Mid-way through the semester, and I’m pleased to report how much we’ve actually learned, albeit experientially, through doing (and not doing) while stuck in all that is powerful and inane on YouTube. Every failure has been a learning experience, although organized by frustration and felt within contained chaos. Of course, I set out to run this class so that such failures would help make clear the costs (and benefits) of our rapid, giddy acceptance of new digital environments without a concurrent set of criticisms and demands about best practices for making use of this most democratic distributor, platform, and archive of moving images.

And now, just 6 weeks in, the criticisms are being well made: about public scrutiny and the ridicule of the mainstream media (leading to analysis of the role of fame and celebrity in YouTube culture); the disruptive additions of hundreds of non-class videos and comments on our class-site (leading to analysis about the making-public of the once-private on YouTube); our inability to interact in real-time, in a central space, and the site’s other weaknesses around finding and linking material (leading to analysis about what is intentionally not-well-made on a site that functions very well for the relay of entertainment); and a more keen awareness of how censorship and corporations function well on the site while community and art do not. We’ve also deduced that there are two YouTubes: the mainstream one made and maintained by Google and millions of users out to waste some time, and the innumerable experiments in form, content, behavior, and community that fall outside the logic of entertainment, advertisements, popular culture, hits, numbers, and favorites. See one and the other becomes less visible; ask a question of the other and learn little of use to understand the first. Our class falls into the second category: unseen by most, unattended to by the site’s architecture and poorly supported, barely getting by but learning nevertheless.

All this has contributed to the class’s clarity about YouTube’s ineffectual structure for higher learning even as it does other things well. In an attempt to mirror the architecture of YouTube, this “student-led” course, open to user-created flexibility and innovation, is still organized by my friendly but controlling vision and parameters. And from this controlled chaos the strengths and limitations of contemporary learning occuring digitally, publicly, visually, and in corporate-owned environments is being lived and then theorized through this doing. The students have posted their first research projects as well as mid-terms about what they’ve learned: they are systematically naming the structures, methods, limits and strengths of YouTube just as they are beginning to master its language, which is to say, we’re beginning to see a variety of strategies towards the illustrated lecture. Pressing the students to express critical content through short videos that use YouTube’s vernacular has proved to be one of the real successes of the experiment, as it is clear that over the next few years they will inhabit a culture where rich and necessary communication will occur visually, as well through the written word. They’re taking preliminary steps towards complex uses of this form of communication. Although the students had a variety of production skills going into the class (as is true for YouTubers as a whole), half-way through the class they have hacked the YouTube video to express complicated analyses of YouTube itself.

And from their work I have learned, too. About teaching, primarily. I have found that seven binaries are being disturbed during this pedagogic experiment, leading to unsettling and mostly non-productive alterations in the ways that we have typically taught and learned in higher education: public/private; amateur/expert; democratic/corporate; structured/anarchic; community/individual; entertainment/occupation; flow/depth. I hope to discuss the difficulties for teaching inspired by these up-ended binaries in later posts.
But for now, I need to attend to the more urgent fact that I am uncertain where we are going to go and what we are going to do. This is a scary time for me, as the professor, in and out of control, with students who want and yet disdain discipline (in pursuit, they say, of “fun” but ever fearful of grades), and with primarily failure as our guide. The 2nd half of the class is intentionally and completely unscripted. I expect we will choose to go off YouTube, to do some traditional research and learning, bring in specialists, read some post-modern and new media theory, turn it into a more regular class where “real” or let’s say, more traditional learning can occur. But some of the students have begged us to stick out the experiment, to consider and propose better practices for what learning in and through corporate-controlled entertainment might look like.

