“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…”: Fandom, Learning and the Future of Higher Education
Josh Stenger, Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

In two recent articles for Flow, I’ve attempted to make the case that as colleges and universities take up the hard but exciting work of transforming higher education for the twenty-first century, fan studies offers a useful model for many areas of the academy that have begun to think seriously about alternatives to certain structures and practices long considered to be irradicable. This view derives in large part from the basic fact that, like most academic fields with comparably complex genealogies, fan studies exists despite rather than because of the entrenched institutional practice of organizing knowledge – and with it, curricula, research opportunities, and staffing decisions – in primarily disciplinary terms.

Obviously we want our students to acquire knowledge, and to develop skills, competencies, and ethics that prepare them not just for the classroom or the workplace, but for the world they will go on to shape. Perhaps there are some scenarios in which this is accomplished more effectively by fostering students’ disciplinary expertise than their intellectual curiosity and ability (to learn how) to learn, but I confess none come immediately to mind. Which brings me to the focus of this, the third and final installment of my short treatise on fan studies and higher education: namely, that participatory fandom is legible as a mode of integrative, often autonomous learning, one that presents higher education with a sui generis opportunity to help undergraduates identify the skills and habits of mind they have already developed as fans, then strengthen and apply these in intentional, edifying ways in more traditional academic settings.

screenshot of a tweet by Josh Stenger. The tweet reads “During one on one meetings with students in my first year seminar on #fandom: Student X: I’m not really a “fan” but I’m psyched we’re going to Rhode Island comic so I can wear my chain mail body armor, hemet and broadsword from #Merlin. Me: Let me stop you right there. . .

“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but . . .”

LARP: Learning As Role Playing

The Twitter exchange pictured in the screenshot above took place the day before the start of a first year seminar I taught last Fall called Fan Communities and Creations. It perfectly (and quite charmingly) anticipated a conversation I planned to have with the class the following day and that I suspect virtually everyone who teaches a course or a unit on fandom has with theirs, in some form or other, early on: What does it actually mean to be a “fan”? Working toward an answer to this question allows us to begin drawing links between fandom and fan studies, in part by identifying ways to close the distance between the affect commonly associated with young people’s media consumption and the intellect typically associated with higher education. To get the ball rolling rarely requires more than pointing out that seemingly simple questions often have very complex answers, and then asking, again, “What does it mean to be a fan?”

Screenshot of Video Autoethnography on Fan identity. Star Wars opening scroll with the text in yellow over a black background. The text reads: Yo! My name’s Sammy, and as you can probably tell, this is going to be about my identity as a fan of Star Wars. While I still consider myself a fan of shows like “Game of Thrones: or “Breaking Bad”, Star Wars . . .

Video Autoethnography on Fan identity

This is also an opportunity to have a discussion about the labels and/or roles with which we identify (or from which we distance ourselves), and how and why they matter. Here, the question becomes “What does it mean to be a fan?” This is a worthwhile conversation in any undergraduate fan studies course, but especially so in a room full of first-semester, first-year students on the first day of class. Before the conversation moves too far away from roles and role-playing, I ask everyone to consider what, if anything, might change – for them, for others – if they thought of themselves not as “students”, but as “learners”, especially if we stipulate the following:

Students study. Learners learn.
Students have teachers. Learners learn.
Students attend classes and schools. Learners learn.
Students write essays and take exams. Learners learn.
Students pass and fail. Learners learn.
Students graduate. Learners learn.

This exercise is not meant to besmirch being a student, but to make visible the fact that whereas learning can be undertaken somewhat autonomously, a student’s relationship to knowledge is impacted and arguably circumscribed by multiple, often mutually reinforcing factors. Thus, being a student does not necessarily prepare one to be a strong learner, but being a learner will very likely prepare one to be a strong student. Nevertheless, undergraduates seem firmly attached to their student identities, and just as reluctant to identify as learners.

It occurs to me that this dynamic may in fact be homologous to the one that I believe motivated my student to make clear that she was “not a ‘fan’” only to immediately (and unselfconsciously) enthuse about the chance to don her Merlin-inspired chain mail body armor, battle helmet and broadsword. Why reject the “fan” label one minute then embrace the accoutrements of fandom the next? Was it because she could disappear into the latter but had to declare and own the former? Was it because wearing chain mail was ‘just’ cosplay but being a fan was an identity?

My sense is that there is a strong but misunderstood parallel here with respect to considering oneself a “student” or a “learner”. The educational system and its institutions, to say nothing of the popular culture, have so thoroughly naturalized the role of “student” for young adults that by the time they arrive to college, it is almost inconceivable that they could be anything else. If they are students IRL, learning becomes relegated to a kind of role-playing, a very different version of LARP. Unfortunately, this is quite backwards. Students are students within an academic context, yes, but what about when they are interns, employees, athletes, tutors, friends, partners, parents, and so on? There is ample room in all of these roles to be a learner, though, just as one can be a fan regardless of what book one is reading or what show one is watching.

Learners and fans have much in common, beginning with the decision to identify as such. Unlike being a student or a consumer, to identify as a learner or a fan is to name oneself rather than be named. Whether or not it registers as such immediately, it is also an assertion of agency, one that both requires and reflects a degree of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It is a declaration of intellectual curiosity as well as of a desire and capacity to become autodidactic. It is an acknowledgement that every person has a right to make meaning, and to access and produce knowledge. And as the closing section below illustrates, it has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one is enrolled in a college or university.


In mid-June 2015, anxious that a Congressional review of U.S. copyright laws might result in changes that would have a chilling effect on fanworks, The Harry Potter Alliance took preemptive action in the form of Fan Works Are Fair Use. During the weeks that followed, groups such as the Organization for Transformative Works and the Supernatural Wiki expressed their solidarity, promoting the campaign at the San Diego Comic Con and providing signal boosts on social media.

Image of a Fanworks are fair use promotional card. The text on the blue and yellow card reads:

Introducing Fan Works Are Fair Use at San Diego Comic Con

Rather than rely solely on the name of the campaign, organizers of Fan Works Are Fair Use encouraged online supporters to “[show] the world how valuable fanworks are by using the hashtag #FanWorksTaughtMe.” At first glance, one might read the wording here as counter-intuitive insofar as it emphasized personal anecdote over organized action. To do so, however, would be to overlook the way in which #FanWorksTaughtMe strategically drew together the individual (‘me’) and the collective (‘fanworks’, and by extension those who create them). Crucially, the relationship between them is structured not around the former’s affective attachment to the latter, but rather around their shared investment in and respect for the kind of informal education that regularly takes place within fandoms but that is rarely valued in traditional academic settings.

A Twitter search for tweets using the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag produced fewer than 300 results.[ ((This number reflects the results of a Twitter search executed in May 2019 for tweets published during the Fan Works Are Fair Use campaign (roughly mid-2015 through early 2016). It will not include any tweets posted by users who have removed their accounts or changed their Twitter handles, and thus the number of tweets returned by the search is virtually certain to be lower than the actual number of tweets that made of use of the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag.))] This is a modest number, to be sure, yet more than large enough to reflect a wide range of focus, voice, and even ostensible purpose and perceived audience. In tweet after tweet, users credit fanworks with teaching them to be a documentary filmmaker, a community organizer, a podcaster, a musician, to build worlds and share them, to give and take criticism with grace, to persevere, to respect others even in the absence of understanding them, that their stories and voices matter, that they are not alone, that their credentials don’t necessarily reflect their potential. The list goes on.

Voice bubbles with some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag. The bubbles read: 1. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think of scenes with different angles, tones, POVs, universes – to both demolish and salute a story’s sanctity. 2. #FanWorksTaughtMe that I don’t have to be passive. I can have a voice. I can be audience and the creator. 3. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to critically analyze narratives. Actively reimagining how stories were told helped me reimagine the real world. 4. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to edit and how to be edited. 5. #FanWorksTaughtMe that underserves markets serve themselves . 6. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think outside the box and to write the “what ifs.” 7. #FanWorksTaughtMe English as a second language, how to tell stories and write beautiful texts, how to be a community organizer.

Some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag

Diverse as they are, the individual voices in this conversation give rise to a unified and unifying message, one that celebrates creativity; defends individuals’ right to create, and thus to make, transform, and question meaning; and that attributes their respective and collective knowledge not to a college education, but to fans, fandom, and fanworks. In this, they recall Claire Pentecost’s concept of the artist as Public Amateur, someone who “learns outside the circuits of professional normalization and reward,” and who embodies

[…] a proposition of active social participation in which any non-specialist is empowered to take the initiative to question something within a given discipline, acquire knowledge in a non-institutionally sanctioned way, and assume the authority to interpret that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.[ ((Claire Pentecost, The Public Amateur, https://publicamateur.wordpress.com/about/ [n.d.].00))]

Like Lawrence Lessig’s discussion of read/write culture,[ ((Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), chapters 1 and 4.))] and Henry Jenkins’s application of collective intelligence and popular epistemologies,[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), chapter 1.))], Pentecost’s construct of the public amateur serves as yet another potent reminder of the growing importance of informal knowledge networks.

