Learning From YouTube: An Interview with Alex Juhasz (Part One)

What does it mean to learn from YouTube and what would it mean to treat YouTube itself as a platform for instruction and critique?

Alex Juhasz taught a course about YouTube last term at Pizer College, a small liberal arts school in California. As she explains below, Juhasz and her students adopted novel strategies for not simply engaging with YouTube content but also for using the YouTube platform to communicate their findings to a world beyond the classroom. In doing so, they took risks — inviting outside scrutiny of their classroom activities, bringing down skepticism and scorn from many in the mainstream media which itself plays such a central role in the cycle of self promotion and publicity which surrounds the platform and its content. They became part of the phenomenon they were studying — for better or for worse.

Earlier this month, I served as a respondent on a panel at USC’s 24/7 DIY Video Event on a panel during which Juhasz shared her experiences. I felt that both her pedagogical approach and her critical perspective on Youtube would be of interest to readers of this blog. I should warn you that Alex Juhasz comes at these questions from a very different perspective than I do. For those used to my blatherings about the virtues of participatory culture, you will find her skepticism about much of the content on YouTube a bit bracing. But she raises many of the concerns which we will need to address if we are to achieve a truly participatory culture. Over the next two installments, she raises important questions about whether a participatory platform necessarily insures diverse, meaningful, or innovative content. Juhasz approaches YouTube from the perspective of someone who usually writes about independent, avant garde, and documentary film practices, from someone who speaks from the vantage point of an activism and an experimental filmmaker. She is reading YouTube against both the goals and the accomplishments of other movements to foster greater democracy through media production and finds YouTube lacking in many regards.

Be sure to try out some of the links here. Many of them will take you to work that Juhasz and her students have produced for distribution on YouTube. These videos offer some interesting model for the forms that critique might take in this new media environment.

What can you tell us about how you approached the challenges of teaching a course about YouTube? What methods of analysis did you apply to its content? How did you select which materials to examine given the vast scope and diversity of Youtube’s content?

I decided to teach a course about YouTube to better understand this recent and massive media/cultural phenomenon, given that I had been studiously ignoring it (even as I recognized its significance) because every time I went there, I was seriously underwhelmed by what I saw: interchangeable, bite-sized, formulaic videos referring either to popular culture or personal pain/pleasure. I called them video slogans (in my blog where I engage in reflections on YouTube and other political media): pithy, precise, rousing calls to action or consumption, or action as consumption (especially given how much on the site is made by or refers to corporate media). I was certain, however, that there must be video, in this vast sea, that would satisfy even my lofty standards (although search words couldn’t get me to it), and figured my students (given their greater facility with a life-on-line) probably knew better than I how to navigate the site, and better live and work with this recently expanding access to moving and networked images.

Thus, Learning From YouTube was my first truly “student led” course: we would determine the important themes and relevant methods of study together. I had decided that I wanted the course to primarily consider how web 2.0 (in this case, specifically YouTube) is radically altering the conditions of learning (what, where, when, how we have access to information). Given that college students are rarely asked to consider the meta-questions of how they learn, on top of what they are learning, I thought it would be pedagogically useful for the form of the course to mirror YouTube’s structures for learning–one of the primary being user, or amateur-led pedagogy. So, the course was student-led, as well as being amorphous in structure within a small set of constraints, for this reason of mirroring, as well. As is true on YouTube, where there is a great deal of user control within a limited but highly limiting set of tools, I set forth a few constraints, the most significant being the rule that all the learning for the course had to be on and about YouTube (unless a majority of the class voted to go off, which we eventually did for the final). While this constraint was clearly artificial, and perhaps misleading about how YouTube is actually used in connection with a host of other media platforms which complement its functionality (which is really nothing more than a massive, easy to use if barely searchable, repository for moving images), it did allow us to really see its architecture, again, something that the average student would not typically be asked to account for as part of the content of a course. Thus, all assignments had to be produced as YouTube comments or videos, all research had to be conducted within its pages, and all classes were taped and put on to YouTube. This immediately made apparent how privacy typically functions within the (elite liberal arts) classroom setting, because YouTube forced us to consider what results when our work and learning is public. This produced several negative results including students dropping the class who either did not want to be watched as they snoozed or participated in the class; or did not want their class-work to be scrutinized by an unknown and often unfriendly public. Furthermore, students realized how well trained they actually are to do academic work with the word — their expertise — and how poor is their media-production literacy (there were no media production skills required for the course as there are not on YouTube). It is hard to get a paper into 500 characters, and translating it into 10 minutes of video demands real skills in creative translation of word to image, sound, and media-layers.

This is all to say that the methods and materials for the course were selected by the students, who were forced by me to be atypically creative and responsible, and that they ended up inventing or recycling a wide range of methodology for academic research and “writing.” Surprisingly, the themes of the course ended up quite coherent: looking first at the forms, content of videos (see research projects and mid-terms), then the function of popularity (see popularity projects), and finally the structures of the site (see finals). Furthermore, and quite impressively given their lack of skills and deep initial qualms, the students devised a series of methods to do academic assignments in the form of video. I would briefly characterize these styles of work as: word-reliant, the illustrated summary, and the YouTube hack, where academic content is wedged into a standard YouTube vernacular (music video, How To, or advertisement).

