Teach-Ins and Twitter
Michael Newman / University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

teach-in against the Vietnam War, 1965

Vietnam War era Teach-in, March 1965.

The first teach-in was held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1965, and the -in came from the sit-ins at lunch counters and other segregated public places in the 1950s and 60s where African-Americans demanded equality. It was organized by professors who gathered up members of the campus community to protest the Vietnam War by teaching about the conflict, an alternative to a work stoppage. A teach-in was to be “a shrewd means of energizing the university without disrupting it.” (( Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1990), 108. )) The overnight event was attended by thousands of students and hundreds of professors. It was covered in the national news.

Many more teach-ins were staged on college campuses during these tumultuous years when universities were at the center of movements for social justice and New Left politics. They were thought to make many students who had not been paying much attention to foreign affairs conscious of America’s involvement in Vietnam. A teach-in at Berkeley attracted as many as 30,000 participants (such estimates being contentious) and was a bona fide media event, with folk singers and well-known figures like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Norman Mailer. It was broadcast on the radio. There were also pro-war teach-ins, but whatever ideas were conveyed, the key purpose of a teach-in was nonviolent demonstration through pedagogy, building a platform for public intellectual discourse. Faculty and students along with members of the public could engage politically within the space of the university, and the university gave legitimacy to dissent over the war.

One statement at a 1965 teach-in provoked a huge controversy over academic freedom and political speech. Eugene D. Genovese, a history professor at Rutgers University, spoke these words at a teach-in on his campus: “Those of you who know me know that I am a Marxist and a Socialist. Therefore, unlike most of my distinguished colleagues here this morning, I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.” This was quoted in the papers, and became an issue in the New Jersey gubernatorial race when the challenger called on the sitting governor to fire Prof. Genovese. In this instance, the academic freedom of an outspoken critic was protected when Rutgers’ president and Board of Governors took no action against him.

Teach-ins have not been common for several generations, but the engagement of university students and faculty in political debate perseveres, and in some ways it has a more public presence than it ever did. As they have for years, critical scholars speak publicly, appear on television and radio, and write for mainstream media outlets. But few platforms have the real-time immediacy of twitter, or its potential to become the grounds for controversy. Twitter is a polarizing medium. Its ardent users really get it, and use it in ways that outsiders find irritating, confounding, or nonsensical. Twitter is many things for many people, but one way it is being used is very similar to the teach-ins of the 1960s. It is a platform for academics’ social and political criticism, with an often broader potential for spreading dissent than can be contained in a campus auditorium. But the same public soapbox that twitter represents as a place for critical opinion, commentary, and information is also a bright potential target for the outrage machines seeking offending statements to call out.

The most famous case of this is Steven Salaita, and the tweets at the middle of his ordeal are, like the statements of the Vietnam protests, about a war that should be of concern to all Americans. The Israel-Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014 may have shed no American blood, but our government’s policies in the Middle East mean that we are never disinterested bystanders to clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. Salaita, who was hired to teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign beginning in Fall 2014, tweeted passionately and with great urgency and anger about a catastrophic Israeli military assault. (( Some of these tweets are collected here. )) Salaita was “unhired” during the summer of 2014 as a consequence of his tweets on the war and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and his legal action against the university is ongoing.

He is not the only scholar whose tweeted statements on matters of public concern have drawn chilling responses from right-wing media as well as campus leaders. Saida Grundy, recently hired to teach at Boston University, faced conservative outrage over tweets she wrote about racial politics and American history, particularly for calling out white people. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was similarly targeted for a tweet describing a conversation with her grandfather, who saw similarities between our Governor Walker and Adolph Hitler, and calling Walker and Republican lawmakers fascists, as well as tweets at undergraduates about the situation in the UW System suffering cuts and changes to tenure and shared governance. It can hardly be random that those singled out for their critical, so-called offensive views are often women and people of color.

Twitter seems to invite clashes of contexts, and as a platform for dissent and public pedagogy, it has clear virtues and limitations. To members of a community within the world of twitter, who engage with one another on a regular basis and share each other’s codes and references, twitter can sustain remarkably vigorous discussion and debate. The short character limit is a constraint (though it also makes for succinct writing), but detractors often miss the crucial point that you can tweet more than once. Twitter is a constant flow of ideas among communities just as much as it is a collection of very brief expressions by individuals. It’s also a medium typically used for conversation rather than polished, edited prose. To outsiders, however, tweets are easily excerpted from the flow, abstracted from their context, and run up the flagpole as banners of transgression. They said WHAT!? Because twitter is so public, and tweets are so easy to quote and embed in stories, the public intellectuals using it are taking huge risks. This isn’t always good for movements critical of the current power structures, and yet it does help to spread a message. The potential for public pedagogy in scholarly tweets is promising but there can be unreasonable costs.

And these costs can only be managed if our universities rededicate themselves to the fundamental values of shared governance and academic freedom. If only the leadership of the University of Illinois in 2014 had shown the same judgment as the Rutgers administrators and Governors in 1965. Much has changed since then, but one undeniable factor has to be the shrinking investment of the state in public education, and the privatization and corporatization of academe. The influence of pro-Israel donors on the UIUC administration and the Board of Trustees was undoubtedly a cause of Salaita’s unhiring.

