The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part One)

Tessa Jolls has been a long-time advocate of media literacy education in the United States and around the world. I was honored to be able to attend an event last year at which she was presented with the Jessie McCanse Award from the National Telemedium Council in recognition of her lifetime commitment to fostering media literacy. Jolls was one of the very first media literacy advocates to welcome me to the field and to rally behind the work of our New Media Literacies initiative. Since 1999, she has been the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, where she has pushed hard to develop some shared principles and core questions that might inform a diverse array of media literacy initiatives, and where has shown consistent flexibility and vision in redefining media literacy for the 21st century.

Thus, I was troubled when she told me that she was seeing the Media Literacy movement and the Digital Media and Learning communities talking past each other, often failing to recognize and grab onto moments of potential collaboration. We decided it would be helpful to have a public conversation together which explored some of these issues. Our hope in doing so is that we can expand this discussion to include other media literacy/DML leaders and find ways to be more effective at working together around common concerns.

Across this five part exchange, we talk through core assumptions guiding our work, including dealing with the relationship between research, pedagogy, and practice, the importance of construction and representation as concepts in media literacy work, and how media literacy principles do or do not change as they confront new technologies and new environments. We both throw ourselves — heart and mind — into these e-mail exchanges this summer and we both learned plenty in the process.

 

Henry: When I and other researchers from MIT wrote the 2006 white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, we were very aware of building on the foundations of the Media Literacy movement as it had taken shape in North America over the prior several decades.

 

We made a number of gestures across the paper, which were intended to pay tribute to what had been accomplished, to signal the continuities as well as differences  our vision for the “new media literacies.” For example, early in the paper, we emphasized that the newer skills and competencies we were identifying built on the foundation of traditional print-based literacies, core research skills, core technical skills, and media literacies. We wrote, “As media literacy advocates have claimed during the past several decades, students also must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world; the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated; the motives and goals that shape the media they consume; and alternative practices that operate outside the commercial mainstream….What we are calling here the new media literacies should be taken as an expansion of, rather than a substitution for, the mass media literacies.” (20).

 

Later, in the document, we do challenge whether some of the core frameworks of the media literacy movement have been adequately framed to acknowledge and take account of instances where young people are themselves producing and circulating media, rather than consuming media produced by others, but these were intended as fairly local critiques in recognition of the need to continually re-appraise and reframe our tools to reflect new developments and new contexts. This same passage flags what we saw as some of the core virtues of those same conceptual frameworks: “There is much to praise in these questions: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context; they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended; they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation; they are not tied up with a language of victimization….One of the biggest contributions of the media literacy movement has been this focus on inquiry, identifying key questions that can be asked of a broad range of different media forms and experiences.” (59)

 

If we flash forward to the current moment, it seems that there remain many mutual misunderstandings between advocates for media literacy (who come from these rich traditions) and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.

 

I am hoping we can use this conversation as a means of clearing the air and clarifying our mutual perspectives around these topics. I had felt at the time and rereading it now, I still feel, that it was very clear in signaling my enormous respect for all who have come before in promoting media literacy and Tessa, you have been an early and key supporter of my efforts. So, it troubles me to hear of some of the misperceptions you’ve encountered. Can you share with us some of the things that concern you?

 

Tessa:  I remember well the excitement that I felt when you published your white paper in 2006 (Confronting the Challenge of Participative Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century) — it was (and is!) a profound and significant examination of the new media emerging from the technology advances of our time, and a document that contributed great advances to understanding media literacy skills needed in our society.   Personally, I’ve always embraced your work because I see the added-value to the field and how it builds upon and is compatible with what has come before, and I’ve been puzzled as to why there seem to be rifts when it is far more beneficial to acknowledge our commonality and to leverage it to gain traction in the bigger world of education. Now is an excellent time to reflect and to see “where we are now” and where we might go.

 

I agree with you, that there are mutual misunderstandings between media literacy advocates who have long practiced in the field and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.  Maybe part of the friction comes simply from the words “new media literacies.”  By definition, what is not new is now old — and in our society, being “old” is often considered neither attractive nor cutting edge nor fashionable nor relevant.  But we need to continue to challenge and confront.   When you issued your white paper, It was like you were the town crier shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”  Yes, the internet had arrived, along with (and these were cited in the report) Friendster, Facebook, MySpace, message boards, metagaming or game clans…Twitter was yet to come, as well as Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram and and and….

 

But in response to your challenge — beyond a small group of media literacy advocates and academic researchers and some concerned parents — most people in the education world particularly were saying “Why should we fight? and  “If it’s so important, where are all the troops?”  Thankfully, the fear surrounding using the internet, the need for tools of discernment — and the genuine opportunities that the internet and social media present to empower people — have helped instill in the public more of a sense of urgency that has propelled renewed interest in media literacy education.

 

BUT because media literacy education has been ignored and neglected in schools through the years, there was no foundation laid for why media literacy is important, for its foundational concepts and for how to deliver the pedagogy (more on the foundation needed later).  There were few if any troops to call on to be able to deliver media literacy education — very few had been taught, and no one could then teach it on the mass scale that is needed.  And efforts to penetrate the education system in the U.S. meet with resistance since the system itself is based on a 20th century approach emphasizing content knowledge over process skills and a factory model that is incompatible with the collaborative networks and new curricular approaches needed today.

 

One response to the frustrations of dealing with the education system was — and is — to put technology in the hands of the youth and have faith that they will figure it all out.   Using the technology approach, the iPhone is the “school” and anyone who uses it adeptly is the master and anyone over 30 is, well, handicapped at best.   New technologies enable this approach because now, hardware and software are available and production has been democratized — everyone is a producer, a collaborator, a distributor and a participant.  While experiential and project-based learning is truly exciting and an important component of media literacy, it is not synonymous because the outcome of the technology approach is often limited to technical proficiency without critical autonomy. Whether using an iPad, a pencil or a videocam, pressing the right buttons is important but not enough!   This is where many media literacy advocates, including myself, feel that the train has left the station because some researchers, educators and parents, too, think that just learning to use the technology is enough (they probably don’t know about or have access to  alternatives) and they pursue technology projects with no credible media literacy components.

 

Henry: What’s in a name? Nothing but headaches, it would seem.

 

MacArthur was pretty committed to the phrase, New Media Literacies, so we worked hard to try to figure out what kind of meaning to attach to it. We grappled with the issue of whether the emphasis should be the New Media Literacies, the New Media Literacies, or the New Media Literacies. I did want to signal continuities with the Media Literacy movement, so it did not seem altogether a problematic term, but I was also worried about the connotations you describe here. This is one reason why I was so explicit that we were not leaving behind traditional literacies, media literacy, research skills, or technical skills, but that what we were describing were an added layer or an extension of each that now needed to be factored into our consideration of what an ideal curriculum looked like. I did not want to imply that these skills were entirely new — many were things we should have and some of us had been teaching all along — nor were they exclusively about new media per se. We’ve always insisted that these were not technical skills but rather social skills and cultural competencies, and that these were things that can be taught in low tech or no tech ways (and should be, rather than waiting for low income schools to catch up in terms of their technical infrastructure before introducing these literacies into the curriculum.) Despite having spent much of my career at MIT, I have worked hard to avoid any and all forms of technological determinism.

 

Still, there’s some power to attaching yourself to the digital revolution rhetoric (as well as many pitfalls) insofar as it provides some urgency to the message, but ultimately I frame these skills in relation to the idea of a participatory culture rather than in terms of digital change. This is also why I have had reservations all along about MacArthur’s phrase, Digital Media and Learning, since it implies that we are interested only or exclusively in digital media, and that has never been my focus. Keep in mind both that I wrote the white paper in the wake of writing Convergence Culture, which was all about “Where old and new media collide,” and that it emerged from the context of the Comparative Media Studies program, which studied the interplay across media. We find that when we do workshops for teachers and students, they often anticipate that technologies are going to be much more central to our work than they are. Our first task is always to achieve that shift from a focus on technologies to a focus on culture.

 

I share your concern that in many cases, we are now bringing technologies into the classroom as if doing so would substitute for a more comprehensive approach to media literacy. As Liz Losh notes in her recent book, the focus on technology turns media education into something that can be sold — like getting whole school districts to buy iPads — and can be purchased from the school budget, rather than something which as the white paper suggests, should require a fundamental paradigm shift in the ways we teach all school subjects.

 

That said, I got into some trouble with the original white paper in reducing the rich kinds of conceptual models that surround, say, the Computer Club House movement to purely technical skills comparable to penmanship.  (Sorry Mitch) Most of the work which gets presented at the DML conference is about the fusion of hands-on technical processes, whether tied to hacking, games-based learning, the Maker movement, etc., with rich conceptual frameworks which are intended to allow people to understand at a deeper level how the constraints and affordances of digital media impact the world around us. To me, this is a kind of media literacy, though less tied to notions of representation or messaging than previous kinds of media literacy work has promoted. If one does not displace the other, they certainly can co-exist within a more comprehensive model which considers the nature of platforms and programming alongside the questions about who produces which representations for which audiences with which motives. 

In many ways, what we were trying to do with the white paper was to build a coalition which would include people interested in engaging with new media platforms and practices, people committed to promoting media literacy, and teachers seeking new ways to animate the teaching of their disciplines. Where our work has been successful, we have brought together these interests. Such an approach has tended as you suggest here to pull media literacy advocates into more active engagement with notions of media change and new technologies, but it also has the intent to draw people who want to teach using new technology to confront the participation gap, the transparency issues, and the ethical challenges we identify in the white paper and through doing so, to pull media literacy more actively into their teaching practice.

 

MORE TO COME

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a monthly newsletter publication. During her tenure at CML, she restructured the organization to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs.

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Educational Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part One)

On paper, Elizabeth Losh and I can sometimes look like polar opposites: she’s definitely much more of a skeptic, much more rooted in the Critical Studies side of Rhetoric,  more likely to point to issues of corporate exploitation and government manipulation, than I am. Indeed, when we appeared together a few years back at the Mobility Shifts conference at the New School of Social Research, for what was billed as debate, Losh’s partner created two sets of race car jackets for us, demarking Team Critical Studies and Team Cultural Studies, so we could perform the culture wars which sometimes divide these frames of reference.

In practice, where education is concerned, we both end up somewhere much closer to each other, as we’ve discovered to our delight since I have moved to California and gotten to know her and her work much better. She’s someone who works closely with classroom teachers and has a firm belief in the importance of public education, someone who is invested in debunking corporate claims about new tools and platforms in favor of promoting forms of education which allow more expressive freedom and creative participation for students, and someone who is ultimately a pragmatist in terms of trying to figure out how we can change the current system from within rather than engaging in rhetoric about blowing up the schools and starting over.

We’ve written a piece together about the challenges of bringing participatory culture and learning into the schools, and so I was excited when I saw that she had a new book coming out on education to grab another chance for us to talk together about some of these mutual concerns and interests. Her new book, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, comes out in just a few more days and deals with the ways that new media is having an impact (real and imagined) on higher education.

