Another Provocation for Academics

Once again, David Parry offers another provocative stance on the impacts digital networked media have wrought / are working on us.  Helpful for time-hungry web readers are his bullet thoughts on ways we can start changing our approach to scholarship now:

  • Stop Publishing in Closed Systems
  • Self Publish
  • End the .pdf madness
  • Get Over Peer Review
  • Aspire to Be a Curator
  • Think Beyond the Book

(See the full article for the details.)

Of these, I’m most partial the fifth — “Aspire to be a Curator” — as it applies directly both to scholarship and to teaching for me: we should think of ourselves as a nexus of information, a conduit, one means to channel/filter our collective knowledge and understanding in ways that enlighten and enliven our students and provide them with the tools to activate their learning independent of us.

Many or even most faculty already do this to some extent already, but I have to agree with David here that the book’s material form and ideological practices discourage this kind of active learning.  If the book is a place where the information lives, then it becomes easy enough to simply leave it there.

Subjectivities v. Subjects

Michael Wesch wrote a nicely compact and straight-forward exposition of what can be considered his core principles with regard to digital networked media and their impact on our collective conceptualization of education.  In it, he explains that he considers the concept of the “subject” in education — history, psychology, etc. — to be the wrong approach because it encourages:

“the Vaccination Theory of Education” [,] as students are led to believe that once they have “had” a subject they are immune to it and need not take it again.

By contrast,he suggests students should be assisted in growing their competence in certain “subjectivities,” by which he means

ways of approaching, understanding, and interacting with the world. Subjectivities cannot be taught. They involve an introspective intellectual throw-down in the minds of students….they can only be learned, explored, and adopted through practice. We can’t “teach” them. We can only create environments in which the practices and perspectives are nourished, encouraged, or inspired (and therefore continually practiced).

This is an intriguing idea in several ways.  In the article, he lists several subjectivities he considers himself actively encouraging his students to practice while teaching anthropology at Kansas State.  In the spirit of exploring this idea, I suggest a first step might be for others to consider what subjectivities they may be actively (or passively) encouraging in other subjects.  I’ll start with my own approach to media studies.

First, I consider media studies to be less easily or clearly bounded than more traditional subjects like anthropology: it is much harder to succinctly write a description of what media studies is the “study” of, in my opinion.  Still, I’ll borrow from Wikipedia here and say that media studies is concerned with “the content, history and effects of various media; in particular, the ‘mass media‘.” For me, this is helpful if very broad: it puts us in the ballpark.  Given this, I’d argue I’m at some level always seeking to encourage my students to practice the following subjectivities:

  • For most Americans most of the time, the world is heavily mediated through texts produced by others; the notion that we can know the world simply by “looking around us” is a myth.
  • However, the growing ubiquity of digital networked media production tools is making it incredibly easy for non-professionals to create, and this is a notable change happening right now (at the beginning of the 21st Century).
  • Technologies employed in media culture almost always begin as tools devoid of ideology, but they can take on ideological dimensions through use.
  • Media producers are neither angels nor demons, but they do tend to operate according to certain principles such as efficiency and risk-aversion.
  • Media consumers consume for a remarkably diverse array of reasons, many of which are personal and idiosyncratic and some of which are still unknown.

Though this is probably a partial list, one thing I can say is that I am always trying to encourage my students to practice these principles in their production and criticism of media, though I realize now after writing them that I do it much more implicitly than I had realized.  My guess is even my best students would have trouble articulating these with any specificity.

Plus, I’m guessing plenty of other media studies scholars would have somewhat or significantly differing lists of their own.  But I sure would be interested to read them.  Any takers?

Search Stories: Meme, Genre, or Medium?

Google impressed us all at least a little bit during the Super Bowl with their “Google Search Stories” series of ads: a screencast of a series of Google Web Searches that, when viewed in sequence with accompanying music, told a kind of a story about the searcher.  Parisian Love is probably the most well known.

