In a move of admirable self-criticism—one I feel sympathetic to as myself a card-carrying member of the American critical new media left—danah boyd asks “did media literacy backfire?”

“Addressing so-called fake news is going to require a lot more than labeling. It’s going to require a cultural change about how we make sense of information, whom we trust, and how we understand our own role in grappling with information. Quick and easy solutions may make the controversy go away, but they won’t address the underlying problems. What is Truth?”

boyd continues:

“The path forward is hazy. We need to enable people to hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated  —  and in many ways, overwhelming  —  information landscape. We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches because the societal context has shifted. We also cannot simply assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us, whether they be traditional news media or social media. We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines”

For More:

MOOCing the Prison?

February 20, 2014

My last post, MOOCing the Liberal Arts? concluded with this suggestion: “For those of us in higher education, including our students, our work is to provide MOOC alternatives by using technology, and other means, to improve what we do and to open access to what we have.”

Today, along with four of my students and a visiting scholar, Gabrielle Foreman, we taught our first of seven classes on Technology at the Norco prison. A little background: our class is one of many being offered through the PEP program (Prison Education Program), run through the visionary leadership of Dr. Renford Reese at Cal Poly Pomona. “The overarching philosophy of PEP is to use the resources in the backyard of each of the state’s prisons to make change e.g. university student and faculty volunteers. There is a college within a 15-20 mile radius of each of the state’s 33 prisons. PEP’s goal is to collaborate with these colleges to assist the CDCR in reducing recidivism in the state by 1% by 2015.” Our class “Technology in Prison,” is a seminar connected to the yearly speaker’s series that I run as director of the Munroe Center for Social Inquiry at Pitzer, this year’s theme being Technology. For seven weeks, some of my speakers and students from the seminar will move our inquiry in place to see how our conversations change, and expand, when engaged with a student population denied access to most of the (digital) technologies that those of us on the outside now take for granted.

But back to my opening remarks about MOOCs. Our class today, a conversation at the highest-level with seventeen eager, intelligent, and open inmates had NOT ONE THING of a MOOC in its infrastructure. While we had paper, the pencils had disappeared; there is no access to the Internet in this classroom; and while we did have several photographs of the work of Dave”The Potter” Drake approved for Dr. Foreman’s use, they also had not materialized by class time. While more technologies could have enhanced our opportunities, we did just fine without them (although, our students hastened to remind us that we did have chairs, and lights, and our own bodies, minds, and will as our quite supportive technological infrastructure.)


As Dr. Foreman explained, Dave the Potter used clay, glaze, tools, his hands, his words, and his many intellectual and political desires, within a system of brutal confinement where both his literacy and his relationship to the market economy were both illegal, and successfully engaged in expressive technologies from which we continue to learn today. So, too, did our students, today, knowing as we did technology through our conversations and community with no need for bigger (massive), even as desire for (more) access was uncontainable. As we struggled to define technology in a space where access to much of (modern, digital) technology was prohibited, we expressed that the tools that we might make, and that just as well might make us, are also only as principled as the humans who desire and engage them. And thus, we did not and can and need not MOOC the prison.

I posted my second tour today, on entertainment on YouTube.

(note the goofy performance: trying to be lively…YouTube entertainment does rely on quality performance)

This was the first thing we learned in the class: while it wasn’t any good for education, YouTube is killer for entertainment, fun, wasting time. The nature of its successful entertainment is not much different from what audiences loved before it, in fact, a considerable amount of its video is made by media professionals, crossing platforms legally or through the work of a fan: TV shows, music videos, bands performing live, commercials. What differs most is platform and duration: YouTube as at-home or mobile, viewer-controlled delivery system of delectable media morsels.

I would suggest that YouTube entertainment relies upon, integrates and condenses three effective stylistics from previous media—humor, spectacle, and self-referentiality—to create a new kind of video organized by ease, plenitude, convenience, and speed (this does sound like a TV commercial, I know). The signature YouTube video is easy to get, in both senses of the word: simple to understand, an idea reduced to an icon or gag, while also being painless to get to. Both spectacle and self-referentiality are key to this staple ease: a visual or aural sensation (crash, breast, celebrity’s face, signature beat, extreme talent, pathos) often being the iconic center, or totality, of a video (spectacle), or an already recognizable bite of media holding the same function (self-referentiality): understandable in a heartbeat, knowable without thinking, this is media already encrusted with social meaning or feeling. YouTube videos are often about YouTube videos which are most often about popular culture. They steal, parody, mash, and re-work recognizable forms, thus maintaining standard styles and tastes. Thus, humor enters through parody, the play on an already recognizable form, or slap-stick, a category of spectacle. (Interestingly, spectacle and humor were definitive of early cinema, the devolping use of this new medium that also spoke across class and continent, in a simplistic visual lingua franca. However, typically, ironic self-referentiality is understood about an art-form in its later or last stages.)