My own University of Wisconsin System — where I earned two degrees and have taught for 18 years — has been one prominent example of a public institution weakening its academic freedom protections as its transforms from a thriving public trust into a corporatized and privatized shadow of itself. To be nimble, flexible, efficient, etc., our masters in state government, abetted by a friendly Board of Regents appointed by a very conservative governor, have dramatically diminished the faculty’s rights. In place of the nation’s strongest tenure and shared governance protections enshrined in state statute we have new conditions wherein layoffs can be made in the event of academic program changes imposed from on high. This weakening of our position might seem disconnected from the contemporaneous outrages over Salaita and other outspoken tweeting profs. They are actually part of the same political process of curtailment of the freedom to do critical or controversial work in higher education. Who on a UW System campus will feel free to speak out against an Israeli (or American) war, or will sustain research programs on stem cells or climate change, or will have confidence to criticize an administration’s complicity in shifting the costs of education from the public to the individual? Why would we feel confident that administrators will protect us?

Under current conditions, all kinds of pedagogy are under threat — our work in the traditional classroom as well as the public discourse of blogs, tweets, Facebook updates, Chronicle columns, and whatever else we do to share our knowledge and insight online or off. A real university needs not just to tolerate but to incubate critical, unpopular, and controversial ideas. The teach-ins of the 21st Century, whatever forms they assume, will need the freedom even to outrage.

Image Credits:
1. Vietnam War era Teach-in, March 1965.

Please feel free to comment.

Pedagogy and Where Sh** Happens in Digital Humanities
Vicki Mayer / Tulane University

MediaNOLA logo

Logo for MediaNOLA: A collaborative project of Tulane University, bringing together students, programmers, and activists

Imagined in the post-Katrina moment as a technology to mediate the authoring and preservation of local cultural memories, MediaNOLA went online in 2008. Although the project had many inspirations and precursors in community media, open access museums and educational portals, as well as crowdsourced preservation projects, it slowly became a tool for online research and classroom pedagogy. [ (( For a history of the project, click here. ))] Students in university classes who were already doing community-based and regional research composed wikis, shot visuals, conducted interviews, digitized archival materials, and organized them in a massive repository for all things New Orleans. The word “media” took on its Latin etymology in the archive, showing users that a culture is made through its people, places, and objects. Users now have access to an interactive database and map of over 3,000 places in the city connected to over 800 wikis that students research, write, and rewrite. The “sell” for students to do this as part of their educational experience was easy as I show in a TEDx talk at my university.

The author’s TEDx talk in November 2012

Anywhere from 50-200 students each year participate through their classes. They learn research and production skills. They publish for the public. In short, they make media.

Making media has long been a driving force within a critical media studies curriculum, [ (( Early luminaries writing on making as part of a critical media studies curriculum included Dee Dee Halleck, Manuel Alvarado, David Sholle, and Cicilia Peruzzo. Thanks to the efforts of Drs. Beretta Smith-Shomade and Bambi Haggins, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies used to offer a day of offsite training in media literacy pedagogy and outreach at a local high school during the annual conference. The organization should bring it back. ))] but in the digital humanities (DH), making tends to take a backseat. My search through the annals of pedagogic discussions related to digital humanities have revealed mostly discussions of the effectivity of massive open online courses (MOOCs), digital repositories, or interactive learning games or platforms. While these questions about the reception of new media are certainly important to understanding the directions and future of education in a digital era, they are limited to what happens when a user confronts an interface on the front-end: the homepage, the maps, the blogs, and the wikis. They largely ignore the questions of student-centered production that happen on the back-end interfaces. For me, though, that’s where sh** really happens.

To probe the crass metaphor a bit further, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell write that the ubiquitous computing processes in our daily lives already make a mess, both in terms of labor and property regimes. [ (( Dourish, Paul and Genevieve Bell. 2011. Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ))] Indeed MediaNOLA’s back-end is available via a no-doubt ironic URL combining “willdoo” with the name of the proprietary owner of the content management system (CMS). This is the interface site visitors do not see, but students, professors, and tech staffers do in order to enter their contents and see what others have entered. MediaNOLA pays the company to maintain and upgrade the software. The fact that there is a firewall between the front and back interfaces was an early choice made to navigate the potentially bigger mess of open crowdsourcing and direct student inputs into the public sphere. So while we might theorize the labor of programmers and users for MediaNOLA, my primary focus has been on what the students are doing — and that is messy enough.

Backend of CMS loaded behind firewall

Backend of CMS Located Behind a Firewall at Willdoo

There’s a lot to learn about interface literacies through creating MediaNOLA contents. I do this directly in my own classes each semester and indirectly in providing varying levels of support to other classes. That can be by leading workshops or connecting professors with projects I know about, or by managing any number of interns and fellows who get paid or class credit to share their work and show their skills. I each setting, the newbies encounter archiving as a kind of disciplinary practice.

While neither the front- nor back-end work involve major computing knowledge, the various fields for metadata, with their somewhat obscure language, have to be learned. So do the protocols for adding sounds and images. Depending on the field, the aspect ratio is different and the protocol for adding the credits is as well. There are only two bits of code that the wiki requires– one for headers and one for endnotes. These ensure serial numbering in the wiki. But even this small effort involves a new way of reading the interfaces, a process of saving and flipping between the front and back ends of the software. Having worked in video production, I was used to doing this. You edit a bit and then render, then return. But many of my students do not have that familiarity; for them, the simple classifying and coding of stories represents a learning outcome.

graphic of code & screen grab of a wiki

From student coding into MediaNOLA content

Or does it? DH pioneer Johanna Drucker once observed, “much of what is currently done in digital humanities has the look of automation.” [ (( Drucker, Johanna. 2004. “Speculative Computing: Aesthetic Provocations in Humanities Computing.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, John Unsworth. Oxford: Blackwell. ))] Information scientists Geri Gay and Helene Hembrooke liken the skills acquisition in digital learning to the just-in-time model of factory production. They suggest this without the slightest bit of irony or critique. Indeed once one achieves the digital skills in MediaNOLA, their application becomes a routine, if not rote, as the producer and the tool synchronize their actions. [ (( I’ve talked about this elsewhere in applying Hans Joas’ theory of ‘creative action’ to the study of production. Mayer, Vicki. 2011. Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ))] There is some latitude for randomness and play in creating MediaNOLA, but not so much that students mistake the project for fun over an assignment.

