(Re)Visions of Students

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

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

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

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

9 Comments »

  1. Jeff Said,

    January 22, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    I get the critique you are tapping into, but I think it’s problematic for a few reasons. One, and the most obvious, is Wesch doesn’t set enrollment for the course. He also doesn’t set admissions for the university. So it feels unfair to critique his video for the lack of people of color in the class. It’s also not really the focus of the video, whose thematic point deals with teacher/student interaction in the emerging world of Web 2.0.

    I find the remix problematic because it really essentializes the question of race and new media/education. On the one hand, it finds fault of with the make-up at this university as unrealistic/on the other hand, it offers an equally problematic treatment of race by re-enforcing “digital divide” cliches regarding African American work with technology. Such points about African Americans and technology are simply not true. It also takes the video to task for a “unified” experience, which the video is not doing. This emphasis on representation to find fault is old news. Critiques dealing with race need to find new approaches. The “digital divide” critique ends up as a way of stopping technology discussion, not expanding it.

    If anything, the remix feels immature. It lacks any real insight into classroom conditions and race. It feels much more knee-jerk than insightful, much more the kind of thing you would expect from an undergraduate than a professional in the field. So, if Wesch is guilty of some tech romanticism, the response is guilty of undeveloped critique.

  2. Chuck Said,

    January 22, 2008 @ 9:00 am

    You’ve tapped into some of the reasons my own comments were a bit cautious (I deleted about 6-7 seems from the original entry). I should have been clearer in teasing out the complications here. In fact, I like Wesch’s video quite a bit, even if it romanticizes in places (although, to be fair, it seems relatively techno-ambivalent in a number of key moments). I think my main point of critique is the distinction between a university student’s experience and, say, a student at a community college or teaching college/university, or maybe between the students as individuals and students as a mass/collective.

    I also should have been much clearer about the “digital divide” and quite frankly, I don’t like that term either. You’re absolutely right that mapping a digital divide along racial, ethnic, age, or even class lines is simply not the case, and I tried to avoid doing that explicitly (though I was a little hesitant to rely solely on my own, anecdotal, experiences here at FSU and elsewhere).

    You’re right to suggest that the remix feels a bit immature or underdeveloped. There was a moment of negation or critique that I initially found interesting and that echoed some of my initial reservations about the original video, but I should have taken the second step and critiqued the critique. More later, because I need to process this comment further.

  3. Jeff Said,

    January 22, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    Well, I’m not critiquing you, but rather noting that I find the remix unconvincing because it makes the issue it wants to address too simple.

  4. Chuck Said,

    January 22, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    Oh, I didn’t take your comment that way, but I did want to use your comment as an incentive to rethink some of my own reservations about the second video and my initial response to it.

  5. Mark Marino Said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 3:09 am

    It might not surprise you that I disagree with Jeff.
    It might surprise Jeff that I agree with him.

    Remember, however, and I’ve tried to make this clear in my post (see WRT for this) about the video, I’m not taking Wesch to task for KSU’s demographics or for the makeup of his class.

    My critique follows two points:

    1) Wesch has made 1 extremely popular video about Web 2.0 technologies. I would go so far as to call his video “definitive” in its circulation. That video features no faces but mostly software interfaces. That video speaks with a kind of omniscient voice.

    2) Continuing in this vein, this new video now speaks to the issue of “students today” (not KSU students today) and uses images of students to convey the information — students with races, genders, sexuality, etc.

    Now here’s where I agree with Jeff.

    “This emphasis on representation to find fault is old news”

    Now for most of us, this is “old news” because in our artistic and academic practices we are sensitive to the power of representations. However, in this very curious web 2.0 or edtech-themed video, race, which is very much an implicit issue, has been literally deleted as an explicit topic (see Wesch’s blog about this). I find this trend symptomatic of many conversations about Web 2.0 technologies.

    Now, Jeff goes on to say

    “Critiques dealing with race need to find new approaches.”

    Exactly. But that doesn’t mean that we, to use a parallel example, return to using male pronouns in all our sentences because trying alternatives is now an old approach. We don’t need to act like race and racial representations don’t signify.

    But of course, my video mash-up, as Wesch calls it, is much more about my reaction to his video and some concerns I’m trying to raise that aren’t the major focus of his video.

    Jeff, you write,
    “The ‘digital divide’ critique ends up as a way of stopping technology discussion, not expanding it.”

    Based on this thread, the video doesn’t seem to have done that either.

    Now let’s move the discussion into new research on these issues in light of this “old school” reminder. As you put it, Jeff, let’s not:

    “make repeated claims regarding “access” or “race” without ever having to move beyond the letter writing gesture.” (The Post-Hype Society II, Yellow Dog)

    Best of all, let me ask (with no intention to provoke), how you all are adding issues of race, class, and access to your scholarship on Web 2.0? I’m hoping to build a bibliography out of some new work.

  6. Chuck Said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 10:38 am

    Thanks for the comments and the additional framing of your own video and of Wesch’s as well. I share your observation that the camera work in Wesch’s videos (however intentionally) indicates a kind of omniscience or what I called a “universalizing” impulse.

    To answer your other question: My scholarship is primarily in film studies, thus far, so these questions may operate differently in that field. I currently teach at a public, historically black university, so these questions about race, class, and access are often on my mind, especially on the practical level, but I haven’t written on the topic or made time to follow research in that area.

  7. Mark Marino Said,

    January 25, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    Thanks, Chuck,
    I appreciate all the thoughts and look forward to your continued blogging,

  8. The Chutry Experiment » Sunday Links Said,

    January 27, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

    [...] Marino’s mashup of his “A Vision of Students Today” video, which I discussed a few days ago. Not much to add here, but I think that Marino’s video has provoked an interesting [...]

  9. The Chutry Experiment » Wednesday Links Said,

    June 25, 2008 @ 9:43 am

    [...] star” Michael Wesch, an anthropolgy professor at Kansas State University.  I’ve written about two of Wesch’s videos, both of which very clearly tapped into the internet zeitgeist, [...]

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