Stories That Matter: An Insider’s Perspective on the Peabody Awards

Over the weekend, I went to New York to attend the Peabody Awards Ceremony. The Peabody Awards have been given each year since 1941 in recognition of outstanding work in audiovisual media. Initially, it was an award, granted by an independent group housed at the University of Georgia Journalism School, which recognized outstanding accomplishment in radio (created in part because the Pulitzers refused to recognize Broadcast journalism), but through the years, the Peabody has expanded to include broadcast and cable television and more recently still, audiovisual content distributed on the web.

The Peabody Awards distinguish themselves from, say, the Emmy Awards or the Golden Globes in multiple ways. There are no fixed categories; the Peabody jury can award as few or as many programs as they wish in any given year. Consequently, you do not see the tendency for one dramatic series and one sitcom to take over the Emmy for year after year without giving a chance to a broader range of programs. Beyond that, the Peabody Awards have historically been much more reception to the pop culture end of the spectrum than the other awards which tend to be decisively middle brow in their tastes. The Peabody Committee, for example, gave an award to Star Trek: The Next Generation at a time when it was not being shown respect from the other award-granting bodies. And at the same time, the Peabody has been more open to cutting edge arts and cultural programs, which might have seemed too out there for the more conservative Emmy awards.  Public media – both PBS and NPR – have historically fared much better with the Peabody Awards than with the other more commercially focused awards events, yet they exist alongside some of the most popular entertainment series.  You can see the full list of this year’s winners here.

A little less than a year ago, I was invited to become one of the 15  jury members who determine the recipients of the Peabody Awards. Just being asked to serve in this way was an enormous honor and I have relished, so far, the experience of participating in the deliberation process.  Each year, the Peabody Committee receives well over 1000 submissions, mostly from the United States, but increasingly from countries around the world (More than 40 countries submitted programs for consideration this year). There are committees at the University of Georgia, consisting of faculty and students, who review all of those submissions and make recommendations to the jury, which we weigh in our discussions. But the committee also breaks down the contributions amongst us, insuring that each entry is seen by 2-3 committee members on the first round.

For about a month and a half earlier this year, the reviewing process took over my life. Altogether, the jury meets for 12 plus days, across three sessions, held in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Athens, Georgia, as we talk through the submissions together, debating the merits of each entry, and gradually winnowing down the list. The committee is an amazing mix of veterans from the broadcast and cable world, academic media scholars, television critics, and folks from the public relations and advertising world, all of whom care passionately and think deeply about the medium. In between each marathon meeting, we watched hundreds of hours of television. By the time you get to Athens, we all ended up pulling several all-nighters as we all tried to catch up with the finalists that we had not been able to see yet.

Now, to be clear, I watch more television than most other academics I know, but the scope of the entries is so broad that we are all pushed beyond our comfort zones as we deal with material we would not ordinarily watch.  For me, the real stretch came in learning how to assess the quality of documentaries, news, and radio entries where-as I felt much more comfortable dealing with new media, entertainment, and children’s programming.  In the end, any program receiving the Peabody has to be unanimously approved by the committee, which involves a fair amount of soul searching and a certain amount of horse trading, but ultimately, what emerges is the best of the best.

You don’t go through this intense process without coming away with enormous respect for the current state of the medium. There is so much astonishingly good television out there. The more television I watched, the more I wanted to watch. I came off my first year on the committee with a long list of shows I wanted to spend more time with and now I am finding myself searching even more actively for new shows we will want to consider next year.

This year, the Peabody Awards recognized 46 programs, the largest crop in the award’s history. Yet, in chatting with my fellow Jury members over the weekend, all of us had regrets about shows that did not make the final list, but few if any about the series which did. It’s easy to get pumped up as a fan about the relatively small number of shows we set our Tivos for, shows which meet our own tastes and interests, and I am certainly hearing plenty of people saying we are in a golden era of television. But, reviewing programs for the Peabody Awards, forces you to pay attention to the things which were on someone else’s Tivo last year, programs that aren’t aimed at you, programs which you would never watch, programs you’ve never heard of, and you discover more and more hidden treasures than you might ever imagine.

Jeffrey Jones, the director of the Peabody Awards, wrote an op-ed piece in Variety over the weekend which helps to place the unprecedented number of winners into some perspective, pointing to the dramatic expansions we’ve seen in what counts as television in recent years: the growth of new digital distribution outlets such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, which are producing original programs and also giving us access to more and more programs from other countries around the world; the explosion of web-based television producers who are independent of studios,networks, or major platforms and may be distributing their work via Youtube (from whom the televisual equivalents of Mean Streets or Easy Rider are starting to emerge); the expansion of cable networks that have moved in recent years from producing reality programs towards scripted dramas and comedies. For example, Al Jazeera America, just completing its first year of operations, took away two awards this year, and there were many others that made it into the finalist or semi-finalist stages, suggesting an important new player in the realm of television news, one which is not afraid to provide minority or critical perspectives on powerful institutions, telling stories that were not being covered on the major cable and broadcast networks.

Or consider the various ways that this year’s winners intersect digital media (an area close to my own heart). Orange is the New Black and House of Cards are television series which were never aired on television, distributed via Netflix. Scandal is a series which has developed an extraordinarily active following via social media, which has helped to build its ratings and has provide a space for important conversations around race, gender, and politics. A Chef’s Life was one of several series we recognized this year which was funded through Kickstarter. The Race Card is a NPR series which relies heavily on crowdsourcing stories from the general public via the web. Hollow and A Short History of the Highrise are interactive documentaries which uniquely deploy the affordances of the web to create rich multimedia experiences. A Needed Response was a student video circulated via YouTube. And amongst the local news stories, many of them had used the web to provide richer, more interactive maps which allowed the public to “follow the money” influencing local and state politics.  All of these examples point to the ways that the media landscape is changing as it intersects with digital media.

As a cultural studies person, we are taught to be skeptical of established notions of cultural hierarchies which tend to reflect particular class, gender, racial, and generational biases. So, a big question for me when I entered the committee was what constituted “quality” or “excellence” as the board recognized it. The fact that this group has recognized outstanding cult media properties, from Star Trek in the 1960s to Doctor Who last year, went a long way to calming my suspicion of a high culture bias: as did the knowledge that in recent years, Awards have gone to series like Friday Night Lights, Justify, Girls, and Louie C.K., suggesting that they understood a range of different ways that popular culture might contribute to larger conversations.

One official criteria for the awards is “excellence on its own terms,” which may mean whatever the individual members want it to me, but it invites us to try to articulate criteria for how a series which does not necessarily match the traits we associate with “quality television” (the novelistic, the psychologically rounded, the realist) might never-the-less deserve recognition for its achievement of very different kinds of aesthetic goals.   And some of the group’s most intense and yet generative debates stem from the effort to articulate what standards should apply to programs which are more melodramatic in tone and structure, or how to deal with programs which may be cartoonish and larger than life, but which achieve real distinction in their categories.

There has justly been a resistance to granting awards based on pure popularity, yet there also needs to be away of recognizing work which has a strong public impact or which serves the needs of segments of the television audience which has been under-recognized elsewhere. Indeed, the case can be made that diversity is itself increasingly a marker of quality on television: the awards this year recognized entertainment programs such as Scandal, Key &Peele, Orange is the New Black, or The Bridge, or documentary programs, such as How to Survive a Plague,  Latino Americans, The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, or The Race Card, which dealt with the shifting demographics and racial politics of America today.

The new catch phrase of the Peabody Awards is “Stories that Matter,” and there’s a healthy debate surrounding “matter to who” and “matter in what way,” which are the questions we should be asking if the award should be seen as reflective about how we might define excellence or quality in the absence of inherited categories and fixed hierarchies. A sentimental favorite for me was the recognition which the group bestowed on A Needed Response, a  single-shot 26 second video, produced by two University of Oregon students, and released via YouTube, to increase awareness of the growing number of cases of sexual violence on American college campuses. The committee saw something there which both seemed emblematic of the emergence of new forms of campus activism which takes advantage of expanded access to the means of cultural production and circulation and seemed distinctive and generative in the ways it reframed the debates around sexual violence through its intervention.

At the same time, the awards are torn between a focus on the global and on the local/regional. On the one hand, the awards went to a record number of programs produced outside the United States, including Denmark (Borgen), France (The Returned), Pakistan (Burka Avenger), the United Kingdom (Broadchurch), Canada (Orphan Black), amongst others.  And on the other hand, there was real respect paid to the continued importance of local news coverage, which becomes all the more important as many local stations are abandoning their commitment to investigative journalism and no one is holding local and state officials accountable for the performance of their duties. We might think about these two competing tugs when we look at two food-related programs which earned recognition this year – on the one hand Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, features the famous chief as he travels around the world sharing with us what he learns about local cuisines and practices, and on the other hand, A Chef’s Life is the story of a farm-to-fork eatery in North Carolina, as the chef introduces us to the folks who grow her ingredients and the local traditions which shape southern cooking.

This weekend, we paid respect to the recipients of the award in a ceremony held in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and hosted by This American Life’s Ira Glass. It took quite a while for Ira to introduce and bestow awards on the 46 recipients, but each of these sets of producers had won their moment in the spotlight and each had a moment to showcase their work and share their thoughts with the audience.