The entertainment of YouTube creates a postmodern TV of distraction, where discrete bites of cinema controlled and seen by the discrete eye of one viewer are linked intuitively, randomly, or through systems of popularity, in an endless chain of immediate but forgettable gratification that can only be satisfied by another video. I imagine that this must inevitably lead to two unpleasant, if still entertaining, outcomes: distraction forecloses action, and surface fun precludes depth.

If YouTube videos (and I am reflecting primarily on the dominant or conventional uses of the medium), or the site itself, are to be used for anything other than blind and numbing entertainment (and certainly on niche-tube, this is happening with some [small] success: more on this forthcoming in later posts), it is critical that the language of YouTube develops to include context, history, theory, and community, and by this I mean both the architecture of the site and the form of the videos theselves. At the 24/7 A DYI Video Summit that I attended last week at USC, the media activists on my panel wanted to discuss just this (new) state of affairs. Certainly more people are making and viewing media, access to channels of production and distribution are rapidly growing to an almost incomprehensible scale. However, even the most moving of videos needs to be connected to something (other than another short video)–people, community, ideas, other videos to which it has a coherent link–if it is to create action over distraction, knowledge instead of free-floating-info-zaps.

You may be wondering what I make of the “entertainment” value of millions of unique regular people speaking about their lives, and to each other, in talking-head close-ups (the style I use). While in every way a statement against corporate media, I would suggest that humor (self-mocking, irony), spectacle (of authenticity, of pathos, of individuality), and self-referentiality (to the vernacular of YouTube) also combine to create the entertainment value of this staple form, these “bad” videos. But I’ll hold on this for later posts.

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.”

As I built the fist tour, on education, I was working from an outline I had created for a talk (which will, in fact, be the tour) that I am slated to present this Friday, at USC’s DIY Summit (proposal below). To move these ideas from the academic page to YouTube, I did two things: I quoted my own words directly as comments on the videos I selected (working against the standard form of the YouTube comment: LOL!, loved the video):

1: Maia plays with the destablization of the aural/visual binary by using her well-written words in a self-consciously “bad” video (it rolls too fast; it has no images) to illustrate the decline of the word on YouTube, and yet, how we still rely upon and need words, in long-form, within higher education.

2. Dan pushes us to consider what we might gain from, and how we need to approach, the waning of the strength of the entertainment/education binary. On YouTube, learning comes best from speed, summary, repetition, humor, and the popular.

3. Ben celebrates YouTube’s “limitless supply of knowledge.” Signature YouTube, he cynically but comically parodies this newly available library of the inane and private, while displaying what results when the binaries of public/private and expert/amateur are undone. YouTube does humor, sincerity, the democratization of voice, and the increased access to an immense archive of moving images and viewpoints really well. But none of these are particularly conducive for higher learning.

4. Delaine’s self-referential performance, as is true for many successful YouTube videos, does and shows the thing itself, in this case the unsettled and unsettling separation of the Aural from the Visual, the Cyber from the Real.

5 Sonya performs a new mode of viewing the same old popular culture. Now, YouTube uses its users to create banal content, self-censorship, and ad revenue providing in return a postmodern television/townsquare whose corporate ownership promotes dominant culture, while forecloseing complex conversation and sustained community in favor of the aimless, disoriented pleasures of the individual (eyeball) or ear.

6. Salim, and his partners in crime, contribute another self-referential video about and formed by YouTube videos about and formed by popular culture, where critique is not popular. Like all the videos in this tour, it is “bad,” at least by the standards of film school. YouTube demands and creates new video standards based upon brevity, consolidation, humor, self-reference, and popular opinion.

And I summarized (always the summary…) in the video I created to begin the tour:

That’s the beginning of the tour. The whole thing takes 20 minutes.

And here’s is what I said I’d cover when I proposed my talk to my fellow panelists via email:

“YouTube is not a successful educational site or site for education.

While many things work well on the site–entertainment, humor, sincerity, viewer control, viewer’s ability to gain voice, increased access to images, and immensity of offerings–none of these are particularly conducive for higher learning. Meanwhile, the site inadequately provides many of the elements most critical for critical pedagogy: the ability to search, link, comment, version, use written language or long-form, and particularly to connect across texts or individuals so as to build and maintain ideas and community. YouTube uses its users to create content, self-censorship, and ad revenue providing in return a postmodern television/townsquare whose corporate ownership forecloses complex conversation and sustained community in favor of the aimless, disoriented pleasures of the individual (eyeball). While my students learned to hack YouTube by reformatting its standard forms to hold academic content, we are certain its best pedagogic use is in tandem with other digital and non-digital resources. This said, using YouTube as a learning platform/subject did allow us to see exciting if destabilizling tensions between several dyads which are usually kept in better isolation within more standard sites and forms of pedagogy: public/private, aural/visual, reality/cyber, entertainment/education, amateur/expert, control/chaos. While interesting to observe, each of these destablizations made the course hard to teach, and the content difficult to learn. The course begs us to consider what education will/does/should look like as it becomes a more public, corporate, digital, amateur-created, but uncontrolled form of entertainment.”