As higher education contemplates ways to coexist with these networks and how to implement the inevitable shift in undergraduate education away from a focus on disciplinary expertise and toward more dynamic and integrative forms of learning, it would do well to keep fans and fandom in mind. Consider, for instance, that although they may not always think of their fannish behavior in these terms, fans tend to have strong online research skills; know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources; are able to evaluate the reliability of information they encounter; regularly produce close, critical readings of texts; participate actively in online knowledge and affinity communities; and are prolific creators and sharers of digital content and transformative works. And that’s often before they even get to college. Imagine if, once there, their institution valued and helped to strengthen these skills rather than dismiss them as undisciplined, or inadequately disciplinary.

Image Credits:

1. Rhode Island Comic Con (Nov. 3, 2018); photograph by author
2. “I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…” via Twitter; author’s screenshot
3. Still of first-year student’s video autoethnography on fan identity; author’s screenshot
4. Image via Twitter user @TheHPAlliance (July 9, 2015)
5. #FanWorksTaughtMe tweets via Twitter; collage by author.

Please feel free to comment.

Undisciplined and Beyond Content: Teaching Fan Studies to the Academy
Josh Stenger / Wheaton College (Massachusetts)


Fanon Meets Canon: Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S 10, e05, November 11, 2014)

In a recent piece for Flow, I drew what may initially seem an unlikely connection between fans, fan studies and Cathy Davidson’s timely and compelling call for the reinvention of American higher education in order “to prepare students for a world in flux.”[ ((Cathy N Davidson. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017).))] More specifically, I made the case that fan studies enacts several efficacious ways of working toward this goal, and has a meaningful role to play in helping colleges and universities to reexamine, perhaps even relinquish, some of the entrenched norms and practices that tend, however unintentionally, to hinder curricular innovation, pedagogical experimentation, and/or institutional reorganization.

To be fair, the scope of the important work that must be undertaken inside higher education is such that the ideas, input, and participation of each and every academic discipline, department, and program of study will be crucial. Insofar as this is the case, fan studies may seem an unlikely candidate to single out for inspiration or direction. After all, it’s not a discipline, but an interdisciplinary field of study shaped by other interdisciplinary fields of study such as cultural studies, film studies, media studies, and the like. In part because of its genealogy, one needn’t spend time looking a Department of Fan Studies or even a fan studies major on any college or university campus; there are none. However counterintuitive it may seem, though, these are also among the reasons fan studies can serve as a model for change within higher education generally, and within academic disciplines, departments, majors, and learning spaces more specifically.

Historically, the academy has categorized knowledge by discipline. There were and are compelling reasons to do so, but this has never been a purely epistemological distinction. On the contrary, it has significant pedagogical and methodological ramifications as well, effectively circumscribing what, when, where, how, and from whom students learn. Such an approach is increasingly, at times glaringly, antithetical to how people actually encounter, acquire, use, and transmit knowledge in the so-called “real world”. The problem is compounded by the fact that the academy has, by turns, either actively promoted or passively tolerated an erroneous equivalency between disciplinary expertise and the mastery of specialized content qua knowledge. This has left it rather clumsily positioned to explain the value of higher education in a world in which anyone with an Internet connection can easily and freely access more content than they could hope to read, view, or listen to in a single lifetime.

In what follows, I continue to make the case that although it is not alone either in facilitating change within higher education or in preparing undergraduates for academic and/or professional success, fan studies offers the academy a unique example of active, distributed, and integrative learning through an approach I describe, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, as undisciplined and beyond content.

To call a fan studies approach to learning “undisciplined” is not to suggest that it lacks rigor, but rather to note that within the context of most fan studies courses, classrooms, assignments, materials, etc., rigor has nothing to do with the ability to recall accurately an arbitrary body of information, as one might in a Vulcan “skill dome”. Rigor may, but certainly need not be demonstrated through the mastery of discipline-specific knowledge. An “undisciplined” approach to learning leaves room for but is not reducible to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and in the undergraduate fan studies classroom, it allows students to engage in forms of academic rigor and to develop identities as intellectuals that needn’t conform to or demonstrate mastery of established disciplinary conventions and/or boundaries.

Vulcan skill dome

Not disciplinary, but disciplined: The Vulcan Learning Center’s “skill domes” in Star Trek (2009)

This concept of “undisciplined” learning merits a conversation with students. It not only invites them to reflect on the fact that “discipline” and “disciplinary” mobilize dual meanings – a branch of knowledge along one register, a form of punitive or corrective action along another – but to consider the ways academic institutions rely on the latter to enforce the former, as in the ubiquitous ‘checklist’ of major and general education requirements that structure discipline-based pathways students must take through the curriculum to earn a diploma. In my experience, once students begin to recognize some of the ways in which their relationship to knowledge and learning has been, is, and is expected to be “disciplined”, they often become intentionally and actively “undisciplined” in ways that make them more agile, provocative, and syncretic thinkers. This may not be a desirable outcome in all areas of study, granted, but it surely is in many, if not most.

One of the most daunting yet rewarding aspects of teaching fan studies is that unless the course topic is atypically specific, there is little to no chance for any one person – perhaps the instructor least of all – to match the aggregate knowledge that students bring to the table. Further, each student brings their own expertise and distinct form of fannishness to the room, all but ensuring there is no substantial body of shared prior knowledge. Add to this that time constraints make watching or reading an entire series or franchise, much less studying an entire fandom, a logistical impossibility. In each of these ways, we might say that the fan studies classroom exists in a realm beyond content. This is not a realm without content, but rather one with so much that whatever content does make it into the syllabus functions primarily as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Put differently, the focus quickly moves away from the content and toward the students’ ability to develop and/or strengthen skills and strategies that will enable them to responsibly and efficiently locate, identify, organize, summarize, synthesize, analyze, interrogate, and transform content. Within the learning space of a fan studies class, it is a virtual certainty that students will bring these skills and strategies to bear on specific content and in specific ways based less on what is important to a discipline and more on what is important to them and their learning.

description of image

Keanu Reeves’s Neo “learning” kung fu in The Matrix (1999)

Lurking just beneath the surface of every conversation in the fan studies classroom is an unfathomable volume of media content and fannish knowledge. There is little value in expecting each student to ever know what other students know, but there is tremendous value in students learning (to learn) from their classmates in purposeful, intentional ways. We may not be able to download ‘knowledge’ directly into our brains a la The Matrix (1999); however, we absolutely can leverage the community’s collective intelligence to everyone’s benefit.

The concept of collective intelligence has enjoyed considerable purchase since the advent of Web 2.0.[ ((See Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software” (Sept. 30, 2005, https://mediaedu.typepad.com/info_society/files/web2.pdf)))] It is, however, worth taking a moment to recall how Pierre Lévy first defined it:

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. I’ll add the following indispensable characteristic to this definition: The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities.”[ ((Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York: Helix Books, 1997), 13.))]

Lévy envisions collective intelligence not as an abstraction, but as a real and potentially emancipatory humanizing force. He does not lament the impossibility of knowing everything; he celebrates it as the basis for individuality, and as the impetus for a model of community that enriches its own knowledge by enriching others’. This is distinctly at odds with what Peter Walsh identifies as the “expert paradigm.” Henry Jenkins explains the tension between these two views of knowledge by noting that “the expert paradigm requires a bounded body of knowledge, which an individual can master. The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence, however, are open ended and profoundly interdisciplinary.”[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 52.))]

The expert paradigm is, for all intents and purposes, the academy’s paradigm: in addition to emphasizing “bounded bodies of knowledge;” both use those boundaries to distinguish between who is inside and outside of the knowledge community; both endow disciplines with the authority to determine what counts as legitimate knowledge, as well as to enforce protocols for how it is acquired and shared; and finally, both emphasize the importance of credentials to verify one’s expertise.[ ((Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 53-54.))] It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that both of these seem increasingly out of step in a world full of smart, engaged, and engaging ‘amateurs’ who create original content and knowledge, then share it freely with anyone interested.

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Fan studies does not eschew the value or importance of expertise outright, but neither does it consider expertise to be the only form of valuable knowledge. By inviting students to create knowledge that is meaningful to them and others rather than requiring students to demonstrate competency in a subject area, I would argue that those who teach fan studies model a reality that many in higher education seem reluctant to acknowledge: namely, that our value is not defined by disciplinary expertise, but by a relationship to learning that we inculcate in our students. By doing this in learning spaces that are undisciplined and beyond content, moreover, fan studies offers one example (for surely there are others) of a “new kind of teaching” that Cathy Davidson sees as crucial to the future of higher education, “one that focuses on learning how to learn – the single most important skill anyone can master.”[ ((Davidson, The New Education, 14.))]

Image Credits:
1. Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S10, e05, November 11, 2014), author’s screenshot
2. Star Trek (2009), author’s screenshot
3. The Matrix (1999), author’s screenshot
4. Alana King, “FANDOM Q&A | YouTube, Supernatural, Conventions, College & More!” (February 18, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnV569I8Z6k), author’s screenshot

Media Historiography Projects: One Librarian’s Hacks
Nedda H. Ahmed / Georgia State University / College of the Arts Librarian

NBC.com December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.
So many ‘90s feels. NBC.com December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.