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On YouTube

October 10, 2007

We held our first class on-line, off-classroom, on YouTube, on Tuesday. What a failure! And it’s YouTube’s fault… The comments function on the site is neither real-time or synchronous (like a chat room) nor fully outside time or asynchronous (like email), which creates a sort of deadening clunk when you post: it’ll come up soon, but who knows when, or who will read it. Also, given that the site is organized around distraction and a bonanza of moving-image riches always at your fingertips and dancing on the edge of the screen but outside your control, there was no way to be certain anyone from the class was at any of the 8 videos we were attending to at any particular time, which left me feeling isolated, even as I knew they were (most likely) there. Furthermore, without the disciplining function of the space of the classroom, I felt certain that most of the students did the bare minimum, posting their assigned two questions and then going on to play frisbee (or watch frisbee videos on YouTube), while the few actually committed participants, enjoyed the experience, were annoyed by it, and learned much from the clunkiness of the process. Now, varying levels of commitment define the “real” classroom environment as well. Not every one attends (in the sense that some miss class, and many who are there may as well not be). However, the sense of having no responsibility to this community defined the YouTube class, whereas even the least attentive of students performs the moves of community engagement when held together in a physical space. This question of discipline in the classroom, and education generally, has been raised often in the class (as students demand more discipline–or structure–even as I remind them that they are participating in their own censure); and the undisciplined nature of YouTube, its inability to provide structures, clear links, group spaces, really any kind of coherence, is its biggest fault, at least for on-line learning. Finally, while the students have certainly been pushing the form to engage in sophisticated expression and real dialogue, I find the level of interaction on YouTube to be paltry in relation to what occurs in a “real” classroom. This may be because in a shared physical space I moderate, and sometimes lead, because my presence makes the students amp up the wattage, or because the nature of the group itself in real time and space pushes people to perform. The laziness of the comments (and even videos) on YouTube including my own, points at a level of conversation supported by and conventionalizing in this environment that may well serve YouTube’s purposes but do not those of higher education.

I began my research into YouTube faulting it as a site for the building and maintaining of community and the failures of our class cement this observation.

FOX it is and FOX is it

September 21, 2007

I went to bed last night exhausted, relieved and resolute. I had survived one week in the media limelight and it was over, ending on a mid-note with my mediocre performance on CNN (see youtube.com/mediapraxisme). At last I could return to my life as teacher, scholar, and documentary-maker, speaking in a language I know to people who talk as I do and who really want to be having this conversation. I was glad enough it had happened because it was a really great learning experience about both SCALE and YouTube. Living it confirmed much I already knew, although of course until the lived experience I knew this only theoretically: for me, it is preferable to speak to people I can see and who can reply, people I know share a discourse and values about American and media culture, and in a context where ideas can be exchanged and knowledge and feeling can grow. While I am certain that there is real value in amping SCALE through numbers, exposure, reaching out, simplifying while staying honest, and speaking to people who are not yet exposed to one’s concerns or approaches, I learned last week that I am not the person to do that. The attention makes me feel self-conscious and self-critical; not to mention I spent a significant portion of last week with my stomach-clenched (not pleasant); I was distracted from the things that really matter to me (my teaching, friends, family, and intellectual and political work); and I refused reducing my thoughts to pre-orchestrated but effective sound-bites. I just don’t want to talk that way (note rambling and repetition here!), so in the end, I’m just not that good at it.

And then FOX emailed this morning. And I decided quickly… no. No more fear; no more second-guessing myself; no more wasting my time on something that proves at once inconsequential and stressful to me. But then, of course, finally… yes. I started this thing: it’s my responsibility; if I won’t stand up to say why I’m attending critically if playfully to YouTube, who will? My students? The blogisphere? That’s not fair. So, I must play the media professor, maker and scholar who wants to think about using this sudden expansion of access to media production and distribution to do better what media has always done: to try to enrich and change the lives of individuals and community, self and world. And this I will say, as best I can, and as me, when they ask me to speak, and I hope I can stay focused, and I hope I can keep on mark. I can only do my best, but I shouldn’t run away. And that’s my last post on celebrity and YouTube even if I continue to have to play this game for the time being.