I have to confess I was star struck for most of the event, as we saw distinguished journalists (Tom Brokow receiving a life-time achievement award, Charlie Rose getting recognized for his interview with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad), important producers (Ken Burns), top performers (from Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad to Joel Grey representing a PBS documentary on the Jewish legacy on Broadway), global pop stars (Aaron Haroon, representing Burka Avenger), each pass across the stage. There were so many moving moments: from four of the Central Park Five standing on stage  and getting an ovation before an Manhattan audience , to Henry “Skip” Gates describing the way Bill Cosby’s Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed helped to inspire his own entry into the field of African-American studies to a young black student who figured strongly in 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School describe how he was able to graduate in the face of adversity and get accepted into college, to the purple haired University of Oregon student who gave a powerful speech about the “rape culture” on the country’s college campus.

These are what Noel Holston calls “Peabody moments,” moments when we see just how much these stories really do matter to the people involved, and where those of us who helped to select the winners feel that all of those weeks of hard work really do matter to those who received these awards.

I am already bringing my experiences working with the Peabody Awards into my classroom, using them as an opportunity to encourage students to reflect more deeply on the criteria (implicit or explicit) through which we judge television and the blind-spots in our own viewing habits. I’d love to encourage readers of this blog to share with me shows you think I should be watching more closely as I prepare for my second year on the board.

 

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Four)

Early on, you quote Lucy Bradshaw from Maxis as saying that her company has “a real respect for the player community” and the term, “respect,” runs across the book. What do you think these companies mean by “respect” and how does it relate to the value they place on fan labor?

 

The term respect came up in a good few interviews with various developers and it especially seemed to be a part of the Maxis ethos – their attitude to the gamers participating in these co-creative relationships. This respect had different dimensions and was expressed in different ways by different developers.

For some developers respect meant their appreciation for the creativity and innovation evident in the player created material. Following from this it meant supporting the players to express and realise this creativity through the quality of the tools that they provided and the support implemented around those tools. Many commented on how what the players achieved often surprised them.

Respect also meant how they communicated with the player community and valued their input and feedback about various aspects of a game’s ongoing design and development. Respect, in the terms Bradshaw raises in her interview with me, also meant recognising the value that the players’ co-creative practices contributed, including economic value.

 

Now as the various accounts of these co-creative relationships detail in the book, what this respect meant and the limits of it were often contested and debated among the developers. Some designers and lead producers raised dilemmas around the extent to which it is possible to include gamers fully in the design process, commenting on problems of ‘design by committee’ in which the committee now includes the unruly and very diverse views and opinions of online gamer communities. In sorting out the limits of respect and what this meant the developers and managers also struggle with the ambit and boundaries of these co-creative production relationships.

I think you see these struggles emerge in the discussions about the economic value of these various forms of participation (for example in the interview you refer to with Lucy Bradshaw, but also in the interview with Will Wright in the book’s conclusion). They don’t dismiss the value of, for example, the content created by players. But they do contextualise this with all of the professional labour, materials, technologies and infrastructure that the developers and publishers provide to enable and support this player creativity. Bradshaw uses the image of a ‘handshake kind of relationship’ that enables player creativity but also benefits from that creativity. I don’t think the developers (or the players) fully come to terms with the nature of this relationship and the exchanges of value that are occurring. But that is to be expected, as they are still very emergent and evolving.

 

You found yourself embeded inside the games company for part of your research process. How did this experience color your understanding of the corporate motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labor?

 

I was employed by Auran from 2000 to 2005 as an online community manager. I think this experience colored my account by influencing my decision to foreground the professional labour and craft-skills that contribute to co-creativity. I also wanted to emphasise the diversity of developer understandings of co-creativity and indeed the conflicts and differences among developers that shape these relationships. I’ve tried to describe the diversity of these motives and assumptions shaping co-creative labour rather than reducing all of that to something like a logic of capital or even a singular developer identity or position on all of this.

Here I hope this account might also contribute to illuminating developer studio culture for fields such as games studies – a topic that I think is underexplored. Other researchers including Casey O’Donnell (who has a forthcoming book, Developer’s Dilemma, with The MIT Press) are also doing important work on this . But in pursuing this have I unhinged my account from important structural or systemic conditions such as overarching corporate interests and agendas that characterise capital.

By emphasising the diverse understandings and motivations of developers and gamers do I risk overlooking the extent to which these very understandings are shaped by such structural conditions, which is different from determined by them. Even if these understandings are canny and knowing am I perhaps avoiding dealing with the conditions of capital that contribute to all of this?

Perhaps – these are good questions. They came up for me in a rather different context recently while reading Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In this book Boyd tackles many of the myths and moral panics surrounding teens and social media by making room for their voices and experiences, including the diversity of that experience. In the process she establishes that it is indeed complicated.

My book kind of reaches a similar conclusion about co-creative production – it’s indeed complicated.

One of Boyd’s key points is that the social behaviours she explores among teens are adaptive. In my book I’m very interested in these emerging, adaptive practices in the context of the networks of co-creativity. In the introduction to her book Boyd also acknowledges the “capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media…” but then comments that … “although I believe that these assumptions should be critiqued, this is outside the scope of this project”. Is that just a cop out? If this is so then how can you consider the implications of teens’ use of social media without tackling such an assumed logic?

An interesting point to consider here is that perhaps the adaptive behaviours and practices that she describes so well just cannot be understood in terms of “the capitalist logic”. Not in the sense that they escape or oppose such a logic, but more that the dynamics and processes involved don’t quite make sense in terms of such a singular logic. At least this was my sense as I undertook the research for my book and also in my experience working in the games industry. Such frameworks (political economy critique) and assumed logics just didn’t provide the explanatory traction that I wanted to understand these kinds of adaptive and emergent behaviours and dynamics.

 

How does the concept of co-creation challenge older logics that have governed cultural studies work, such as resistance and co-optation? How might we characterize the ways these fans/consumers/produsers relate to the corporations which are acting on their collaborative designs?

 

The logics that you mention – ideas of resistance and co-optation – are often framed by a quite specific political economy derived understanding of a logic of capital – a structural or systemic understanding of capitalism and a critique of that system. This is the context in which the question of labour is also often raised, as labour provides the ground for critique of that system.

 

The way I approach co-creation is to start with the participants’ understandings, practices and behaviours. I don’t start with assumptions about broader capitalist logics and then ask well are these practices coopted by or opposed to those logics.

For many of the co-creative practices I describe these ideas of resistance and cooptation just do not provide explanatory traction and they aren’t the frameworks or terms in which the participants themselves generally understand the practices.

 

I’m interested in the microfoundations (following an emic approach), the social interactions and behaviours, which constitute co-creativity. I’m not rushing to explain co-creation in terms of macroeconomic outcomes or in terms of general logics of capitalism. Instead, as developed in the book’s final chapter, I’m drawing from fields such as economic sociology and cultural sociology, through the work of David Stark (Sense of Dissonance) especially.

 

My approach is that the kinds of capitalist dynamics playing out around co-creative production (so concerns around commodification, emergence of markets, labour, innovation, and so on) emerge from and through these interactions. By working at this micro level I seek to understand the dynamics of capitalism (changing conditions of cultural production around co-creativity) from the actors’ perspectives. But by drawing from work in economic sociology such as Stark’s I also seek to avoid the problems associated with rational actor theory.

My argument is that this micro perspective is crucial – describing and analysing these emerging phenomenon from the perspective of the actors themselves and the decision or choice problems they grapple with. This is very much the model and approach I develop, especially in the book’s final chapter in collaboration with Jason Potts.

 

When you ask how we might characterise the ways these co-creative gamers / consumers relate to the developer companies and publishers I emphasise that it is diverse and I foreground in the book their understandings of this. Some view it as a rewarding opportunity to have their views and opinions influence design and development. Others at times are suspicious and skeptical about the commercial motivations driving the developers. Others view it as an opportunity to learn more about game development and gain skills in this area. For some it is about the quite intrinsic rewards that come from contributing to an online game fan community.

In my research I’ve seen individual gamers move through a spectrum of attitudes and behaviours towards the developers – from warmly embracing and appreciative of the work the developers put in participating in and supporting these relationships through to outright hostility. But in describing and understanding this diversity I’m trying to get a handle on the micro foundations of co-creativity.

 

The next problem to tackle though and which I don’t pursue in the book, is how do these capitalist dynamics, the macrophenomena if you like, operate when approached from the perspective of the actors’ understandings, interactions and behaviours. This is the meso problem of linking or articulating the micro to the macro. I start setting up an approach to this by drawing from evolutionary economics and ideas emerging from network theory. A lot more work needs to be done here with thinking that through and figuring it out. This concerns the emergence of novelty: how new organisational forms, behaviours and identities emerge. But in all of this I also try to maintain the ethnographic commitment to the lived experiences and understandings of the participants’ themselves.

There is a tension there in those aims and I think that tension is there in the book and I hope it works as a productive tension. For example, there is material in the ethnographic description and interviews that rubs up against the model of co-creativity I develop in the later chapters. They certainly don’t align seamlessly.