Media historiography is a mandatory course in many film and media studies graduate programs. In these courses, professors typically ask students to engage with historical sources on a rigorous level, requiring deep dives into primary source collections, manuscripts, and microfilm. Here at Georgia State, our Archives & Special Collections are full of amazing primary resources in a wide variety of collecting areas, but we don’t have a plethora of media-specific collections that you’d find at, say, UT’s Harry Ransom Center or UCLA’s Film & Television Archives.

It’s neither possible nor practical for our grad students to travel to archives outside the Atlanta area within the timeframe of a single semester… So what’s a librarian to do?

Over the years that I’ve been working with this class, I’ve collected a bunch of weird and wonderful things that, in the right context and with a little bit of creative thinking, can kickstart exciting historical research projects. In the rest of this column I’ll share some of what I’ve gathered because:

1. Perhaps you’ll find something useful here for your own class/research paper/syllabus
2. Some of these things are too amazing to keep to myself
3. I’m a librarian, and sharing is basically my entire reason for existence
4. I love listicles
5. I want more weird and wonderful things, so please share your hacks in the comments

Hack #1: Media History Digital Library
OK, unless you live under a rock, you’ve already heard about MHDL. “GET TO THE WEIRD STUFF, NEDDA” I hear you thinking. But I have to include MHDL because no list of primary source film/media resources is complete without it. Also, Eric Hoyt (et al.) is doing such great work that MHDL deserves all the free publicity it can get. A few years ago, ProQuest came out with Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, a similar-but-not-quite-the-same subscription-based product. For a detailed comparison between MHDL and EIMA, check out my pal James Steffen’s review over on Media Industries Journal.

media history digital library
Media History Digital Library

Hack #2: Local Newspapers
I have to give local newspapers a shout-out because they tend to get overlooked in favor of national showbiz-type publications. Regardless of how big or small your institution is, you’re likely to have access to an extensive run of the main city paper, whether online or on microfilm (Yes, microfilm still exists and it’s important and you should use it). Maybe you’ll have to visit your local public library to access the paper’s full run, but that’s still heaps easier than getting a travel grant to fly to some distant archive. There’s also something incredibly comforting about seeing people in the past freak out about whatever new thing was on the horizon, threatening to take over their lives.

Atlanta Constitution “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948.
If you can explain how TV works better than this, let me know.[ ((Atlanta Constitution “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948.))]

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three research papers that could be generated by historical local newspaper research:

• Idea 1: Using TV listings and lineups, how did local broadcasters fill their airtime? What was the locally-produced content like?
• Idea 2: Using movie theater listings and advertisements, how were films marketed to the local population? If you have access to multiple papers, can you draw any comparisons between the way films were marketed to the different cities’ populations?
• Idea 3: Pick any technological advance that happened in the 20th century. When did it come to your town, and how was it discussed in the newspaper? [ ((The screenshot of the adorable headline [above] comes from the Atlanta Constitution’s “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948))]

Hack #3: Historical Catalog Websites
Specifically, these: Wishbook Web and Radio Shack Catalogs. Oh Internet, how I love thee. That someone—or a group of someones—cares enough to collect, scan, and post online decades’ worth of these catalogs is pretty amazing. Wishbook Web is a compilation of the holiday catalogs from several major department stores, such as Sears, JC Penney, and FAO Schwarz. For kids in the pre-web era, getting the holiday catalog and obsessively marking the pages of the toys you wanted was the build-up to Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa; in short, it was a major deal. These catalogs are an ideal resource for anyone wanting to study film/TV licensing deals with toy manufacturers or the rise of home video game systems, to throw out just a couple of ideas.

Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss
“Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss”

Radio Shack Catalogs is, as the name implies, a digitized collection of the store’s catalogs, organized into areas to facilitate easy browsing. Although its relevance has (ahem) diminished significantly in recent years, Radio Shack was once the place you’d go for all your home electronics needs, whether you wanted to build your own radio or you just wanted some AA batteries. Because the company started in 1921, these catalogs offer fascinating glimpses into the relationship between technology and American culture as well as documentation of how technology was marketed in the 20th century (spoiler alert: the target audience was men and boys).

From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.
The tape recorder hook-up. I can’t.[ ((From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.))]

Hack #4: Internet Archive
I don’t think Internet Archive is an unknown resource, but I’m not sure many people comprehend the breadth and depth of stuff to be found here. There’s way more than just the Prelinger Archives, though that collection is impressive. Need to look at old versions of a TV network’s website? Internet Archive has it. Want to listen to old timey radio shows? Internet Archive has it. Need to see full episodes of the acid-trippy 1970s kids show Vegetable Soup, if only to prove to yourself that you didn’t just imagine it during a fever dream? Internet Archive is there for you.

Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup (Season 1, Episode 1). Good luck sleeping ever again.
Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup. [ ((Season 1, Episode 1))] Good luck sleeping ever again.

Hack #5: Be open.
This isn’t really a hack, just general advice for folks heading into a historical research project. I’ve worked with many students over my 15+ years as a film/media librarian, and the most common source of stress with these projects is caused by formulating a specific question before identifying the collection of primary sources that will be used. Most of the film historians I know approach their work from the other way around: locate a repository of interesting stuff, dig into it, and allow the questions to percolate. Adopting this approach may even reveal research opportunities at local archives that don’t seem relevant to film and media studies, but that could be fruitful avenues for research. Talking with archivists and librarians about what your general interests are—without being too limited in scope and not the day before the project proposal is due—is a great way to gain access to materials you might not know exist.

So that’s it! Five ideas for historiography projects for people who don’t have convenient access to film/media archives and special collections. Do you have other recommendations for primary source resources? (Or perhaps you’d like to discuss further the complete bizarreness of Vegetable Soup?) I look forward to hearing your ideas in the comments!

Image Credits:
1. So many ‘90s feels. NBC.com December 28, 1996 via the Wayback Machine.
2. Media History Digital Library
3. If you can explain how TV works better than this, let me know. Atlanta Constitution, “Television Issue,” October 6, 1948. (Author’s photo)
4. “Merry Christmas I’ll haunt your dreamsssss”
5. The tape recorder hook-up. I can’t. From the 1977 TRS-80 catalog.
6. Two of the nightmare-inducing child puppets with freakishly large hands from Vegetable Soup. (Season 1, Episode 1) Good luck sleeping ever again. (Author’s screengrab)

The Transformative Power of Podcasts
Bonni Stachowiak / Vanguard University

Bonni Stachowiak Image

Bonni Stachowiak producing her podcast Teaching Higher Ed

In 1999, Hae Min Lee, a well-loved high school student, went missing. Weeks after that, Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, was arrested for her murder. Almost 20 years later, Adnan still asserts his innocence. We were able to hear every detail of the trial, through the eyes of Sarah Koenig, a journalist and podcast producer.

Serial Podcast

The podcast Serial

“For the last year, I’ve spent every working day, trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999. Or, if you want to get technical about it (and apparently, I do), where a high school kid was for 21 minutes after school one day in 1999. This search sometimes feels undignified on my part…” – Sarah Koenig

In early 2016, Koenig’s Serial podcast episodes had been downloaded over 80 million times. [ (( Hesse, M. (2016, February 8). “Serial” takes the stand: How a podcast became a character in its own narrative – The Washington Post. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))] The podcasting landscape was changed forever.

For those who listen to podcasts, it has become our most preferred source of audio. 13-34 year-olds spend more time listening to podcasts than they do AM/FM radio content. Podcasts are with us at home and in the car. More and more people are discovering podcasts, with a growth trajectory of 21-24% each year. [ (( Edison Research. (2017b, April 18). The Podcast Consumer 2017.))]

Podcast listeners were captivated by another alleged murder in 2017, when first being introduced to John B. McLemore in his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama, through the S-Town podcast. We quickly captivated by John and his vivid descriptions of what he called “shit town,” the place he resided. By May, the S-Town podcast had been downloaded more than 40 million times. [ (( Quah, N. (2017, May 4). S-Town Has Exceeded 40 Million Downloads, Which Is Truly a Ton of Downloads. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))]

S-Town Creator

Brian Reed, creator and host of S-Town

Brian Reed is the journalist who responded to McLemore’s requests to visit S-Town and to research the death of a resident of Woodstock. In the opening of Chapter 1, Reed’s descriptions of the art of clock restoration foreshadow some of the challenges that arise when we try to discern another person’s brokenness.

When clocks are repaired, they are often left with what are known as witness marks. These blemishes hint at the ways in which the clock has been damaged in the past. Since old clocks lack instruction manuals, clock restorers are left with the frustrating process of trying to discern what’s wrong and how to fix the problem.

“I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening. You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks, which might not even mean what you think they mean.” – John Reed

Despite podcasting’s growth, AM/FM radio still rules supreme for overall audio choices. Americans spend 54% of their listening time on AM/FM radio. Edison Research calls this “Share of Ear” in their analysis. When disaggregating the data to focus specifically on those who already listen to podcasts, we spend 30% of our time consuming them. [ (( Edison Research. (2017a, March 9). The Infinite Dial 2017. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))]

Without wanting to spoil the experience of listening to Serial or S-Town with “fresh ears,” it is safe to say that both Adnan’s and John’s lives have been transformed through podcasting. My life is different, as well, though not quite in as dramatic of ways as theirs.

