February 6, 2008
Thinking through education on YouTube, after teaching a class using its many resources and even greater limitations, I found that the specificity of the site, and some of the features more generally of Web 2.0, served to unsettle six binaries that typically structure the academic classroom. As these rigid binaries dismantle, the nature of teaching and learning shifts. I’d like to quickly outline the nature of these changing conditions and some of the thoughts they have opened for me about teaching in a digital world.
Please note: these thoughts are rudimentary and changing. Your responses and criticism are greatly appreciated.
Public/Private: The elite liberal arts classroom, usually (or in the ideal) comprised of an intimate and “safe” gathering of high-paying, and carefully selected students, depends upon privacy to create a communal pedagogy. Get me, I’m no advocate of this as the final and end all form for learning, in fact, as a practioner of “critical pedagogy” I am always undoing typical structures of education. That said, for me, YouTube took things in new and unchartered directions, and it is these I want to explore here. In m typical classroom, doors are closed, and students are asked to actively contribute their interpretations, and sometimes personal experience or knowledge, always knowing that they are not experts, but are certainly experts-in-training. The construction of a confidence of voice, particularly in relaying a complex analysis is one of the “services” we hope to provide. Students, often vulnerable in the eyes of their fellow students, and their esteemed professor, are challenged to add their voices to the building dialogue, one in which they are an active, continuing member. I am ever aware of the power dynamics that structure the classroom, allowing some to speak with comfort and others not, and engage in strategies to alter the “safety” of the space. Of course, this lofty dynamic shifts when anyone and everyone can see and also participate. During the class, students felt and actually were judged by critical YouTube viewers we would never see or know, who may or may not be aware of the history of our conversations, the subtle dynamics in the room, or the particularities of the speaker. While access grew, the structures in place (attendance, grading, community responsibility) to insure that our viewers were as committed and attentive as were we, did not. Note the role of discipline here, see Control/Chaos below.
Aural/Visual: The capacity to express ideas through words is almost entirely closed down on YouTube where both the 500 character limit, and the sandlot culture of web-expression, produces a dumbing-down more or less impossible to improve upon. The place to speak and be heard on YouTube is through video: which effortlessly links sounds, language and images, and where it might be argued, images dominate. However, most newly empowered videomakers on YouTube are not educated or adept in the language of the visual, and thus depend on the relaying of their recorded words, primarily through talking-heads, or rants. Meanwhile, professional content on YouTube abounds, making use of the flashiest, fastest gizmos available. This raises the question of competing standards on YouTube: those of the “bad” videos of the amateurs, and the “good” videos of the pros, which itself indicates that this is not the level or uniform playing field people want to pretend it to be. I am interested in thinking about how YouTube is changing the standards of video-production: how “bad” videos (poorly shot and composed, unedited, weak performances, all-talking all-the-time) are sometimes thought to be “good.” More on that later.
However, I will end here by saying that I have previously written about the reliance upon talking-heads in the beginning of film movements (by women, AIDS activists, queers and the like), and how people speaking new truths to power directly through newly available technologies is not necessarily the naïve step the elite may imagine. However, in the case of YouTube, rather than say, AIDS activism, I would suggest that the site’s force to keep its makers from unifying around style, from organizing around ideas, from learning from the words and images of others, keeps this “bad” video less complex than I might wish.
Body/Digital: Teaching and learning depend in significant ways upon presence: the forceful, dynamic, inspiring, rigorous performance of the teacher, the alert attention and participation of the student. While in a typical classroom this may not function in the ideal sense, in that the professor can be uninspiring or uninspired and the students may be there in body but not in mind, the YouTube classroom diminishes this further, losing entirely the powers of eye contact, professorial censure (control again…), and expressions of boredom or enthusiasm writ large on the bodies of students in exchange for expanded access. When we attempted on-line classes through YouTube, they simply fizzled and died (see my blog entry, On YouTube). There is something in the shared exchange that creates the atmosphere for education that is not possible on this site.
Amateur/Expert: On YouTube, amateurs rule, experts are deflated, and authority is flattened. While it is exciting to hear from new and varied people, and while this undoubtedly widens and opens our knowledge-base, it is difficult to learn in an environment where vying opinions rule, where data is helter-skelter and hard to locate, and where no one can take the lead. Again, the role of discipline within the academic setting proves the rule. Without it, ideas stay vague and dispersed, there is no system for evaluation, and you can’t find things or build upon them.
Entertainment/Education: Today’s students, schooled on YouTube, iphones, and Wiis, want their information relayed with ease and fun: they want it pleasurable, simplified, and funny. They don’t want to be bored; even as they are always distracted. They want school to speak to them in the language they like and know and deserve. While I’m the first to admit that a good professor makes “hard” information understandable, this does not mean that I do not expect my students to take pleasure in the work of understanding it. While I have always been aware that I am a performer, entertaining my students while sneaking in critical theory, avant-garde forms, and radical politics, much of what I perform is the delight and beauty of the complex: the life of the mind, the work of the artist, the experience of the counter-culture.