Losh draws here on her own classroom experiences as someone who is constantly experimenting with new teaching methods and cutting edge toolkits, but she also looks at a range of national controversies and alternative imaginings (Project Runway!) through which we can think about what the university classroom might become. She examines all of these topics with the critical eye of a trained rhetorician, debunking many myths and false claims, but also articulating some ideals we as pedagogues and mentors should embrace if we are serious about making our classrooms into more participatory environments.

Here’s what I say in the blurb I wrote for the book: “Elizabeth Losh’s The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students.”

I meant it!

Throughout the book, you challenge some of the rhetorics which are used to describe the introduction of new technologies into the classroom. What would the Rhetorician Liz Losh have to say about the author Elizabeth Losh’s use of “war” as the central metaphor in her book’s title?

As a rhetorician, I am always interested in how people use language to characterize different aspects of public policy debates.  Using “war” in the title – along with “gaining ground” in the subtitle – to characterize how social computing is disrupting higher education was a very deliberate choice.  When I started to look at how faculty (and the media) talked about using instructional technology systems like Turnitin.com to monitor plagiarism in student writing, words like “weapons” and “arsenal” began to jump out at me, and I started to notice how much of our discourse about these issues is driven by military metaphors, either because we needed to stage a revolution in the university or because we need to defend our battlements against uncouth invaders. Well, we all know how the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” turned out, so I also wanted to make clear that adopting either a strategy of command and control or one of mob rule wouldn’t take us very far.

I also wanted to make learning the focus of my intervention.  So it’s really two titles: it’s about the “war on formal learning” coming from social media and other distributed knowledge dissemination systems and about the “war on informal learning” being waged by campus administrators who don’t want students subverting or gaming the system.

I proposed a book that would be a “scholarly polemic,” and then I found in writing it that my engagement with this subject matter – as an instructor myself – is much less abstract and more personal and more complicated than the binaries of an antagonistic argument, so there are also a lot of my own stories about negotiating conflict in the classroom or the lecture hall or the residence hall.  I claim that far too often people assume that a radical generational division between the “digital generation” and everyone else makes communication between students and faculty impossible when technology is involved.  Certainly the traditional system of disciplining students isn’t well suited for some of these emergent phenomena.  And then there is the weird fact that some of this conflict may even be manufactured by interested parties with an agenda for sowing discord.  Some of the most dramatic scenes of conflict – such as viral videos of professors destroying laptops or cell phones – are actually staged.

 

You begin the book by identifying some common mistakes or misunderstandings that often shape digital learning initiatives. What do you think we most often get wrong when universities seek to bring new media technologies and practices into higher education?

 

As I say in the opening, the material features – as well as the human aspects of technology that involve standards or values or design choices – are frequently underestimated, so that people have very idealized conceptions about technology in which technology exists without the mess that seems to compromise and contaminate everything else in the world.  Technology is presented as something that manifests itself as a liberating force that is characterized by its youth and radical novelty, and it isn’t supposed to be constrained by physical barriers or historical baggage.

Most famously Nicholas Negroponte, of One-Laptop-Per-Child fame, spent significant time in Being Digital differentiating between “bits” and “atoms.”  Of course Matt Kirschenbaum loves to point out that computational media depend on material components and that you can actually see bits on a surface of a hard drive.  (I also like how Paul Dourish points out that digital signals have signatures that are actually a lot less mathematically perfect, because they always depend on technology that is analog at some level.)

So universities tend to assume that digital technologies only involve shiny new gadgets combined with intellectual property – pure code to be licensed from vendors – and not physical property that institutions have to continue to maintain with labor.  Because technologies are always new we also don’t have to think about them aging or dying or about things like the infrastructure needed for support.

I particularly love the assertion that technologies are inevitably labor-saving devices and that teaching online or with a course management system will always reduce labor so that teachers can teach more efficiently.  Part of this is a mistake about misunderstanding the nature of pedagogical labor and the assumption that the affective labor of managing students’ feelings doesn’t matter because teaching is simply a logical process of transferring content from one party to another that process can be divorced from emotions or conceptions about one’s identity.

I say all this as a technophile, as someone who loves experimenting with new technologies in my teaching, as a person actively involved with initiatives like Digital Media and Learning Central, Reclaim Open Learning and FemTechNet.

 

You direct many of the book’s strongest criticisms against the “acceptance of shortsighted commodity solutions from corporate vendors.” Why do you think such “solutions” have gained such a toe-hold in the modern university and what are the consequences of thinking about digital media and learning in terms of products and services? Do such practices further a tendency to think of education in terms of consumption rather than participation?

Well, we live in a commodity culture, and I tend to be a pragmatist about how much the university can really transform our society by reshaping the individuals who participate in higher education.  In education-speak we talk about the “zone of proximal development” that describes the area of activity where intervention is most effective and the process of trying to meet people near to where they are as learners.  I might argue that the same principle holds true when we talk about a politics of public resources and common values.

The tendency to think about students as consumers that we want to keep happy with dazzling media or brand-named stuff is certainly understandable, because unhappy students might become unhappy alumni who won’t be very likely to become generous donors.  Gadget-distribution programs, such as handing out an iPad to every registered student, make for good headlines . . . until things begin to go wrong, as they did rather spectacularly for the Los Angeles Unified School District that will probably never recoup its investment.

I am often astonished at how naïve administrators can be and how susceptible to pseudo-scientific pitches from instructional technology companies with as much research to support them as a typical soda commercial.  I actually think the best strategy is to play the capitalist and to appeal to the logic of consumption by at least arguing for lower cost solutions. The thing that I find most exasperating is that treating the educational enterprise as a marketplace for experiencing high-tech goods and services is that it is really prohibitively expensive.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part Two)

You place a strong emphasis throughout the book on video-making as a space of learning. What do you see young videomakers learning and how/where are they learning it? Pushing this further, are there things that you and they value which they would not and could not learn through formal schooling? If so, what? Does most of the learning involve the process of producing media or is there something important about the act of posting and circulating this media to a larger public?

 

I found that on YouTube, kids learned a lot by messing around with cameras and engaging in projects that were organically interesting to them. Kids learned many different things from participating. By participating with their advanced amateur friends, sometimes less experienced kids learned about the basic technical principles of filmmaking, including the narrative strategies and technical aesthetics that are often used in mainstream films to tell stories.

Teens also reported developing more self-confidence by seeing themselves on video, and finding acceptance with the way others see them. The video gave them a self-recognition that they did not have prior to making the media. On the other end of the spectrum, technically oriented kids also learned things about leadership and teamwork, and what it means to motivate people, even when they are not as motivated to complete a task such as a video.

Several of the kids and teens whom I interviewed were home-schooled, and there seemed to be something beneficial about being able to organize their time in ways that carved out spaces for time-intensive exploration of digital activities such as making videos.

Although much of the discourse around informal learning casts it in opposition to formal schooling, I found that some kids actually got started because their teachers offered video as a possibility for them as an assignment. In some cases they were struggling with more traditional writing assignments, and the video option opened up important opportunities for self-expression.

These examples illustrate that informal learning does not have to be in competition with what happens in schools. But having open spaces of time—which is often difficult to provide in a regular curriculum—did seem to have benefits for learning time-consuming digital skills.

Informal learning is not a panacea. Sometimes kids found that they were the digital experts in their local schools and communities, which made it difficult to improve without connecting to larger audiences. Michelle Obama talks about “food deserts” to describe isolated areas that lack access to healthy food. We might adapt this term to talk  about “digital literacy deserts” where the people around kids who are interested in video are frankly are not going to make good mentors. On the flip side, going online often means risk, and encountering “haters”, cruelty from peers at school, as well as more serious threats.

One solution is a “walled garden” approach in which kids limit circulation of their work to limited audiences, say at school or in a neighborhood only.

Yet, whenever the topic of “walled gardens” comes up, die-hard technologists often cringe. The Internet was supposed to be a place where people could circulate and share ideas to inspire forms of collective intelligence. That idea gets defeated when people who are rightly concerned about bullying feel discouraged about posting their ideas and videos. But the fact is that many kids felt a soaring sense of inspiration when strangers whom they didn’t know offered advice or even just kind words of encouragement. For some kids, this encouragement was profoundly uplifting and even served to drown out the “haters.”

One problem that I see is that much research on online participation is conducted and critiqued from a synchronic perspective. For example, a website may be analyzed for its potential for say, civic engagement. If inane comments outweigh positive feedback, then the website is judged as forever useless, or so goes an extreme form of this argument. But this is a myopic, synchronic approach.

Why not take the approach that people could be trained to make better commentary online, and to handle even harsh criticism? School can supplement informal learning by teaching kids how to provide meaningful commentary in online sites. Classroom exercises could include ways to learn how to comment and present oneself online. Processes of informal learning and formal education should not be considered in opposition but rather should be in dialogue to raise the bar across the board when it comes to online digital media production and participation.

 

Several recent books have stressed the ways that especially for young girls, YouTube’s practices tend to re-enforce traditional gender roles, with even very young women getting assessed in terms of beauty and fashion rather than other aspects of their identity. Yet, your research also considers the ways that they are acquiring a sense of themselves as “tech savvy” through the process of producing and circulating videos. How might we think about the relationship between these two dimensions of what it means for a teenage girl to post a video online?

Projects that investigate how femininity or girlhood is interactively constructed online and through media are very important. Investigating such subjects will no doubt continue to yield important insights. However, moving forward I think it is important to focus more direct attention on how girls develop technical identities and skills. We need to correct a contemporary research imbalance that has been concerned with how femininity  intersects with other identity variables such as race and class.

While these subjects are important, it is vital that we understand the similarities as well as the differences between males’ and females’ sense of technical identity. I found that girls and boys share certain ideas about what it means to be technical. If we want to understand what it means to perform technical affiliation, then we need to acknowledge and understand similarities as well as differences.

Rather than assume that the central issue in developing a technologized identity is how this affects girls’ femininity, we need to analyze how a technologized identity is achieved across different groups. We need to explore how girls come to achieve pride in their technical accomplishments, not because they are girls but because they have mastered important skills as technologists.

Technological identity should be studied as a variable in its own right, rather than examined just in terms of how it interacts with other variables. Interactions between identity variables such as sex, gender, race, class, and technological ability should certainly be studied, especially when there are disparities that are inhibiting technical skill acquisition. It is important to know for example, how class affects acquisition of everyday technical skills as well as mastery of arcane technical knowledge.

But before we assume that class or any other traditional identity will be the most important factor, scholars need to approach technical identity development in a more open ended way; we need to see exactly how it is that technical identities are acquired and how they unfold. For example, many of the people whom I interviewed for my book were not particularly well off, but they nevertheless held very strong ideas about what constitutes appropriate technical skills and identity characteristics.