Whenever I identity my favorite podcasts, the virtual ink has not even dried before a newly cherished one comes along. Our children are going to grow up thinking that everyone in the world has a podcast, since their Dad has one, their Mom has one, their parents’ friends have one, and even newer friends who come to visit us during the holidays have one. They have also found their own favorite podcasts and advocate for more episodes to be played that are geared toward children.

My teaching has also been transformed through podcasting. I launched the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast in June of 2014. Episodes have been airing weekly ever since. Each episode is downloaded by thousands of us in higher education who are seeking to improve our teaching. While it takes an incredible amount of work, not to mention the willingness to fail and be vulnerable, I am grateful for how my pedagogy is different, today, because of the podcast.

I used to think of plagiarism and other forms of cheating as a personal affront. James Lang, Stephanie Vie, and Phil Newton changed my perspective on issues of academic integrity.

My teaching approach used to be more about control and less about agency. Kevin Gannon and Jesse Stommel stressed kindness and respect in the classroom. “The more restrictions we place on learning, the less students have the ability to explore it themselves,” emphasized Sean Michael Morris.

Yolanda Flores Niemann helped me envision what it would be like to be Presumed Incompetent in the classroom and in my scholarship. Clint Smith stressed the danger of silence and “the difference between a sort of silence of complicity and a silence of listening.” Stephen Brookfield revealed how often people like me can want to come across as “good white people” and how unaware can be of the dangers of that perspective.

Despite the power that podcasting possesses to transform us, only 40% of Americans have ever experienced one. [ (( Edison Research. (2017b, April 18). The Podcast Consumer 2017.))] People often do not realize how easy it is to listen to a podcast. Most Americans tend to stick with radio, which has a wide reach. 95% of 35-49 year-olds listen to the radio on a weekly basis. [ (( Neilsen. (2017a). State of the Media – Audio Today 2017.))]

Top Higher Ed Podcasts

The top higher education podcasts in Apple Podcasts

Discoverability is an issue for finding relevant podcast content. On the morning of September 23, 2017, the top higher education podcasts included recordings of college lectures, language tutorials, discipline-specific continuing education, advice for student success, and the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (which bounces around the fickle, iTunes charts hour-by-hour).

Despite these challenges, more of us are listening to podcasts than ever before. Some of us are even becoming what Neilsen [ (( Neilsen. (2017b, August 22). Nielsen Podcast Insights Q3 2017. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))] describes as “avid” fans. We get captured by the people we meet through podcasts: people like Adnan Saed from Serial and McLemore from S-Town. Once people discover podcasts, they quickly convert it to being their favored form of media. [ (( Edison Research. (2017a, March 9). The Infinite Dial 2017. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))]

Emma Rodero is quoted in The Atlantic [ (( Wen, T. (2015, April 16). This Is Your Brain on Podcasts: Why Audio Storytelling Is So Addictive – The Atlantic. Retrieved September 23, 2017.))] as illustrating one of the reasons that podcasting captures our minds and hearts:

“Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production.” – Emma Rodero

Podcasts travel with listeners wherever we go. Artists and business people are increasingly discovering the power of the medium. It is exciting to consider what is on the podcasting horizon. I look forward to all that I will learn from hosting my own podcast, as well as consuming up to ten hours of podcast favorites each week.

Image Credits:
1. Author’s promotional photo
2. “Serial Podcast”
3. Brian Reed, creator and host of S-Town
4. Top Higher Ed Podcasts (Author Screenshot)

Please feel free to comment.

From Colormuteness to Interracial Dialogue (A Love Letter to My MF Students)
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

A Visual to Accompany This Love Letter

A Visual to Accompany This Love Letter

Teaching race and media studies to undergraduates has felt to me recently like never before. I began trying to explain this difference in two previous columns, inspired by an incredible classroom community in which I first felt it most intensely. In those columns I focused, respectively, on unfolding and unpredictable historical contexts that profoundly shaped the formation of that community, and some pedagogical strategies that also played a role in the work that brought us together. But if I step back a bit further to reflect more generally on the generation of undergraduates moving through my classrooms at the University of South Carolina in the last couple of years, the simplest way to describe what often seems different from previous generations—albeit different in varying degrees and with significant variations from class to class, and student to student—is that the limits of the ideology of colorblindness seem to be more readily apparent to more students than ever before, white as well as not.

I see at least two signs of this shift across a variety of courses, from introductory courses in media analysis and history to upper-level topics courses of various kinds. First, and due in no small part to the circulation of viral videos of police brutality from seemingly everywhere in the country (as discussed in my last column), I find it easier now to get students to think concretely and seriously about racism as not simply a matter of bigotry (e.g., bad individuals, or “bad apples,” thinking and doing bad things) but as involving a wide range of systemic practices, past and present. The second sign, at times related to the first, contrasts from the way that commitments to colorblindness (for good and for ill) have for so long manifested in the classroom in deafening forms of silence about race, or what has been called colormuteness—be it born of genuine resistance (which also seems on the wane, although this also may have to do with other kinds of silence) and/or just real discomfort, even anxiety, at being invited to discuss a subject students are routinely taught should not matter, which is to say should not be seen (even though they are surrounded by cultural forms that insist upon its visibility, or at least on the visibility of all races other than white), and perhaps above all should not be spoken (at least not in class, with authority figures who will grade you, and so on). In this regard colorblind is a curious misnomer insofar as popular U.S. culture has trained us all to (think we can) see race, but not to speak of it. Put otherwise, we have never been (collectively) colorblind, but we have long been colormute. But this also seems to be changing. Not least because when students (like the rest of us) encounter (yet another piece of) compelling audiovisual evidence of even the possibility of systemic, institutional forms of racial injustice, the fantasy of living in a colorblind society is hard to sustain. Pedagogically speaking, then, the two shifts just described mutually feed each other in the classroom: grappling with the multiplicity and complexity of practices potentially at stake if we want to understand the (ongoing) history of systemic inequity gives us a lot to discuss, and a willingness (and at times even an eagerness) to talk about race obviously facilitates developing such discussions in rich, engaging, and productive ways.

If this attempt to describe the shifting grounds of racial thought and talk in my own classrooms is at all accurate (and I realize my observations, memories, blind spots, hopes, etc. are by no means scientific or representative), there is cause to be excited about new pedagogical possibilities—for developing more substantial and pragmatic conversations about race in undergraduate classrooms, engaging a larger cross section of students, and generating in the process new forms of insight, dialogue, and change.

In that context, I want to stress how vital it was for the remarkable learning community introduced in my previous columns, “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015” (MF), that it was made up of not only an excellent group of students (careful readers and sharp thinkers, great listeners as well as talkers, etc.), but also that this group was the most diverse of any class I have ever taught, and in most every conceivable way. In another sign of their generational edge, several of these students arrived to the class already speaking the language of “intersectionality” (which, when I later asked, some told me they first learned from “the internet” and “Tumblr,” as well as “a sociology class”). More to the point, since students routinely spoke from the vantage of their own (multiple) social positions and experiences, we all learned a good deal about things intersectional from each other, and this became a vital dimension of the class. As we discussed a wide range of media histories, forms, and practices, and their intersection with a still wider range of social histories, students astutely linked particular dynamics of identity and difference animating our materials to examples of their own: growing up in particular kinds of places (variously white, black, poor, middle class, rural, suburban, cosmopolitan, etc.); confronting expectations of public schools and private schools, high school cliques, college dorms, and “Greek life”; and navigating assumptions of police, teachers, friends, family, and so on.

In sharing their stories, members of the class gave names and faces we all came to know to social dynamics and critiques that might otherwise have felt distant or abstract. On multiple occasions it made sense for me to call out the implications of my own whiteness, variously in relation to my gender, my position of authority, my openly bigoted relatives, the relatively high quality of public schools afforded to my children by our zip code, and so on. More soberly, an African American woman, who I’ll call Andy, told us on the first day of class that she was taking it because she had a younger brother and was afraid for his life. Over time Andy shared more about her brother, the limited options he faced, and choices made in that context, such that at a latter (relevant) point in the term someone else invoked “Andy’s brother” and the issues she had brought alive for us all in discussing him.

The power of such personal stories in this class was remarkable, enabling many vivid moments of insight and recognition, as well as a larger collaborative ethos of self-reflection, trust, and serious dialogue. At times I could literally see faces in the room learning from one another, across our many differences—be it white students wholly absorbed by black classmates sharing experiences and frames of reference utterly unlike their own, or black students listening and responding to white students, and to other black students with at times profoundly different experiences of class, gender, sexuality, and more. Such exchanges were not always marked by consensus. I have distinct memories of one woman bursting suddenly into tears in the midst of a class discussion, and of another struggling to contain her palpable outrage. But we worked through such moments, which were far outnumbered by more routinely peaceful (if often still intense) ones, as well as many shared critical and aesthetic pleasures, and a lot of good humor.