On YouTube Celebrity and SCALE

September 15, 2007

An article about my class ended up on the AP wire and less then 24 hours later, I’ve done or scheduled 10 print and radio interviews, including a visit from CNN to my class scheduled for next week. It’s been on the local news in Florida, on my sister’s elevator in NY, and in the Herald International Tribune. It’s all over the web; can’t track it. Heart-pounding, adrenaline rushing, I’ve been able to do nothing else all day but worry about how I represent myself, my ideas, my course through a mainstream media which does not usually talk my language or acknowledge my concerns, given their erudite nature and political leanings (see my blog!). But reporters have been polite and intelligent, I’m an expert after all, a PhD; as have I. Why?

I knew that the form, and even content, of Learning from YouTube would be sexy, getable, marketable but I did not know what that would mean for me. Most strikingly, it has made me engage in thoughts of self-censorship (whether I will follow through or not is another matter), where I worry that the radical nature of my work will disallow me to be taken seriously, thus closing down channels before they open, and minimizing my credibility, as well as the more general and less ideological intellectual ideas raised.

But beyond this, given that my documentary, “SCALE: Ending the Bush Agenda in the Media Age,” is all about celebrity, and the power of not being known while still doing good work, and the left’s inability to successfully think through how or why to use the media machine as a way towards power and change, it seems downright ridiculous that I’m suddenly having just such a moment after having determined that the nature and focus of my work would, by definition, keep it small, intimate, in my control, and as radical as am I.

At the end of the film, I ask my sister why she never got on the morning talk shows, and she suggests that it is because she is “too left and also too right, too correct.” So, why am I being invited? I’m not too left and also not too right? That sounds correct to me. How am I being seen and used? And what can I make if this access, if anything?

Learning from YouTube

September 7, 2007

I am teaching an experimental class on/about YouTube this semester.

After two class sessions I realize this course is going to be really fun and super hard, challenging me as a professor in new ways that I am unaccustomed to. Let’s start with the press, the numbers, and the public nature of the course (all related). After the first course, I was interviewed for an article about the course for “Issues in Higher Education” which came out before the second class, where there were two journalists and a photographer attending. This, added to the fact that we tape and put on YouTube each class, and that I had learned that people actually were watching these classes, led me to be self-conscious to a degree I am usually not when I teach. Typically, over an hour of teaching you hit some high notes, make a few blunders, and otherwise get through. You’re human, and undergraduates are your witness. During our second class, the issues got serious and complex quickly, primarily concerning the ubiquitous representations of race and racism on YouTube and in our class (and this is good) but I was self-conscious about how my colleagues would view the way I didn’t hit gold in the live processing of these complex ideas. The self-consciousness slowed down my thinking and so on and so forth. Now the class is about, among other things, issues of privacy and access in higher education. And while I’m committed to what it means to open access to my class, it now seems clear to me that it limits my teaching (and perhaps my students’ learning, in that they are equally self-conscious).

Numbers (hits to the page keep doubling) also add a weird and unwieldy stress to my teaching, and the course. Yes, they are informative about the logic of YouTube, but ultimately invasive. As is simply managing the outside communication this brings (emails, letters, requests) that expand the demands on me from my 30 enrolled students to anyone interested.

I am also concerned that the experimental nature of the class (largely student led and limited to YouTube for all coursework–assignments and research) is going to make our work much harder, and my chances of failing much larger. It was exciting to see that in the second class, and with only the most superficial of assignments, the students were already touching on many of the BIG IDEAS about YouTube and digital culture: its postmodern reliance on humor, celebrity, and referentiality to mainstream culture; its democratic function as soap box for the talent/opinions/expression of regular people; its mind-numbing, time-wasting superficiality; the raucous and unruly nature of conversation it produces. My challenge will be to work with the class to hone, focus, and systematize such conversations given that we can not refer to other scholarly works, and given that I have ceded a certain amount of real control to them. How will I guide the conversation ways scholarly and rigorous given that our frame and guide is not?

Frankly, I’m not certain, now that we’re doing it, that there’s enough to do or know about YouTube (given Youtube as the tight structure for gaining such knowledge) to sustain a course. While I’ve succeeded in developing a structure that models the content I seek, I am not certain we need 15 weeks to figure this out.