Stop the Press!

Sweet fancy Moses, apparently I can now blog from my ITouch, thanks to a WordPress app that comes via the new suite of iPhone 2.0 software. Hot diggety? Now no subject is safe from my critical eye? Every piece of pop culture shall know my wrath?

Will this make me a more consistent blogger? My guess is no, probably just one with fewer excuses and thus more guilt about my spotty blogging schedule. Of course, if this post is any indication, the new app may well turn me into a one-fingered typist. So long, carpal tunnel syndrome—and good riddance!

Stay tuned for further updates, gentle readers.

Fluff on Spoon

When you spend a good couple of hours in the morning searching for fan videos on YouTube, it’s almost unbelievable what you’ll happen upon.  Somehow, this morning, I ended up watching a video of the Keepon rhythmic robot dancing to a song by Spoon.

According to this article on the PBS site (courtesy of Wired Science), the video was a viral YouTube hit in 2007.  So sue me; I’m a year behind.  Regardless, see if you aren’t mesmerized by his little yellow groove.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself unconsciously imitating his moves, either.

Fantastic, no?  I find that I think I’m done about 30 seconds in, but then I keep coming back to it.  Is it the blank stare?  the mellow, spongy rump-shakin’?  [There’s something in the Keepon’s motions and expression that bear a faint resemblance to audience members at a Phish show.]  Apparently, the little guy was designed to work with autistic kids.  But what about his little, unacknowledged friend, the Peepon?  Oh god do I love a good video response.  Take a look-see for yourself:

Equally as mesmerizing, but somehow also a bit nauseating, no?  All of that gelatinized sugar.  To quote one of the best comments about the video from RustiSwordz, “Its Jabba the Hutt’s funky cousin.”  Hi-Larious.

This is now the second post I’ve written about Peeps in the last two years, and I’m a bit disturbed by that.

Back to work now.  Get out and get your groove on.

Fistful of Film Techniques

M. and I are hard at work on our summer workshop, which we’re privately thinking of as “Personal Essay Filmmaking, 2.0.”  Last year at this time, we were trying to guide our students through the incredibly complex task of crafting a short personal essay film in two weeks.  This was complicated by any number of factors: mis-advertised course times and dates and lack of lab space being two of the unexpected ones.  On top of that, there were all of the difficulties of teaching a class for the first time, and team-teaching for the first time, to boot.  In short, it’s amazing that we—and the students—made it out alive.

This time around, however, we’ve streamlined the class considerably.  Based on our recent research, we’re also actively thinking about YouTube as a space in which personal essay films already exist, in a variety of manifestations.  For the last two days, we’ve been reading personal essays with the class, and using the written text as a starting place to discuss genre, and then we’ve moved on to examining a number of YouTube videos.  We’re keeping Jenkins and Juhasz in mind here, but we’re also asking our students to take seriously the potential to produce a personal film with larger societal/cultural meaning.  As if that isn’t setting the bar, try this one: they only have two weeks to do it.  (!)

My job in class tomorrow is to provide for them a handful of filmmaking techniques that will spur their creative process, and give them some ideas about the visual and aural possibilities available to them.  I’ve been assembling clips for the past hour, trying to decide which might be the most relevant to the types of stories they want to tell, but let’s face it: the language of film is infinite, and our time in class is shockingly limited.  The task of giving them an abbreviated toolbox of film techniques (and by this, I’m thinking particularly about shots, editing effects, etc.) is a bit like asking someone to build a house, but being told that they can only have three tools with which to do it.  A hammer, nails, and a saw?  A wrench, pliers, and PVC pipe?  Point of view camera, or low angle shot?  Non-diegetic sound, or discontinuity editing?

I can’t help but be reminded of the advice of dissertation advisors everywhere: you should have three different versions of your project on tap at any given moment—the 500 word version, the 200 word version, and the 25 word version.  Tomorrow, by necessity, we’ll be going with the 25 word version of film techniques.  Perhaps there will be time at the end of the week for a longer version.

I Knew It Was Only a Matter of Time…

No, this isn’t a post about the havoc wreaked by Daylight Saving Time (although there is a considerable amount of that), neither is it a confession that I stayed in New York past my allotted time (although I was very, very tempted, camped outside the Magnolia Bakery, eating cupcakes and watching the person wearing a giant chipmunk suit dancing around in the Marc Jacobs window. God, I love New York!). Instead, it’s a post about fan fiction.

So if you’ve had the unfortunate luck to be around me for any amount of time at all this year, you’ve probably heard me wax rhapsodic about the joys and wonders of fan fiction. Really. No sarcasm at all here. Over the summer, I bought the Buffy the Vampire Slayer box set on DVD on a lark, started watching it as a break from the hard work at DMAC, and randomly looked around online for “what was out there.” Nine months later and I’m contracted to write an article about Buffy fan video. Stay tuned. [What I actually said to myself was “gee, this will be so far from work that it will be a mental vacation. It will be great to watch something that I don’t feel like I’m ever going to write about.” Oh, life-irony. You’re so clever.  Joke’s on me, I suppose.  Har har.]