Control/Chaos: The college classroom is a disciplined space where knowledge moves in a formal and structured routine familiar to all the players. While the critical classroom begins to alter this script by giving more real power to the students, and allowing knowledge to be created dynamically, this is not the random chaos of information and power which is YouTube. For effective education, structure is needed in all kinds of ways: to control conversation, to allow ideas to build in succession permitting things to grow steadily more complex, to be able to find things once and then again.
I recently read an article by two professors equally underwhelmed by social networking in a classroom setting posted on the Wired Classroom. In “Learning to Leisure? Failure, Flame, Blame, Shame, Homophobia and Other Everyday Practices in Online Education,” Juliet Eve and Tara Brabazon at the University of Brighton, argue that the “blurring of leisure and learning has corroded the respect that is necessary to commence a scholarly journey.”
November 27, 2007
I recently attended the festival screening of my friend, Ellen Spiro’s amazing documentary, “Body of War,” which she shot and directed with Phil Donahue (yes that Phil Donahue). It was a beautifully made, inspiring, and tear-provoking portrait of one man seriously injured in the Iraq war who returned home to the country he served to become a vocal activist against the war. It is also, explicitly, a film about Heroism, as this young man’s efforts are paralleled across the film by those of Senator Robert Byrd, one of the few politicians in Washington who had the courage (or heroism) to speak up, and vote against this illicit War.
Ellen and I come from the same school of political documentary: we both began in AIDS activist video, and moved into “queer” media quickly thereafter. Although, outside my participation in “The Watermelon Woman,” it would be important to note that Ellen has had a much more successful career, at least if you note the prestigious venues, awards, and airings of her documentaries (all of which have ended on PBS or HBO, I think).
Thus, when I sat in a theater, moved by her filmmaking, and the man’s story it so clearly told, while surrounded by a diverse audience equally aroused, I thought a lot about political filmmaking tactics, and what her film is doing, mine (SCALE) is not, and what that means for documentary and (anti-war) activism.
Baldly stated: her film uses heroism to its greatest advantage while mine deconstructs it. And please do understand me. I LIKE her film; more than that, I’d warrant her film is ultimately more effective for activism–or at least that’s what I’d like to consider here–because it uses tried and true structures, narratives, and feelings to move people. The film is melodramatic (it relies on issues turned into big emotions), simple (it reduces large and complex politics issues to the lived experiences of one person), and believes in the hero (the regular or regal man whose courage creates change). Meanwhile, by comparison, SCALE is distancing (its focus on the media and its own processes as media remind you that the characters are constructions of the filmmaker, also a character), complex (it refuses to come down on what it believes are the correct tactics for the left and instead considers the range of tactics and disagreements about tactics evidenced along Antonia’s tour), and is uncertain about the effects of heroism (or celebrity) on the individual or the movement. Ellen’s film leaves you weeping and inspired, while I imagine, mine leaves you thinking and riled.
And here I am, yet again on these pages, looking at tactics and individuals (on the left; of activism) that are in seeming opposition to each other, even as the cause remains the same, and the goals, and even the analysis. Yet we can not agree, at this time, on what is to be done. Should our films be didactic and emotional, or erudite and intellectual? What is the happy medium, or should we be making them all, letting them speak to each other, and speaking our opposition in the many languages we speak, and the many structures that can hold it?
October 11, 2007
On Thursday, October 4, we had our first work-in-progress screening of SCALE fro a friendly audience at the Claremont Colleges, where I teach. Antonia made it, as did representatives of various local anti-war groups, who spoke about their efforts before the screening began.
The most interesting aspect of the Q and A at this screening mirrors a theme of the documentary: its interest in divisions within the left about the form and function of education or information in relation to social change. Many in the audience were there (understandably) to hear Antonia speak truth, facts, and analysis to power, something she does very well, and for which she has a following. While this does happen, in small parts, in the documentary, it is, in fact, not really a documentary about Antonia’s book and its ideas, as much as it is about the concept of scale, and how Antonia’s book, ideas, and experiences trying to sell and impart them demonstrate the contradictions of ramping up numbers, attention, and exposure. Thus, some in the audience were pleased to see a self-reflexive documentary raising questions of tactics, effectivity, organizing strategies, and the role of the media and celebrity in contemporary politics, just as Antonia’s fans thought this was a diversion from the real stuff.
Discussion centered around whether the left should be educating itself with facts, or whether we have already heard these facts; or should we be navel-gazing, and re-thinking strategies, as well as our flaws and strengths?