I have no such illusions in this project, in part because of the way MediaNOLA gets used in the liberal arts small classroom setting. In most of its classroom applications, small groups are asked to write, share, rewrite, and then get graded as if this was a research assignment. The process ideally moves between stages of cooperation, in which everyone adds their little sections of knowledge separately, and collaboration, in which they actually have to bring the different bits of data together in a unified way. In its best articulation, students achieve a collective cognition, learning something together that they could not have possibly done on their own.

This learning is not a function of the tool but the way the tool is deployed in what social psychologist Lev Vygotsky theorized was a zone of proximal development. [ (( Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] In the class projects, students look to their peers, the Internet, and the functionality of the system to advance their project more than they would have on their own. In the zone, the tool is the most instrumental and thus the most inflexible. Students find that they can make map points or slide shows but they have to figure out workarounds because the machine does not know and is not able to actualize what they want. Learning flexibility with technologies is an important learning outcome that is stressed in informal settings but discouraged in classrooms.

It should be noted perhaps the obvious that MediaNOLA is no magic bullet for achieving learning outcomes. The worst students still make the worst entries. The best students still were most conscientious, checking the research, writing and formatting with the most care. Reflecting on the process, it’s the students in the middle who benefit the most from the process of doing original research and then actualizing it in a public and collective forum. Students have to balance standard procedures with original findings. Very creative students have to temper their impulses to learn how to enter the simplest bits of code or follow the protocols for mapping. While those who are used to following directions now have to narrate the story of place or a person that does not already exist in Wikipedia. Unfortunately in the era of continuous assessment, my high-achieving students tend to be of the latter category. For them, the MediaNOLA project offers them a safe and guided space to create without the angst around achieving an amorphous outcome.

Image of WIKI About Audubon Park

From cooperative to collaborative learning on MediaNOLA

It’s this messier sense of human action as a social process that seems to be missing in understanding what students can do (nay, willdoo) in DH projects. It also means looking at the value of DH through a broader and longer lens, and considering learning beyond a single assignment or the individual student. Seven years in, I’m still learning along with the MediaNOLA students about the potentials and pitfalls of making media and mediating our makings.

Image Credits:
1. Logo for MediaNOLA
2. Backend of CMS Located Behind a Firewall at Willdo (author’s screen grab)
3. From student coding into MediaNOLA content (screen grab with author’s mark-up)
4. From cooperative to collaborative learning on MediaNOLA (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.

“Use the Force, Luke!”: Teaching Videographic Criticism to Students and Colleagues
Drew Morton / Texas A&M

using the videographic force

Use the videographic force, Luke.

My first year as an Assistant Professor was defined by an obsession of needing to have every syllabus and every lesson pre-planned, down to the most minute detail. When I talk to other junior colleagues, this seems to be a reoccurring trend. In an effort to preemptively address every question, we fall into “Stanley Kubrick mode” and trade being in the moment for the safe, mechanized, distance inherent in an overly calculated script. Yet, while this approach to preproduction might work well for 2001: A Space Odyssey, an academic article, or a video essay, it tends to rob pedagogy of energy and momentum. After all, how can one easily adapt when he or she is clinging to lesson plans like a life preserver? I quickly noticed this in my own teaching and asked a senior colleague for advice. She suggested that I leave my intricate lesson notes in my office for once and, like Luke Skywalker, use the Force and take the shot without the assistance of the targeting computer. I found that my lesson, while being slightly less polished, was more energetic. Moreover, I was more receptive to the needs of my students because I was present and adaptable. Yet, I found I still clung to it in another sense: my syllabus design.

The first time I taught my upper division course on videographic criticism, my syllabus was centered on New Media theory. [ (( i.e. Bolter and Grusin, Lev Manovich, Henry Jenkins, a unit on video games, etc. ))] Students were assigned to write short response papers to the readings and, in the final weeks of the course, use one response paper as a spring board for a five minute video. The first time around, I found that the students were grasping about half the reading. [ (( You can find the old syllabus here ))] Because of this, I staggered the timeline the second time to provide some assistance. However, fifteen weeks are fifteen weeks and staggering the reading took a couple days out of their video production schedule. After a heart to heart with my students and some colleagues, I realized I was simply trying to do too much. As Jason Mittell writes in a fantastic column on teaching theory to undergraduates, I had given into the temptation “to emulate the graduate seminars that may have provided years of intellectual rush.” In short, I was teaching a class that was designed more for me and less for them.

I say this not to be an apologist for students complaining about the workload in an upper division course, but to introduce a number of factors that are important to consider when designing a class that is a hybrid of theory and practice. Mainly, think about your department’s curriculum, course sequencing, and the trajectory of the average student. Given that I teach in a Mass Communication department than encompasses a breadth of sub disciplines (Public Relations, Advertising, Journalism, Media Studies, and Production), one of my main pedagogical obstacles was that I needed to teach a class that addressed an extremely diverse population: the students who take critical studies classes, the students who take production courses, and the smaller demographic that take both. That is one hell of a pedagogical Gordian knot. If I been teaching it in the smaller sandbox of a Cinema and Media Studies department (that also might require production classes), I think it is safe to hypothesize that the outcome would have been more fruitful.

