pretty insulting to claim that audiences aren’t making a distinction, even if we might be too lazy to change the channel.  That being said, it is being used as a justification for producing more of that kind of schlock.

* Corrected small typo. But Harry’s collection of links is still indispensable.

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After a somewhat unplanned hiatus, I’m trying to get back in the blog habit.  Visiting family and attending MLA disrupted many of my usual web rituals more than I expected, and I’ve spent much of New Years Day simply revisiting blogs I haven’t read in a couple of weeks while a number of college football bowl games play in the background–the overly insistent pageantry ringing a somewhat false tone in an ear of economic difficulty.  I’m in the process of composing at least two posts, an update on my planning for my upcoming graduate seminar and a review of some of my favorite films, TV shows, videos, etc. from 2008.  But I’d like to use the space of the blog to look back a little bit on 2008 and look ahead to some new goals for 2009.

Like many bloggers, I’m well aware that 2008 has been a difficult year.  As Filmbarin notes in his top ten film list, many of us have lost jobs this year.  Others have lost homes or faced difficulties paying off debts.  We’ve also seen the repercussions of poor environmental stewardship and of combative foreign policies. Certainly the economy was one of the most frequent topics at this year’s Modern Language Association conference (as discussed in this solid LA Times article), as many of my colleagues and I worried about a tightening job market.  Knowing that Barack Obama will be taking over in three weeks is some consolation, even if his choice to invite Rick Warren to lead a prayer at the inauguration is disheartening.

But in the midst of all of these problems, some thing have gone well for me.  Thanks to some long hours this summer and countless pots of coffee, my book has moved much closer to publication.  I’ve also produced quite a bit of work on viral political videos, including one essay already in print with Popular Communication (I also talked about these issues on a New Hampshire NPR show, “Word of Mouth”).  I also completed two half marathons this year, running them only about two weeks apart, something I never really thought I would do, so naturally I’m pretty happy with all of those accomplishments.

That being said, 2008 feels like something of a “lost” year.  In trying to think about favorite movies, books, videos, or TV shows, my mind remains a bit of a blur.  As Filmbrain implies, a weaker slate of films might be partially to blame, and living in North Carolina does provide me with less access to some of the high-profile Oscar-bait films (Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, etc).  But even if I had access, I’m not sure how many I would have seen, in part because I’ve been preoccupied by other things this year.  To be sure, the book has occupied quite a bit of emotional, mental, and even physical energy, but I also found myself reading political news blogs far more often–thankfully I was able to turn that into a research interest–and like many people, I felt almost as if my life was on hold for much of October and early November as I awaited election results that seemed like they would never come.

I mention all of this to say that I’ve only made one significant resolution this year, and that is to relax and reassess, to sort out where I’ve been and where I’d like to go next.  When I joked to my friends at a New Years party last night that I was planning “to be more of a slacker this year,” I wasn’t entirely serious, but I do want to spend more time doing the things that led to the completion of my first book: reading blogs and other writing on film and media, watching movies and TV shows, and providing myself with at least a little space for new ideas to emerge.

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