Although class may well be a barrier in many situations, this does not mean that class or any other identity factor will automatically drive a person’s image of their own technical persona. People across class may share certain values about being technical, such as the importance of being “self-taught.” More attention should be paid to how girls attain and achieve a sense of pride in mastering technical ideas, devices, and systems rather than only analyzing what participation online means for the construction of their “femininity.” Continuing to focus on the femininity angle risks reifying this topic as the only or most important aspect of a girl’s identity, when in fact, technological skills and mastery are also an important part of growing up.

 

We are both very interested in the role which these production practices play in the formation and expression of youth’s identities as citizens and activists. You cite examples of youth who are using these platforms to speak out about issues that concern them on all levels — from the hyperlocal to the global. What factors shape which youth are drawn towards these kinds of political expression? Are these the “usual suspects,” i.e. the kids who would become political no matter what or are there signs that these practices are increasing social engagement and political awareness for youth who might not otherwise think of themselves as activists or investigators?

The wonderful thing about media and video is that people who enjoy experimenting can try out different genres. Most kids whom I interviewed exhibited mediated dispositions that showed a preference for certain genres over others, and only a few of them engaged in civically-oriented videos. But even these modest examples showed budding signs of interest in participating in civic discourse.

The kids whom I profiled found a way in to this space through their organic interests in making videos for YouTube. It allowed them to test out their voice as part of their everyday interests in being part of a film club or video blogging.

I am currently analyzing rant videos, and I am finding that civic engagement can be found in the smallest of places. When people complain, they are often engaging in discourse about problems of collective interest, and anyone has the potential to do that. People often fault video makers for being narcissistic about complaining about problems; but many of these problems are not unique. Video makers are complaining about things that may even seem intractable, like the high cost of college education. In these kinds of cases, kids are articulating much larger problems that should receive attention.

Moving forward, it is important for educators, policy makers, and scholars to recognize and mine what I would call “civic moments” in which kids provide information about or critique collective issues. These civic moments may be buried in a variety of genres in which kids talk about their lives and discuss issues that appeal to much larger collectives. We need to find ways to nurture these civic moments in video, and peer-to-peer mentorship may or may not always provide the kind of encouragement they need.

If kids are not being encouraged by their age-level peers (some of whom are not pre-disposed to following such “geeky” topics), adults and other mentors can provide the perspective and experience to develop these skills. The key will be to keep kids involved in a sustained and life-long way. It is one thing to experiment with a video blog or a mash-up that has civic appeal, but what happens later?

These civic moments should not be taken lightly. I think the potential for being political or at least civically-minded is latent in everyone. Studies have shown in the past that a big reason for people’s lack of participation has been because no one asked. So we need to ask. We need to build on the kind of organic explorations of civic participation that appear in my book and other studies and find ways to keep kids tuned in to a civic frequency.

 Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part One)

Not long after I launched this blog, I featured an interview with Mimi Ito and the graduate students from USC and Berkeley who worked with her on the Digital Youth Project. One of the first projects funded by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative, this project did a large scale,multi-site ethnography to try to understand mechanisms of informal learning and the contexts where young people were encountering digital media. From this research came the now classic typography of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” to describe different modes of engagement in and through networked technologies, a framework which has now informed everything from the design of public libraries to the development of curriculum.

Looking retrospectively, Ito and her co-P.I., the late Peter Lyman, had assembled and shaped a team of some of the top digital scholars of their generation, as becomes clearer as they have begun to publish their solo works. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know many of them through their work on this project and to have maintain contact with them through the years, watching them develop their own distinctive strands of research.

Later this month, Patricia Lange, one member of the Digital Youth team, publishes her first solo book,  Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies. I recall having her interview me for her video blog after one of my very first meetings with this group; she later shared with me a rough cut of a documentary she produced about the culture of video-blogging, and more recently, she’s shared drafts of the chapters for what has become an outstanding book about how childhood and parenting is playing out differently in an era of video sharing and other forms of participatory culture.

Patricia Lange’s Kids on YouTube raises important issues about the ways that our current participatory media practices intersect contemporary family life and help to shape the ways that young people form their sense of themselves and the world around them. Through vividly drawn accounts of the roles which media-making and sharing plays in the lives of particular families, Lange convincingly demonstrates why these activities matter in terms of fostering new literacies, enabling new social relationships, and sustaining new forms of civic engagement.

Lange has immersed herself into this culture of video production and sharing, asking core questions, and making contributions to central critical debates around participatory culture, connected learning, the risks and rewards of online publishing, the hacker ethos, gender and technology, and the development of young citizens, all of which she speaks to in the course of this extended interview.

 

We first met through your work on the Digital Youth Project. Looking backwards, this project’s report, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, has proven to be a landmark in the emergence of the Digital Media and Learning movement. Reflecting backwards, what do you see as the legacy of this project and what impact did it have on your own intellectual development?

The Digital Youth Project was a joint effort between teams of researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley who were interested in studying informal learning in digital environments. Participating in the Digital Youth project was truly an honor. I am deeply grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, and to Mimi Ito and Peter Lyman, whose vision about reformulating education through informal learning inspired the research. I think the Digital Youth Project reinforced the benefits of teamwork in conducting contemporary research in digital environments. The researchers came from many different backgrounds, and that brought advantages and challenges. But it was interesting to compare the findings of numerous projects operating under one research umbrella.

Media ecologies are complex and shifting, and it is instructive to know, are the findings gleaned by studying any particular set of technologies or websites limited to those sites, or are there patterns that reach across different theoretical lenses, methodological approaches, technological platforms, and research populations? This amazing project gave us the opportunity to explore those questions in a way that is more difficult when researchers are conducting separate projects on their own.

It was also quite exciting to see our research applied to the design of educational efforts such as the YOUmedia after school space in the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. Drawing on the findings of the Digital Youth report, the YOUmedia space acknowledges the way that youth engage in varied ways with media and technology.

Our report found that kids’ engagements range from casual, socially-motivated encounters to highly-geeked out ways of making media. Recent reports in the media seem unaware of how academics contribute to the design and improvement of everyday spaces and processes. I am proud of this implementation of our research and I am hopeful that these and other spaces that draw on our research may facilitate the kinds of educational change that many of us in the field of informal learning are trying to re-imagine.

The project began by focusing on the rubric of “digital youth.” At that time, it was obvious that kids and youth were growing up with a range of technologies that even the younger members of the team did not have access to in their own childhoods. However, as the project progressed and was completed, it became quite clear that “digital youth” were quite a varied bunch. Not all digital youth were created equally. While operating under this rubric, the research also simultaneously challenged it, which I think is also an important legacy of the project.

My project on YouTube pushed back on conceptions of “digital natives.” It became apparent that kids exhibited vastly different media dispositions with regard to how comfortable they felt sharing videos of themselves to the world. Further, my analysis of how people perform affiliation to technologies showed dramatic variation in terms of family background in technical expertise, kids’ interest in technology, and professional aspirations.

Terms such as “digital natives” imply that all kids are equally well versed in all technologies, and such was not the case in my study. In the same household, an older brother may be far more technically-oriented than a younger brother, and in some cases, it was technically savvy parents who encouraged kids to develop video blogging skills. Yet, not all kids adopted their parents’ enthusiasm for messing around with computers and creating videos. Some kids’ outright rejection of their parents’ video interests severely challenge the concept of kids’ digital autochthony. Not all kids emerge into the world ready to make videos in a seriously geeky way, and making that assumption is problematic for creating strategies to nurture diverse youth’s digital skills and interests.

I also observed bifurcated technological skills. Some kids even saw themselves as being so much more expert than some of their peers that it was difficult to mentor their less tech-savvy friends. They did not even share basic technical vocabulary, which led to a break down in informal learning opportunities. Wide gaps in technical abilities in kids urge us to question and challenge how ageist rubrics obscure the investigation of important nuances that could be instrumental in improving informal learning dynamics, which are not guaranteed to work simply because they occur among peers.

For me, one of legacies of the Digital Youth Project was to show the advantages of challenging and even pushing back on initial research rubrics, and questioning their assumptions. The project reinforced the idea that it is advantageous to ask critical questions about any research paradigm one is operating under at a given time. Rather than wait till the project is over, it is reasonable to keep an open-mind as research is being conducted. I believe the project models how it is possible and desirable to step back, even during the research process, and question a rubric while simultaneously contributing to it in a fundamental way. These kinds of self-reflective questions are challenging but ultimately healthy.

 

In your introduction, you challenge some of the established categories we use to talk about these forms of productions — including the notion of “amateur”, “grassroots,” and “Home Mode Media.” Instead, you propose a category of “personally expressive media.” What do you see as some of the limits of these more familiar categories? Why do you put such an emphasis on “personal expression”?

Years ago, Robert Stebbins (1980) wrote extensively about how “amateur” and “professional” categories are not as neatly divided as they are often assumed to be. Although he was writing generally about amateurism and professionalism and not media creation, his lessons apply in the video realm as well. We need to dust off our Stebbins and reacquaint ourselves with his ideas! Failure to do so risks aligning researchers with media discourses that seek to minimalize so-called “vernacular” accomplishments.

During my investigation, I saw a kaleidoscopic of media ontologies. In other words, videos came from many different people with a variety of backgrounds and skills. For example, I interviewed a former television producer, Ryanne Hodson, who was a champion of video blogging. She believed that making videos was another type of literacy that people should cultivate in order to spread their message. What status should her video blogs have?

She was quite literate in professional media production, but her personal blog was not operating in a professional context. She had control over her own video blog which was not produced under the auspices of traditional media institutions.

How should we categorize the work of teenagers whose family members had attended film school, or had family members who had a television show on a local cable access station? Are these creators operating in some kind of vernacular innocence? No they are not. I found that the amateur/professional divide became slippery and not particularly helpful for understanding people’s phenomenological experiences of their mediated moments of video creation.

“Home mode” is another category that is often misunderstood in research. When anthropologist Richard Chalfen (1987) initially introduced it, he was attempting to address a gap in the anthropological record on everyday media. Many people tend to wildly over-generalize anything they see on YouTube as “home mode,” because it was made at home or with friends. But home mode referred to a specific type of intimate media that was made for a relatively small group. People who made the media knew who were in the pictures and vice versa, generally speaking.

But examining his work more carefully shows that Chalfen bracketed out anyone who was trying to distribute his or her media to widespread audiences. He specifically stated that he was not interested in media created in camera clubs, or in academic settings, or by anyone else with aspirations to become more knowledgeable about making media. His research had an important theoretical purpose; it made sense to study everyday media makers at home who did not have professional or even advanced amateur aspirations.

But the people studied under the Digital Youth project, and in my study of Kids on YouTube varied tremendously with regard to their goals, skills, and what I refer to as their media dispositions. Some of them loved making videos with a passion, while others found it simply odd to make videos to show to the world. Some people may have captured home gaffes and put them online with the intention of becoming a YouTube partner and trying to make money with their “innocent” videos.