The point of this is that I’ve been reading a LOT of fan fiction in my spare time. Is there some dreck out there? Sure. Does it bring up all kinds of questions about copyright? Perhaps. Is it a totally impressive, renewing-my-faith-in-the-human-desire-to-create, deeply communal practice engaged in by hundreds of people? Yup. Sure is. Let’s not forget: Buffy went off the air in 2003. Whedon stopped writing her life then, but the fans continue on. Not a week goes by that I don’t read something in the Buffyverse that blows my mind, either because of the author’s inventiveness, or the careful and considered feedback given to her, or the characterizations and/or re-imagining of the “canonical” episodes. [In fact, this week I’m fascinated by the inscription of feminine sexuality—but that’s another story.] And when you have this experience, over and over again, you begin to realize that it’s not an isolated event—this is an amazing phenomenon, period. These communities are both deep and broad; the authors slip between the fictional and the personal, the fecundity of their imaginations allow them to slip even across fandoms and to take their readers with them. For the record? Lots of loyal Buffy fans also dig Supernatural and Veronica Mars. Who knew? [And a better question: what’s the connecting point across these shows?]

So there I am, poking around on LiveJournal communities, reading from story to story, and I see it: heads up, Kate L! Torchwood fan fiction, complete with icons. In retrospect, it’s totally obvious: cult BBC show with lots and lots of ambiguous sexual behavior? It’s practically a set-up for fan fic authors—the equivalent of popcult catnip. And since Torchwood is pulling both plot points and images from Buffy (not to mention actors, as the appearance of James Marsters–a.k.a. Spike in the Buffyverse–in the first episode of season two), it shouldn’t surprise me that this is a combination that appeared early, and I expect to see it more and more often.

However, isn’t it amazing how fast a fandom is born? Torchwood is about halfway through it’s second season in the U.S., and we’re about a year behind the Brits. So, at most, we’re talking about a two year television phenomenon, yet a quick google search for “Torchwood fan fiction” yields 485,000 hits. ?!!!

I’d love to see someone track the scatter pattern of a particular fandom from patient zero onward. How many episodes before the first fic emerges? How fast do communities form? Are they largely comprised of fans from other shows? At what point do questions of canon emerge?

Video Argument, Ms. Pac-Man Edition

Apparently, I’m all about reposting other people’s content here. However, this video is up on Feministe this morn, and it’s taken from Pandagon, so I’ll just imagine that I’m sharing the love. You TOTALLY have to get over your initial reaction to hurl invective at the screen shot figure here—suffice to say that it’s a terrible representation of the yummy goodness (yummy pretzel goodness, to be exact) that comes after it, which, I’d like to say, is making me think about the rhetorics of argument via video.

I’m no rhetorical expert, and I’m sure that the peeps in comp/rhet could run circles around me here (and I encourage them to do so, both for the public service of greater knowledge, and because it’s good for their health), but there are several things that are working in this video. First: the tone is, while a bit outre, also right on for the subject. It’s colloquial, it’s entertaining, and it fits the subject matter completely (can you imagine this as a “straight” reading of the cultural value of Ms. Pac-Man? Please. What’s the point?). Second, while I’m almost always dismissive of still images, the editing in this piece is fab. The juxtaposition of picture of Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm(?) with Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan; the Ken Burns effect on the initial image of Ms. PM—it’s as entertaining as the voiceover and the nostalgic kick of the A-Ha song in the background. What I’m most impressed by, here, is the way in which the producers have integrated information and cultural analysis: reading of symbolism, parallels to the contemporaneous social and economic milieu, a short history of the origin of the names. It’s delightful, it’s informative, it’s convincing, it’s making me want to find chapters 1-3 immediately.  How does a video argument differ from a textual one?  How does it make the most of the particular affordances of its medium?  Here are some ways to start thinking about it.

This, my friends, is a keeper. And one that offers up some real-world criteria for video argument assignments.

In Your Face(book)!

Oh, the wisdom of the interweb.  You see my incredibly smart interlocutors below?  Much to think about as I try to sort out the uses/abuses of FB.  Rather than try to answer directly, I’m going to try to get at some of the ideas  that occur across their responses.

Kim and Jenn, I think, push on the practical applications of FB for users.  Kim’s  notion of FB as a one-stop shop to avoid the necessity of fresh content in multiple places is really a version of Jenn’s idea about the single place to check on RSS feeds*.  The first is about economy of produsage, the second about singularity of consumption.  In both, it’s about building a digital space that will function as aggregator of web functions.  [I can’t help but think, here, of Henry Jenkins’ “Black Box Fallacy” from Convergence Culture, in which companies beat each other about the head and ears to come up with the single appliance that will do everything that a consumer would want—games, tv, video, internet, chat, phone, launch the space shuttle, etc.  His argument, if I remember correctly, is that in the convergence moment, it’s not about getting everything in the same piece of tech, because we aren’t sure what all we’ll want combined.]  Yet, there are any number of web platforms that are struggling to do the same thing—get it all in the same place.  What becomes interesting, I suppose, is the particular functions that are included, and to what extent the particular platform encourages some uses over others.  This goes to Jenn’s guess (which seems right on to me) that students go to FB more often than Google Reader, and thus embedding an RSS app. in the former makes it more likely that they’ll keep up to date with class blog entries.  But they’re not going there for the RSS, right?  Which begs the question: why do you go to Facebook, and why do you go multiple times a day (so says the latest statistics)?