Now Google is hoping we’ll all get in on the Search Story act with the release of its Search Stories Creator, a web tool that automates much of the screencasting process (it even provides a set of a couple dozen short music tracks to choose from) so you can make your own Search Story.

The tool itself is pretty limited (only 7 search strings, and the last one must be text search instead of one of the other five options like image search), but the overall idea is an excellent one and really highlights the potential for digital networked storytelling today.  Part of this is because so many of us are so familiar with the way Google Web Search auto-suggests possible searches to help you complete yours more quickly, a feature that has been a part of the tool for a while.  This familiarity makes the idea of telling a story using the tool a more reasonable affair — we can fill in the cognitive gaps that might appear between search strings.

The concept of a “search story” is something that probably started as something closer to what the web community has been calling a “meme” (a term taken from Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene) in that it was a name we could put on a certain kind of a thing many folks were seeing on the web after the Google ads aired.  When such a thing develops into an established set of principles for making something new that moves beyond its original context in a significant way, we might begin to refer to it as a “genre.”  And once those tools develop a degree of depth and breadth and spread widely enough through society, we may even begin thinking of it as a “medium” in itself.

This continuum from meme to genre to medium is one that in the past was likely to develop very slowly.  Imagine how The Great Train Robbery must have seemed in 1903: a clever new way to bring certain story-telling tools together in a compelling package, but certainly not to many the start of a new toolkit for storytelling.  But soon enough, others found that set of storytelling and meaning-making tools so useful (practically, culturally) that it moved from momentary coalescence to persistent genre.  And animation, which at some level is simply an appropriation of the tools of cinema for a more specific purpose, is today pushing our conception of filmmaking so thoroughly that it’s hard for us not to think of it as a separate medium instead of a genre of cinema.  Many if not most already do.

But this process has accelerated like so many others, with the advent of digital networked technologies themselves.  The flexibility of production and ease of distribution has brought huge numbers of new creators into the field.  These creators have brought a surge of new ideas, not only about what to say in their stories, but how to say it, proliferating memes everywhere.

Some of these memes turn into genres of digital networked storytelling, and it will not be long before we are thinking of them as media unto themselves.  Digital Storytelling — using still images, voice, and music in a video package — already may be there.  Remix video — appropriating material produced by others and transforming it into something new — may be there as well.  It would probably be hard to make a case for Search Story as a genre of digital networked media just yet, but the form is still quite early in its potential development.

The time may have come for some person or group to begin cataloging and curating not only the vast field of whats but the steadily expanding realm of hows.  Any takers?

Resisting Epistemic Closure

I’m finding the current wide-ranging discussion about “epistemic closure” intriguing (the term was cast by Julian Sanchez but is now circulating widely among many conservative and libertarian bloggers who have serious issues with the Republican Party in its current form).  There are lots of places to pick this up: Slate, Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish, etc.

But I’m dropping this brief line in just to puff up my own vanity (a little).  In this article, David Brooks points to a study about internet use in which its authors conclude that Cass Sunstein’s thesis about ideological “cocooning” on the internet hasn’t really happened (he cautioned that it might, not that it would, but it certainly felt urgent at the time in the early aughts).  Instead, the internet makes it so easy to find opposing points of view, that people have a tendency to at least check them out instead of avoid them.

This was part of the argument I made in my dissertation: that Sunstein’s caution, while intelligent and substantive, just doesn’t seem to actually be happening if you look at data on the ground.  For me, it was a more ethnographic study of viewers of The West Wing and their responses to the series in connection to their politics, and it was the same basic conclusion put forth here.

It’s just nice to see others realizing you’re as right as you knew you were (he said, seeing the painful, laughable irony in his own little epistemic closing as he said it).

Rocketboom Surprisingly Sober

…in their PSA for filing a fair use claim on Youtube (via Boing Boing).

If you, say, are a student in my class, and you had your video removed from Youtube, you may wish to try this method to restore it (since in most cases your video was both for scholarship and for critique).

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