Rather than attempt to adjudicate complex questions of amateur/professional media ontologies using arbitrary criteria, I found it more useful to see this media as a form of personal expression that might shift status within and across attention and money-making economies. A video maker’s status might also depend upon their dispositions and future desires with what they hoped to gain by making media.

My research goal was to find some way of talking about media with complex or ever-shifting ontological statuses in ways that did not pre-judge videos. Such divisions are often used to minimize so-called vernacular abilities and elevate professional statuses, a binary discourse which simply does not theoretically hold when analyzing media made by so many different people, who often have direct experience of or are influenced by knowledgeable mentors in professional media-making contexts. Exploring how and to what degree people were able to develop skills to convey their personal message seemed to be a far more fruitful project.

 

 

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

“Engage!”: Reflections on My Public Intellectuals Class

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The cartoon above was created for the USC Annenberg Agenda, the newly revamped newsletter for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Jeremy Rosenberg, the school’s Assistant Dean for Public Affairs and Special Events, commissioned Chandler Wood, an LA-based comics artist, to sit in on several sessions of my Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice class and capture something of the spirit of our ongoing conversations. Wood was the author of Another LA Story, a comic which ran in the LAWeekly from 2005 to 2011. A storyboard artist and designer of many a commercial and the occasional film (most recently 47 Ronin), he is nearing completion of his first graphic novel, Tonight There’s Gonna Be a Jailbreak, co-authored with Darren Le Gallo. I thought he did a brilliant job in conveying something of the core of the class and capturing some aspects of my personality and persona. This is the first of what the school hopes will be an ongoing series of cartoons focused around some of the innovative teaching within the school.

If you’ve followed this blog, you already know about this class. You can find the syllabus here. And you may well have seen the series of blog posts my PhD students generated as part of the class activities (running between October 8 and October 28.

As I look back at my experiences teaching the class last term, I consider it one of my peak intellectual experiences in a classroom. This was an extraordinary group of students, who came from diverse backgrounds in Communication and Cinema Studies, and many of them came to the class with some practical experience at translating their ideas into language which might effectively reach some public beyond the academy. Some already had blogs, some had been journalists, some were already appearing on television interview programs, and some have worked on student radio. But, all of them grew enormously over the course of the semester as a result of paying close attention to issues of writing and self-presentation and especially in being reflective about their own goals and about what their desired public might expect from them. Some were studying and theorizing communication practices that they had not yet applied to their own work, and sometimes, they were struck by the contradictions between what they knew conceptually and what their reflexes were as a scholar in training. By the end, all of them seemed to have grown enormously — it is too easy to say they found their own voice, since most of them had a powerful voice before, but they learned to use their voice more effectively in the service of their personal and professional agendas.

I was struck by the urgency of the students’ desires to talk through these issues of “professional development” which extended beyond recommendations that grew out of the “publish or perish” tradition. They knew a fair amount about what was involved in submitting conference papers and journal articles, but most of them hoped that there could be more to their professional lives than these scholarly pursuits. Many of them had strong political motives for wanting to speak out to a large public about their research — students working on how to create environmental awareness or shape educational policy or challenge efforts to regulate the content of video games or challenge various forms of privilege and overturn negative stereotypes. Some of them, perhaps most, had creative urges which were not going to be satisfied by producing sometimes deadening academic prose. Some of them wanted to forge strong alliances with nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, political parties, labor unions, or media production companies, which would allow them to not only study the current media environment, but also to help transform and reshape it. Many of them were struggling with deep ambivalences about whether they wanted to pursue a career in academic life or whether they wanted to make a difference in some other sector. But, they had found it hard to talk about these conflicting goals and ambitions in their other subjects, had found that universities often treat PhD candidates who don’t want to became academics as failures, rather than exploring ways that scholarly skills and knowledge might become resources for a range of other activities.

I was also struck by how enthusiastic so many of our guest speakers were. I drew extensively on other faculty and researchers in the Annenberg School and elsewhere at USC who had a public-facing dimension to their work. They saw what we were doing in the class as important and they were eager to contribute. They found the class a chance to reflect deeply on their own professional practices. And they spoke frankly about the rewards and risks in pursuing these kinds of opportunities. One thing my students said again and again in their closing reflections on the class was that this approach showed them so many different (sometimes contradictory) models of how they might do work that mattered to a larger public.

An ongoing debate in the class had to do with the kinds of relationship which might exist between Communication scholars and industry, from some who held industry at arm’s length, to others who had found jobs which allowed them to move fluidly between the two. We talked about the ways that scholarship might make a difference in shaping media companies, and we talked about some of the painful compromises and dead-ends other researchers had encountered trying to do these kinds of interventions.

Speakers were frank about failures in a way which doesn’t happen very often in the classroom or in our writing, and we heard a lot about what we can learn from our own and others’ mistakes as we are taking meaningful risks in the pursuit of our work. I had colleagues who worried that I was trying to turn all graduate students into public intellectuals, but I think that the class gave students many chances to reflect on what choices are right for them and what is gained and lost by thinking outloud in public. We considered definitions of the public intellectual which involved speaking truth to power, but we concluded that in order to do this, one has to actually speak to power, and that often involves moving out of our comfort zones and dealing with people we don’t know very well or trust very much.

A key theme running through the class was the power of storytelling. Students heard from several different journalists about how they might translate their ideas for a larger audience, and again and again, it came down to telling compelling stories, often drawn from personal experiences. In doing so, we found ourselves pushing back against a generation of scholars who had been taught to distrust narrative as brushing over contradictions and not challenging established wisdom or reinforcing racist stereotypes and patriarchal pleasures. The challenge, then, was how to hold onto the underlying values which drove those critiques, while finding ways to expand the conversations those critiques grew out of. It is no longer enough to “problematize” existing frameworks unless doing so can also provide tools that can be appreciated and deployed by those who are on the front lines of these struggles.

We talked a lot about the ways that it is much easier, less risky, for some people to tell their stories than others, and this led to some frank discussions about how race, gender, and sexuality are experienced within — and beyond — academic cultures and I came to admire the good humor and civility with which everyone involved was able to share their experiences and perspectives around these often “touchy” issues. We benefited enormously from having a mix of international students in the group, who again and again forced us to acknowledge that our understanding of what constitutes an intellectual, what constitutes a public, and what we see as a desirable relationship between the two is deeply grounded in cultural traditions and political structures which differ from one national context to the next.

A key strength of the approach we took was this constant movement between theory and practice: practice understood both in terms of the front-line perspectives of our many guest speakers and in terms of the applied assignments which had students doing blog posts, op-eds, print and radio interviews, and digital humanities projects, all growing out of their own research.

A key challenge I’ve struggled with has been at what stage in a student’s career such training would be most valuable. On the one hand, those students who took this class in their first term in graduate school felt that it provided them with a strong overview of the full range of opportunities and practices they might want to explore in their career. People talked about  the class as “pulling away the curtain” and helping them to see the actual work that went into becoming a scholar. On the other, some of these incoming students did not yet have a fully developed sense of themselves as a scholar; they did not have perhaps enough research of their own yet to draw upon as they started to do these more public-facing projects.

Some of the students said that others in their cohort not in the class had joked about this being a course in how to become an academic “rock star.” But, I think by the end of the term, we were all clear that this kind of public facing work occurs at every level of visibility and access. It can involve sharing what you know at a PTA or school board meeting. It can involve work within a hyperlocal community or through an online forum. These many different scales and localities of communication reflect the affordances of a more networked culture, and they force us to move from a world where public intellectuals are superstar scholars, a select few, to one where these activities are a normal part of how many if not most scholars go about their work.

There’s no question given the success I experienced in this class, and given how meaningful both my students and I found this process, that this subject will become a standard part of my teaching rotation here at USC. I am also hoping that I may inspire more faculties around the world to try teaching a similar kind of class to their students. Annenberg’s Dean, Ernie Wilson, has sparked debate recently about what is required to teach communication scholars how to communicate effectively what our field is about. I suspect that such classes might force all of us — faculty and students — to grapple with the complexities of that issue. My class worked in part because I have such a great group of colleagues here (and at other institutions who joined the class by Skype) who are applying some concept of the public intellectual in their own work. I am lucky to be at an institution which is creative and generous with each other about what constitutes scholarship and which is more open than many schools about the ways new digital platforms and practices might be expanding the arena of public discourse. Annenberg supports experimentation and innovation in ways that more conservative institutions might not.

But, I believe that teachers at many schools could look around them and find rich and compelling examples in their own backyard of scholars who are doing different kinds of work in part as a response to the expanded range of communication options we confront at the current moment. Each such course would be different, because it needs to be grounded in your own institutional context, but I hope that others will see the value in incorporating this kind of teaching into their school’s curriculum. And if you do so, please share some of your experiences with me and my readers.

On Geeks and White Whales: Some Videos of This Term’s Events

As we are wrapping things down for the term here at USC this week, I wanted to share videos of some of the public events I have helped to organize this past semester. Specifically, I am going to be focusing today on two sets of events — one focused on science fiction and the other on Reading in a Participatory Culture.

As part of my role as the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, I have launched a new lecture series, “Geek Speaks.” Each semester, we will host one or more events bringing together top artists and thinkers who work in the areas of games, comics, science fiction, fandom, or cult media. Part of the thinking here is that such programing will increase the Lab’s visibility with students at USC who might have an interest in participating in the Lab’s activities, which include work on digital books, social media, social hacking, and the future of entertainment. For our first program, we focused on The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction. Here’s how we described the event:

 

From its conception, science fiction was a genre which has encouraged speculation at the limits of known science, sometimes in the name of popular science education, sometimes as a mode of theory formulation and discussion. Across its history, the range of topics that science fiction might address has expanded to include topics in media, communications, gender and sexuality, race, political philosophy, and the social sciences more generally. Increasingly, science fiction concepts and themes are being folded directly into the design process at major companies, as they seek to identify potential products and services and prototype the needs and desires of consumers.

On this semester’s Geek Speaks panel, each of the speakers: Cory Doctorow, Henry Jenkins, and Brian David Johnson, has done work exploring the interplay between speculative fiction and real world communities, and each is also a hardcore fans of the science fiction genre. In this free-wheeling conversation, they will discuss the roles that science fiction has played, for better or worse, in shaping the ways we think about innovation and confront the challenges of designing for the future.

All three of us have a long-standing fascination with science fiction as a literary and media genre and with the role which speculative fiction plays in helping to shape our expectations about the future. Johnson has been a key advocate of science fiction prototyping in his role as the chief Futurist at Intel, and he recently produced a book, Vintage Tomorrows, which explores what designers might learn from the Steampunk movement. I wrote the introduction to the book and Doctorow was one of the key people Johnson’s team interviewed. Doctorow, of course, will be well known to my readers as one of the best contemporary science fiction authors, as someone whose young adult novels have contributed to the civic education of a generation of young geeks, and who has been a key activist fighting for our digital rights through his involvement in the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Below you can see the video of our USC conversation.