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

 

 

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview With John Banks (Part Three)

You are arguing that respect must be paid in thinking about co-creation to the multiple motives shaping the various participants. How would you characterize those motives?

 

The argument about how multiple and diverse motivations and incentives shape co-creative practices is central to the book and I develop this out fully in the final chapter with my colleague Jason Potts (an evolutionary economist). Our argument here is that these participants aren’t acting from just economic or cultural (extrinsic or intrinsic) motivations but often from both simultaneously. Too often, as we criticise in the chapter, co-creativity is approached as an opposition between commercial and non-commerical domains. You see this for example in Yochai Benkler’s work, which privileges and valorises a gift economy grounded in intrinsic motivations and incentives.

 

Our contention is that co-creativity might be more helpfully approached as co-evolving relationships. Co-evolving market and non-market contexts that draw in the complex interrelationships between multiple contexts, incentives and motivations. Throughout my account of co-creativity the non-market and non-pecuniary motivations (a gift economy if you like) are very clearly evident. People undertake these projects for a range of intrinsic motivations, including values associated with altruistically contributing to the gamer community. But to then valorize these emerging networks as necessarily or in some sense inherently non-market is a mistake.

 

I try to account for the motivation and incentive diversity that I encounter in my research. Yes this includes the business bottom line of games developers and publishers achieving profits. But the developer side here also isn’t just constrained to these incentives – I hope the account that I provide sufficiently foregrounds the motivations around craft-skills and professional identity in which developers have a sense of intrinsic reward from contributing to these co-creative networks.

Among the players themselves some headed in an entrepreneurial direction, what started out as nonmonetary hobbyist practice developed into pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities. Others provided accounts of how their participation in co-creative communities helped them gain skills that became job opportunities, for example as online community managers.

Co-creative production cultures then rather than being approached as distinct and incommensurable economic and cultural domains, with their related incentives and motivations, is more a site of dynamic and emergent relations between markets and non-markets. But in saying this I’m not suggesting that these activities should simply be reduced to their market or economic value.

 

The perspective developed in the book’s final chapter is that both market and non-market relations may be occurring simultaneously with analysis then focused on how they mutually affect and continuously transform each other. In my ethnographic research participants often did not display evidence of neatly or sharply compartmentalising different aspects of these contexts and then resolving them into actions that reflected say straightforward trade-offs between commercial and non-commercial interests. Rather, they sometimes behaved as if these multiple contexts and distinct tensions were characteristic of the situations and decisions they encountered.

 

When does co-creative labor become exploitation? Is there a sharp line that can be drawn between the two or are things necessarily blurry at a time when new paradigms are emerging?

 

My approach has been to try and identify when the participants themselves are grappling with this – what do they understand as exploitation and the contexts in which it occurs. How do they deal with the blurriness that you mention?

For example, in the chapter, ‘Co-creative Labour?’ I provide an extended account of a gamer content creator reflecting on the value of an item of content he had created and the use made of this content by the company, Auran. In an email exchange with me the content creator, Marlboro, observes that ‘… frankly my feelings towards Auran were always mixed…. On one hand I admired the guts to approach a niche market, the concept of customer communication, support, innovative ideas etc. On the other hand I thought to see through a thin veil the attempt to exploit the community’. Marlboro’s analysis here is quite sophisticated and canny. This approach to working through these relationships and value exchanges with the games developer was not uncommon; many of the gamer content creators had very similar discussions with me.

 

What occurred here is that his understanding about how Auran would distribute and use his content was not entirely clear and indeed the norms this community had developed on this, especially norms of transparency, had been infringed by Auran. But keep in mind this same content creator was often very supportive of Auran’s approach to player created content. As he put it, his approach to this was ‘mixed’. He doesn’t identify these practices as necessarily or inherently exploitative, but he was prepared to call Auran on practices that he felt were unfair and exploitative. So this was very much about emerging norms around the nature of the value exchange occurring between the players and the company. This involves adapting and adopting norms for dealing with the dilemmas arising from these complex exchanges characterized by multiple and mixed motivations and incentives.

As companies such as Auran seek to engage their consumers as co-creative participants consumers’ expectations of how companies will participate and the terms and conditions of that participation also transforms. When the player co-creators consider that these norms or implicit contracts are infringed they then start to question the practices in terms of fairness and exploitation.

 

An area that is unfair is the formal legal instruments that purport to govern these relationships and here I’m referring to EULAs. These agreements (if you can call them that), seldom if ever fairly acknowledge or reflect the nature of these relationships and the value players are creating. The agreements are generally totally one-sided.

Co-creative consumer rights if you like and the duties or obligations of corporations around this are just not reflected in current consumer protection. But on this, at least in the case of Auran games, I found the ways in which they managed their relationships with the player co-creators was just not at all reflected in these legal agreements. Essentially the developers’ practices, at least in this case, were generally far more reasonable and equitable than formally expressed in these agreements. But that’s no excuse – and these agreements really need to be more reflective of the reality of these co-creative production relationships.

 

A significant issue for the players was transparency. They wanted to know what the developers were intending to do with the co-created content and they also wanted detail on decisions made by the developer that impacted on these co-creative relationships. There were norms and expectations forming around this communication. This was along the lines of ‘we know you are using our content in various ways and gaining value from that, but we want you to inform us of this and give us an opportunity to express our views’.

Sometimes Auran mismanaged this communication. At times the communication was very sophisticated and respectful at others it was very clumsy. Part of this I think was to do with the company and its staff figuring out how to manage these relationships effectively and fairly. There were also challenges around adequately resourcing and staffing this area of game development. This required Auran managers coming to terms with the fact that it was integral to their development activities, not just an ancillary activity of marketing and communications that could be left to the publisher. But when players thought that these norms and expectations around transparency and communication were infringed they would then start considering the practices to be unfair or exploitative.

 

In the book and indeed in this interview I emphasise the importance of the players’ understandings of these relationships and their capacity to form canny judgments about all of that. But this does depend on a certain level of knowledge and transparency so that they can make informed decisions. There is a definite power differential here in terms of the developers’ control over that and their willingness (or not) to share that information with players.

 

From the perspective of the developers – the producers, programmers, community managers, and designers – they often struggled with meeting the players’ expectations around all of this. They sometimes felt that they were inadequately resourced, especially in terms of scheduled time, to fulfill and follow through on the commitments that had been made to the players. This was particularly a concern among those developers who were committed to supporting these co-creative relationships. And it is important to note here that this commitment was very uneven across the development team at Auran and indeed the extent to which the developers should contribute to these co-creative relationships as part of their jobs was debated among the developers – there was not a singular developer position on all of this. Nevertheless, there was a sense here that meeting player expectations often added just more work to their already full schedules and that this was sometimes unreasonable and unfair.

 

These co-creative production practices are still emergent and unclear. So the norms around the nature of the value exchanges (these markets if you like), what’s fair and when exploitation occurs, are still somewhat if not necessarily blurry. My interest here is in how the participants themselves negotiate and coordinate to resolve these dilemmas.

 

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part Two)

You’ve been studying co-creation in the games industry over an extended period of time. Can you describe some of the changes you’ve observed over this period? What was the status of co-creation when you started your research and how would you characterize its status now?

 

When I started studying co-creation in the games industry back in 1997 I was actually uncertain as to what was going on here, what was I looking at. As were the participants themselves. I recall approaching it, from my disciplinary perspective coming from cultural studies and media studies, as possibly a case of active audience and/or fan community practices. My reference here included your book, Henry, Textual Poachers. That book was in my backpack when I undertook my initial fieldwork and first interviews in 1997 with games developers and gamers.

What struck me at the time was a sense of the developers, including those in senior management, trying to figure out the nature of these emerging relationships with the players and why they would invest in them. Greg Lane, Auran’s CEO, on a few occasions when I discussed this with him, mentioned he wasn’t sure if they would gain any direct financial or commercial benefit from their activities with the fans, but the fans and some of the developers seemed to enjoy it and it was therefore worth exploring. He viewed it as an investment in the player community that he hoped might also eventually gain a commercial return. But he was also committing time to supporting that and the time of developers because he gained a sense of intrinsic value and satisfaction.

 

From that point back in 1997, at least in the context of the central ethnographic study in the book, this co-creative activity grew – from involving the players in design and development feedback, through to online and offline marketing initiatives, through to the quite extensive reliance on user generated content. As I suggest in the book, this was no longer an ancillary or marginal activity –  it was becoming core. This content and the gamers’ co-creative practices were contributing directly to the commercial viability of this product – a train simulator in the case of the book’s central ethnographic case study.

This shift was captured for me in a key moment when I worked at Auran as a community manager in 2001. I shifted my desk from sitting with the marketing and web team to in with the development and design team. This was because a big part of my role had become liaising between influential content creator members of the gamer community and the core Auran development team. Before that, although requiring some contact with the developers (the programmers, designers and artists), my position was viewed as more of a marketing and communications role I guess. This definitely shifted.

Part of my decision to move the desk was also about getting a closer ethnographic insight about what was going on. But it was also about being able to do my job better as an online community manager. Figuring out the implications of this shift across the next few years as I saw it play out at this workplace and as it was negotiated between the developers and the gamers was a big focus of my research and of the book.