This last was signaled by how enthusiastically the class embraced the moniker used in this column’s title, which I unthinkingly gave them upon darting off group emails (via Blackboard, always in haste) addressed (in an abbreviation of the course title), “Dear MF Students.” Only after screening Do the Right Thing one day with another class did I suddenly realize the obvious offense students might have been taking (!) at being addressed in this way. But when I next came to class and profusely apologized for my gaffe, they laughed and collectively insisted that I keep using the nickname. Later, after I showed them some police training films from the late sixties and early seventies, including a hard right film entitled The Riot Makers, which tells a history of mass protest linking hippies and black people to Hitler and Stalin (!), the class nickname expanded with a reclaiming of that crazy film’s title. We even talked about making t-shirts to declare ourselves The MF Riot Makers. (Although t-shirts never materialized, the wish and my ongoing gratitude for all my MF students continue to teach me—far more, in fact, than I have described here—inspired me to doctor the title credit image that accompanies this column.)

Most of all, however, having never experienced anything quite like what I did with this remarkable class in twenty years of teaching and my own education before that (all at public institutions), the experience drives home how much is at stake in the challenges that remain to further diversify our predominantly white academic institutions. Increasing access for students and faculty of color is, certainly, the right, equitable thing to do. What’s more, significantly diversifying the voices in the room can transform the possible conversations all of us can have, and the new forms of knowledge and practice our institutions can produce.

Image Credits

1. Author’s personal collection

Please feel free to comment

A Pedagogical Experiment in the Era of Black Lives Matter
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Image 1-column2

Class Facebook Group Page of “Mediating Ferguson, USA” at the University of South Carolina

While academics typically recognize the publication of research as the most permanent form our work can take, the work we do in the classroom can feel by turns endless and ephemeral. This ephemerality has real benefits, teachers and students know, be it in the restart button we can press at the beginning of each class or in the knowledge that every term, no matter how grueling, will come to an end in a matter of weeks. Yet this always-passing time of teaching can make it easy to forget classroom moments worth remembering. Such a moment — a powerful, semester-long moment, but a moment nonetheless, in a special topics course entitled “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015,” on “race, justice, and popular U.S. film and media in the 20th and 21st centuries” — inspired me to mark it with the permanence of publication. For in this class, at a predominantly white institution where students are often hesitant to talk about race, an unusually diverse group of undergraduates came together, day in and day out, for exceptionally open, incisive, and productive discussions about race and its intersection with a host of social dynamics, on screen and off. With these columns I hope, at least, to honor this remarkable community of students, who made our sixteen weeks together among the most meaningful in my nearly two decades of (rewarding) teaching at the University of South Carolina. I also write fueled by a sense that some fundamental questions about teaching race and media studies — questions about how we do it, why we do it, what tends to work and not work, and for whom, where, and when — are being profoundly reshaped by histories still very much unfolding.

In my first column, I sketched the historical moment, locally as well as nationally, of the months and weeks leading up to the course, because that backstory so shaped it, and in ways that far exceeded any frameworks my syllabus or pedagogical habits might have provided. As one friend’s visiting relative put it of Columbia while visiting here in the summer of 2015, it felt then like we were at the “epicenter” of a convulsing national crisis around race and violence. The community this class became was forged in the urgency of that moment. And our awareness of how unusually and acutely our work within the classroom was being shaped by histories unfolding beyond it had little chance of diminishing over the course of a semester punctuated by more viral videos of police brutality and a rise of student activism, here as around the country. One such video, from Columbia’s own Spring Valley High School, made the “school to prison pipeline” shockingly vivid, and once again brought painfully home our own undeniable place in what we might describe as the newly vivid, albeit unofficial, network of institutional forms of racial injustice being mapped on our screens through such videos from points throughout the country. And when students, including some from our class, organized a walkout and marched to the President’s office to deliver a list of demands for improving inclusivity on our campus, the class understood this, too, in the context of both particular local histories (the list began with the “demand that our university acknowledge that this institution was built on the backs of enslaved Africans”) and a larger national surge of student activism that fall. In the midst of all this, it thus became routine — and often felt necessary—to begin class by checking in on the latest relevant developments, which students readily connected to our assigned materials, even when the syllabus could not have.


Students Demand Greater Inclusivity, On Screen and Off

In part because of so many structuring contingencies beyond my pedagogical control, it seems worth reflecting on some deliberate strategies that also played a part, regarding the course’s title, syllabus, and some assignments.

What I initially recognized to be a certain risk in the course title, “Mediating Ferguson” — that it would appeal to a self-selected group and might turn off “students who most need” a course like this (as we educators sometimes and perhaps too condescendingly put it) — I came to understand only later as also having had tremendous benefits. For the title’s self-selectivity brought together a group of students at once eager to engage and unusually diverse. Whereas media studies classes here are usually, like our institution more generally, predominantly white, nearly a third of the students in this class were African American. Students also routinely spoke, and thought, from positions marked by genuinely diverse socioeconomic, sexual, and geographic experiences. In short, not only were we not slowed down, or derailed, by stubborn resistance or routine reluctance to engage, but the students who were so eager to engage had both a safe space and an excellent group of peers with which to do so. The class discussions that resulted (I almost never lectured) were thus routinely probing and robust, and we all had daily opportunities to seriously listen and respond to others with sometimes profoundly different experiences and insights from our own.

While so much of this, to be sure, had everything to do with the particular students in the room, one syllabus experiment seemed to help. While I routinely begin media history classes with contemporary material — to draw students in and to prime them to look back at media from the past with eyes and ears open for reverberations with the present — in the Ferguson class I expanded the scale and goals of the opening contemporary unit. We began with three weeks of immersion in contemporary material, with several aims: (1) to give the class a shared set of materials with which to join the current “national conversation” about race (including viral videos, some excellent journalism, and Lawrence Bobo’s, “Somewhere between Jim Crow and Post-Racialism: Reflections on the Racial Divide in America Today”); (2) to equip students (who came to this class from several different majors) with key concepts in media studies for thinking about cultural formations of whiteness and blackness (including work by Richard Dyer and Herman Gray); (3) to invite them to begin to consider distinct ways of thinking and feeling about race afforded and/or discouraged by distinct media forms and practices (in addition to the materials already mentioned, we watched Fruitvale Station [2013], a superb group of young black poets on campus performed a reading of their work in our class, and each student had to “curate” a digital media post to the class’ Facebook Group—finding something online they thought would add to our conversations and pithily explaining why); and (4) to cultivate habits for generating productive questions for further inquiry and research. This last goal involved two kinds of tasks, the second of which expanded (and enhanced) the work of reading responses. First, in a series of daily assignments, they were asked to pinpoint key arguments and insights from the readings and generate specific critical/conceptual questions of their own in response. Then, having done this for several weeks, they had to submit a revised, edited list of questions (refining, expanding, etc. those previously drafted) that seemed important to continue thinking about in the course and/or (potential) future research.

These four aims fed each other, and encouraged students from the start to articulate, sharpen, and develop the questions they found most urgent and productive. And by the end of this first unit, they each had not only an arsenal of potential research questions, but also a method for how to develop these. I also invited them relatively early in the semester to think about what kind of research and/or creative work they might want to do to pursue their questions. Or, as I put it to them more than once: “How do you want to mediate Ferguson, etc.? What kinds of things do you most want to say and/or to show? And to whom? And which media forms and practices might best help you reach your audience(s)?”

Also vital to the success of this first unit, and the rest of the course, was one of our earliest discussions — grounded by the Bobo reading with all the specific examples, and data, he provides — in which I asked them to specify what we are talking about, exactly, when we talk about “institutional,” “structural,” or “systemic” racism. Once we had established a concrete understanding of the kinds of historical and contemporary social practices these terms refer to (we covered the board with them one day), I could then ask them to think in specific ways about the work of distinct media forms and practices in relation to such systemic inequities. Right away, they recognized how the viral videos coming across their screens from seemingly everywhere made visible the institutional, systemic nature of police brutality. These early conversations also set us up to then look back at a diverse set of media histories with eyes and ears more attuned to discern their specific, varied, and shifting forms of mediating race.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s Screenshot of Group Facebook page, with cover photo of protesters with JR’s image of Eric Garner’s eyes, from JR on Twitter.
2. Photo from The Daily Gamecock of phone with image from an online petition of the student activist group, USC 2020 Vision, taken at the start of a student walkout at the University of South Carolina on November 16, 2015.

Please feel free to comment.

Mediating Ferguson in Columbia, SC
Susan Courtney / University of South Carolina

Author’s note: In the summer of 2016 I agreed to write a series of guest columns on teaching race and media studies today. I drafted most of this first one in early fall, before having to shelve it for a while to complete a book—entitled, coincidentally by now, Split Screen Nation. By the time I could return to this piece, it was only a week after the results of the presidential election had stunned and horrified millions of Americans. In that context, the challenges animating the piece remained deeply familiar, yet also felt—like most every challenge we collectively face—profoundly more daunting. In a world in which Donald Trump is the U.S. President-elect and Steve Bannon has ascended from the alt-right (white) media “fringe” to the center of world power, few things seem clearer than the limits of confining academic work for social justice within academic institutions. [ (( Anyone who hasn’t already heard Kelly McEvers interview with alt-right activist Richard Spencer, broadcast on NPR on November 17, 2016, should. Hearing this on the radio while driving home from work, I felt the surreality of the present shift into a whole new register. )) ] The column below nonetheless remains much as I first drafted it, in part due to time constraints. In addition, when I returned to it I found the recent (pre-election) histories it attempts to describe to resonate with still more recent events in ways I could never have imagined, even weeks ago.