Geek Speaks: The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

We billed ourselves as the Three Geeks, inspired in part by the Three Tenors. Johnson has suggested that when we speak together, you get to hear the perspectives of the fan, the futurist, and the activist, each of whom draws inspiration from the power of speculative fiction. In this exchange, we ended up talking a lot about utopian and dystopian conceptions of the future and the work each performs in our reflections about technology and politics.  We had done a similar event (albeit much shorter) at the Tools for Change conference in New York City earlier this year, and the chemistry was so good that we have been seeking out other venues where we can continue the dialogue.  Here’s the video of the earlier NYC version, which ended up being focused much more on the future of publishing.

The second set of events was organized around the release of our new book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the Literature Classroom. This book was inspired by the work of playwright, director, actor and educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater in Rhode Island. Pitts-Wiley had gone into prisons to work with incarcerated youth to get them to read Moby-Dick, no easy task for any reader, by challenging them to reimagine the characters for the 21st century. A 19th century novel about the whaling trade became through their eyes a way of reflecting on the contemporary drug trade and the world of street gangs. Inspired by these exchanges, Pitts-Wiley developed a stage production, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which involved an adult cast doing Melville’s original and a youth cast doing the contemporary remix. This whole process inspired my New Media Literacies team back at MIT and we ended up developing a whole curriculum designed to help students and teachers reflect on the place of remix as an expressive practice, moving back and forth between Herman Melville’s own writing and reading practices (as explored by literary critic Wyn Kelley) and contemporary forms of remixing, including fan fiction writing practices (as explored through my own research).

To coincide with the book’s release, we decided to bring Pitts-Wiley to USC and introduce his work and its underlying vision to Los Angeles. This effort was inspired by one of our Annenberg graduate students, Alexandrina Agloro, who has gotten to know Ricardo while working on an educational ARG at Brown University. Our plan was to bring Ricardo to LA and get him to work with local high school (Los Angeles High School for the Arts, Gertz-Ressler High School, and YouthBuild Boyle Heights) and college (USC) students to mount a production of Moby-Dick: Then and Now.

As we were planning the event, we discovered that the Los Angeles Public Library was running a whole series of events celebrating Moby-Dick and its author. They were nice enough to fly out my collaborator Wyn Kelley to join Ricardo and I for an event at the start of this project. You can hear the audio of that exchange here. AS part of their efforts, the LA Public Libraries commissioned a documentary film, My Moby-Dick, which included reflections on the novel by a range of well-known Los Angeles residents, including the techno musician Moby (who took his name from the novel), the food critic Jonathan Gold, the comedian Buck Henry, my USC colleague Howard Rodman, and yours truly, among many others. The film was screened as part of a theatrical extravaganza which included live performances by a range of local actors and musicians, including Stacey Keach, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Charlayne Woodard, Rinde Eckert, and Alan Mandell. Below is the opening segment from that documentary, some of which was produced by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame.

My Moby Dick – In the Beginning from Library Foundation of LA on Vimeo.

Ricardo was able to cast the play using local youth actors in under a week, leaving him less than a week to rehearse his staged reading. I was able to sit in on some of the rehearsals and watch him shape performances from a multi-racial cast. And we were proud to see so many people from South Central Los Angeles turn out for the performance to support their sons, daughters, students, and classmates. The video below will show you what the audience got to see — a dynamic performance of the play, followed with my discussion with Pitts-Wiley about the process which brought it to the Annenberg Auditorium.

Enjoy!

Information Darwinism

This blog post was produced by one of the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals, currently being taught at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Information Darwinism
by David Jeong

The brain craves information. Individuals demonstrate high preference for novel, highly interpretable visual information (Biederman & Vessel, 2006). This preference stems from an evolutionary advantage that an information-rich stimuli/image/environment would provide over a barren environment. Neuroscientists have even provided evidence we have a bias for irregular, non-singular shapes/curved cylinders over regular, singular shapes/cylinders (Amir, Biederman, & Hayworth, 2011). Simply, human beings are not carnivores or omnivores– rather, we are info-vores. And oh boy, do we have a lot of information– we can presently access more information than ever before in our evolutionary history (I hope I can make this claim?).

Since our brains evolved to solve the problems of our ancestral environments (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992), we may be experiencing a capacity load crisis in the amount of information we can remember, understand, or care about. Whether intentionally or not, we are constantly sifting through information in our environment– we always have, not just in present day. My main argument is that when we have as much information at our disposal as we have today, there must be casualties.

One type of information that does seem to thrive is novel information– we are constantly sharing and re-distributing “original content”. It is no coincidence that we receive pleasure from new information. Competitive Learning Theory, otherwise known as “Neural Darwinism”, occurs when strongly-activated neurons among a network of activated neurons inhibit the future activity of moderately-activated neurons upon recurring presentations of an image (Grossberg, 1987). The strongest-activated neurons dominate these future perceptions of a particular image, resulting in a net reduction of neural activity. This means that neurons prefer novel stimuli because they have yet to undergo Neural Darwinism.

The information in the current media sphere seems to also be undergoing its own version of what I will refer to as “Information Darwinism”:

* Given two forms of information, the novel information will dominate over the replicated.
* Given two forms of information, the simple information will dominate over the complex.
* Given two forms of information, the visually appealing will dominate over the neutral.
* Given two forms of information, the humorous (which also implies novelty) will dominate over the banal.
You get the picture.

//*Note*
Of course, novel information does not always reign supreme. Nostalgia and familiarity are counter-examples of this pattern. That said, nostalgia would not be nostalgia if it was pushed to our attention daily. Nostalgic content can only become effective through intervals of inattention.//

We have a bias for the fantastic, the amazing, the horrible, and disastrous. Most of the time, we are not interested in what occurs most of the time. We disregard the status quo.

What I mean by Informational Darwinism is that amidst the massive amount of information being pushed into our brains, we are witnessing an information-based natural selection where novel, simple, and visually appealing information dominates.

Not only are shorter, simplified forms of information (memes, Twitter updates, Facebook statuses) winning out, these forms of information champion novelty (original content, humor), and visual appeal. These “predators” are feasting on information that maintains a degree of persistence, permanence, and god forbid– patience. Public discussion of climate change, ongoing conflicts overseas, inner-city poverty, and our tremendously dysfunctional health care industry are simply being driven to “extinction”.

Tversky’s and Kahneman’s (1982) availability heuristic suggest we attribute greater probability and frequency to information that is more readily available in our minds. Perhaps the more troubling issue is the potential for a naturalistic fallacy to take place: that the survival of the fittest indeed yields the “fittest”. Ultimately, “fitness” should refer to physical survival — and indeed, accurate and proper communication of health and political issues do indeed have implications for life/death– but I feel it also encapsulates physical and mental health, financial stability, and any domain of social life that represents a form of success. As such, “fitness” here refers to the positive impact on the most number of people– regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion, and the like. In other words, we may be fooling ourselves to think that the information that our mind’s eye is attending to is indeed the information most worthy of our attention.

The information that survives is information that garners our collective attention, that captivates the collective consciousness. This information may be biased, inaccurate, or may simply be fictional content intended for entertainment– which is not to say that such information is meaningless as it represents the social reasons for sharing information in “spreadable media” (Jenkins et al., 2012).

So, not only are we wired to prefer this attention-grabbing information, this attention-grabbing information is concurrently being reproduced and shared at the expense and demise of information that is less attention-grabbing.

Problem: We have already been primed with much of the important information in the world.
Another Problem A: Less attention-grabbing information tends to be information we already know, information that is complex.
Another Problem B: Important information tends to be information we already know, which tends to be less attention grabbing.
We know diet coke is bad, we know much of the Middle East is under various sorts of turmoil and conflict, we know, we know. We just can’t bring ourselves to care about this information more than the next episode of Breaking Bad, or the top post on the front page of Reddit.

This is not to say that Breaking Bad offers less desirable information or a less desirable mode of delivery. In fact, its writers demonstrated an example of a truly complex form of narrative that goes against the traditional and familiar TV narrative. It is precisely its creativity and originality that makes it a champion of TV ratings and our collective consciousness.

That said, annual re-runs of Breaking Bad– while remaining strong in popularity, will inevitably decline in ratings and our collective consciousness over time. Aren’t “ongoing issues” basically “re-runs”?

//*Aside*
The Irony: “Fittest” information = information that provides a positive impact to the most people. “Fittest” information represents the essence of morality and altruism. Ironically, the information that is becoming “extinct” is the information that is most crucial for our collective success, survival (Perhaps collective survival goes against the central tenets of natural selection?!). //

Complex concepts in science are often misunderstood because they are simplified and thought in terms of “linear causality” with a singular cause and effect, when in fact science often involves a complex system of causality that may be iterative, cyclical, and take place over time and space (Grotzer, 2012). According to Grotzer, we simplify causality due to our preference to attribute agency to conceptual understandings, our tendency to make cognitive heuristics (Tversky & Kahneman, 1982), and our limitations of our attention (Mack & Rock, 1998). Our visual perception is subject to natural tendencies of not only our attention, but also differences in the perception of visual images in our central vs. peripheral visual fields.

With a world of images, memes, and 350-character messages, we cannot help but be deterred from complex understandings of crucial political and scientific issues– let alone an accurate and complete understanding of those issues. The non-immediacy of these issues means that they do not alert our attention or perceptual systems as would an elephant charging towards us. Rather, inattention and conscious ignorance of non-immediate, non-perceivable issues (radiation-contamination, global warming, GMOs, etc) all involve gains that are immediate and gratifying (fresh sashimi, convenience and laziness, cheap food, etc) and harms that are tacit. Even more troubling is the exploitation of our cognitive limitations and tendencies for harmful consequences. Sensory formats (visual/auditory advertisements, and even tastes) are now engineered to target sensory vulnerabilities while we overlook non-sensory information (global warming, obesity, risky decisions, any decision with a positive short term and negative long term outcome.

This is not necessarily a value judgment against the Breaking Bads, the Twitters and the Reddits of the information world. Rather, there is much to learn from these thriving models of information. There is a wealth of “fit” information intertwined with entertainment on these newer modes of information dissemination. If anything, perhaps we have to move past the “iron curtain” of network news, academic fluff, and the like. We are facing a communication gap, a failure of learning, and a reality that is increasingly at odds with traditional communication environments. If there is indeed an Information Darwinism underway, we cannot continue to beat the dead horse with “what used to work”. It is our moral obligation to engage in our own pedagogical arms race against the changing information landscape in order to maximize information that yields the most physical, mental, social “fitness” for as many people as possible.

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References

Amir, O., Biederman, I., & Hayworth, K. J. (2011). The neural basis for shape preferences. Vision research, 51(20), 2198-2206.

Biederman, I., & Vessel, E. (2006). Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain A novel theory explains why the brain craves information and seeks it through the senses. American Scientist, 3(94), 247-253.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1992). Cognitive adaptations for social exchange.The adapted mind, 163-228.