 

The most recent shift I’ve seen is around how big data and data analytics contributes to games development and indeed if this can be approached as co-creative at all. I first encountered this in 2007 while undertaking research on Auran’s development of Fury (a failed MMOG). At the time there were disagreements among the core team of developers, the Fury gamer community (especially those involved in the play testing) and the online community managers about reasons for the games problems and the quite critical reception it was receiving from the gamers participating in the testing.

At a particular meeting one of the developers dropped on the table a print out of data taken from that past weekends play testing. He used it to support his view that many of the players making arguments on the forums were “uninformed” and that the data proved (captured from their interactions with the game) something very different from the players’ views as expressed on the forums.

Now the community managers contested his interpretation of that data, but at the end of the day, as my fieldwork journal noted, ‘we just got trumped’. At the time this provided a quite telling case of game developer studio culture and the various forms of expertise and craft involved in that. As I discuss in the relevant chapter 5, ‘Co-creative expertise’ co-creation is very much about how these diverse and conflicting forms of knowledge and expertise (both amateur and professional) interact and converge.

 

What I didn’t quite see back then was the shift here in the way the gamer was being figured or represented in these exchanges – as data traces really. For me questions were also raised about the power of that form of knowledge and around how it was being mined.

Is this co-creative? I guess that depends on how that data is used and how transparent all that is to the player.

In the book’s conclusion I include material from an interview I did with Will Wright (designer of games such as The Sims and Spore) in which Wright touches on how designers can increasingly capture metrics about players’ behaviours and then potentially feed that back into the game to change the game experience. He mentioned how ‘… we’re just kind of scratching the surface of that now’. In more recent research I’ve undertaken over past few years with Halfbrick (Brisbane, Australia based developers of Fruit Ninja) this issue of data analytics has very much come to the fore. But there isn’t a single developer perspective on these issues around data analytics. Programmers, lead designers, producers and so on often have very different opinions and approaches on, for example, how big data might inform game design.

 

 

In the academic realm, the major push-back against co-creative production has come from critics writing about “free labor.” What does that critique get right and what does it get wrong about the kinds of practices your book discusses?

 

The labor question is incredibly important in the context of co-creation. A central focus of my book is how developers grapple with the challenges and opportunities of co-creative production at the coalface of their everyday workplace – the game development studio. Co-creativity is not just about the bottom up, peer-to-peer participation of gamers and fans. Co-creativity requires the craft skills and knowledge and commitment of professionals and experts.

So in the book I seek to describe the lived experiences and understandings of these professionals and citizen consumers as they together explore together the opportunities and challenges of co-creative production. An important point here that I mentioned earlier is paying close attention to their understandings of all this. This is the ethnographic impulse I guess that orients much of my research.

These understandings are diverse. For example, professional videogames development teams are often far from united in their support for co-creative production or for the value that these engagements offer. Throughout my now well over a decade research on this one of the clear points coming through again and again is that producers, designers, programmers, artists, CEOs, marketing and community managers all have very different understandings of these co-creative relationships.

 

The ‘free labor’ argument going back to Tiziana Terranova’s work and others such as Andrew Ross is that through these kinds of co-creation activities we see significant value generated that creative industries rely on. Following from this the argument is made that this extraction of surplus value is unfair and exploitative. Furthermore, co-creative production practices may also contribute to the precarity of creative professionals working lives. The concern here is that this ‘free labor’ may replace the jobs of media professionals. This political economy critique questions accounts that emphasise the empowering and potentially democratizing, participatory potential of these activities.

 

What does this critique get right? For me what it gets right is foregrounding questions of work and labour. In the book my approach to this is to focus on the participants’ (both users and game developer professionals) understandings of these topics. In ‘Chapter 4: Co-creative labour?’ with Sal Humphreys, we approach all of this as a question. Indeed, there are a lot of questions posed in the chapter. Should we approach these co-creative activities as a form of labour? What are the impacts of these practices on the employment conditions and professional identities of videogames developers? If we accept that labour is a helpful category then should we approach this as a case of exploitation in which surplus value is extracted by capital in such a way as to reduce costs and potentially displace paid workers?

We suggest that co-creative media production may sit uncomfortably with such political economy critiques. I guess I’m open to criticism here that in doing this I become an apologist for, or at least complicit with, the interests of business and capital. In this book I’ve tried to avoid what I find to be quite unhelpful and polarising polemic around these issues.

I don’t think my book is especially valorising or celebratory of co-creativity, at least I hope not in any panglossian sense. I most certainly have concerns about market excesses and exploitative labour practices that can characterise the videogames industry. Nevertheless, the argument I develop is that co-creative production should not necessarily be approached as cheap content or unpaid and therefore exploited labour.

One of the keys for me here is that the participants themselves (the gamers and the developers) do not often approach it or understand it in these ways. Sometimes they do – at moments in the ethnographic research participants do raise the concern that the practices are becoming exploitative or unfair.

The way I’ve approached it then is to try and understand co-creativity as a dynamic and often contested mechanism for coordination and change in which the participants are adaptively experimenting with these opportunities for mutual benefit and endeavouring to figure out what that mutual benefit looks like and how best to realize that. Yes exploitation can occur and yes work practices and employment conditions are at stake. But I’m just not convinced that the language and framework of exploitation and extraction of surplus value necessarily explains what is occurring here.

 

The co-creative relationships cannot easily be reduced to corporate exploitation of the gamers and the professional developers. I try as much as possible to take my lead from the often quite nuanced understandings of the participants themselves. I struggle with the assumption that there are social forces (exploitative and manipulative) at work behind the actors’ backs as it were.

I question this ‘unknowingness’ by suggesting that the players and professional developers often do know what they are producing and the conditions under which this is occurring and they often do not understand this in terms of exploitation. They are usually quite canny and indeed competent participants in the shaping of these relationships. They make informed judgments about the nature and conditions of the value exchanges and transactions that are occurring.

I question an assumption that academic critics are in some sense blessed with an ability to see through manipulative or exploitative practices that the participants themselves are blind to. However, in making this point I’m not saying that exploitation and unfair practices don’t occur. The ethnographic description in the book includes extensive coverage of participants (including the gamers) identifying such occurrences and working through their understanding of this.

 

I’m just not convinced that political economy critique adequately grapples with the flows and exchanges of value characterizing co-creativity. These flows can be very different from say a displacement of professional labour by unpaid creative labour. Instead we need approaches and models that grapple with how economic outcomes and incentives sit alongside and co-evolve with social and cultural outcomes. But in all this yes the question of labour is crucial. We need to keep posing the difficult questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these industries, as does for example Gina Neff in her important book Venture Labour.

 

As an aside on this, I’m also interested in how the kinds of workplace and labour issues I’ve seen in games development also occur and are experienced in other areas of media production. For example, in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2013 Harper), Sean Howe vividly describes the experiences of comic book writers, artists and editors in the ‘Marvel bullpen’ as they weathered the turbulent boom and bust cycles of the comics market. In reading this book I was struck by the similarities to videogames development and it raised for me questions about sustainable and rewarding livelihoods in these volatile industries.

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

 


Why Co-Creation Matters: An Interview with John Banks (Part One)

The other day, I received a question — via tweet — from a reader: “New practices that are emerging in cyberspace: Is it more of the same? Is it capitalism in new bottles?” This is a fundamental question which anyone who has been paying attention over the past two decades of media in transition has found themselves rethinking again and again. For me, the way this question is so often framed suggests an either-or logic: either everything has changed or nothing has changed as a consequence of the process formerly known as “the Digital revolution.” And the clear sense here is that “nothing has changed” as long as the structures of capitalism remain in place. My own belief is that changes can be local, gradual, and particular, and still matter in terms of the quality of life, the diversity of culture, or the democratization of governing institutions.

Let’s stipulate, as lawyers might put it, that economic systems, understood on a grand level, are surprisingly resilient. There are relatively few models that have emerged around the planet over the course of human history and they are slow to change. So, whatever we want to say about the current economic context in the United States, it’s still capitalism.  Let’s also stipulate that within those larger models, all kinds of local changes are occurring all the time in response to other shifts on the social, cultural, political, legal, and technological levels. We have changes, say, in terms of the mode of production or the systems of exchange or the conditions of labor that matter. Some are describing the current moment as one of Neoliberalism, but I am not convinced this framing fully captures everything that is going on.

And in order for these changes to occur, there are all kinds of localized experiments through which we collectively explore other alternatives and see how they work out in practice. Many of us hoped that the web would be a place for such experimentation, exploration, and speculation, where at the local level, other alternatives might emerge. Many of us wanted to see what would happen if we expanded dramatically who had access to the means of cultural production and circulation, if we explored what would happen if more people had a creative say in the cultural institutions and practices that impacted their everyday life, if we experimented with what a more diverse and participatory culture might look like. All kinds of amazing and all kinds of deeply disturbing things have emerged as a consequence of those ongoing experiments. How could it be otherwise? And the results of these experiments have been unevenly distributed across the culture, some moving rapidly, some slowly, towards wide-spread adaption.

If we look back over those twenty plus years, what has emerged has been a mixed bag — not simply “more the same.”  I don’t think the rewards of all of these experiments can be reduced to the language of the “free labor” critique: new forms of exploitation with no real gain for the communities that are seeking to shift the conditions of their existence. Yet, I also don’t think what has emerged has been as “revolutionary” as some of us might have hoped.