When I sat down to prep it the third time around, [ (( I’m slated to teach it in Spring 2016, so you won’t find a draft of my syllabus and a reflection upon the results here, unfortunately. ))] I asked my [in]Transition co-editor Christian Keathley about his course on videographic criticism and I was shocked to find that his answer was philosophically in-line with “using the Force” and “turning off the targeting computer.” He explained that he spent much of the first day of class getting the pulse of the students. What was their background in Cinema Studies? More importantly, what was their background with film production and software? After this informal gathering of information, Chris wrote a draft of the syllabus but always emphasized that it was a draft. If the class found they needed more time to unpack at article or to put the finishing touches on a piece of videographic criticism, it could be discussed and perhaps altered. It was more of a collaborative workshop and less predetermined.

Based on Chris’s feedback, my “third time is the charm” redesign is a bit more modest in scope. I have decided to use Timothy Corrigan’s Short Guide to Writing About Film as the primary course text, supplemented by readings and screenings focusing on videographic criticism (there are more now than there were in 2012!). Instead of supplemental readings and response papers based around New Media, students are expected to research a film of their choosing and to produce a series of videos about it.

The first video assignment prompt asks students to take one film term and illustrate it with a clip from the chosen film (a video dictionary entry, if you will). For example, how would a student illustrate a “long-take”? We’re still in the introductory stages when it comes to the theoretical side of the course, but we’re pairing it with application on the practice side. Depending on the make up of your students, you can also “push” the assignment a bit further by adding some aesthetic obstructions. For instance, you can prohibit the use of voice-over and on-screen text. How does one illustrate the concept of “long-take” purely from a visual standpoint? All of a sudden, it is not as easy as putting up a shot from Touch of Evil or Children of Men. After all, someone might confuse “moving camera” and “long-take.” This variation demands more of an aesthetically informed compare and contrast.

CROSS-CUT from Drew Morton on Vimeo.

The second assignment is a videographic summary of a scholarly article about the chosen film (they must submit the reading to me in advance for approval). How would a student summarize Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in a two minute video (I tend to allow voice over or on screen text with this assignment!). This assignment challenges the students to analyze the article indirectly. After all, two minutes does not allow the student to engage in bulk quotation (as many are apt to do with sophisticated readings!). The scripts for their videos have to be extremely concise – without becoming an overly dense lecture – due to the constant balance between visual and aural elements. The third assignment is a videographic rebuttal to a scholarly article, about three to five minutes in length, that demands that the student both summarize an article and find visual evidence to refute and/or elaborate upon the original author’s work.

From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim from Drew Morton on Vimeo.

The final project is a five to eight minute analysis that can either be argumentative or poetic in its form. Both require an artist statement, similar to those published at [in]Transition. The former assignment looks a lot like the video version of a research paper – I expect a thesis, supported by evidence gathered in the research process and textual analysis. In this case, the artist statement, like a mathematical proof, simply shows the work, explains the rationale for the construction of the piece, and/or perhaps explores avenues that may have been omitted for time. In the case of the latter, the statement becomes much more significant because the two pieces must work in tandem. I structure the assignment this way to discourage those students pursuing the poetic option from producing philosophically superficial supercuts or mashups. How did your research guide and inform this interpretation? What can be gathered from combining Supernatural and Nosferatu beyond a few chuckles?

Free Will in Kubrick's THE SHINING from Drew Morton on Vimeo.

The sequencing of the assignments progressively raises the bar from a technological standpoint. [ (( The first assignment only requires one or two clips and rudimentary editing while the final requires a much more intricate and thoughtful arrangement of materials – both clips and, perhaps, scholarly sources. ))] This initiates those unfamiliar with Adobe Premiere at a fairly moderate pace. Moreover, starting with the foundational nuts and bolts of film terminology, progressing through the same skill sets of complex reading comprehension and analysis, and ending with an artifact with a unique and original thesis is essentially the same design of any upper division humanities course. I am simply changing the analogue assignments (short response papers, a final research paper) to a digital project. Obviously, such a design demands a small class size and deadline workshops for the students to screen drafts and get feedback from the class and I. Moreover, one final tip I would add: I tend to find that the “Follow the Bouncing Ball” of teaching software skills to students tends to backfire after a prolonged period of time. After about thirty minutes, eyes glaze over and they start exploring the software (or worse – Facebook) on their own. So I try to limit such class meetings to a handful of introductory demonstrations and, instead, allow them to explore the tools themselves while being available to answer their troubleshooting questions.

While perhaps a bit frustrating in its fluidity at first glance, this dialogical manifestation of theory and practice has been extremely productive thus far at [in]Transition. The foregrounding of analysis – in the form of open peer review – facilitates a digital discussion (we have a comment section that often involves the artist, reviewers, and readers). We have found this not only demystifies the production process and makes videographic production more palatable to the uninitiated, but also challenges preconceptions of how this criticism can manifest itself. Christian, Catherine Grant (our other co-editor), and I described this as being open to how knowledge is produced on the Aca-Media podcast. I have often drawn the analogy that asking us to concretely define academic videographic criticism is like trying to define film in the 1890s when faced with both George Méliès’s fantastic narratives and the actualities of Edison and the Lumières. While this degree of ambiguity can be terrifying to the obsessive compulsive instructor, I believe the young and multifaceted subject and methodology of videographic criticism requires it for the time being.

