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

Yesterday, I ran the first installment of a two part interview with filmmaker, activist, and cultural critic Alex Juhasz. In the first part, we focused primarily on a course she taught this fall on YouTube, describing some of the pedagogical issues she encountered, and some of the ways her course got distorted through mass media coverage. Today, she is focusing more fully on some of her concerns about profoundly “undemocratic” aspects of YouTube, concerns which her teaching experience brought into sharper focus. While Juhasz and I start from very different perspectives, I see her critique as a valuable starting point for a conversation about the ways that YouTube does or does not achieve our highest goals for a more diverse and participatory culture.

You’ve expressed concerns about the blurring between education and entertainment in the Youtube environment. What concerns does this pose for you?

We are clearly living in a time where conventionalized methods must be re-thought because of the increased functions of the media. Teaching and learning are two conventions that will adapt in the face of web 2.0. Now, I’ve been an advocate of critical pedagogy my entire career as a professor. In particular, I have been keen on refiguring power, expertise, and objectivity in the classroom attempting instead to create more collaborative, imaginative pedagogic interactions where there is a self-awareness about how embedded structures of power (race, class, gender, age, expertise) organize classroom participation, and access to learning. That said, while trying to learn through YouTube, there were significant challenges posed to the traditions of teaching that both my students and I experienced as obstacles. So maybe I’m not as radical as I pretend!

Before I enumerate these, I would beg your readers to consider whether these are hold outs to a lost and dying tradition, and good riddance (as some of my students believe), or whether there are certain tried and true approaches that were developed and nuanced over time because they work: methods of teaching and learning we don’t want to lose even as technology brings us new possibilities.

We found that just what defined YouTube as good entertainment — its compelling lack of depth and expertise, and its all but disappeared procedures of coherence, order, and forced attention — made it poor for education. Of the many surprises and challenges of this class, it was most dumbfounding for me to find how resistant my students were to the loss of discipline, authority, and structure in the classroom. They hated the amount of process this demanded; disliked that I wouldn’t just tell them stuff; were reluctant to do course work in a new format in which they lacked training; and generally wanted me to take control so that they could attend to other things and know what they needed to do to satisfy me.

Why, we might ask, do they enjoy the aimlessness and devaluing of authority on YouTube, but still want it in their education, even as any student would say, in a heartbeat, that they wish school was less boring, more fun, more entertaining? We found that the rigorous, controlled, contained, and rationale argument is key to learning; not the flow, but the building of knowledge. Meanwhile, ease of acquisition, while comforting, and perhaps numbing, to my mind can never meet the sheer joy of a challenge, and the prize of the steady, often communal and hard work of growing complexity. While its nice to wast time on YouTube, people want to get something (hard) from a class!

Your students pointed towards a fairly limited range of representations of race and gender in YouTube content. Why might such stereotypes persist in what is in theory an open and participatory channel? More generally, what factors do you think limits the cultural and ideological diversity of current digital culture?

I ended up learning a lot from this class (particularly from its unique YouTube-like structure) and even more from its students (which is where I started, I did believe correctly that on this subject they could educate me). Their keen observations about the down-side to user control were a revelation to me, lefty media activist, who has made a career around expanding media access. YouTube uses its users for almost everything: they create content, sort it, judge it, and censor it, all the while producing the revenue which runs the company by producing both its content and its consumers. There are incredible opportunities this affords us as a society: primarily unparalleled access to the thoughts, experiences, interests and documents of the daily life of real people, as they wish to be seen and heard. However, two other key results are less beneficial, especially if we want to think of YouTube as a democratic commons, which is certainly how it sees itself and is broadly understood. First is the idea of mob-rule, and how it functions for censoring.

Currently, on YouTube, if a few people flag a video as being objectionable, down it may go, within an opaque system and with no recourse. My students have learned that controversial opinions, outside the norms of the society, are often so flagged and censored. This is not a commons, where everyone has a right to a voice.

Furthermore, my students found that the system of user-ranking, or popularity, has the effect where normative or hegemonic ideas rise to the top of YouTube. The society’s already accepted opinions about race, or politics, are most highly valued, receive the most hits, and thus are the easiest to see.

Meanwhile, there is a lively world, just under the surface on YouTube, where opinions counter, or critical, to those of the mainstream are articulated. However, given that the search function relies first upon popularity, this niche-tube is hard to locate, and is currently playing a small role in the conventionalizing standards of this new form. As I’ve said before, access is only one part of an equation of liberation. In this case, I’d highlight education in media literacy, aesthetics, theory and history as equally formative.

Many critics have praised the role of confessional video in the hands of feminist and avant garde filmmakers (the works of Sadie Benning for example) yet you seemed critical of the ways that this mode gets deployed on YouTube. What differences do you see between the two?

Patty Zimmerman’s Reel Families traces the various factors which have historically turned amateur media content into “home movies,” locked away in the domestic sphere, ridiculed as uninteresting to anyone beyond the immediate family. Whatever else one may say about Youtube, however, it has

brought amateur media content into broader public visibility, allowing it to circulate well beyond its communities of origin and in ways that allow greater control for contributors than found in, say, America’s Funniest Home Videos, an outlet Zimmerman ridiculed. Would you agree?

These two questions are closely linked in my mind. Of course I agree that YouTube has opened access to video production and distribution, and that many of these newly allowed videos appear in either the home or confessional mode (a sub-set of the YouTube staple, the talking-head or rant). But this is where my particular project interfaces with, or perhaps veers from, that of the study or use of the home movie (or mundane, or DIY media) rather than the activist or art video. I am less interested in the fact of who produces, as much as I am how she does so and in what context. I am most interested in media cultures that allow regular people not simply to document their lived experience, not merely to reflect their experience through and to the norms and values of the dominant culture, but to create art and/or opinions about their lives and culture, in the name of a stated goal (of world or self-changing), and to an intended community.