Grossberg, S. (1987). Competitive learning: From interactive activation to adaptive resonance. Cognitive science, 11(1), 23-63.

Grotzer, T.A. (2012). Learning causality in a complex world. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

Jenkins, H., Ford, S., Green, J., & Green, J. B. (2012). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. NYU Press.

Mules, Trojan Horses, Dragons, Princesses, and Flies

The following is a post written by one of the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals being taught this semester at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Mules, Trojan Horses, Dragons, Princesses, and Flies

by Addison Shockley 

Shortly after I arrived at the University of Southern California, to begin working on my doctorate in communication, there was a banquet to welcome the new group of communication and journalism graduate students. There were round tables, and people sat where they liked. At one point, the Dean of the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism came up to the table I was sitting at and asked us about our table and what kind of students we were, whether we were journalism students or communication students or a mixture of the two. I spoke up for our table and said, “We all happen to be communication students,” and then added, “It was natural that we all sat together.” He replied, “Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good.” Then he had to walk away because he was being called to give the opening speech, and I sat there and felt a little bit foolish.

He was right, though. Natural is not necessarily good. It’s natural for dragons to take princesses captive in their lairs, but it’s not good for princesses to lose their freedom. It’s natural for flies to be drawn to the light, but it’s not good for flies themselves to be electrocuted when the light’s a bug-zapper. Dean Ernest Wilson believed this principle of distinguishing between what’s natural and what’s good—that sometimes they’re the same and sometimes they’re not—and I believe it too.

This story is a small part of a larger story, the story of my journey of becoming who I am today. When I began my undergraduate education in 2005, I would never have been able to predict that I would be doing a Ph.D. today and examining ideas like rhetoric and the tragedies caused by misunderstanding. When I graduate in a few years, I hope to teach rhetoric in a university and share insights about communication and (mis)understanding with my students, as well as the general public.

It is a commonplace to assert that we are living through a communication revolution, and of course people are studying the ways in which our lives and communication practices are being revolutionized by new technology and new media. This is important work, but I prefer to focus on what I call the “foundational” issues in communication, questions related to what human beings are, and why they should communicate with others in the first place; questions about communicating what we know, and how we know it; questions about values, and how we communicate in line with them, about them; and questions about what it means to communicate purposefully and wisely. These are the questions I believe need to be addressed today alongside the more timely questions about technology, new media, and the ways our world is being transformed by them.

None of our experiences are wasted, or so my mother tells me (and I think she’s right—at least, they don’t have to be wasted). In this post, I share some of my personal history to discuss how it relates to who I have become, and how it has shaped my perspective on a set of real world problems that I’ll share with you.

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Like many college students, I changed my major multiple times, uncertain what I wanted to do with my life. I began in the fall of 2005, studying film as a freshman at Azusa Pacific University, which only lasted a year. I decided to return home to Kansas City, Missouri, having realized the film industry was harder to break into than I thought it was, as well as less appealing than I had imagined it to be in my mind, and I began considering what to do next. I took a year off, so to speak, talking with friends, exploring options, and finally made the decision to transfer to the University of Central Missouri—forty minutes east of my hometown of Lee’s Summit, Missouri—to begin classes in the fall of 2007 as a mule (the school’s odd choice of a mascot), majoring in—get this—Construction Management.

My dad had been a construction manager at one point, and he really liked it, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I began taking classes like “Mechanical Systems of Buildings,” talking about beams and pneumatic nail guns, and wondering why anyone would want their mascot to be a mule. (Okay, secretly, I kind of liked it. Mules are humble, but confident). Three semesters later, with an internship under my belt—shadowing construction managers who built mostly fast-food restaurants and office buildings—I realized this kind of work didn’t appeal to me anymore, at least not enough to make it my bread and butter.

Studying construction had taught me some important things, but I knew it was time for me to move on. I didn’t feel like I was getting the hang of it from the classes, and it seemed I wasn’t a natural at it—not even close. Evidence of that includes my “internship boss” yelling at me the last week of my internship and telling me I had been a failure. He was having a bad day. There was some truth to it, though. I lacked the devotion, preparation, guidance and giftedness to do a good job, simply put. Rather than wanting to read blueprints, I wanted to read novels; rather than daydreaming about building, I wanted to use words to make a difference in society. I had taken enough classes to get a minor in Construction Management, and it taught me how to think about the world concretely, though I was not built for it.

Soon after I lost interest—for good—in construction as a career, I discovered “rhetoric.” The fact of the matter is, I took my first course in rhetoric during my senior year of college, but almost immediately, I knew this was “it.” For the sake of clarifying what I would want you to imagine when I say “rhetoric,” replace whatever comes to mind with this definition of rhetoric from a famous twentieth century scholar of rhetoric, I.A. Richards (from his book The Philosophy of Rhetoric), who defined rhetoric as “the study of misunderstanding and its remedies.” To have a “rhetorical” sort of imagination is to be someone capable of pinpointing instances of misunderstanding and then to know how to work on them in order to undo them.

In rhetoric, as a rather marginalized academic subject these days, I found something I cared about. I liked it so much that I decided I would do two more years of Master’s level coursework mostly in theories of rhetoric at the same school—remaining a humble, yet confident mule. I enjoyed this experience very much and began to see myself studying rhetoric at the doctorate level.

I applied to doctorate programs during the fall of my second year into the Master’s level coursework, and I got accepted at USC in the spring. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles in the following fall to begin the next phase of our lives. I left the mule and started riding a Trojan horse, so to speak.

A few years prior I had left a career in bricks-and-mortar construction—well, a potential career in construction by abandoning my major in Construction Management. I was going to pursue a career in “words-and-ideas” construction—not physical construction, but cultural or, as it is sometimes called, “social construction.”

 

Image A-Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse 1981 (1) It should be clear from events like the historic Hyatt-Regency walkway collapse in Kansas City, Missouri, or from the recent five-story building collapse in Mumbai that construction is risky.

Image B-Mumbai five story building collapse photo 2013

 

Misconstruction can be fatal, whether we are dealing with a physical structure that is literally misconstructed, or figuratively with a faulty idea or mistaken assumption that is used as the basis for further thinking. And it may be an obvious side note, but miscommunication can cause misconstruction, as in when blueprints (poorly designed) are used to communicate building procedures that result in faulty structures.

Today, I tell people that I study misunderstanding and how it messes things up, royally. I am convinced it happens all the time, all around us, sadly without the notice of enough people. Let me explain this phenomenon of “social misconstruction,” and then give some examples of it.

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Rhetoricians care about misunderstanding, which results in the social misconstruction of reality. Wait, social what?

When I say the “social construction of reality,” I’m using a phrase that most academics within the humanities and social sciences have heard of—which can refer to the idea, essentially, that reality isn’t really real, truth isn’t truly true, right isn’t actually righteous, et cetera. Countless interactions among persons in societies result in commonly held assumptions about what exists and how we should respond to it, and these commonly held assumptions create the illusion that there is a single reality because most people seem to agree that, well, this is just the way it is: so it must be so.

There are other versions of this idea of social constructionism, some of which allow that an objective reality exists—and those versions are more convincing to me. But according to this radical version of social constructionism, people “construct” reality through interactions with other members of their culture or society (or world), and in this sense, they “make it up” using language. Rather than discovering reality, and disclosing it with language, they do the reverse, creating reality with language. I agree that ideas of reality are rooted in communities. But I don’t believe that all communities are in touch with reality. I believe that people can’t contain absolute reality in a box or in a system of ideas, but I believe that it exists, despite our limitations in apprehending it fully.

This is obviously a deep subject, one we could read libraries full of books about. I hold the minority perspective—the realist view that, on the one hand, there is reality, and on the other there is unreality. There’s true, and there’s false. Another term that is often used alongside the phrase “the social construction of reality” is the phrase “intersubjective agreement,” which refers to agreements made about what’s what in life, what things mean and don’t mean, what reality is. This term suggests that reality is nothing more than what we agree upon that it is.

But there’s a problem with this idea. Persons under arrest are either guilty or innocent of their alleged offense. I believe in the valuable work of socially constructing one true reality, and in the wasted time spent constructing unrealities. We don’t create reality; we bump into it. Even if we aren’t sure what we’re bumping into, it’s got a personality, and we better learn it. It’s got rules. And it’s got rewards. As one of my friends said, if you break the rules of the universe, they will break you. Denying reality is a slippery slope to some bad back pain.

Most rhetoricians these days don’t believe in “real reality.” They probably wouldn’t tell people they’re interested in misunderstanding, as I do; they’d probably say they’re interested in multiple understandings, and they would probably be uncomfortable with any claims about misunderstanding (after all, can someone be said to misunderstand a world that isn’t real?).

I believe in the metaphysical parallel to physical blindness: the eyes of minds can be distorted in vision, and effectively blind to what is actually happening. Rhetoricians like me care about social misconstruction and misunderstanding, but also about the related issues of miseducation, miscommunication, misassociation, misinformation, disinformation and deceit.

Richard Weaver, another famous rhetorician, taught that “ideas have consequences”—and Kenneth Burke—perhaps the most famous modern writer on rhetoric—taught that words imply attitudes, which suggest actions. For example, naming someone as an “enemy” implies an attitude toward them that encourages certain actions and discourages others, whereas calling them a “friend” would suggest a different attitude, and thus, different actions.

Just to give a few examples of social misconstruction, we can think for a moment about misassociation. We need to cultivate discernment among our citizens so that they can disassociate what has been misassociated, because misassociating things can disserve and harm people in serious ways.

I was eating dinner with some friends the other night, and they shared some disturbing facts with me. One of them works in Uganda, and she told me that social misconstructions of class have led to the malnourishment of children in Uganda because their society has constructed an association of eating vegetables with being poor. Their parents don’t want to feed their children what might be thought of as “poor people’s food.” My other friend from India, who was dining with us, chimed in and added that in India, white rice is associated with a higher-class diet than brown rice (even though brown rice is healthier). These examples, although limited to food, show how any society can contain “misconstructed” meanings and associations, which contribute to the “breaking down” of lives.

To give another example, this time from the United States, we can briefly consider the work of communication scholar George Gerbner to help us see how in the United States, where the average person watches more than four hours of television per day (see footnote for reference), the cumulative effect over time is that representations in television begin to cultivate misperceptions in Americans of social realitFor instance, persons who watch crime shows like Law & Order, or CSI, or Criminal Minds, may perceive that social reality closely matches the depictions in the shows themselves. To give an example of how social misconstructions can emerge from long-term exposure to such shows, consider how CSI, for example, consistently uses unrealistic depictions of the technology available to death investigators.  Or consider how Law & Order messed with popular perceptions of what constituted an adequate quantity of evidence to convict someone of an alleged offense, resulting in U.S. jury trials in which jury members required overwhelming amounts of evidence to be comfortable deciding that a defendant was guilty.