Protesters at South Carolina State House, July 3, 2015

Protesters at South Carolina State House, July 3, 2015

“What is true in the South is true for America.”
-President Obama, Eulogy for Clementa Pinckney,
(Live Streamed from) Charleston, South Carolina, June 26, 2015.
[ (( President Barak Obama, “Remarks by the President in Eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney,” College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, June 26, 2015. The eulogy is also viewable on multiple (local, national, and African American) news websites. I first streamed it live in my office via a local TV station in Columbia, SC. Revisiting it amidst the grief of the election I was deeply moved once more for its understanding of simultaneously national and regional truths. I discuss such links—as articulated in work by Tara McPherson (Reconstructing Dixie), Howard Zinn (The Southern Mystique), and others—as well as a history of screen media that has worked to disavow them in Split Screen Nation: Moving Images of the American West and South (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2017). )) ]

Having taught race and media studies at a public university in the South for nearly two decades, for the first time I find myself with the urge to write about doing so. Two things initially inspired this: intensified national discussions about race in the United States sparked by the seemingly unending emergence and circulation of videos documenting lethal encounters by African Americans and Latinos with the police, and an undergraduate class I taught in response to these phenomena in the fall of 2015, “Mediating Ferguson, USA: 1915-2015.”

Simply put, “Mediating Ferguson” was an experiment on several levels, and more successful than I ever imagined it might be. The students in it were exceptionally engaged and invested, and rigorous thinking and honest discussion—across differences of race, class, gender, and sexuality—became the daily stuff of class, and brought a routine sense of relevance, at times even of necessity, to our work on media both old and new. Indeed, from our first day to our last, we were all well aware that the class was profoundly shaped by our historical moment. So much so, that while I will discuss in a subsequent column some of what occurred within it, and pedagogical strategies (regarding syllabus design, assignments, and so on) that played a part, it seems essential first to sketch how the class emerged, when it did, and where. All of this was, and remains (not least in mid-November, 2016), utterly relevant to the pedagogical challenges and practices at issue.

Although I taught this course in fall 2015, I proposed it in late 2014, prompted by recent events. These included (that summer) the killings by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson and of Eric Garner in Staten Island; the grand jury decisions in both cases (in late November and early December) not to indict the officers responsible; and the waves of protest and an activist movement, Black Lives Matter, sparked by these and related cases. But what moved me to envision the class was my viewing of the video of Eric Garner being choked to death by police as he begged them to let him breathe. I didn’t watch it until just after the grand jury’s decision in this case came down. But when I did, at home alone one morning, I found myself weeping in disbelief. As I eventually tried to recompose myself, wondering what I might be able to do in response to what I had seen, all I could think to do was write a course description (which in any case was due). As I brainstormed, I realized that the year upcoming, and hence the semester in which I would teach the course, would mark the centennial of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a film not only infamous for its celebration of white supremacist vigilantism (fueled by racist fantasies of black criminality), but also of local note for its (imagined) locations in South Carolina, including the state house that lies just blocks from my campus. Groaning to myself (“Oh great, it’s Birth’s birthday”), it seemed right to foreground the course’s historical dimension in its full title.

My course description pitched the class as a “history for the present”: we would begin with viral cell phone and dash cam videos and the “current national conversation” with the aim of figuring out what questions we thought we most needed to be asking; but we would then turn to look back at the history of race and justice mediated through U.S. film and television, to consider what this media history “might have to teach us about where we are now, how we got here, and strategies for moving forward.” In the spring of 2015 I put up fliers announcing the course with an AP photo by Bebeto Matthews of an African American protestor with his hands up in the air and his mouth covered by a paper mask with Eric Garner’s final words written on it, “I can’t breathe.” After the fliers were up another video went viral, this one shot closer to home by a bystander in North Charleston, South Carolina, in which Officer Michael Slager fires his gun eight times at Walter Scott as Scott tries to run away, and then, after handcuffing the fallen and immobile victim, appears to tamper with evidence.

If video footage such as this was already becoming disturbingly familiar by the time students began enrolling in the course—with the circulation of videos documenting incidents leading to the deaths of Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Freddie Gray (Baltimore), Sandra Bland (Hempstead, Texas), and Ricardo Diaz Zeferino (Gardena, California)—nothing could have prepared any of us for the horrific mass murder of nine African Americans in their church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. Nor could we have predicted the profound and collective forms of grief and shame that immediately followed the massacre in this state, not least in the capital city where I teach, in which the alleged shooter and avowed white supremacist, Dylan Roof, had been raised. Even before the weight of the tragedy had fully sunk in, when the news had just broken and the manhunt for Roof was still on, I remember reading on my computer screen that he was from Columbia. Suddenly, in a panic, I rushed to open my university directory and type in his name, thinking to myself (a nonbeliever), “Please God, don’t let him be one of ours.” The fact that my brain would even go there seems, in some respects, a little embarrassing. (I have never known of a single student here who draped himself in the Confederate flag or publically spewed hate speech.) That it did, however, speaks to the difference it made for those of us who live here that the suspected killer was homegrown, and that the flag he posed with online was prominently displayed by our state on its capitol grounds, at the literal center of town. [ (( Ed Madden, Columbia’s Poet Laureate, vividly evokes the profound local response in his poem, “When we’re told we’ll never understand.” Written in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, it was read aloud at a mass gathering of mourners at the state house just days later. In that moment, the large, multi-age, mixed-race crowd that had been standing in the intense summer heat for what felt like hours suddenly froze and fell utterly silent. This was a mass experience of poetry, too, like none I had ever experienced. )) ] It was all the more meaningful, then—not least for all who had tried to bring that flag down for decades—when hundreds and then thousands of people gathered together at that very spot: first in deep mourning; then to call for the flag’s removal; and, finally, to cheer en masse with unbridled joy and relief when it finally came down.

Cheering the Removal of the Confederate Flag

It was just weeks later, then, when many here were still reeling, that students and I showed up for this new course that didn’t really yet exist. I had named it, and briefly described a path we might try to map, but I knew I wanted to invite students—needed them—to engage in the process with me of figuring out what questions we should be asking. Their response to this call—the eagerness with which they engaged a wide range of materials to better understand a host of relevant issues, the astute questions they formulated, and their investigation of them through compelling, original forms of critical and creative work—at times astounded me. And our work together, the community we made and the critical passions it seemed to nurture in so many of them, and in me, to continue our work in the course beyond it, became an even more enduring source of hope than the jubilant removal of that flag.

Obama Eulogizes Clementa Pinckney

I feel several risks in writing about this experience, but they seemed worth taking. And I look forward to continuing this story. This much already, though, moves me to reconsider Obama’s insight, cited above, upon eulogizing Clementa Pinckney, and guiding all who mourned the Charleston Nine. The President was inspired by Pinckney’s own wisdom about the failure to recognize others different from ourselves: “Across the South, we have a deep appreciation of history, [but] we haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s history.” In registering this as a national truth, too, Obama’s wisdom now resonates especially loudly as millions grapple with the question of how it has come to pass that white nationalists have friends in the White House. Knowing this question will occupy us for years to come, I take some comfort now in my sense that so many of my students—black and white, LGBTQ and not, from “red” suburbs and small towns as well as “blue” cities—want to understand other people’s history, media, and experience in part because they know about some of the damages of not doing so in the places in which they grew up and to which they are likely to return, or at least visit. This gives them, and students from so many places where people now appear to be comfortable with the rhetoric of white nationalism, the potential to be exemplary agents of change.

Image Credits:

1. Photograph courtesy of Chloe Courtney Bohl
2. “Lowering the Flag,” SCETV
3. President Obama delivers eulogy for Clementa Pinckney

Please feel free to comment.

Textual Object
Nicholas Sammond / University of Toronto

mickey minnie disneyland

Walt Disney poses with a map of Disneyland

This is the second of three essays on the creation, design, and implementation of a graduate class. In the previous outing I outlined ideas for a course that would explore the relationship between textuality and space. In this essay I will discuss its realization in a syllabus. In the final essay, I will review its execution as a course. Each essay approaches the topic through one of three successive lenses: the first started from Bakhtin’s notion of heteroglossia, this one takes up Lefebvre’s systematic analysis of social space, and the last will consider new materialism’s troubling of the category of the reading subject.

“…the Text achieves, if not the transparence of social relations, that at least of language relations: the Text is that space where no language has a hold over any other, where languages circulate (keeping the circular sense of the term).”
Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” (( Translated by Stephen Heath, 1977. ))

“We are forever hearing about the space of this and/or the space of that: about literary space, ideological spaces, the space of the dream, psychoanalytic topologies, and so on and so forth. Conspicuous by its absence from supposedly fundamental epistemological studies is not only the idea ‘man,’ but also that of space—the fact that ‘space’ is mentioned on every page notwithstanding.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (( Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1974), 3. ))

This is a story about implementation.