Perhaps I’ll reflect on what worked and what did not after I present at USC on Friday.

So, after the class decided to study “popularity” on YouTube–my students making an end-run on my best intentions for the course (which were to hi-jack YouTube to make it work against itself by making it “educate”) by re-routing our attention back to what they really want from YouTube–we created an assignment, or contest really, where the student(s) who could make the most popular video, the one with the most hits in two weeks, would win a prize (an automatic A on the final). With a few notable exceptions, the videos are god-awful re-hashes of paltry popular culture. A few, the highest rated among them, are stolen music videos, re-uploaded. All the entries make use of erroneous or titillating titles, tags, and thumbnails mixed with ripped-off mainstream songs, artists, and images to make uninspiring, insipid, and inarticulate blips into the digi-sphere. Not that I blame them, they have studied YouTube seriously, and this is what they have learned works best on its pages.

Meanwhile, the very atmosphere of the classroom has begun to reflect not the (slightly more) studious air we had exhibited for the first half of the semester, but rather has become a fun free-for-all, where laughs, comraderie, and playfulness define our interaction. We get little done, learn less then we did before, and have a good time at it. Once again, the course well reflects what we are learning about digital learning and culture. We have often tried to parse out the differences between entertainment and education, and this section has been helpful at that.

So, interestingly, the class decided today that we’d had enough of the fun. The students’ best intentions seem caught between their interest in learning (the old or real way) and the fun they seem to have with popular culture and this inventive class that mirrors or remarks upon it.

For me, the few weeks we’ve spent thinking about popularity (something that has held little interest for me since Junior High when I chose against my feminist mom’s best intentions to be a cheerleader) has merely confirmed my worst estimations of YouTube, and the generation that loves it. It will be interesting to see what they wish to learn in our final weeks.


Chicago SCALE Roundtable

November 5, 2007

Two weeks ago, we held a summit on the organizing and distribution possibilities of my documentary, SCALE, generously sponsored by a Chicago feminist media and arts organization and attended by a stellar group of hand-picked women activists, scholars, and organizers. I haven’t been able to write about it until this late date because this was a difficult meeting for me. This is not to say that the participants were un-supportive; they were not. But it is clear that SCALE was, for this group at least, not the “activist film” I had imagined or they had desired. The women in the room expressed that they need from documentary just what my sister has wanted throughout this process (and what she has insisted “activists” would want as well): either an in-depth portrait of the activist, Antonia (how she got there, how she stays there, what she fights for, how she does it), or an illustrated version of her book: a film as easier-to-understand condensation of her critically important ideas, first articulated in words, now in images and with emotion. I will attest that this activist film, the one mine is not, is important, and needed, just not the one I set out to, or even am capable to make. This would be a film that would feed and sustain people who are already working against the war and the Bush Agenda and who need more information, already working and need a pep-talk, already activists and need to see more like themselves on the screen for self-sustaining purposes.

The women in the room were uncomfortable with, or uninterested in the film’s sister-tension (the personal nature of the drama) and self-reflection (its focus on the media rather than Antonia’s ideas as expressed through the media). My departures from Antonia’s ideas were understood to be overly “theoretical,” “abstract,” or “obscure.” Complicatedly, however, it is the documentary’s self-reflexive quality about the state of the left, in relation to media, activism, organizing, and the relations between the personal and the political, which most seems to impress those who are moved by the film. This satisfied viewership understands the film as “activist” in how it allows us to see and talk about the left, activism, and the media with a new formal and verbal vocabulary (that of SCALE).
Which is all to say, that the workshop, although of course personally painful for me, was incredibly illuminating both about the film (how and for who it functions), and about a deep, abiding and defining split within the left about the best form and function of information, action, images and ideas in our media age. If you hate the film, you probably believe that direct action and organizing are what matters if we are ever going to make a change in this society; and if you love the film you are probably less convinced that such actions continue to matter, as you are also self-consciously debating where power lies in a society where individual action seems to have been subsumed by corporate control and media, and what that leaves as a possibility for you to do… Is the left best served by simply doing more stuff, louder, more effectively or does the left need to re-group, re-consider, and talk amongst ourselves about what has and has not worked, and what will and will not work as the conditions of power continue to change?

Are pep-talks, feeling good, and getting smarter the only way to inspire activism, or could activism come from self-scrutiny and uncertainty? Does navel-gazing waste our precious time? What do we gain and lose when we don’t speak directly, supplying much-needed information, but rather talk about the state of information itself? What is the use for formal and intellectual complexity about our current state when the current state is itself so bad?