Sabbatical 2018: Central Concerns

I’ve written recently about other aspects of my sabbatical, but in this post I’d like to start thinking semi-publicly about the more traditional goals I’ve set for myself: producing scholarship for potential publication.

In the past, my public work, limited though it has been, has been in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) genre. I’ve published and presented shorter pieces on using digital networked media like video production, social media, and alternate reality games (ARGs) in media studies courses, including thinking about their pedagogical impact on the ways students learn, as well as the practical logistics of getting such projects and assignments up and running in non-media production courses.

In addition, I’ve been doing service-teaching hybrid work at my institution for a while that supports digital networked media use for learning in disciplines outside of media studies (such as education, chemistry, anthropology, and languages) as well as other campus programs like study abroad and career services.

Guiding Questions

So my thinking for this sabbatical has begun to focus on the intersection of these heavily related areas. Questions that are animating me right now include:

  1. How seriously can we take the claim that in our digital-networked-media-saturated era, “literacy” must necessarily include “digital literacy” and specifically “digital networked media literacy”?
  2. Beyond this, how important is the ability to create digital networked media? As a tool for communication? As a vehicle for learning? As a mode of expression?
  3. Might it be fruitful to think of media production learning the way James Paul Gee writes about “cultural processes” of learning in Situated Language and Learning?
  4. If this is fruitful, how can we improve the way we approach media production pedagogy in light of this?

Unpacking

First, maybe it’s too obvious to start with 1. – is this not, in 2018, taken for granted? On the contrary, based on conversations I have had with some of my colleagues, this remains a point for which we must continue to make a robust argument. It is not foregone. Perhaps the question is not whether “literacy” includes things digital and networked, but where we should focus our energies in incorporating those things into student learning (and by extension, our pedagogy).

As for 2., it begins with support for the argument that higher education in the U.S. should feature a “liberal education.” For me, this is one that emphasizes strong fundamentals in modes of engaging the world like critical thinking, the scientific method, systems thinking, and creativity.  These are strongly supported by fundamental communication skills we each use to express our thoughts and ideas, which have traditionally included reading, writing, and sometimes speaking. If we agree with this outline of an argument, it is not much of a leap to ask whether strong digital networked media literacy isn’t also important to develop for all students as well, and within that package of concepts and skills, certainly producing such media would be a core if not even a capstone element.

On 3., a bit more detail.  Gee writes about three broad approaches to language learning, “cultural processes,” “natural” processes, and “instructional” processes. The latter two are approaches with which we are likely more familiar: natural refers to times when we learn “through immersion and activity” (9), while instructional happens between a teacher/instructor and a student.  “Cultural” processes, by contrast, hold a kind of middle ground in Gee’s eyes: they are guided by a master, and include things like observing the master. The also feature “good enough” learning for the majority, plus expert learning for a minority.  This differs from natural, where “good enough” is what everyone achieves, and instructional, where expert learning is not only common but often expected.

When we turn to consider how well this maps onto the current state of media production (brief pause while I open a draft – now coming soon – of a new post on the production vs. creation vs. making tangent), there are some intriguing contours to consider.  First, it seems to me that this is surely where we find ourselves today with social media making. With both text and image creation, most users of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have developed “good enough” knowledge for how to navigate and create new media texts – micro-content posts that include text, still images, and graphics intended for small to medium-sized audiences. Perhaps we are headed toward this with video and interactive media making as well: consider the explosion of non-professional video production in the last year or two – with Twitch, Periscope, Snapchat, to name a few – much less the sea-change of the past decade that Youtube has wrought.

One element to consider is, who is the “master” in these scenarios? I would argue that, not unlike another powerful concept in Gee’s writing, affinity spaces, the master(s) for today’s media makers can be found in chat rooms, forums, and other social spaces online where “those who know (how)” teach those who don’t.  But they can also be found on video sharing platforms themselves (especially Youtube), in the form of (what very well may have reached the millions by now) “how-to” videos, on what seems to be every imaginable subject. This sub-genre of typically also non-professional media fascinates me, because in it you find so many who are in need of “good enough” learning about media making because their goal – to serve as a “master” to others seeking knowledge on a topic they know well – includes learning to produce online video only incidentally.

Finally, 4. is really the objective of all of this potential research. I would like to provide fellow media creation teachers – and again, not solely or even primarily those of us with graduate-level training in how to teach this stuff – with new ways of thinking about what services we are providing our students when we teach them the skills for making new media, and how those skills can support the other work they are doing in higher education to develop and grow.

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