Finally, it seems important for me, at this earliest stage in the interview (and I hope this will not alienate some of your readership), to identify myself as someone with a very limited interest in mainstream or popular culture, even as I am aware and supportive of the kinds of work you and your readers have done about the complex and compelling (re)uses of dominant forms. While I, too, focus on the liberating potentials of people’s expanded access to media, I have specialized in (and made) alternative media connected to the goals and theories of social movements. This is a lengthy, and formative history within the media (what I call Media Praxis) that includes some of the best media ever made, like early soviet cinema, Third Cinema, feminist film, AIDS activist video, and a great deal of new media. I continue to be concerned about why I am not seeing more on the site that is influenced by, and furthering this tradition, and my orientation in the course was to push the students to consider why serious, non-industrial, political uses of the media were not better modeled or supported on the site. Another way to say this is through a concern I have articulated about the current use of the term “DIY.” I think it is being used to identify the recent condition of massive user access to production and distribution of media. My concern is that the counter-cultural, anti-normative, critical, or political impulses behind the term (as it came out of punk, for instance), drop out of the picture–just as they do in most DIY YouTube video–when access to technology occurs outside other liberating forces. I believe that for engagements with the media to be truly transformative, the fact of expanded access to its production and exhibition is only one in a set of necessary conditions that also include a critique, a goal, a community, and a context. I’ll get to more about this in my later answers, but one of my great fears about YouTube is that it consolidates media action to the video production and consumption of the individual (this, of course, being a corporate imperative, as YouTube needs to get individual eyeballs to ads).

You also sought to use Youtube itself as a platform for pedagogy. What limitations did you discover about Youtube as a vehicle for critique and analysis?

My hope that the students would be able to see and name the limits of this site as a place for higher education were quickly met. By the mid-term, we could effectively articulate what the site was not doing for us. Our main criticisms came around these four structural limitations: communication, community, research, and idea-building. We found the site to inexcusably poor at:

  • allowing for lengthy, linked, synchronous conversation using the written word outside the degenerated standards of many on-line exchanges where slurs, phrases, and inanities stand-in for dialogue.
  • creating possibilities for communal exchange and interaction (note the extremely limited functionality of YouTube’s group pages, where we tried our best to organize our class work and lines of conversation), including the ability to maintain and experience communally permanent maps of viewing experiences.
  • finding pertinent materials: the paucity of its search function, currently managed by users who create the tags for searching, means it is difficult to thoroughly search the massive holdings of the site. For YouTube to work for academic learning, it needs some highly trained archivists and librarians to systematically sort, name, and index its materials.
  • linking video, and ideas, so that concepts, communities and conversation can grow. It is a hallmark of the academic experience to carefully study, cite, and incrementally build an argument. This is impossible on YouTube.

Given that the site is owned by Google, a huge, skilled, and wealthy corporation, and that all these functionalities are easily accessible on other web-sites, we were forced to quickly ask: why do they not want us to do these things on this particular, highly popular, and effective site? This is how we deduced that the site is primarily organized around and effective at the entertainment of the individual. YouTube betters older entertainment models in that it is mobile, largely user-controlled, and much of its content is user-generated (although a significant amount is not, especially if you count user-generated content that simply replays, or re-cuts, or re-makes corporate media without that DIY value of critique). The nature of this entertainment is not unique to YouTube (in fact much of its content comes from other platforms) but it certainly effectively consolidates methods from earlier forms, in particular those of humor, spectacle, and self-referentiality. As YouTube delivers fast, fun, video that is easy to understand and easy to get, it efficiently delivers hungry eyeballs to its advertisers. It need provide no other services. In fact, an expanded range of functions would probably get in the way of the quick, fluid movement from video to video, page to page, that defines YouTube viewing. Of course, this manner of watching bests older models of eyeball-delivery, which is not to even mention that users also rank materials, readily providing advertisers useful marketing and consumption information.

Your course drew the interest of the mass media. In what way did this media coverage distort or simplify your goals as a teacher? What advice might you offer to other educators who found themselves caught up in a similar media storm?

The mainstream media attention served as a huge distraction and energy-drain for the course, while also being highly informative about one of the main functionalities of YouTube: popularity/celebrity. I must admit, it was downright baffling to me how my students initially could not seem to see the systems of popularity or celebrity as constructed, as made to keep them distracted. No matter how I approached it, they would only understand the concept, “you do something to get more hits, to be seen by more people and become more famous,” as innately and inherently true, the reason to be on YouTube, the reason of YouTube. When our pretty massive visibility led to prying cameras that took up a lot of classroom space and time, but never bothered to see or understand our project with any depth, and a media culture that ridiculed us without interviewing us, the idea of celebrity as an unquestionable good in itself was easily cracked open for the students. I must also add here that we were handled with much more sophistication in the blogisphere.

As for advice: I learned I’m glad I am a professor and not a pundit because I do best when I can talk in length, in context, and in conversation. While I’ve been critiquing YouTube for its inadequacies in these respects, mainstream television and radio pale in comparison, and remind us about how YouTube really does differ from these earlier corporate models. Outside innate skill, hiring a handler, or wasting all your time memorizing and practicing blurbs, I am not certain how a garden-variety professor like myself could make mainstream media attention really work for her.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz, Professor of Media Studies, Pitzer College, teaches video production and film and video theory. She has a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from NYU and has taught courses at NYU, Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr College, Claremont Graduate University, and Pitzer College, on women and film, feminist film, and women’s documentary. Dr. Juhasz has written multiple articles on feminist and AIDS documentary.

Dr. Juhasz produced the feature film, The Watermelon Woman, as well as nearly fifteen educational documentaries on feminist issues like teenage sexuality, AIDS, and sex education.

Her first book, AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1996) is about the contributions of low-end video production to political organizing and individual and community growth.

Her second book is the transcribed interviews from her documentary about feminist film history, Women of Vision, with accompanying introductions (Minnesota University Press).

Her third book, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited with Jess Lerner, is recently out from University of MN Press. She is currently completing her first “book” on the web, Media Praxis: A Radical Web-Site Integrating Theory, Practice and Politics.