One of the people I know who has reflected most deeply about these issues is John Banks, who has spent more than a decade exploring the concept of co-creation and traced its impact  within the games industry. In Convergence Culture, I had pointed towards the games industry as a key example of a creative sector which has adopted a more collaborationist relationship with its consumers, often encouraging them to build freely on its products to see what might emerge from such grassroots experimentation, and in some cases, reaching out to core groups of consumers and bringing them more directly into the production process, seeking their advice on new products and their suggestions for design decisions. Banks was a graduate student at the creative industry program at Queensland University of Technology, a program led by Stuart Cunningham and John Hartley, and out of which have come such key thinkers about digital matters as Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Joshua Green, and Alan McKee, among many others.  Wanting to understand how this co-creative labor worked, Banks embedded himself as a community manager inside an Australian games company, Auran, placing himself at the point of contact between consumers and professional creators. Through this research, he has yielded some core insights into what changes — and what doesn’t change — when companies embrace co-creation as part of their production process.

In the interview which follows, Banks looks back over that decade of research. He reflects on his recent book, Co-Creating Games, but also looks beyond it, to try to assess the complexities and contradictions which have surfaced through some of these experiments. There is a degree of nuance here which we rarely see in discussions of emerging labor and business practices, a refusal to accept “either-or” answers. I think his comments provide the clearest explanation I can offer as to why co-creation is more than “capitalism in new bottles” but also not quite as revolutionary as some people might have once believed. All those we enter here, be prepared to think (and rethink).

 

You titled the book’s introduction, “Co-Creating Matters.” Let’s break it down. How are you defining co-creation and what are some of the ways that co-creating matters?

 

Co-creation concerns the practices through which users and consumers take an active role in generating value in the domain of cultural production and consumption. In the context of the videogames industry I propose in the book’s opening sentence that gamers do not just play videogames; they also make them. The boundaries between playing, producing and consuming blur as player consumers collaborate and cooperate with each other and with professional developers to design, produce, circulate and market compelling videogames. So this is about shifts in the conditions of cultural production. My starting point definition in the book is that co-creativity occurs when consumers contribute a non-trivial component of the design development, production, marketing and distribution of a new or existing product. Here I’m drawing on others work, including yours Henry on participatory, convergence cultures and colleagues such as Axel Bruns on ideas of produsage.

 

In this book though I’m less interested in a static definition of co-creation than I am in describing the processes and practices that constitute this phenomenon. My approach is ethnographic and I’m very much led in my research by that ethnographic commitment to describing the lived experiences of media industry professionals (in this case game developers) and gamers (consumers and users) as they explore and negotiate the opportunities and challenges of co-creativity. So the micro behaviours and practices are very much my focus. In the book’s introduction I refer to ethnographer Paul Rabinow’s comment in his study of a biotech company (Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology 1996:17) that ‘the anthropologically pertinent point is the fashioning of the particularity of practices’. This has been a guiding aim throughout the research that informs Co-creating Videogames – to describe the particularity of co-creative practices.

 

You ask what are some of the ways that co-creating matters. I guess that is one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out over the decade or more in which I’ve undertaken this research. The starting point is that it does matter – it is significant culturally and economically. Value is being generated through these practices – both cultural and economic. But what struck me very early in the research was the quite diverse ways in which these practices come to matter and the dynamic and conflicting relations among these ways of mattering.

 

I’ve tried to avoid assuming how co-creating matters and to explore how it comes to matter for and among the participants (both professionals and amateurs / users) and to describe how this mattering is negotiated. I guess this is the inquiry that orients this research, by not starting out knowing what I’m looking for or looking at. Part of all this is also seeing or trying to see the materiality, the technologies and materials, that contribute to shaping co-creative practices. This struck me very early in the research; in my first visits with the videogames developer, Auran games, and involvement with the gamer fan community forming around their games, this question of technology and tools came to the fore. The developers talked to me about game engines, code, servers, tools and so on. Their daily work practices involved all of this.

In one of my early contacts with a member of the Auran fan community (this was back in 1997), the company had just released their hit real-time strategy game Dark Reign) a member of that community, VR_Bones, contacted me. VR_Bones got on a train with his PC box and visited me at my home. It was a good 30 minutes or so train journey for him and he then walked to my home (another 10 minutes or so from the station) lugging his PC game rig. He wanted to show me some content, user created content, he and a few other members of the community had made for Dark Reign (these included user created maps and some AI routines that would modify the behaviour of in game units – so mods).

He spent a good while walking me through the challenges they were confronting in using the tools Auran provided to make this content. He also raised concerns about how Auran was not quite providing the level of support and information they needed to continue with this work. At the same time he praised Auran for the fact that they were engaging with the player community and listening. As he put it, ‘hey they are listening isn’t that great, each week they have a chat session online with us. And some of the guys, the devs, on the team, they provide us with helpful information and answer our emails and stuff when they have the time’.

 

Shortly after the visit from VR_Bones I went into the Auran studio to have a crack at my first interviews with the developers. I sat with a young programmer who was hunting down bug fixes in the final stages of a game project. He was very focused on that screen and the conversation was kind of stilted and uncomfortable. He was trying to describe stuff to me, the core of his job really, which I just didn’t get. When I raised the developers’ relationship with the online gamer fan community and the work they had been doing with them he got a little more animated, but kind of dismissed me gesturing at his screen and commenting, ‘I should be getting back to it’.

Understanding what that “it” was for him and his fellow developers and how all this played out in relationship to the activities I was seeing with the gamer fans, I wanted to understand that. This meant figuring out how to get better access to the studio, how to spend more time with the developers and so on. Back then I didn’t have a term for it, the kinds of interactions I was seeing and participating in between the developers and the players, I certainly wasn’t calling it co-creation back in 1997. I was trying to frame it then in terms of ideas of active audience and fan cultures. I first used the terms co-creation to start grappling with all of this in a book chapter I wrote back in 2001, published in 2002 (‘Games as Co-creators: Enlisting the Virtual Audience – A Report from the Net Face’).

 

I think there’s a lot about mattering in this brief vignette from the early ethnographic research that I’ve been trying to unpack ever since.

 

There’s the technology question that I pursue as a theme in the book, including a dedicated chapter, ‘Co-creative Technologies’ that explores this in the context of a dialogue with actor-network theory and others who take up this question of technologies and materiality such as Ian Bogost. There’s the question of the nature and characteristics of the value being generated through these co-creative practices. For VR_bones and his fellow gamers it mattered to them, they had a lot invested in this activity and in the materials they were collectively making and sharing. For him it was also about learning by participating in these networks – learning about games development and AI.

There is also an exchange of value here between the developers and the community of players – what are the terms and conditions of that exchange, the expectations, understandings and indeed misunderstandings about these transactions. This concerns a dynamic and at times volatile and uncertain relationship between economic and commercial motivations/incentives and other non-commercial motivations and incentives.

 

At its heart this book is about the participants’ diverse understandings, motivations and incentives that collectively contribute to making co-creativity. These participants include technologies – so humans and non-humans. What also matters in this, in the negotiation of these co-creative relationships, is the different forms of knowledge and expertise.

I address this in chapter 5 ‘Co-creative expertise’. Co-creativity relies on if not requires networks of amateurs and professionals, experts and non-experts. This blurring of the professional-amateur divide, however, is never easy or straightforward. It is often contentious and conflictual. I think that comes through in the ethnographic accounts of co-creativity as it plays out in the game developer workplaces. But nor are these complex and at times quite fraught relationships necessarily an impediment to co-creativity. They are the very conditions through which co-creativity plays out.

This also brings out another issue that matters here. The everyday work practices of professional media workers are at stake in these co-creative networks. Co-creativity can unsettle the expertise, employment and identities of media professionals. The question of labour and work conditions matters in all of this as well. It is a thread that I think runs through the entire book and has a chapter dedicated to it – ‘Co-creative Labour?’. Finally another aspect of matters concerns the debates and discussions among academics as we attempt to grapple with, analyse, understand and explain emerging phenomenon such as co-creative production.

 

 

John Banks is a senior lecturer and researcher in the Creative Industries faculty, Queensland University of Technology.  He researches and publishes on co-creativity, innovation and social media in the creative industries, especially videogames and interactive entertainment. He has a special interest in organisational and workplace culture.

His past decade of research on the topic of co-creativity in the videogames industry culminates in the recently published book Co-creating Videogames (2013 – Bloomsbury Academic).  Banks is currently lead investigator on an Australian Research Council (ARC) industry linkage research project investigating the sources and processes of innovation in the Australian interactive entertainment industry.

S Is For Storytelling: A Primer for Future Activists

As the Spring term ends here at USC, and we enter into the summer months, I am being asked about my plans. While I have a few away missions, I am mostly staying in Southern California where I and my research team (Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik) are going to be drilling down on our research on Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics, a project funded by the MacArthur Foundation and part of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics Network. Our hope is to come out of the summer with a completed draft of our collectively authored book, By Any Media Necessary. If you read this blog with some regularity, you will have seen an increased focus on this work over the past year or so and you may have seen my coverage of our webinar series of Storytelling in Digital Age Civics, featuring young activists. Our post-doc Liana Gamber-Thompson, who recently became a mother, has been reflecting deeply on what we learned through those webinars and has come back with this thought piece about our research. Enjoy!