“Let go, Luke! Trust me.”

Image Credits:
1. Use the videographic force, Luke.

Please feel free to comment.

Using Digital Tools for Collaborative Discovery: Assurances and Ambivalences
Leah Shafer / Hobart and William Smith Colleges


Collaboration is key.

As a media studies professor at a small liberal arts college, I struggle to engender genuine, invested, critical conversations amongst my students. Because of the baroque structures of the students’ social lives outside the classroom – structures whose outlines are clear to me but whose details escape me entirely – my students find it difficult to separate what they see as their personal, social identity from their scholarly, intellectual identity. This means that they are extremely reluctant to critique each other’s ideas and to reveal (or even develop) their own investments in ideas, causes, or theories. One solution I have found to this problem is to design learning activities that ask students to work in groups, to utilize digital tools that allow them to produce and assess data sets in order to construct consensus, and to build time for reflection and revision into the process of responding to the collaboratively produced analyses. The solution is not without its own problems: I’m both incredibly pleased with the results and deeply uneasy about the process. But, as I will discuss here, this push and pull has become generative and has provided productive obstructions that have provoked rich and dense scholarship in my media studies classrooms.

Because I am a feminist pedagogue with scholarly interest in activist media, avant-garde aesthetics, and digital humanities work, I am deeply invested in collaborative work as both a pedagogical praxis and as a scholarly enterprise. [ ((Recently, a colleague who grew up behind the Iron Curtain posted on social media that her experiences as a youth have made her deeply suspicious of the zeal for “collaboration” in academe. (I feel similarly about the number of times in a day that a website asks me to click on “submit.”) I take her point, but I remain committed to collective work in the classroom and among scholars. ))] Collaborative work productively decenters hegemonic discourse and invites multiple, diverse points-of-view into conversation. But students hate group work. [ (( Honestly, when I was in college I hated group work. My Tracy Flick-like tendencies led me to bossily do all the work, which overtaxed me, alienated me socially, and deprived me of the type of enriching and generative conversations with my peers that would have led to more interesting and nuanced work. ))] When you let them pick their own groups, the classroom transforms into a middle school lunchroom – or, worse, a gym – where cliques form immediately and someone ends up picked last.

student forced to do group work

Student being forced to do group work.

When you randomly assign them to groups, extreme awkwardness prevails and more often than not you end up with alienated and angry students in office hours the week (or day) before a project is due. When you carefully craft groups you are faced with a dilemma: should you try to spread the underachievers/slackers out amongst the hard working/shining stars? Or, do you create a caste system by putting the best students together and setting the struggling students up for mutually assured destruction? It’s very difficult, even in an era of grade inflation, to get undergraduate students to focus on process and developing ideas rather than final grades – and group work can make grade negotiations extremely fraught. [ (( My colleague Lisa Patti and I have experimented with different modes of self-reflection in order to ameliorate the question of who in the group did what work. For more details, see our essay: “Extreme Searching: Multi-Modal Media Research” in The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy http://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/extreme-searching-multi-modal-media-research-2/ ))] But, as I say to my students every semester: no matter what you are going to do in your life, you’re going to have to work with other people. And, for the most part, other people are the worst. If, however, you have the skills to work with others systematically, intelligently, and effectively, you’ll be way ahead of the game.

One of my current attempts to address this problem has been the design of courses that include a series of collaborative lab assignments. In one of my current courses, there are two major lab-based projects, each of which is composed of a sequence of three group assignments, and each group assignment is made up of a different grouping of students. Students are assigned to these groups both randomly and systematically: the groups are not designed around aptitude, they’re just groups that change entirely for each assignment within the lab. This way, individual students remain the constant across the three graded assignments within the larger lab project. This helps to ameliorate their anxieties about being “stuck” in a bad group, for example. It provides me with a wealth of assessable data when generating grades. And, it allows students to work with a diverse set of responses and ideas while developing a coherent final product. It also gives them permission to cultivate relationships with each other that are not social. By “forcing” them to work with different people, I am freeing them from the social stigma of “choosing” to work with different people. It’s a depressing bit of social engineering, but it’s effective.

The second element of the solution lies in the way that the groups collaborate within each lab assignment. This element embraces the generative spirit of Digital Humanities 2.0, which models for our students the value of “the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls.” [ (( “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge” Todd Presner 2011 accessed February 2, 2013, http://cnx.org/content/m34246/1.6/. ))] By designing lab assignments that collect student responses as data, students are invited to integrate their individual responses within both their small group and within the responses of the other groups as well. Each assignment within the lab asks the students to analyze a media object. (In the case of this current course, the objects are television commercials.) The students in each group work together to answer a set of standardized questions about the media text that have been formatted as a Google Form. After each group has submitted their responses to the questions, a second set of questions directs them to the spreadsheet of answers that has been generated by the Google Form. They read all of the groups’ answers to the standard questions. They are then tasked with analyzing the similarities and differences that they observe in the collection of answers to the standardized questions. We discuss, rank, and elaborate upon the answers in a classroom discussion. We then use the assessments of those collective answers to build, collaboratively, an analysis of the media text in question.

spreadsheet of student responses

Spreadsheet of student responses.