Ashley’s point is also one that’s close to my heart, and I’d wager is the one that’s had me in a dither about what kinds of information to include in my profile.  How do we structure information so that we maintain the kinds of relationships among each other that we want?  This is not just true of the teacher/student rapport, to be sure, but let’s take it as one example.   The more I thought debated about it yesterday, the more I began to wonder if these new technologies do the kind of damage that we worry that we do.  Or, in other words, is the dream of a perfect understanding of power relations among people a function of nostalgia?  When I was a grad student teaching composition ten years ago (well before the dominance of FB), I had some of the same difficulties navigating boundaries with my students that I  do now: when is it okay for us to contradict each other?  what is it that we’d like the other person to call us?  in what ways do institutional protocols enable and impede our ability to exchange honest ideas?  How do we ethically acknowledge and manage our biases, our influence, our responsibilities to individuals and communities?  In the last few years, I find myself leaning more and more toward the idea that these get explicitly negotiated on a case by case basis, and the less I expect people to know what I expect, the easier it is to articulate what I prefer (not that that keeps me from cringing when people call me “Ms. Middleton” or worse “Ms. Meyer” (my husband’s name).  That last one often sends me around the bend).  If that is indeed the case, then a FB page and its “friend” function aren’t going to change anything.  [And yet there’s a part of me that says two things in echo of Ashley: 1) I may be totally naive—it may change everything, and in ways I can’t even begin to contemplate  and 2) different student populations handle these kinds of interactions very differently.  This is not the kind of experiment I would undertake if I were, say, at a school with 25,000 students, with no time to know individual students.]

Last but not least, there’s an article in the Times today that connects a condominium in NY, designed to encourage voyeurism and exhibitionism, to the “glass house” of FB.   And like the people who have weighed in here, there are reasons for, against, and indifferent to choosing to exist in proximity to such a building.

More reports from the glass house as we go along.  Thanks to all for the food for thought!!

*Thanks for the tip about Dennis Jerz, Jenn.  I haven’t looked at his blog in awhile, but I’m going to go and see if he’s got anything up there on FB.

Caving in to Peer Pressure

All right. All right! I finally did it: I made a Facebook page.

It’s been on my list of things to do for quite some time, but a recent conversation about a former American Studies major was the incident that clinched it. I hear he’s doing great things—but I hear it second hand, because my colleague found out via Facebook. [You all don’t call…you don’t write!!] This is part of a larger notion as well: American Studies has a hard time with publicity. As a program, we’re just not that big or noisy, and so we can fall off the map sometimes.  And unlike many majors (say, biology or psychology), the term “American Studies” doesn’t immediately call to mind a field of study, and only a handful of students have had a course in it in high school.  Do we mean post-Cold War, rah-rah American nationalism?  Do we mean boo-hiss, America the imperialist?  Do we mean whoa, this is weirdest cultural formation–from confederacy to jazz, diners to nuclear bombs–ever?  I’d like it to be the case that a Facebook page would give students a way to understand what American Studies is, and who the majors are, and what they do.

But I enter into the Facebook-y world with a bit of trepidation, to tell you the truth. Only a year ago, I had a group of students tell me that they were freaked out by the presence of faculty members on FB. That resonated with me. Everyone should feel like he/she has a space where outsiders don’t watch over h/er and judge h/er.  If social networking is going to do something, let it not replicate, to the extent that we’re able to engage in its production, a digital form of Bentham’s prison.  We’re doing that just fine in physical interactions as they stand.  And yet, my intuition tells me that students and faculty members are figuring out new ways of negotiating this space, depending (as all pedagogical and human interactions do) on their specific quirks, habits, and ways of being.

For me, the “have a page but nothing on it” doesn’t seem right. Since joining gets you access to other’s pages, it feels a bit like voyeurism—people know you’re there, but they can’t see you. And at the same time, letting it all hang out there isn’t me either; it makes me deeply uncomfortable when I can’t judge reactions to information (and thus my deep-seated paranoia reveals itself). Hell, I don’t even really want to post a picture. I love privacy. I really really do. And you’d think that blogging would be counterproductive to that love, but it’s just not—or it doesn’t feel like it is. (Sadly, that’s about as media-articulate as I can be today.)

So, it remains to be seen how much and how long I’ll use the Facebook page. But I’d love to hear what works for others, and what makes them uncomfortable (or, as I just thought in my head and translated for consumption here “what totally skeeves people out”. Methinks I should not blog on weekends…)
All FB tips, concerns, or advice happily accepted. Comments are open for business.