 

S is for Storytelling
Liana Gamber-Thompson

There are a lot of things you miss out on when you have a sixth month old baby: sleep, personal hygiene, eating meals with two hands. But for all the bleary-eyed diaper changes and spit up-stained shirts, there are a million moments that fill your heart to the brim, countless simple pleasures that make the daily challenges dissolve quickly into the depths of your memory. One of those simple pleasures is reading to your child.

Part of our bedtime ritual includes rifling through the box of board books and choosing just the right story to tell. I often land on a small, colorfully illustrated book called A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara (it should probably come as no surprise that the son of a postdoc with a sociology degree and a high school English teacher would be gifted such a thing upon his arrival). Nagara mixes a recitation of the alphabet with explanations of different types of activism, taking his reader on a journey from A to Z with stops like “F for a feminist who fights for fundamental rights,” “G for grassroots sprouting from below,” and “Z for Zapatista (of course).”

The entry for D reads:

Little d democracy.
More than voting, you’ll agree.
Dictators detest it. Donkeys don’t get it.
But you and me? We demand equality!

The last time I leafed through the story from the comfort of the nursery rocking chair, baby boy propped on my knee, I lingered on this page. “I guess even children’s books are kind of over institutional politics these days,” I thought to myself. I thought also about the stuff that occupies the corner of my brain that’s not devoted to keeping a tiny human alive: my academic work on youth and politics.

True democracy isn’t really about voting or parties or any of the other trappings of “Big P” politics at all. That sentiment as been echoed time and again by the young people I interact with as part of my research for the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics, an effort made possible by the MacArthur Foundation’s research network on Youth and Participatory Politics.

In 2012, I interviewed young libertarians from across the country about their views on partisan politics and how their political identities connected to their digital lives and experiences online. What I found was a passionate group of young people who were interested in political issues but who were not so interested in getting involved in politics.

Part of their disillusionment stems from the perception that politicians on both sides of the aisle lack the ability to communicate effectively, compromise, or engage in civil discourse. Zachary Slayback, a student at the University of Pennsylvania and self-identified libertarian, explains:

I think people from both sides, both within and outside politics, can look at the youth libertarian movement, see its breadth of views and intellectual perspectives, and see how we all are still able to get along and have rational, civil discourse, and take that as a general lesson.

If anarchists are able to sit in the same room as classical liberal bleeding heart welfarists and have a reasonable discussion on the proper role of government, then surely two people who disagree over 2% in budget cuts should be able to do the same.

Kaja Tretjak, a postdoctoral research fellow at SUNY Buffalo Law School who has done extensive research on the student liberty movement, says that young libertarians are interested in creating a “dynamic grassroots presence to transform society…rather than using a political system that is seen, by many people in the movement, as inherently corrupt and ineffective for their purposes.”

And it’s not just libertarians who are feeling disenchanted with politics as usual; we’ve heard young people from across the political spectrum express their frustration with the seemingly limited options for effecting change through traditional mechanisms, and recent studies bear this out as well. A March 2014 Pew report on Millennials entering adulthood suggests that half of all Millennials choose not to identify with either political party and only 31% say there is a “great deal of difference” between Democratic and Republican parties.

Still, the story is not all one of doom and gloom (and besides, I’m not really in the business of inciting moral panics about the kids these days). But if young people are bypassing traditional politics more and more, how do they engage in meaningful change in 2014?

Media scholar Ethan Zuckerman has used the term “participatory civics,” the use of digital media to engage in political discussion or share civic media, to talk about the kind of contemporary engagement that continues to grow and flourish in the absence of faith in the political system. He argues, “It’s not that people aren’t interested in civics. They’re simply not interested in feeling ineffectual or helpless.” In light of that sentiment, young people in particular are turning to more “participatory” modes of engagement, relying on their familiarity with participatory media platforms to effect change.

As part of their engagement in participatory civics, young people are increasingly tapping into the power of storytelling to assert voice and influence in an age when trust in partisan politics is at an all-time low. Storytelling has become an essential tool in the era of digital-age civics.

In a recent webinar series on the topic, sponsored by our research team in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, the Black Youth Project, and the Media Arts + Practice division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, more than twenty young activists came together to think about the affordances and challenges of digital media for civic action and discuss how political narratives are created, produced, spread and recontextualized through their “digital afterlife.”

The participants in this convening showed how, even in the face of swirling public debate on young people and “slacktivism,” or “armchair activism,” the simple act of storytelling can create big change. Take, for instance, the case of Tani Ikeda, founder of ImMEDIAte Justice, an organization that provides girls with the resources and training to tell their own stories about gender and sexuality through film; or Jonathan McIntosh, a pop culture hacker who has reached a wide audience with his video remixes (like “Buffy vs Edward” and “Donald Duck meets Glenn Beck”) to spark critical conversation about topics ranging from gender representations in popular culture to politics and news media.

For many of the webinar participants, telling their stories was a way of asserting (and sometimes finding) their voice. As Zuckerman argues, “voice begets voice,” meaning that it’s easier for people to talk about tough issues or share their personal experiences when others are doing it, too. Erik Huerta, who blogs by the name, El Random Hero, describes how, after he “came out” as undocumented online, he started sharing personal stories via his blog and other social media platforms about how his undocumented identity shaped his everyday experiences. He characterized the process as akin to putting out a “message in a bottle” to reach others, and as something that, in time, gave him the confidence to get involved more actively in organizing around immigrant rights.

The reach of the storytelling practices like those employed by Huerta can also extend beyond voice; sometimes those practices lend themselves to political influence in the traditional sense as well. Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children, participated in the first webinar in our series on “finding your story” and described how storytellers often start small by taking inspiration from “inciting incidents,” or small kernels of revelatory knowledge. Russell explained how his inciting incident was finding out about child soldiers in Uganda ten years ago; he went on to produce a series of films about the conflict in Uganda, including Kony 2012, the most “viral” video of all time.

Kony 2012 garnered a great deal of controversy, with critics questioning the organization itself, the potential impact of the film, and the seemingly weak level of engagement it invited. Still, despite the criticism, the film spurred the proposal of a bipartisan resolution in Congress condemning the acts of Joseph Kony. Invisible Children’s other films also sparked more instrumental change, with President Obama signing the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act in 2010.

University of Arizona Professor of Sociology, Jennifer Earl, has suggested that it’s time scholars begin to think about what a digital “repertoire of contention,” looks like, a term Charles Tilly used to describe the set of movement tactics available to social actors in any given historical period. Based on the evidence we’ve uncovered, it seems storytelling should be included as a key component in such a digital repertoire because all signs point to the fact that young people today are particularly adept at using storytelling for change–and that’s something we can all be hopeful about.

Young people’s creative use of storytelling to enact civics—to get us one step closer to that “little d” democracy Nagara describes in his children’s book—is not only an inspiration, but a testament to the power and enduring nature of stories more broadly; it seems almost too obvious to say that stories are, at their core, elemental to the human condition.

But these stories mean nothing if they fall on deaf ears. Joan Donovan, co-creator of InterOccupy.net, observed, “Most [people] focus on social media as a way to broadcast our own lives, but these platforms are also a place to receive stories.”

One day, sooner than I can likely imagine, my baby will outgrow my lap and our rocking chair, and he’ll probably grow tired of all my stories. But I hope by the time my sixth month-old is grown up enough to be telling his own stories, I’ll be wise enough to “receive” them with an open mind. Because the most important thing we can do (as adults, as educators, as activists ourselves) when a young person says, “Let me tell you a story,” is listen. And I’m all ears.
This essay is reposted from Medium.

 

Liana Gamber Thompson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate working on the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC. She also facilitates the Civic Paths graduate research group at Annenberg. Her fields of interest include popular culture, identity and authenticity, and gender and feminism. She is currently investigating how youth engagement in participatory cultures, online networks, and new media leads to civic engagement more broadly. Specifically, she is looking at how libertarian youth organizations participate in these processes and their various strategies for achieving particular political goals, both electoral and discursive. Liana earned her PhD in Sociology and Feminist Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2010. There, her research focused on teenage girls’ social and affective uses of popular music and the transgressive nature of fandom. She has also taught courses on popular music and cultural politics, community and social justice, the sociology of emotions, and new media and technology.

 

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part Two)

We’ve just learned that Joshua Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asia America has just been been awarded the 2014 ATHE (Association of Theater in Higher Education) Outstanding Book Award! Karen and I are so proud to be working with such outstanding scholars for our Postmillenial Pop book series at New York University Press.

KT: Your chapter, “The Nail That Stands Out: The Political Performativity of the Moriyuki Shimada Scrapbook” offers some very personal, very moving first-person accounts of your own childhood experiences with your mother as a “mixed” racialized subject, and about your own struggles with legibility coming to the fore as you confront the parable of “the nail that stands out.” Could you explain a little more to our general readership about your own relationship to performing one’s own story in work that is explicitly about racialization? How is the personal, biographical, or anecdotal a part of your methodology? And how might it stand in concert or at odds with the logics of narration in legal discourse as well as performance studies?