To call a place like Disneyland a text is a conceit. It offers the possibility of reading in the designed landscape of the theme park a narrative, or even a collation of narratives that then form a master narrative. The term “master” is appropriate: one reading of the larger narrative of Disneyland is that it reproduces the ideal fantasy of Walt Disney’s life. From the early 1930s on, Disney’s public relations described Walt as the guiding spirit behind everything the company made, and it suggested that his formation as the ideal Middle American was transmuted in its products and transmitted to the children who consumed them. Main Street U.S.A. reproduced Walt’s small-town childhood in the Midwest; Adventureland featured his deep connection with animals, his sense of their primal importance; Frontierland celebrated the settler spirit of Middle America; Fantasyland manifested Walt’s childlike love of fairy tales; and Tomorrowland celebrated him as an inventor invested in technology’s promise of a better future. Each land was a text unto itself; together they formed the larger text of Disney-land, the place that manifested the life story of the man.

Yet the conceit of Disneyland as text runs the risk of occluding the very real spatial relations it imagines and attempts to create. A book, movie, or television program is a self-contained entity, populated by characters who perform a free will they don’t actually have. In Disneyland, however well managed it may be, people do unpredictable things, take away unexpected messages. This is exactly the complaint and the concern of the sociologist Henri Lefebvre. Imagining a spatiality in mediated texts, or ascribing textuality to actual places, runs the risk of obscuring the complex ways in which actual spaces themselves attempt to organize, regulate, and understand complex social practices and relations. This is the central tension and core idea of the graduate course “The Textual Object: Disneyland”: that the ideals produced in the television program Disneyland—and in its subsidiary segments Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland—were nearly impossible to translate into the actual spaces meant to represent them in Anaheim, California. And it is that ongoing tension, that contradiction, which makes Disneyland such a useful text to read, such a valuable space to analyze.

Sammond Disneyland


View Section I of the Syllabus here.

The opening sections of the syllabus examine the putative origins of Disneyland: its precursors were the amusement parks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of them outgrowths of the world expositions that were organized during the same period. I say “putative” because Disney’s own history, produced by the company itself, as well as by the chroniclers of the company and its eponymous founder, have produced a story that is often very speculative and contradictory. In the case of Disneyland, there is a question as to whether the park is more indebted to Coney Island, Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens, or to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Rather than to try to settle that question of fact, it’s more productive to note the ways in which the company promoted Disneyland as like or unlike any of those places, which makes each of them antecedent, either as an exemplar or as a cautionary tale. Disney created Disneyland as much as an antidote to a raucous, slightly ribald, perhaps dangerous, and dirty place like Coney Island’s Luna Park in its heyday as it was an homage to the genteel pleasures of the Tivoli Gardens or the technological wonders of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Amusement parks owed a bit to the midways of those expositions, many of which featured thrill rides, freak shows, games of chance, exotic dancers, and drinking. As Lauren Rabinovitz points out, although they may have been inspired by expositions, many amusement parks grew out of public or semipublic gardens and swimming parks. ((Rabinovitz, Lauren. “Urban Wonderlands: the “Cracked Mirror” of Turn-of-the-Century Amusement Parks.” Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 25-64. )) In some cases, as urban railways began extending streetcar lines to the edges of cities, they sought to attract riders by putting amusement parks at their further reaches, then stocking them with paying attractions. For example, the founder of Steeplechase Park and Luna Park, George Tilyou, was inspired by the 1893 Chicago Exposition and saw in it a moneymaker. Although some amusement parks were genteel and moderate, appealing to a burgeoning industrial middle class, the general association, and certainly Disney’s sense of the amusement park, is that they were gritty, loud, extensions of rapidly mechanizing urban landscapes, celebrating (as Rabinovitz notes) the tension, danger, excitement, and titillation that the modern urban environment offered. It was for this reason, perhaps, that Disney welcomed visitors to its park via the decidedly small-town Main Street U.S.A.

Main Street

Town Square in Main Street, U.S.A., 1956

Main Street U.S.A., the entrance and spine of Disneyland, was presented as a faithful recreation of a “typical” small American town, circa 1900, and its shops as the precursors of the modern businesses—Kodak, Carnation, Upjohn—that ran them as concessions. (Even Main Street had conflicting origin stories. Some have claimed that it was modeled after Walt Disney’s childhood home of Marceline, Missouri; others have suggested that it resembles Fort Collins, Colorado, the home town of its principal designer; the company disavows both stories.) Performing a spectacular fantasy of ideal small town life—with marching bands, circus parades, and processions of “horseless carriages”—Main Street also was meant to be an accurate reproduction of that life, hence educational. Likewise, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland each, in varying degrees, also framed spectacle as an opportunity for edification.

The expositions on which Disneyland modeled itself as educational began with the rise of industrial capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. Though the grandest and best remembered of these was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, through the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 1915 San Francisco Pan Pacific Exposition each has its echoes in Anaheim. (( Rydell, Robert. “Forerunners of the Century-of-Progress Expositions.” World of Fairs: The Century-of-Progress Expositions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 15-37. )) Each of these expositions celebrated the emergence of the United States as an imperial power, and they did so through an ingathering of commodities from newly acquired territories—commodities which included the “native” populations of those lands. Recreations of whole villages, with inhabitants, were very popular at the expositions, producing a sense of uplift and education, and counterposing life in the United States as civilized in comparison to the savagery of conquered peoples. These exhibits were distant relatives of the exhibits in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (strangely later recreated in Disneyland Paris), but they differed in that they seemed to eschew sensationalism in favor of a patina of scholarship and the potential to educate. (Authenticity was fungible in these exhibits. The great African American Broadway performers George Walker and Bert Williams reported that they got their start when a “Zulu show” scheduled to open in San Francisco was delayed an local men were recruited as stand-in natives.) (( Theatre Magazine Advertiser, n.d. [1902?], Robinson Locke Collection, folder 2461, Special Collections, Performing Arts Library, New York Public Library. ))

View Section II of the Syllabus here.

Disney conceived of Adventureland as the physical realization of its True-Life Adventures (1948-1960), nature films which it first created for theatrical release and later featured in rotation on the Disneyland television show. With titles such as Bear Country (1953), White Wilderness (1958), and Nature’s Half Acre (1951), most focused on specific biomes or regions, stitching together a series of vignettes about specific species or about relationships between species. The company advertised, and tried to hire, heterosexual couples to capture these scenes, a trope which expanded upon the popular “white hunter” genre of the 1930s-1950s—realized in films such as Chang (Cooper 1927), or the Frank Buck films such as Bring ‘Em Back Alive (Elliott 1932) or Tiger Fangs (Newfield 1943). (( See Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 195-246. See also Chris, Cynthia. Watching Wildlife (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006). )) Disney’s choice to feature married couples as cinematographers updated that trope by creating a seeming symmetry between the observer and the observed: wherever possible, Disney mapped human gender relations (as it understood them) onto a wide range of species, purporting to offer a glimpse into the lives of natural “families.” In this, the company participated in and amplified the popular neo-Freudianism of the postwar years—espoused in popular literature by the likes of Benjamin Spock, Margaret Mead, Erik Erikson, and Erich Fromm, which (with variations) argued that the social discontents that had produced the extremes of WWII, embodied in fascism and state communism, and the social upheaval caused by the war itself (including the trauma to its male soldiers) could best be addressed through psychoanalytic means. This approach promised to address neurosis in veterans, sexual “perversion” (homosexuality, the social precariousness of which might make gay men and women vulnerable to communist blackmail and subversion), and “momism” (the problem of wartime wives and mothers having accumulated excess social and domestic power in the absence of male authority). (( See Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society (New York: W.W. Norton, 1950), 248-280. )) At the level of popular culture for children and families, this meant modeling “natural” gender relations in which the proper social roles for each (and there were only two) were clearly delineated. The True-Life Adventures, and Adventureland, provided examples of a natural order meant to mirror visiting happy families.

The Jungle Cruise Ride in Adventureland

This kind of gender mapping was easy to do in its nature films, which Disney circulated in theaters and on the Disneyland television show. On the ground in the park, however, the fine grained relations that closeups, music, narration, and editing could create were nearly impossible to reproduce. Although animatronic versions of large animals such as hippos, giraffes, and elephants could be arranged in heteronormative familial groupings, recreating the suburban home in the “jungle,” scaling that fantasy up and down the chain of being was impossible. Instead, Adventureland in the park hearkened back to adventure rides in amusement parks, and gestured toward the world of the white hunter/naturalist more than to the scientific researcher. When the park opened in 1955, Adventureland featured the Jungle Cruise ride, a nod to the True-Life Adventures’ The African Lion (1955), with a little of The African Queen (1951) and Trader Mickey (1932) thrown in. Visitors to the park rode in riverboats reminiscent of the African Queen and a pilot in a pith helmet and khakis provided the narrative as they meandered through a quasi-African landscape, menaced by animatronic crocodiles and hippos (one of which the guide shoots). In 1962, Disney added the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse to Adventureland and in 1963 opened the Enchanted Tiki Room. So, the tidy gendering of nature that True-Life Adventures performed were replaced on the ground by the gendered performances of the families themselves.

View Section III of the Syllabus here.