These minor examples address the ways in which, taken together, instances of media content consumed over a long period of time can influence people’s perceptions such that they misassociate, again, say, guiltiness only with overwhelmingly unusual amounts of evidence—more than is typically needed to establish a high enough probability of guilt to declare a person guilty.

Misassociation can take many other forms than this, of course, and much is lost due to mistakes of association. It is the job of the rhetorician to spot them, and zap them with his rhe-gun. We don’t want anyone to keep misassociating what is natural with what is good. (And for further examples of social misconstructions, see the work of Richard Hamilton, who tries to show the mistakenness of a few widely held views in academia: http://www.amazon.com/The-Social-Misconstruction-Reality-Verification/dp/0300063458).

Addison Shockley is a doctoral student studying rhetoric, media, and ethics at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. One of his guiding assumptions is that miscommunication, rooted in deception and/or misunderstanding, causes devastating results, and he is motivated in all of his researching, writing, and teaching by the idea of straightening out socially misconstructed realities. He’s recently started blogging at www.wordscuff.com.
 

Revisiting Neo-Soul

The following is another in an ongoing series of blog posts from the remarkable students in my Public Intellectuals class. We would welcome any comments or suggestions you might have.

Revisiting Neo-Soul

by Marcus Shepard

Popular music blog Singersroom recently asked an interesting question “Will Alternative R&B fade away…like Neo-Soul & Hip-Hop Soul?” What’s interesting about this question for me is that neo-soul and some would argue hip-hop soul, never truly found a definition or a sonic boundary to differentiate them from other genres of music during their rise in the 1990s. Different posts could and should be written on hip-hop-soul and even the validity of the term alternative R&B as it appears to be a term used to describe white R&B artists who make music similar to the likes of the Black R&B artists such as the late Aaliyah, Brandy and Monica. I want to focus though on exploring the genre neo-soul for a moment. It’s important to engage with neo-soul because a lot of people believe that this musical discourse has either faded away or was a flash pan marketing nomer that lost steam as we rolled into the new millennium, which is not the case.

While fans of the music labeled neo-soul can often identify those songs, albums and/or artists that falls under the genre label, due to the lack of a potential concrete definition, the once burgeoning genre has become harder to define. As different sonic discourses continue to mix and create unique sounds, defining and creating boundaries for what is “neo-soul” and what is not might become increasingly more difficult. Though the label neo-soul has come under scrutiny from artists, musicians, fans, critics, and academics about its validity as a term/genre, others have gravitated towards the usage of the term. The confusion of what neo-soul is adds to the debate surrounding this genre. Defining neo-soul is not to exclude artists who are on the periphery or crossover into the genre, but to give space to those singers and musicians who are entrenched within the discourse of the music.

With the introductory track “Let It Be,” Jill Scott also expresses her frustrations with being labeled and defined as a neo-soul artist. Though Scott does not openly state her anguish with her categorization in the genre, she states an all too familiar cry of artists who simply want to make music devoid of classification.

What do I do
If its Hip Hop if its bebop reggaeton of the metronome
In your car in your dorm nice and warm whatever form
If Classical Country Mood Rhythm & Blues Gospel
Whatever it is, Let It Be Let It Be Whatever it is Whatever it is Let It
If it’s deeper soul If It’s Rock & Roll Spiritual
Factual Beautiful Political Somethin to Roll To
Let It Be, Whatever it is, Whatever it is Let It Be
Let It Be Whatever it is Let It Be Let It Be, Let It
Why do do do I,I,I,I
Feel trapped inside a box when just don’t fit into it

Through her sorrow of being defined and “trapped inside a box,” Scott has also excavated what neo-soul is. Though she and other artists often have fraught relationships with the term, understanding it as a convergence of sonic discourses within the soul and rap musical traditions opens up a variety of sonic avenues that Scott, her peers, and predecessors have pursued. Scott, who often transcends the boundaries of different genres, is able to rise above these very boundaries due to the essence of neo-soul. This genre allows her to waft into the vocal atmosphere with operatic vibrato during the closing number (“He Loves Me (Lyzel In E Flat)”) of her concert, just as it allows for her and Doug E. Fresh to beatbox during their collaborative “All Cried Out Redux”.

Being situated on the periphery of two musical legacies, soul and hip-hop, allows for artists within this convergence to coif a variety of sonic discourses that draw on the technical, sonic, and lyrical innovations of both genres. The jazz, gospel, and blues influences of soul, which in their own right offer rich musical and lyrical histories, further add to the wide-range of sonic possibilities that artists within neo-soul can tap. Include the plentiful sonic and lyrical options that hip-hop has to offer and the neo-soul genre seems to have boundless opportunity to grow and coalesce.

So what does neo-soul sound like? Neo-soul is a genre that is an amalgamation of rap and soul music, which relies on the technological advances made during the genesis of rap, but at the same time readily uses live instrumentation of the soul era. Neo-soul builds upon sampling through its own reinterpretations of soul records such as D’Angelo’s take on Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’,” or Lauryn Hill’s Frankie Valli cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”. Though these two are traditional covers, Hill and D’Angelo infect a hip-hop backbeat that is heavily pronounced throughout most neo-soul records. Hill’s cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in particular opens up with beatboxing, which then leads into the sonic composition of the song and melds into a traditional rap backbeat. Though covers are not unique to this genre, when they occur within the confines of neo-soul, the musical composition of the song is often tweaked/reworked to reflect the sonic collaborations that define the genre.

Though possibilities seem endless for neo-soul, there is a distinct sonic quality that exists within the genre. Neo-soul is deeply rooted in live instrumentation and referencing the liner notes of the majority of neo-soul releases showcases the inclusion of studio musicians. Though synthesizing and sampling is present within neo-soul, it is building a legacy that is rooted in both the live instrumentation of soul music and the technological manufactured sounds of hip-hop.

Striking this sonic balance is one of the challenges the genre faces and artists who opt for a more live sound or a more synthesized sound find themselves closer to the periphery of the genres that represent this sound. As Erykah Badu famously proclaims, she “is an analog girl in a digital world” and striking the balance between these two worlds is what artists who are steeped in the musical traditions of neo-soul are all about.

In addition to the sonic quality and components of neo-soul, the genre is also one that is carried by the lyrical compositions of its artists. While hip-hop soul is a famous fusion of music that is sometimes conflated with neo-soul, artists within the confines of this music often set themselves apart from neo-soul artists due to the paucity of songwriting credits on their résumé as well as the abundance of synthesized beats. This is not to say that one genre is “better” than the other, but that they each exist in different spheres and planes of similar musical discourse.

Neo-soul artists, as Jill Scott so eloquently pointed out, speak to the realities of life within their self- or co-written compositions including, but not limited to, issues that touch upon the very essence of human experience. While rap music still speaks to lived experiences, the overarching narrative seems to have shifted to a paradigm that speaks largely to male street credibility and the highly commercialized and commoditized male hustler protagonist.

Neo-soul can be seen, lyrically, as a remix of hip-hop – still speaking to the lived experiences of its listeners as hip-hop and soul did and still do – with a slanted female perspective, as the majority of releases within the confines of neo-soul reflect the female voice.

While men and women release music within the confines of the neo-soul and rap genres respectively, it appears that each genre has the disproportionate voice of one sex. Whereas rap music has always been rooted in the male perspective, with relatively few female centered perspectives, neo-soul operates as the contrasting version with the female perspective taking center stage, while the male perspective is given voice with relatively few releases.

Responding to the obvious exclusion of female voices within hip-hop, neo-soul artists find themselves oftentimes engaging with messages perpetuated within hip-hop and mass media in an attempt to recreate and reclaim those representations of Black womanhood.

Another interesting observation of the discography released within neo-soul finds that Black artists have released the majority, if not all, of the releases considered neo-soul. Though white British soul artists such as Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, Adele, and Duffy have all released albums and/or songs that would aptly be described as neo-soul, due to their sonic and lyrical arrangements, these women are placed under the banner of pop or British soul instead of neo-soul. Jaguar Wright for one has pointed out in her observation of the musical genre the racialized space that has been built around this marketing genre.

Through the racialization of neo-soul, these artists are able to engage in visual and musical critiques of issues impacting Black communities, such as Jill Scott’s powerful analysis of the state of Black communities in her song “My Petition,” which is lifted from her 2004 album Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2.

Ultimately, neo-soul is a genre that is still alive and well though the glare of mainstream press and platinum selling singles and album sales has wavered. Before one engages with the theorizing of “alternative R&B,” it is important to revisit and reengage with the visual and musical discourse that is the genre neo-soul.

Marcus C. Shepard is a Ph.D. student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. His work explores Black musical performance and its intersections and transformative capabilities of race, class, gender and sexuality. Specifically, he focuses on the musical genre neo-soul and its sonic, visual and political implications in the United States within communities of color. Shepard has also worked at the world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem as an archivist and maintains his ties to this artistic community.

“To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang”: Responding to Asian Stereotyping in Popular Culture

This is the second in a series of blog posts produced by the students in my Public Intellectuals seminar at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. We appreciate any feedback or response you’d like to share. 

“To JK Rowling, From Cho Chang”: Responding to Asian Stereotyping in Popular Culture

by Diana Lee

 

Awhile back, my friend and fellow graduate student sent me a simple email with the subject line, “Calling out the representation of Asian women in Harry Potter books,” and a short one-line message:

“Saw this and thought of you – the videos are really interesting!!”

I was immediately intrigued by her email because she is, as I mentioned, a respected friend and colleague, and I know she is thoughtful about her communication, but also because before clicking on the link, I wasn’t certain what she was referring to. Had she thought of me because of my love of the magical world of Harry Potter? My academic and personal interest in representations of Asians, Asian Americans, and gender in U.S. media and popular culture? Was it because of my deep appreciation of people who create counter-narratives that challenge stereotypes and forefront voices that are not frequently heard in “mainstream” dialogue? Or perhaps it was a show of support for my hopeful but yet-to-be-solidified desire to combine my enthusiasm for all of these things in academic life? The answer? Yes. Turns out she was pointing me towards something that exemplified all of these things, and much more.

 

In April 2013, the Youtube video of college student spoken word artist Rachel Rostad’s “To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang” went viral. In the video, she is shown performing a poem which challenges the representations of Asian women and other marginalized groups in the Harry Potter series and other popular stories (such as Ms. Saigon, Madame Butterfly, and Memoirs of a Geisha). Written and delivered in the style of many spoken word performances, Rachel uses a powerful, clear, strong voice, and the poem is filled with provocative examples artfully expressed to maximize emotional impact.

You can hear her frustration with the fact that Asians and Asian women in the U.S. are constantly misrepresented in shallow and/or stereotypical roles in books, movies, and television shows. You follow along as she exposes the subtle but sadly pervasive ways these caricatures are presented – with “Asian” accented English, with “foreign” names that may or may not make sense in actual “Asian” languages, as disposable minor characters used to set up the focus on the White, leading woman who is the “real” love interest, as sexually “exotic” Asian women who are submissive and/or hypersexualized, and only to be used and then discarded or left behind. And finally, at the end of the poem, through a story that comes across as her own, she draws a connection between why we should pay attention to these limited representations and speaks about an example of how they can influence our everyday interactions.