JC-L: I feel deeply ambivalent about the place of the personal/anecdotal in this book. The “I” in this book—with the exception of that one passage in chapter four and the dedication to my grandmother—remains at a critical distance throughout A Race So Different. I’m Japanese, Black, and white, and in some ways my relationship to the question of racial justice is shaped by this accident of autobiography, as Gayatri Spivak might call it. How could it not be?

Being a person of color can give one a particular perspective on the experiences of racialization and racism. These experience and perspectives are often ignored or debased by a dominant culture that still refuses to accept that racism continues to play a critical role in shaping of US American life. As critical race theorists like Mari Matsuda have taught us, personal narrative can be an important and useful way of disrupting the legal discourses of the dominant culture. But it also has its dangers.

Rey Chow has done perhaps more work than anyone to show us how the seeming liberation promised by the minoritarian scholar’s personal reflexivity and self-referentiality can become a cage that traps this scholar within identitarian coordinates. So while one must sometimes respond to the dominant culture’s elision and erasure of minoritarian lives by articulating and telling the stories of our lives as they are lived, I also believe that we must be strategic in how we do so. And, perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t give everything away: I want to protect certain secret forms of survival and intimacies that structure minoritarian lives from a culture that so often takes such knowledge, appropriates it, distorts it, or guts it of its operative and insurgent potential.

If there’s anything I might say about my turn to the anecdotal that isn’t ambivalent, it’s this: the story I tell in chapter four is about something that my mother, Shadi, taught me as a kid in order to help me survive the racist and homophobic environment of Colorado, where I was raised. And I wanted to honor my mother, who is as much a theorist of race, sex, class, and gender, and a practitioner of minoritarian survival, as any of the famous philosophers, scholars, and artists that I engage with in the book.

KT: Finally, what are some of the broader stakes for you of doing a book like A Race So Different and situating it in a series about popular phenomena using contemporary methods in a contemporary moment? Who are some of the broader audiences you hope to reach, and what would you like some of your project’s “takeaways” to be? To what extent is this first project the foundation for some of your new work on Marxist theory and minoritarian performance?

JC-T: It was important to me to show how cultural forms (including, especially, the popular) should not be divided away from legal or political forms. This is because, as I argue throughout the book, they are inextricable from each other. When I disaggregate the parts of a system (e.g., separating the law and aesthetics from each other), I lose a more comprehensive vision of that system and become less capable of taking the system apart in order to build something better.

In this way, the mode of ideology critique that undergirds this book is largely inspired by Marxist theory. For me, Marxist theory is both an interrogation of system, capital, and labor as it is a philosophy of emancipation. It felt like a logical extension to explore more fully the relationship between Marxist theory and minoritarian performance in the next project. The law, too, will be present in that project because law plays a key role in the reproduction of the conditions of production.

As to the question of audience: On a deeply personal level, José Muñoz was and always will be the primary audience of this book. It began as a dissertation under his care and he read it and supported it, challenged it, and thought through it with me at every stage. The fact of this book is now difficult because it is part of a conversation with and inspired by him that is left incomplete by his death.

But, obviously, one doesn’t write a book for only one person. So perhaps it would make the most sense to say that it was written for the subjects of the brown commons. It was written for all of us who are struggling to make this world better because we cannot abide the insufficiencies of the here and now. And it was written for those of us who still believe that aesthetics will play an important role in this coming transformation of our conditions of existence, as they always played a role in revolution and transformation throughout all history.

KT: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and, of course, for sharing your project through our book series. And I, personally, find your closing words about the brown commons and José—a dear friend and mentor to me as well—an especially apt, and moving way to frame our conversation, and our own scholarly intertwinement.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part One)

The following is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books in the Postmillenial Pop series which I co-edited with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. In this case, Karen Tongson did the interview and wrote everything below.

Among the most recent titles in our Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press is Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson’s ambitious first monograph, A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America. Chambers-Letson brings together a range of cultural phenomena in the “long twentieth century”—from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to, Ping Chong’s Chinoiserie, to the contemporary, L.A. based indie band, Dengue Fever—in order to illuminate how the legal histories of Asian Americans, in the U.S. are deeply intertwined with genealogies of performance. More specifically, the law itself becomes a genre of performance in Chambers-Letson’s work, as it shapes, defines and calls into (legal) being Asian American bodies through exclusion, relocation, extradition and rendition. Trained as a performance studies scholar, Chambers-Letson is interested more broadly in how we find performance practices beyond the stage, and in the genres of the everyday, including popular culture. He took the time to speak with me about how he imagines his work on Asian American law and performance in a much broader political and scholarly context.

KT: Allow me to begin with a simple “chicken or egg” question, since our readers are always curious about what inspires the eclectic projects that have appeared in our series. In other words, when you first began to conceptualize the project, did you begin with the legal archives and debates, or did the specific case studies and performances inspire you to look deeper into the legal and archival materials?

JC-L: Rather than a sequence, I usually began with the question I wanted to explore and then followed the question to the right place. The book is trying to offer a theory of the state that makes a simple point: the law has an aesthetic dimension and aesthetic forms often mediate and transmit legal knowledge. Court opinions have their own narrative conventions (including wit and humor, rhetoric, tone and style) and court cases are often staged in a theatrical fashion or through legal ritual. In turn, a show like Law and Order is one of the prime ways that many people gain access to the law and (sometimes manipulated or mutated) legal knowledge. As such, the main thing I wanted to address was this conjunction of law and performance.

Because I was approaching the project in a fashion that blurred the line between law and aesthetics, there wasn’t really a sequence to the way I gathered material. You know, the last thing the world needed was another chapter on how racist Madame Butterfly is; so that’s not the chapter that I wrote. Instead, I started with the question: how can I think through the ways that popular works about culture mediate and disseminate legal discourse. Since so much of Madame Butterfly is concerned with questions of law, and since the legal discourse in Butterfly so neatly lines up with legal narratives that were being produced about Asian and Asian Americans in US courts at the time, it seemed like the right place to go to answer that question.

From there, I shuttled back and forth between the legal archives and the cultural site. This is cheesy, but my favorite comfort food is oyako-donburi, which is basically a rice bowl with simmered chicken and egg. There’s no sequence to it, they all happen at the same time.

KT: Not cheesy at all (I also love a good donburi), but definitely delicious! Moving on…I’d like to follow up a bit about your interest in the law and legal studies, especially since your graduate training was in performance studies. The relationship between the two can be traced to the moment when “performativity” (viz. Austin, Butler and others) entered conversations about “performance” in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And yet your work does so much more to expand the category of performance in relation to the law, since it moves beyond the speech acts that “declare” certain legal statuses into being. What were some of your larger objectives in bringing together the two categories and approaches, and how did you come up against some resistance to the idea that the “law” is in many respects, also a “stage”? I think this will be of interest to some media scholars who are also invested in the legal and political economy of their objects and how they’ve been legislated.

JC-L: By exploring the conjunction between law and performance, I was interested in exploring questions raised by Austin and Butler, as well as questions posed by Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, Louis Althusser, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and José Muñoz. There’s a funny moment in Leviathan where Hobbes makes fun of Aristotle. He goes on to lambast people who believe in the idea of a government that is ruled by law rather than by men. This is because in the final instance the law is only as good as the people that execute or perform the law’s commands.

Schmitt does a similar thing in his attack on legal positivism when he reminds us that all law is situational and it is precisely because law has interpretive gaps that it is a political—and I would also say performed or embodied—art.

Althusser asks us to consider how it is that our own everyday performances of life come to realize the ruling ideology as it is transmitted through ideological apparatuses such as the law. From Sedgwick I learned that the distinction between performativity and performance, or say law and aesthetics, is a false distinction and that we should be suspicious of the binarization of these two.

And Muñoz taught me in Disidentifications that the operative fictions and apparatuses of the dominant culture, in this case the law, can be played with through performance in order to survive hostile conditions and even survive them.

By asking these kinds of questions, I hoped to show how it is that we can better understand how the law works, how it lays claim to our bodies, and how we might be able to disrupt this claim. I also wanted to press home the point, one more time, that cultural production is as much an ideological apparatus as the law and that the conjunction of the two is central to the reproduction of our conditions of existence.

KT: As you know, our book series is interested in popular cultures and phenomena broadly defined. We were of course captivated by the expansiveness of the cultural archive in A Race So Different, moving as it does from Puccini’s (popular) opera, Madame Butterfly, to the contemporary So. Cal “Cambo-rock” of Dengue Fever. How do you feel your book implicitly and explicitly provides its own definition of popular culture? How do the objects in your book exceed their contributions to “Asian/American” performance (as some are wont to isolate texts featuring Asians/Americans) into a broader, transcultural, transmedia framework for the popular?

JC-L: My friend C. Riley Snorton recently released a beautiful book about the discursive circulation of the “down low” within popular culture. I see his project as being very much in conversation with my own. In that book he returns our attention to Raymond Williams’ three-part exploration of popular culture as being “low” or “base,” work that is meant to appeal to the masses, and work that is simply consumed in mass. I followed an impulse similar to Snorton’s approach, which was to break down the distinctions between a work of “high” art (like opera) and more popular forms (like melodrama or rock music), to show how they bleed together.