Sammond frontierland


One other feature of the Jungle Cruise ride was that menacing animatronic natives peered out of the underbrush, and a pile of human bones in a native village hinted at the dangers of cannibalism, which had been so prominently displayed in Trader Mickey. The colonial fantasy hinted at in Adventureland was the organizing principle in Frontierland, shifted from the Dark Continent to the American West of the 19th century. Ostensibly organized around the changing modes of transportation used to traverse the continent—from Conestoga wagons, to paddle-wheel steamers, to stage coaches, to a railroad that took visitors there from Main Street—Frontierland celebrated conquest. Whether riding pack mules or in Mike Fink’s keel boats, visitors relived the “taming” of the wilderness (and its peoples) by European settlers moving westward. Again, regulating the narrative proved challenging, with the traditional oater battle between cowboys and Indians modulated by an Indian village in which Native American performers presented arts, culture, and dance to curious visitors. (Frontierland also featured a native village viewed from several rides, in which one lone human performer shared a fire circle with fellow animatronic natives.) Visitors to Frontierland could also board the Mark Twain Riverboat and travel to Tom Sawyer Island. In 1966 Disney added New Orleans Square, and in 1967 the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and with that expanded the representation of the colonial experience southward, and if the “red man” of the western frontier was represented through gunfights, dances, and teepees, the colonial subject of Frontierland’s southern reaches was represented through piracy, voodoo, and more jungle-theming.

View Section IV of the Syllabus here.

Sammond Fantasyland


Fantasyland continued Disney’s negotiation of the contradictions between ideals it could realize in its animation and live-action film and the messy complications of unspooling a coherent narrative on the ground in the park. Walt’s dedication plaque for Fantasyland reads, in part, “In this timeless land of enchantment the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true.” The notion that the fairy tales that Disney animated represented eternal truths, rather than the work of authors like Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Carlo Collodi or J.M. Barrie, was important to the Disney mythos. But creating an environment of “timelessness” in Anaheim, California, circa 1955, proved a challenge. So, this part of the park, more than the other lands, most resembled the amusement parks of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Disney’s animated feature films built narratives of very gendered self-realization around the affective push/pull of separation anxiety (experienced by parents and children alike). On the ground, those devices faded. After visitors entered through Snow White’s Castle (the “happily ever after” of that story), Fantasyland featured rides such as the Casey Jr. Circus Train (a nod to Dumbo) and appropriately, the aerial carousel Dumbo the Flying Elephant, as well as the King Arthur Carrousel, The Mad Tea Party saucer ride, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight and Snow White’s Scary Adventures. All of the rides related thematically to Disney movies, but all were for the most part standard amusement park rides. Of later additions, the most notable was It’s a Small World (1966), Disney’s nod to internationalism whose ominous overtones were hilariously sent up in an episode of The Simpsons set in Duff Gardens.

Little Land of Duff

The Little Land of Duff, a parody of It’s a Small World by The Simpsons

Missing in all of those rides was Disney’s heavy investment in, and contribution, the regulation of gender normativity in 1950s American culture. Parents raising children via the neo-Freudian counsel of Dr. Benjamin Spock or through the headier ideas of social critic/practitioners such as Erik Erikson were warned that the proper performance of gender roles by both mothers and fathers was key to restoring a social order badly warped by the privations of World War II. For men this meant providing a strong, steady, and regular manly presence in the home. Little boys needed a clear masculine role model to imitate, struggle with, and grow into; little girls needed a strong, supportive male love object to outgrow, preparing them for the well-adjusted boys and men they would eventually choose to reproduce an ideal American life. For women it meant conceding to their husbands the masculine control of the home that they had by necessity taken during WWII, acting as loving and supportive mothers, yet only as representatives of their husbands in their day to day absences, second to them in authority at all other times. Couples, finally, had to perform clearly what heterosexual love and desire looked like, the courtship of women by men and the yielding of women to men, as part of the natural order. Disney’s fairy tales, which often featured absent parents, served as cautionary tales in which the abandoned child had to overcome peril and challenge to become an integrated member of society, and as comforting stories about the resilience of children who evinced the inherent power of heteronormative behavior. That spinning mechanical teacups and carousels didn’t signal that clearly was a secondary problem; the visitors could accomplish that work by associating the ride with its animated antecedent.

View Section V of the Syllabus here.

Sammond Tomorrowland


One possible positive outcome for this careful gender modeling was Tomorrowland, a utopian future world in which technology laid to rest the problems of the midcentury United States. (Appropriately, a skyway tram system linked Fantasyland to Tomorrowland.) Perhaps appropriately, Tomorrowland was the least developed part of Disneyland when the park opened in July of 1955, and perhaps a harbinger of the future we now occupy, most of the rides were sponsored by outside corporations. TWA paid for the Ride to the Moon; Richland Oil sponsored the Autopia ride; the Dutch Boy Paint Gallery was self-explanatory; and American Motors sponsored the cinema-in-the-round Circarama. Monsanto sponsored a Hall of Chemistry, then expanded its offerings in 1957 with the Monsanto House of the Future. In 1959 Disney added its famous and long-anticipated Monorail (also mocked on The Simpsons), its Submarine ride, and The Matterhorn, which was eventually moved to Fantasyland since there was little futuristic about it.

Whether by design or by economic necessity, Tomorrowland boomeranged visitors from the pre-capitalist past of Fantasyland into an inherently corporatist future. Disney’s televised version of Tomorrowland, on Disneyland, while it still celebrated technology, eschewed the sponsorship angle. (Given the tensions around sponsorship, advertising and broadcasting in the late 1950s, this shouldn’t be surprising.) Disney’s “science factual” films, such as Man in Space (1955), Mars and Beyond (1957), Our Friend the Atom (1957), and Magic Highway U.S.A. (1958), were each about an hour long, and each presented an evolutionary model of science and technology, moving easily from human prehistory through the current day, toward an ideal future. After airing on Disneyland, they then had a second life in the educational rental market, alongside the Bell Laboratory Science Series. In the films’ narrative arc, the technotopias that Disney envisioned seemed predestined, determined by the necessary arc of human history as it passed into and through Euro-American science.

The translation of these utopic narratives into a technocapitalist playground in the park may seem heavy handed in its branded approach to living, but in the 1950s, when suspicions about corporate motives were muted and brand loyalty a less self-conscious form of belonging, a heavily sponsored future seemed more natural, less fraught than it might today. (Disney and Pixar even gently and vaguely spoofed branded living in the 2008 hit film WALL-E, which featured lives lived within the universe of the Buy and Large corporation.) At the dawn of the Cold War, though, the IBM and Ford’s connections to Nazi Germany, Dow’s role in producing napalm, or General Electric’s vast of array of weapons-related products were not yet widely known by the general public. And although Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders was published in 1957, its insights into brand consciousness and daily life were not quite as detailed, thoughtful, and damning of specific corporations and practices as, say, Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic: the Politics of Ambivalence in Brand Culture (NYU 2012).

Because of this acceptance of corporate conservatorship, the dissonance between the televised versions of Tomorrowland and the rides and attractions on the ground at Disneyland was less pronounced than it was between the electronic and material versions of Disneyland’s other three lands, yet neither was it entirely absent. Each of Disneyland’s four lands plays out a tension that runs through Lefebvre’s model for analyzing social space and its associated practices. The Disneyland television program’s ideal and fantastic spaces of Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland follow the logic of what Lefebvre calls “representations of space,” which he describes as “conceptualized space, the space of scientists, planners, urbanists, technocratic subdividers and social engineers…all of whom identify what is lived and what is perceived with what is conceived.” (( Lefebvre, 38. )) Certainly it was Disney’s goal to attempt that idealized control of space through its “imagineers,” Disney’s trademarked term for its park planners. Yet the distance between the ideal cinematic and televisual spaces of the four lands and their realization on the ground remained irreducible, an example of Lefebvre’s concept of “representational spaces,” which he termed “space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of ‘inhabitants’ and ‘users’…. This is the dominated—and hence passively experienced—space which the seeks to change and appropriate.” (( Lefebvre, 39. ))

Try as it might, Disney could not control relations on the ground, nor reproduce the meanings Disneyland viewers might have produced in consuming Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland on TV. Imagineering was the impossible practice of aligning the imagined narrative of Disneyland/Disneyland as the embodiment of Walt Disney’s weltanschauung with its instantiation in each of its four subsidiary lands, and thence with the lived experience of visitors as they moved through the social space of the park. Its success, then, perhaps has had less to do with the park’s design on the ground than with its visitors’ will to believe, to see the narrative even where it has not been evident.


Promotional still for Disney’sTomorrowland (2015)

That will to believe, to imagineer an ideal set of relations regardless of their dissonance with life as lived on the ground, continues to inform the Disney narrative. Its 2015 film Tomorrowland attempts to reconcile the utopianism of the original Disneyland with an increasing sense that a blind faith in technology is actually what has delivered the world to its increasingly catastrophic present and a potentially apocalyptic future. Oddly, though, the film resolves this contradiction by suggesting that cynicism about the future is the actual cause of technologically driven dystopic trends…suggesting perhaps that all the world needs do to set things right is return to a fantastically optimistic narrative such as that of Disneyland…to wish upon a star.

Select Bibliography

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Michael Holmquist, ed. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holmquist. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (NewYork: Vintage Books, 1971).
Giddens, Anthony. The Constitution of Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Harvey, David. Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (New York: Routledge, 2001).
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 1974).

Image Credits:
1. Disneyland Map
2. Disneyland
3. Main Street, U.S.A.
4. Frontierland
5. Fantasyland
6. Tomorrowland
7. The Simpsons
8. Tomorrowland

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.

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.