At last the tours are through! While I found them increasingly tedious, they did prove a useful exercise in that I made some sense of the hundreds of videos my class produced (and from these tours I am going to teach Learning from Learning from YouTube in fall 2008, stay tuned), and I got to organize my thoughts thematically. So, I end with the failures of YouTube’s archive and how this structures its problems with community.

Importantly, the architecture and ownership of YouTube draw users by fueling their desire for community. While many come to the site to be seen and heard by others, to make friends, they are much better served by the world, or MySpace. For, the very tools and structures for community-building which are hallmarks of web 2.o (or a library or classroom)–those which link, gather, index, search, version, allow participation, commenting, and networking–are studiously refused on the site, even as it remains the poster-child of web 2.0. People go elsewhere for these functions, dragging their favorite YouTube videos with them to more hospitable platforms (with YouTube’s permission).

YouTube is a site to upload, store (and move off) videos. The very paucity of its other functions feeds its primary purpose: moving users’ eyeballs aimlessly and without direction, scheme, or map, across its unparalleled archive of moving images. YouTube is a mess: videos are hard to find, easy to misname, and quick to lose. While it’s users would certainly be aided by a good archivist, the site signals to us in its conscientious failings that it is not a place to hunker down or hang out with others, not a place within which to seriously research or study, not a place for anything but solo-play. Enjoy!

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.

YouTube Tour #1: Education

February 5, 2008

Today, I posted my first “tour” of the work and lessons-learned by the Learning from YouTube class.

I will try to post one per week, with accompanying blogs, for the next 8 weeks, resulting in 9 tours on: education, entertainment, popularity, vernacular, visual, user, owner, community and archive.

It took me awhile to decide how I’d like to present the many things I think we learned during that hectic semester, and I was pleased when I remembered the “tour” method, one we had devised during the semester to try to work YouTube against itself by creating a linked, sharable, and repeatable path, with associated comments, through its chaos. It seemed right to “publish” my results on YouTube, continuing to hack and use its forms to hold our analytical content and designs; to continue to use it to speak to, and about itself.

Attempting to present my analysis of the site on its pages, rather than, say, in those of an academic venue, demanded profound changes in the nature of my work, as a media scholar and educator that, as ever, prove telling about the workings of YouTube. The key differences were a matter of: time and brevity, vernacular, audience, professional standards, and language.

In brief, time is of the essence on YouTube. As I made the video for my tour, and the tour itself, I was hyper-aware that I needed to keep cutting, condensing, summarizing, and simplifying to speak effectively on YouTube (to keep the attention of its distractable, easily bored, viewer), which of course, is also a major part of its vernacular: there is a premium put on ease and efficiency, condensation and simplification. Where as my students are forced to hear me speak, or at least pretend to, the YouTube viewer must want to stay there because of my media skills, useful information, because I entertain her. A language of bullets: quick, exciting, and mobile. And here I would also add, the necssity for non-specialist language, so as to be heard effectively, which gets me to audience, for I assume a general and diverse audience on YouTube, one I do not imagine on this page, and one that has no relation to who reads me in academic journals. I can count on no shared references or lingo, other than that of popular culture, which diminishes the complexity of my thoughts even as it expands their reach. Unlike a classroom, where one speaks to undergraduates equally unschooled in scholarly discourse, but where you can and work to school them and together grow a shared language, the scattered, random nature of YouTube’s viewership demands that one always stays at the basic level, never giving the audience an opportunity to grow its vocabulary.

On a different note, the systems of proof and authority are diametrically different on YouTube from those of academia. My proof on YouTube is always another video, any video. Its existence, and mine, on YouTube’s pages gives us as much and no more authority than any other user, that is, of course, unless we have the power of numbers, glorious hits, on our side. Academic writing, on the other hand, also relies upon the affirmation of outside voices, however, what differentiates these voices is that they are accredited (through the systems of veting of publishing and other forms of accredidation) and that their arguments build relationally, one argument building slowly, and in dialogue with a tradition rather than the piecemeal character of the solo rant, or private confession, of YouTube.

Clearly, these reflections make me sound a snob, and not the proponent I have always been of a democratization of access to and discourses about the media. However, expanded access can not itself be a stand alone only goal, as I believe my remarks above attest. Access to media production, and dissemination, needs to be accompanied with the tools that allow for the growing complexity of discourse: and these are quite simply the capacities to work together and to learn from what has been done before. I speak about these ideas in greater length, and through scholarly discourse, as a “real academic talk” stuck on YouTube here:

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.


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.

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.