I also wanted to show how the daily rituals that structure our lives should be included within the sphere of the popular, as with my studies of the taking of personal photographs for a scrapbook, the mounting of a high school play, or the schoolroom performance of the pledge of allegiance (all from within the Japanese American concentration camps of World War Two).

I’m not sure if the book provides a definition of popular culture so much as it asks whose agenda is being served when we carve out certain forms of culture as “high” (opera or avante-garde performance) from the “low” material of popular culture (scrapbooking, rock music, community theater). The division between “high” art—which is often the work associated with the economic and cultural elite—and “low” or popular culture is one that we should be suspicious of insofar as it reifies a division of intellectual and cultural labor that contributes to the reproduction of class and social hierarchy.

The book focuses on Asian America in order to ground and illustrate these larger points. My hope is that it does as much work for helping us to think about the specific conditions under which racial meaning comes into being for the Asian American body as it does for thinking about the way cultural practices within the popular realm shape all of our broader material and social realities.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Three)

You write in the book about feminist uses and critiques of online learning technologies. What might the tradition of feminist pedagogy have to teach us about the limits of the current fascination with MOOCs?

The FemTechNet white paper http://femtechnet.newschool.edu/femtechnet-whitepaper/ emphasizes the fact that appeals for open access to education have a long history that go back to the settlement house movement, and this history continues through various cyberfeminist projects, so open education certainly didn’t begin with Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, and feminists aren’t hostile to openness, although they do value how the embodied “live” classroom can serve as a safe space to explore uncomfortable issues.

The problems begin with the fact that the “course” part often reinforces traditional power structures, because a – usually – lone white male expert – unchallenged by any dissenting opinions and divorced from dialogue with others – transmits information as gospel to a passive audience unable really to answer back.  It’s really time travel back to the pedagogy of the nineteen fifties from before the free speech movement.  At such a “massive” scale it’s also impossible to form interpersonal relationships with students and to be accountable to their personal needs.

 

One of the more provocative passages here centers around Tim Gunn’s performance on Project Runway and its various online extensions. What might academics learn about the construction of their public personas by studying how Gunn has presented himself through this series?

 

There is a lot of talk about trying to be the “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” in the pedagogical literature and also about project-based learning in which students need to iterate, experiment, revise, explore, deliver, and reflect.  It is hard to miss these aspects of education if you like to watch episodes of Project Runway.

It’s also the rare reality show where the hugs for a disappointed student look genuine.  I tend to like the early shows the best, from when fashion mentor Tim Gunn was still an administrator at Parsons with a much more professorial personality.

I like the fact that he displays a sense of humor – as well as empathy and high standards.  It’s a spirit that I aspire to bring to my own academic appointments, although I am a much less natty dresser.

 

You argue that the current fascination with badges often confuses notions of “earning” and “learning.” Why is this an important distinction to maintain? Why do you think badges have been so appealing to educators and funding organizations? How do they illustrate some of the limits of thinking about education in terms of gamification?

Assessment is always a challenge to educators, so I understand why instructors are desperate to find methods other than high-stakes testing at which so many talented students who are good at revised work fail or alternatives to the grades that serve as a source of so much conflict and so much labor in justifying grades rather than providing feedback that actually enlightens or changes behavior.  (However, as a rhetorician I actually enjoy reading grade complaints, because they tend to be quite well-written; students have a strong sense of purpose in approaching the task of writing a grade complaint.)

I argue that badges don’t necessarily get us out of the problems that we have with grades, and they work against holistic assessments that are easier for multiple audiences to interpret.  But, as they say, “never say never.”  Right now I am working with my colleague Wayne Yang on an interesting project that might involve badges.

In the book I criticize the general trend toward gamification in education, and I would also recommend the forthcoming volume from MIT Press that is edited by Sebastian Deterding on the subject.  Like many educators interested in digital media and learning, it’s irritating to see game formats adopted very superficially without much consideration about how people learn more deeply from interacting with the rule-based systems of games.

I also have a more specific gripe about emphasizing the goal of happiness rather than the goal of understanding when thinking about how games serve as a model for learning.  Games can be a very effective way to explore the procedural character of concepts like injustice, which is important in a well-rounded education, and I don’t have much patience for advocates for positive psychology who emphasize what I think are much more simple-minded and self-centered personal rewards.

 

In the book’s conclusion, you ask: “How can we influence the digital university to be more inclusive, generative, just, and constructive?” In many ways, this is the central theme of the book. What do you see as some approaches to digital media and learning which might satisfy those criteria?

In the final chapter I propose six general principles, so if someone wants to give a copy of the book to a university president as a not very subtle hint about how to chart a new course when it comes to instructional technology, there’s essentially an executive summary with a list of recommendations.

In general, I think that “technology” is imagined too narrowly to mean only brand new digital technologies to be used only for formal traditional instruction that need to be purchased from instructional technology vendors.  But in our Culture, Art, and Technology program, we remind students that technology can encompass many things.  After all, windows that let in light or chairs that move are also instructional technologies.

I also think that we define learning far too narrowly to focus only on objectives from courses listed in catalogues and ignore all of the other things that students learn not only in college but also in many other contexts in which people interact and communicate. In Sixth College we emphasize “experiential learning” and encourage students to learn from faculty in settings other than the classroom, such as laboratories, field sites, clinical settings, or community centers.  That’s the place for exercising all those so-called “soft skills” valued by employers that higher education can develop.

If we don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to digital technologies, experiment ethically, pay attention to failures, avoid fetishizing novelty, and most of all listen to our students, I think there is actually tons of hope for doing great work generating new knowledge together in the university setting. 

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.

 

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Two)


You reference two different analogies which are commonly used to describe the “crisis” in higher education — that of the health care system and that of the newspaper industry. All analogies foreground some factors and mask others. What do these metaphors allow us to see or prevent us from seeing about higher education today?

I think both of those analogies involving how traditional institutions are being transformed by so-called “disruptive” technologies emphasize different aspects of the college experience, since faculty both nurture and inform students.  In the case of newspapers, technology supposedly lowers costs, while in the case of healthcare, technology (and patients’ dependence on increasingly specialized expertise) raises them.  With the rise of telemedicine and smart phone applications for health, supposedly technology can lower costs as well, but we aren’t yet seeing any reductions.

Many of the arguments both for and against technology that I deconstruct in this book rely on metaphors and logical comparisons of various kinds.  For example, Henry Eyring and Clayton Christensen go on and on about the “DNA” of innovative universities.  Anya Kamenetz has so many metaphors per page in DIY U  that I couldn’t even analyze them all.

My general rhetorical strategy tends to be to emphasize narrative rather than metaphor to persuade my audience to think critically about the instructional technology movement.  I tell stories with descriptions and plots and characters that I hope can counter some myths.    

 

What are some of the ways that classroom practices that claim to increase student engagement and provide opportunities for greater participation actually limit student voice and agency?

Student engagement is a buzzword often used by vendors to mean command and control.  The idea is that students are disengaged because they are multitasking with texting or web surfing, and we need to keep them busy with relevant tasks that are so demanding that they are forced to pay attention to the instructions from the podium.

The technology that I probably loathe the most is the clicker.  Certainly, these handheld response systems provide short-term behavioral rewards to students who click in the right answer promptly in large lecture halls, although I wonder if they can apply that knowledge to real world situations or retain it for a lifetime.

I will admit that really good teachers know how to use clickers as a way to stimulate discussion and explore assumptions and raise questions.  But if you have really engaged students by learning their names and recognizing their faces, you can get the same results by just asking them to raise their hands.

Certainly just giving students an identifiable serial number tied to a device that can be tracked instead doesn’t do much to reduce lecture hall anonymity.  Being surveiled is different from being validated.  At their worst clickers can push the idea that higher education is just a matter of choosing the right answer on a multiple choice quiz.

 

Throughout, you take a strong stance against those who want to “blow up the schools” or advocate various forms of unschooling practice. What do you see as some of the core arguments against this recurring theme in popular discourse about pedagogy which seems to want to abolish formal instruction?

I am particularly concerned about how already constrained community colleges that do an amazing job with very limited budgets could receive even fewer public dollars when taxpayer money gets diverted to service loans for distance learning at for-profit institutions or gets spent on gizmos destined for the dustbin.

I am a big advocate for community colleges.  They respond to the concerns of local citizens.  They offer courses at night.  They educate high school students and senior citizens.  They serve students planning to transfer to research universities and those needing vocational education.  I used to take a course or two at a community college every year.

James Paul Gee also makes a great argument in The Anti-Education Era about what he calls the problem of “the school of one.”  If we only have autonomous learners racking up their college credits like points in a video game from home, they may not develop the collaborative and communicative capacities needed to solve really complex problems collectively.

The Kansas Board of Regents recently imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by their faculty. How might the debate around this policy shed light on some of the fault lines you discuss in your book — particularly around assertions of academic freedom and efforts by universities to shape public perceptions?

In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use.  Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice.  Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.

We’ll see.  It probably depends on getting scholarly professional associations interested, which they already are to promote new forms of communication, particularly when so many academic presses producing print monographs are unsustainable.

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.