Resources like Google Forms are free, [ (( “Free” if you have access to a computer and electricity and an Internet connection, that is.))] sexy, user-friendly, and assessment ready, which is awesome, but also problematic. As this exercise is meant both to address a specific media text AND to model collaborative strategies for future work, the use of the Google Form can be distractingly sexy: the collaborative generation of ideas can fail to be the focus when the collection mechanism for those ideas is so slick. Further, it’s important for things to be user-friendly so students will embrace the process of analysis, but is complex analysis truly meant to be user-friendly? Isn’t struggle an important part of thinking? The ease of use can’t be allowed to convince students that the task of thinking is easy. And, I am deeply conflicted about assessment. On the one hand, especially given the precarity and unsustainable workload of most teaching jobs, any tool that streamlines assessment holds value. But on the other hand, trendy assessment tools capitalize on invisible labor and foreground metrics: two things that faculty should be deeply suspicious of in the era of the neoliberal. Further, shouldn’t students in the humanities be thinking outside the box, rather than in it (in spreadsheets)? And, even though it’s perfectly true that textbooks are, themselves, products of consumer culture, it’s unsettling to rely on branded utilities in order to teach a course that calls branding into question. Even though it’s a teachable moment, it’s still queasy-making.

In any case, the baroque architecture of this lab assignment tends to dismantle the baroque architecture of the students’ social sphere, at least long enough for them to open up to each other and to find ways of working together. The goal of the lab exercises is the creation of space and time for reading, researching, analyzing, writing, editing, and revising. This particular structure, which utilizes digital tools in order to scaffold collaborative acts of analysis, rewards individual initiative and retains individual points of view while capitalizing on the fruits of collectivity and collaborative labor. It creates critical conversations, which is the point of the whole enterprise.

awesome results

Collaborative labor yields awesome results.

Image Credits:
1. Collaboration is key.
2. Student being forced to do group work (author’s gif).
3. Spreadsheet of student responses (author’s screen grab).
4. Collaborative labor yields awesome results (author’s gif).

Please feel free to comment.

Amelie Hastie / Amherst College

tv classroom

TV Classroom.

In the third chapter of Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary opens with a discussion of Goethe’s description of a room. Initially pointing to that perception engendered by a camera obscura, Goethe instead turns, Crary writes, to describe “the corporeal subjectivity of the observer.” [ (( Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1990. 69. ))] He continues, drawing on the work of Francois-Pierre Maine de Biran, to note: “the body becomes a stubborn physical fact.” [ (( Crary, 72. ))] Of course, the very sensations of the body of the observer remain grounded in the very room in which she or he sits. For me, this is a provocative — and extraordinarily appropriate — way to think not only about television spectatorship but also those other spaces that enable our sense of perception to take hold.

techniques of the observer

Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer.

I want to begin, then, by contextualizing my own pedagogical practices through a consideration of the critical and institutional spaces that have inevitably informed me as a teacher, scholar, and colleague. My graduate training was at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I earned my PhD in the Modern Studies program of the English Department. During the period of my study, Modern Studies was the program where both Film and Media Studies and Critical Theory were lodged. But it was just one of five programs at the time, which also included Literary Studies and Composition (as well as Creative Writing and Linguistics). Thus the context for our study and research was inevitably an interdisciplinary one (along with courses in Film, Television, and Critical Theory, for instance, I also took classes in nineteenth-century US literature, as well as interdisciplinary topical courses). I was therefore steeped in disciplinary studies — film and media, composition, literature — that together were set within an interdisciplinary model for research and teaching.

From UWM, I took a job at the University of California-Santa Cruz in the Film and Digital Media department, where I worked for almost a dozen years. Here my teaching became immersed in the discipline of Film and Media Studies, yet in the context of a program that included, equally, Production and Critical Studies. Our philosophy was that these two arms of “theory” and “practice” must be in conversation (or, at the very least, that students take courses in each). But while my teaching here was more “disciplinary” than “interdisciplinary,” my scholarship and my collegial practice were both informed by working with artists. From UCSC, I moved to Amherst College, a small liberal arts in New England, to start a program in Film and Media Studies. And here I was able to capitalize on resources to develop a major for students that thrives on an integrated practice between artistic and scholarly production in moving-image media. Moreover, being simultaneously housed also in an English department, my courses have again taken on an interdisciplinary thrust and, in some cases, a renewed attention to writing (especially at the “introductory” level). This institutional move has been, then, a return to some of my interdisciplinary roots as both a student and a teacher, but it has always carried with it the insistence on the complementary, if also “disciplined,” work of artists and scholars, which together create an inherently interdisciplinary practice.

classroom space

The “space” of the classroom is shaped by the disciplinarity of institutional sites and programs and in turn influences teachers’ and students’ interactions with their objects of study..

These three institutional sites, and my own place within them, have inevitably shaped my primary pedagogical site as well — that is, the “space” of the classroom. The classroom, after all, is that space where we continuously practice our own changing ideas, which are themselves in turn transformed by the students in the room with us. In my case, I encourage a creative critical practice as viewers, researchers, and writers in my classroom. And in both film and television courses, I try to integrate the following concerns: the materiality of viewing experiences, medium specificity, changing modes of viewing practices, and an expansion of what counts as “theoretical” material. These elements culminate in some of the writing assignments I offer students (and which I also attempt to complete myself, whenever possible). And they also, inevitably, recognize the body who watches and writes as a “stubborn physical fact.”