She makes the case that when we don’t see other representations of characters with depth and breadth that look and sound and think and love like real people, then the limited portrayals can impact not only the possibilities we can imagine for ourselves, but also what others see as possible for or with us. Rachel Rostad used this poem as a creative and powerful challenge to pervasive, potentially damaging, familiar portrayals, urging us to think critically about the stories, images, and identities we participate in consuming and perpetuating.

But that wasn’t all. She also did something else that we should highlight and celebrate.

The video of her spoken word performance went viral, generating a flurry of criticism and commentary. Instead of ignoring or dismissing these responses or getting pulled into destructively defensive or combative flame wars, she used the opportunity to reflect, learn, teach, and engage in a (public) conversation. She did this in a number of ways and across multiple platforms (e.g., YouTube, tumblr, blog posts, Facebook), but the most visible one is the follow-up video she created a few days after the first video was posted, which was called, “Response To Critiques of ‘To JK Rowling, from Cho Chang.’”

In the response video, Rachel speaks directly to the camera, beginning with “hey there, Internet!,” and point by point, articulately, sincerely, and calmly addresses the five main critiques that came pouring in to her through the various mediated forms she was involved with.

One point addressed the possibility that “Cho Chang” could be a legitimate name, despite what she articulated in her poem about “Cho” and “Chang” being two last names. Rachel admitted ignorance in Chinese and other naming practices, acknowledged that the line in the poem about Cho’s name was problematic, apologized for marginalizing and misrepresenting parts of a community she was trying to empower, and urged viewers to also focus on the other themes she draws on in the rest of the poem.

Following that, Rachel’s next series of comments emphasized that she does not speak for all Asian women, and is not claiming to through her work. She apologized again for unintended mischaracterizations, especially to those who reached out to her saying they felt misrepresented by her poem. Rachel then used these interactions to encourage reflection about and reemphasize the importance of a wider range of media and pop cultural portrayals for Asians and Asian women, which was one of the main points of her spoken word piece, saying, “I’m very sorry I misrepresented you. But I don’t think either of us is to blame for this. I would ask you, what conditions are in place that make it so that you are so defensive that I, someone with a completely different experience of oppression, am not representing your voice? It’s sad that we live in a society where my voice is so easily mistaken for yours – where our differing identities are viewed as interchangeable.”

Continuing on the theme of advocating for a wider range of media representations and prompting us to think critically about the representations we do see, Rachel’s third point was about the realistic portrayal of a grieving character versus in-depth character development of Asian and White female lead characters. Yes, Cho was sad about boyfriend Cedric Diggory’s death and confused about her developing feelings for Harry so she was crying, pensive, and sad most of the time, but JK Rowling intentionally set up Cho as weak to make Ginny, Harry’s eventual love interest and a White woman, look stronger. This may not have been intentionally racially charged, but it is important to think about because discrimination and prejudice are oftentimes not only about intentionality. This is a theme that recurs in mainstream films and stories – women of color appear as minor, brief, undeveloped characters to set up the “real” relationship for the main White characters later in the narrative, and the more we see it repeated with no alternative portrayals, the more it has the potential to seem “natural.”

Similarly, her fourth point is also about different ways that problematic representations take form, describing why she talked about Dumbledore’s sexuality, which some argued seemed tangential to the main themes of the poem. Thinking about representation and whose stories are privileged is not only about who is invisible from the story, or the limited roles people are allowed to play, but it is also about considering that even when in prominent positions within stories, aspects of character’s identities aren’t developed in a way that illustrates the depth and complexity of our lived realities.

Rachel’s fifth point in her response video is about how she does not hate Harry Potter or JK Rowling (or Ravenclaw, I’m assuming!), but rather is a fan who grew up on the books and went to all the midnight showings, and importantly, is also able to think critically about and critique a world that she also enjoys.

And finally, she closes the response video with this message:

That’s it for now. I understand if you still disagree with me, but I hope you now disagree with me for the arguments I’m actually making, and it’s been humbling and amazing to watch people respond to this video. I think that the presence of so much passionate dialogue means that this is an issue that needs to be talked about. And yes, I made mistakes, and just as I think JK Rowling did with some of her characterizations. But what I hope people realize is that dialogue about social justice is not about blaming people for making mistakes, whether it’s me or JK Rowling. It’s about calling attention to mistakes, which I’ll be the first to admit, is painful, and using those mistakes as an opportunity to grow.

I personally have learned so much from the mistakes I’ve made in this process, and I want to thank the community for calling me out on that. Social justice is about holding each other accountable. And I hope as a devoted fan base and as an amazing community we can continue to use my piece as a jumping off point for further dialogue, growth, and reflection.

Thank you.

We should celebrate this as an exemplary instance of reflexivity, of praxis  – of the liberating power of reflection, awareness, and action. Of an intelligent, passionate young person invested in learning from and contributing to her community. Of the engaging, participatory possibilities available through working with popular culture and using technology, media, and newer forms of mediated communication as tools for transformative education. This is also a great opportunity for educators and families to unpack the pedagogical implications of what happens when you find something young people are excited about and engage in this kind of expression and communication with a larger community. And this is also an example of what media scholar Henry Jenkins calls participatory culture, specifically, in relation to new media literacies and civic engagement.

These words – reflexivity, praxis, pedagogy, new media, media literacy, civic engagement – get thrown around in academic institutions and circles all the time. And we should continue to teach them and explore their philosophies and apply their meanings, but we cannot forget the importance of grounding them in concrete examples, not just for academics or practitioners, but also for people who may not use these same terms, but still find the practices empowering. Rachel Rostad’s two videos, along with her other critical engagement with this discourse, is a great, accessible example of what we hope that people of all ages are doing when they are participating in mediated communication, engaging with popular culture, and otherwise interacting out in the world. We hope that people are actively engaged with their media and popular cultural stories and artifacts, and with each other. We hope that people are thinking about ideas, sharing them, playing with and acting on them, challenging each other and working out responses, incorporating new information, helping each other to learn and grow, and then repeating that process again and again.

By following Rachel’s videos and active online engagement with a larger community, we can literally see and hear this messy, discursive, interactive transformative learning and teaching process unfolding. One of the key messages Rachel communicates is that she has learned a lot through the process of writing this poem, performing it, posting it online, receiving and engaging with all of the responses to it, and creating the follow-up video. She used these interactions in several ways. She apologized for areas where she made mistakes, where she misrepresented or silenced populations she was trying to empower. She clarified her perspective or points that either were not clear through the delivery of the poem, or could not be expanded on given the format of spoken word poetry. She used the experience as a way to take in and address critiques about areas she could have presented differently. And finally, she also spoke about the complexity of representation and tokenization both within the poem itself, which spoke about popular cultural representation via Cho Chang, but also in terms of her speaking about these topics from her positionality as a woman of color, who is considered “Asian” in the United States. She shared with us her processing and grappling with these issues, thanked all those that responded or commented, and kept the door open for future dialogue over these issues. She did all this, and publicly. What a courageous thing to do.

In one instance, for example, a blogger at Angry Asian Girls United (AAGU) posted a response to the original poem, calling Rachel out for her glaring misrepresentation of South Asians and for ignoring Pan-Asian solidarity and identity. The blogger also critiqued her for taking up the term “Brown” as an East Asian, and for conflating the varying meanings of the “Asian” label when you consider U.S. versus U.K. contexts (where Harry Potter’s world is set; because then “Asian” would refer to Indians or other South Asians, e.g., Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and people who look like Cho Chang would be referred to as “Chinese,” “Korean,” or another label associated with the East Asian country they hailed from). In the poem, Rachel speaks of “Asians” as if it equates to East Asian, and does not count Indian characters Padma and Parvati Patil when she speaks of “Asians,” a common issue when people have not fully unpacked the deeply ingrained, volatile, problematic U.S. (and global) race categorizations. In the poem, Rachel does include the Patil twins, as well as herself, as “Brown” and “minority.” I believe she used the term “Brown” as an attempt to empower and connect with discourses of identity politics that are possibly specific to U.S. cultural context, but whether (East, South, Central, Middle Eastern) Asians are included in that term, or whether she should or can use it can be saved for a separate conversation. The point is, the AAGU blog post called her out on her conflation, misrepresentation, and the silencing nature of Rachel’s use of these terms, and she heard them, learned from and engaged with the criticism.

This one relatively small but important part of this larger example shows how many people were actively engaged, challenging both their own and each other’s thinking processes through this topic, and in a public way, which allowed others (like me and you) to witness and/or participate in the discussion, even months later. Additionally, Rachel and the people commenting on her videos were engaged through the combination and use of multiple, networked avenues. In the example above, the video was first posted on YouTube, which acquired comments. Rachel was looking for a way to succinctly learn about and respond to the YouTube comments about the misrepresentation of South Asians, which she found through the Angry Asian Girls United blog post. Rachel then linked to this blog post and responded to it on her tumblr site, and also apologized for misrepresenting Asian women in her response video, which was posted on YouTube. And to begin with, both Rachel and the AAGU blog poster were familiar with Harry Potter, whether through the books or movies (or some other form, e.g., video games, news, conversations), and the conversation and rapid spread of the discussion were supported because of an already existing Harry Potter fan base. Through their dialogue, both Rachel and the AAGU blogger were pushing ideas of the fluid markers and conceptions of identity and how it impacts and is impacted by visibility, representation, and socio-historic context.

When thinking about social justice or civic engagement, we often look for big things – movements, large groups mobilizing many people – but sometimes we should shift our perspective a bit and focus in on the incredible things small groups of individuals are doing. They can also have a big impact. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.

In the end, it all comes full circle. Rachel shared her performance and reflection with communities in person and on the internet, my friend shared the videos with me, and now I’m sharing my thoughts with you. I will join both Rachel Rostad and my friend and echo their sentiments. Hi. I saw this, and thought of you. The videos are really interesting! I hope we can continue to use these conversations as a jumping off point for further dialogue, growth, and reflection. Thank you!

For more information on Rachel Rostad, visit her tumlbr or facebook pages. Rachel is currently a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. In keeping with voicing diverse stories about Asian Americans, she also has a great poem, “Adoption,” which is about identity, belonging, and family, from the perspective of a Korean adoptee growing up with a non-Korean family in the U.S., and one of her latest poems is about her Names.

Diana Lee is a Ph.D. student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her work explores representations of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and other aspects of identity in U.S. media and popular culture. Specifically, she focuses on media portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans, implications of stereotypical and limited representation, and the educational and empowering nature of counter-narratives. Of particular interest are counter-narratives created through networked, mediated expressions, as well as participatory experiences and communities.