Finally, the highly personal nature of the questions asked to Antonia and I (rather than political) threw Antonia, and it is seems good she has some practice before the show really goes on the road. People asked her questions she has never heard before: abo0ut her spiritual beliefs or our family. And afterwards, we talked together about how my feminism, and a commitment to the personal, is fundamentally different from her more straightforward commitment to the “political.” This is really another vocabulary to think about the differences in knowledge production, and political strategy raised above, and I am certain that these tensions will define the life and reception of the film.
October 1, 2007
“The boundaries between the subject, if not the body, and the ‘rest of the world’ are undergoing a radical refiguration, brought about in part through the mediation of technology. ”
Allucquere Rosanne Stone
On-line documentary presentation on YouTube disturbs the public/private binary, like that of the self/other, opening things up to produce combinations inconceivable without the technology. Yet YouTube forecloses the construction of coherent communities and returns production, consumption, and meaning-making to the individual, re-establishing the reign of the self.
September 27, 2007
August 8, 2007
Back home after a month in Columbus OH defined, in the end, by the concerns addressed in my earlier posts: what it means to be an artist-on-my-own and how I can be true to my own uncertainties and also my sister’s fortitude. Home again in Pasadena with one-hour documentary in hand, I hope that I may have succeeded. I want to believe that SCALE accomplishes multiple, self-nourishing goals:
SCALE ricoches and reflects between the power and limitations of the small and large. My muddy and sloppy camera reveals complexity and feeling while the smooth operations of Robbie’s camera give the world a gloss that is convincing and familiar. Both have power. And that’s not even going to Oprah.
SCALE links the personal and the political, insisting that what happens between people (emotions, ideas, trust, betrayal, power, kindness) mirrors and combats the largest operations of dominance and control in our world (war, wealth, politics).
SCALE believes that small things, the things regular people do in the space of their own lives and through the reach of their own actions, do have effect. Although the doc would never presume to be able to measure such effect.
SCALE believes that groups of people magnify the power explained above. Although, again, the doc would never deign to calculate the scale of such power.
I hope the documentary can be used for organizing, both naming for people through the awesome words of my sister some of the crimes of the Bush regime, and pointing them towards avenues of action including writing, speaking, demonstrating, and making media. I hope the documentary will challenge people to think about the role of their own activism and action in the media age.
September 17, 2007
July 16, 2007. It has been a really great first week. I have been editing with concentration and fervor helped and abetted by the Wexner’s master editor, Paul Hill. We’ve made huge headway, primarily humanizing the piece by adding more of me. And letting me take some of the emotional slack. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to put in more of Antonia’s amazing optimism and energy, as the story had become more and more about how she was captured by the intrigue of the limelight, and less and less about how she continued to do the hard work of being smart and on and present and committed even for that short while when she also though the book might become a bestseller.
While I am certain I will finish the film, and assured that it will be better then when I came, and close to all I want to say, my real fear at this stage is that I am not a powerful enough artist to kick it up to that final stage that this work deserves. And, of course, this is linked to SCALE because while I have always chosen for my work to remain small, primarily out of theoretical and political and artistic commitments to what happens when real people make small work about and within communities they belong, I have also not expanded my scale because I gave up on the endless exhaustion and humiliation of fund-raising, pitching, and altering my work and self to fill other’s agendas. And then, frankly, as much as I have resisted this waste of time, pulling me from the issue at hand and the pleasure of working, I’ve never been that good or capable at the pitch, the schmoozing. I get self-conscious and embarrassed. I’d rather be aloof, outside this humiliating economy. Finally, there’s always the strong possibility that I can’t get funding—slogging away at grant apps, floundering at meetings with commissioning officers—because I’m just not really good enough.
While my world view—that everyone can and should be able to express their ideas about themselves and their world—supports that everyone, including me, deserves the grace of self-expression, I do also believe in innate talent. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Self-trained in video; never a “real” artist; I hit against a wall that is my innate creativity (or lack thereof), often. Also, of course, I’m too intellectual to be a good artist. And probably too dogmatic, and out of touch with regular Americans, not to mention disdainful of the media traditions that make most people comfortable. I’ve sat here in the small mostly because it’s where I should be: reaching the audience to whom I can speak, a limited crowd interested in the ideas and values that concern me which include
-the relevance of small, personal work and activism and the real voices of real people not pundits
-the fact that getting bigger corrupts, exhausts, and punishes and that staying small allows for an attention to inter-personal ethics
-and the fact that these ideas seem hopelessly out-dated, some kind of nostalgic homage to a ’60s that was never this good anyways, and are downright ineffective against the new kinds of fast, huge, networks of corporate power that rule us.
September 15, 2007
“The real crime of representation is representation itself.”
David MacDougall, ethnographic filmmaker
Media presentation on YouTube must be attentive to the ethics and power inherent in all acts of representation. Given the bounded terms of YouTube’s corporate ownership, and highly structured platform, communal authoring is possible but rarely taken advantage of while communal consumption is almost absent, by definition. Without community, there is no need or possibility for ethics, which are central to media praxis.