In the past few years, in what might seem a strange revenge scenario against all those non-specialists who integrate film and television into their syllabi (sometimes as a “break” from more serious study, sometimes as a “fun” addition, sometimes as a form of representation of a particular idea – but rarely as a medium- and culturally-specific form), I have increasingly added works outside of the discipline of Film and Media Studies into my own syllabi: poetry, novels, memoirs, personal essays, etc. And I’ve also been teaching a first-year seminar called “Things Matter” — an introduction to studies of Material Culture without the theoretical readings of the field — which includes a unit on various media forms. The latter class has, in many ways, shaped my approach to my upper-division courses in Film and Television Studies. Throughout “Things Matter,” I assign a series of “Object Lessons,” in which I implore students to “write in the form that the thing demands.” Ultimately my goal is not to have them produce, say, essays in the shape of a pair of socks or a candy bar, but rather to consider what shape their writing might take in response to particular objects. How, for instance, would they approach a discussion of a television series in relation to the device on which they watch it? How does the one inform the other, and how does that relationship inform their own writing?

My foundations course in Television Studies, “Knowing Television,” centrally inquires, as the name implies, how we know television — as a medium, a textual system, a cultural object. And how, I continually ask (if only to inform my assignments), do we write in the form that this particular “thing” demands? First and foremost, I think, we must recognize television as always an intertextual system and, as one that incorporates many kinds of material devices. In this way, writing about television always demands an ability to move between, whether that’s between texts, between devices and images, or between the spectatorial experience of perception and that thing or image that we perceive. Let me here offer a response of my own design to return to that image with which I began via Crary and Goethe: the room where we sit and how it might open and close depending on our visual focus.

classroom space

New screens and interfaces activate not only engage time-shifting but also space-shifting in television viewing and viewership..

Time-shifting has undeniably eliminated certain elements of television viewing. But space-shifting — transferring the interface to an extension of our bodies or something very near to it — has altered other aspects as well. At least in terms of our physical proximity to it, the hand-held screenic device makes television viewing more like reading. But of course the television set was not originally designed as a replacement for the novel. Rather than isolate readers in space from one another, as novels do, and, in a sense, from the very rooms where they sit, the television sought to unify members of a room (as members of a family) in a shared space. This architecture of space enabled particular kinds of viewing practices, coterminous with the structure of content of commercial broadcast television in particular. So, while television’s form invited a distracted viewer, one whose distraction was born of the “interruptions” that make up commercial broadcast television, its spatial structure similarly allowed for a sense of distraction. That spatial distance meant one could look across the room at another viewer, shift one’s line of vision to another part of the larger space of which the viewing room was a part, or simply take in a broader point of view around the set itself. In this form, the viewer watches the set and the texts it screened in the context of the space in which it was/is situated. What happens, then, when the viewing device produces a more immediate proximity to what we see, particularly as our interfaces are, in essence, these very same objects we hold in our hands? How do our bodies adapt to what we see through how we see it? And what role does spatial proximity or distance, as enabled by those things we control, play in relation to our narrative, perceptual and affective experiences?

Simply put, television study — and the writing about it that I encourage my students to practice — must be contextualized in time and space, particularly as “time” and “space” continuously shift. Knowing television demands a consciousness of the experience of perception and of the physical body who both perceives and exists in material space oneself. Entering into these coterminous spaces invokes a learning and writing practice that, I hope, allows the “I” of the student to maintain a critical, creative, and embodied response to what might otherwise seem to be ephemeral images moving on the screens before us.

Image Credits:
1. TV Classroom.
2. Techniques of the Observer.
3. Classroom space.
4. TV on our phone.

Please feel free to comment.

Stop Teaching Software, Start Teaching Software Literacy
Katherine Morrissey / Rochester Institute of Technology

computer lab

I’ve officially stopped teaching software. I’m done. No more software driven lessons. No more step-by-step tutorials. No more hovering over my students in a lab. Here’s why you should stop too.

There are many different kinds of digital projects out there: essays rendered as websites, class wikis and blogs, digital art, remix videos, imagined iPhone apps, the list goes on and on. I will use a video essay project as my primary example. [ (( For further information on the video essay assignment, see: “The Video Essay Assignment, Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 1(2)”; the Center for Digital Storytelling; and The Audiovisual Essay ))]

video essay assignments

Video Essay Assignments: Information and Resources.

One: You thought you knew iMovie, but a new version came out last week.
Every piece of software your students need is being overhauled on an annual basis. Some of that software works on a Mac, some of it on a PC. (I have no idea what works on Linux, but that’s important too.) If you reserve a campus computer lab—assuming you’re lucky enough to have access to one—it could be a Mac lab with the latest version of iMovie. Or, it may only offer Adobe Premiere circa 2010. If it’s a PC lab, maybe Movie Maker is installed. Or (more likely), you’ll need to make arrangements with the lab to install it for your class. (This will result in all the students who don’t use Windows looking horrified and feeling deeply confused. But, of course, all the Windows users will have the same experience if you choose the Mac lab.) Then, what about the time students need to spend working on projects outside of class? What good will a lab-session do them when they sit down in front of the technology they use every day?

Amidst all the software choices and limitations, will instructing students in one particular piece of software really help them complete their work and prepare for future digital assignments? I’m not convinced it can. Yes, you might require a cloud-based tool like WeVideo (cheap, browser-based, good for beginners, $0-14 monthly) or Adobe Premiere CC (steeper learning curve, more features, $19 – $49 monthly). However, there are numerous reasons why one of these programs will work for some of your students and another will not. (And, are you really okay with locking your students into a subscription service? Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions can cost $239 – $499 annually.)

Two: Some of your students know more about video editing than you do. (And some of them don’t know anything at all.)
Here are some of the video editing programs my students used last semester: MovieMaker, iMovie, Adobe Premiere, Open Broadcast Software, AfterEffects, Sony Vegas, Open Shot Video Editor, Final Cut Pro, and WeVideo. Some students were using software for the first time; many of the students were not. Some students want free software that is easy to learn. Others will already have Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions. Some of your students only own tablets. The point is, individual students have their own technology needs and preferences.

And why shouldn’t they? Why should we shepherd our students into computer labs each semester and push them to learn software simply because it happens to be a) the one we have access to in a particular lab, or, b) the one program we know how to use. Our students come to our classrooms with a wide array of skill sets and skill gaps. Rather than constraining their efforts by teaching one program, it is far more important to teach them essential skills: The basic techniques that they will use again and again, regardless of whatever piece of software they are using at the moment. By teaching key project components and helping student work with software on their own, we model essential media literacy skills: Adaptability, flexibility, and comfort with the unfamiliar.

Our class time is precious. We cannot spend this time telling students which buttons to click and when. Instead, we need to teach students to feel confident approaching new programs and comfortable learning as they go. Over the course of their adult lives, our students will need to adapt to an endless array of upgrades, version changes, and technology setups. These are the new norms for today’s digital practitioners.

Three: Sometimes you still need to teach software.
In recommending that we spend less time teaching software, I am not advocating that everyone immediately stop teaching software. There are numerous courses and degree programs where students need extensive exposure to the specific software, programming languages, and procedures favored by a particular professional field. You will also have students who need intensive help with the software they’ve chosen for a project. These students are not best served by going through the steps en masse. In the process of creating a digital project, many individual glitches and errors can occur. These circumstances nearly always require individualized troubleshooting. You will be your students’ main contact when issues arise. Be ready to meet with students, sit with them next to their computers, and to try different things. Be aware of your limits and know when you need to ask for help from your school Help Desk or Tech Support.

when things break

Advice for When Things Break.

Instead of asking you to give up teaching software, I challenge you to consider why, in your particular class context, you are teaching a specific type of software. If you are teaching software simply because it’s the one you know best or the one the lab happens to have installed, this may not be the best use of your class time. More importantly, you might be doing students a disservice. Think about the time you can repurpose if you shift away from guiding students step by step through a program. Think about the time you are creating for peer feedback and project revisions.

Four: Digital projects are a lesson in time management.

We are all familiar with the process of writing an essay. The steps are so routine we often don’t consider the effort it takes to move from idea to final draft. Digital projects are new and unfamiliar. The steps they require vary from class to class and from one assignment to another. To develop effective pedagogies, and to help students produce strong projects, we need to focus on process.

I am still figuring out the most effective ways to teach media literacy skills rather than software. Over time, however, three core elements are emerging in my own pedagogy: 1) Scaffolding: Isolating the steps/skills needed and taking them one at a time. 2) Normalization and Collaboration: Making students aware of common struggles and alternative approaches. 3) Project planning and work time: Asking students to produce timelines, identify obstacles, and set aside time to work and get help.

Digital projects can be broken down into a series of essential steps and necessary skills. When my students make a video essay they need to know: how to make a screencap; how to make a video/audio clip; how to import images, video, and sound into an editing program; how to work with an editor’s timeline and access various features/tools. These steps can be broken down into individual assignments, all of them building up to the project deadline. Once students learn the essentials, begin complicating their assignments. Students can teach themselves as they go, building up their skills and preparing for the final project.

sample timeline

Sample Timeline.

Students cannot do this work alone. Adapting to new software requires we be comfortable asking for help. Teaching students that their struggles are normal, how to get help, and how to find useful resources, are essential components for developing their media literacy skills.

Each semester, with my students’ assistance, I add to and refine a set of project primers. The primers are kept online and available to students 24/7. Each step or mini-assignment my students take on comes with a list of tips, software options, and general resources. Based on the software students choose, they are placed in small working groups. Working groups allow students to co-learn, assisting each other as they go. After each assignment we discuss what went wrong and what steps students took to address problems. I want my students to learn that importing and conversion errors aren’t a sign that they are failing, but are, instead, are normal part of the process.

project primers

Primers for each project are available to students online.

Finally, students need help with time management and they need time to work. Digital projects are not papers. It is nearly impossible to accomplish them by drinking a lot of coffee and pulling an all-nighter. Students need time to gather materials, deal with errors, and refine their analysis. They also need time to focus and work. The problem is, class time in a computer lab will not be useful to every student. Instead of packing into a single lab together, I schedule working days. Some students bring laptops and work together in the classroom, some groups go to a computer lab that’s been reserved, others work from home. No one gets credit unless they check in and provide a daily to-do list when class starts. When class finishes, they check out by reporting what they’ve done, listing anything they are having problems with, and how they plan to get help. Work days are also effective for the many times when I do not have access to a lab. There are many different ways for work to happen, the important thing is that everyone is working somewhere.

Every situation is different. These steps are will not be effective for every teacher and teaching context. However, there is much to be gained by struggling through as a group, asking for help when needed, and witnessing other people’s work practices. I encourage other teachers to take the risk. Leave your software comfort zones! By working with your students there is much to learn about software, digital genres, and pedagogy. The only way to do this is to cultivate an environment where the students are teaching themselves as much as you are teaching them.

Image Credits:
1. Computer Lab.
2. Video Essay Assignment (author’s image)
3. When Things Break (author’s image)
4. Sample Timeline (author’s image)
5. Project primers (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.