Please Open (Your) Textbooks…

Seems that at the beginning of every semester, I see another blog post or news story about the skyrocketing prices of textbooks and how renting or subscription textbooks are the answer.

There have even been studies that show students are refusing to buy textbooks (whether because they can’t afford them or because they think the prices are outrageous), despite the inevitable hit to their grades.

just the ones i'm getting rid of

A pile of expensive paper, never to be read again (image by plutor CC BY)

In my class, I decided to confront this problem by matching my practice to my subject. I teach a section of a class called “Principles of New Media.” One of the topics we cover is Creative Commons licensing.

I decided to choose all of my required readings from those available under Creative Commons licenses.

The basic tenet of Creative Commons is that the default license should be permissive of sharing, rather than restrictive. Of course, there are different levels of permission. At the core, all CC licenses require attribution. This is the most permissive license, known as CC BY. As we tell our students: you must cite your sources.

But different CC licenses also permit or restrict various forms of reuse.

“No Derivatives”, or ND, restricts the creation of works based on a CC-licensed work. Therefore, the work can only be reused as-is.

“NonCommercial”, or NC, means that you cannot charge for reusing the work.

“Share Alike”, or SA, requires that any work derived from the licensed work must be released under the same licensing terms.

These four attributes can be combined in any form to arrive at the six possible Creative Commons licenses: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, or CC BY-NC-ND.

For the texts in my class, I start with the CC BY-NC-SA text The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg and published by NYU Press.
I then add readings individual readings that are available under various CC licenses, like Lev Manovich’s new book Software Takes Command (ironically, at the time of writing this post, the book is currently unavailable at that official address due to a software problem) and whitepapers by Tim O’Reilly and others.

And if students want to buy a copy of any of the books, they are available in physical copies. Most of my students, however, read on their tablets, computers, or print out their own copies.

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (image by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

And if I continue teaching this class, my choice to use CC licensed texts will allow me to remix and add to the texts. I can find and incorporate newer articles by the books contributors, like Jay Rosen, danah boyd, Lawrence Lessig, or Clay Shirky, among others–as long as the newer writings are also CC licensed.

I cannot prove that students are more likely to do their readings than if they had to buy a textbook for my class. But at least now if they do decide not to do the reading, I know it is not because of the outrageous price of textbooks.

What I learned in my international archival research

This break, I spent time in Moscow, conducting dissertation research. This archival trip has been useful, not only for my dissertation research, but in a way I never expected: helping my pedagogy seemingly unrelated to my research topic.

(requisite image of St. Basil's for any post about Moscow)

(requisite image of St. Basil’s for any post about Moscow)

As a foreigner in Russian archives and libraries, I expected some bureaucratic red tape, therefore I planned ahead. However, no matter how much you try, bureaucracy will always find a way. Even with very helpful librarians and archival specialists, I faced multiple forms, access requests, and unexpected hurdles. This post is an attempt to record my experience.

I won’t go into the forms needed just to enter Russia, as there are many websites dedicated to helping with that. But I will just say that you must begin preparations months—six months would be ideal—in advance. Once you arrive, make sure that you have all of your documentation: Passport, Visa, Migration card, Visa registration, Letter of introduction from your home institution, Russian phone number, Russian address where you are staying. Got all of those? Good, you are ready to head out to your research site.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

Beloved Dostoevsky guarding the entrance to the main Lenin Library in Moscow.

In a nice bit of Gogolesquery, in order to enter most libraries and archives you will need your propusk [pass]. In order to get this propusk, you have to register with the library past the guard’s station where you need to show this propusk. For some libraries, the process is simple as telling them that you are a new reader and going to register. Other places require calling the librarian on duty to come and escort you to the office where you apply for the propusk. The good news is that the librarians in charge of issuing these propuski are generally very helpful and quick. So it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so to get your privledges.

Despite a national set of “Rules for the Reader,” (a multipaged set of bureaucratic rights and privledges that you either are asked to read or given a copy of at each location), every library or archive has its own system for carrying out those rights, registering its readers, requesting materials, and requesting copies. Since you will be asked to read over these rules so quickly, best to familiarize yourself with them well ahead of time.

Hand over your letter of introduction, printed on official letterhead and specifically stating the subject and dates of your research topic. Turn in your passport, visa, migration card, and visa registration. Fill in the registration form, which could be as simple as a notecard or as long as a couple pages and require an attached photo. And hope you filled everything in correctly. You will then, if all goes well, receive your official propusk with a blue official stamp.

Good to go!
(image by Damian Yerrick cc-by-sa)

Next comes the request for materials. While collections are starting to be indexed on computers, the main way to find documents is still an extensive collection of handwritten and typed (but not digital) indexes (putivoditeli). These are similar to finding aids you will find in US archives, but the yellowing pages and corrections entered in pencil cultivate a sense of history I have rarely felt when working with the more familiar MS Word docs and slick websites or even the physical card catalogues. Each collection (fond) has its own putivoditel or shelf of putivoditeli that indexes the sub-collections (opisi), files (dela), date of deposit (data), and number of pages (listi) in the delo. Some archives vary slightly in what these elements are called, but these are the elements you will need to request a file. Depending on the archive, you may also need the (very lengthy) description of the delo. (In my research, many of the descriptions would not fit in the space provided on the requisition form. We will see if my attempts to abbreviate worked.) Be prepared to fill out the forms multiple times. The smallest mistake can cause you to have to fill out the whole form again. But the archivists are very helpful in checking for you and will let you know if anything is out of order on your request. Turn in your requisition form, and then wait. Anywhere from one to three days. According to law, they aren’t supposed to make you wait longer than three days, but I have heard stories of requests that took longer because the files had been sent into storage outside of the city.

Remember how I mentioned the date of deposit? This seemingly unimportant piece of archival trivia is indispensable for researchers hoping to access “personal files” (lichniye dela). Personal files and files containing potential state secrets have been sealed for a period of 75 years from the date of deposit. This is something that is not well publicized on the websites of the collections, but which the archivist at RGALI was very helpful in pointing out. Supposedly, you can request access earlier than this date with the permission of the subject or the subject’s family.

When you finally receive the files, personal photography (a real time- and money-saver in my previous archival research) is usually prohibited. So be prepared to take your copious and extremely detailed notes or cough up for the $1-$3 per page copying service.

No cameras

After this experience, I definitely have a greater understanding of what my students must feel going through a completely new bureaucratic system like our libraries here in the US. I knew that I needed to provide support to my students when requiring research for class projects, otherwise I would just get a lot of Google-search-based papers. But I thought providing links to the helpful guides already provided by our libraries would be sufficient. However, my experience attempting to navigate an unfamiliar library system showed me how beguiling (and contradictory) mere documentation can be when encountering a new library for the first time. My contextual knowledge of how to navigate US libraries and archives was of limited use. My ability to “speak library” stopped at the border, and I had to learn a new way of maneuvering through these collections.

[Navigating library catalogues doesn’t have to be scary]

Rather than merely pointing my students to online resources that outline what services our libraries provide, scheduling a class period to meet with the subject area librarian no longer seemed like pedantic overkill. For students who are not used to navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple databases, physical and digital collections, as well as the technology resources available in our libraries, just learning where to start can be confusing. And this is without the hurdles due to class, linguistic, and past educational background biases faced by many of our students.

The Ole Miss Project

Two weeks ago, a news story lit up my RSS and Twitter feeds. A college production of The Laramie Project at the University of Mississippi–better known as Ole Miss–was disrupted by homophobic shouts from football players in the audience.

Ole Miss Rebels player L.Q. Smith scores a touchdown against Notre Dame in 1977

For me, this was a play that seemed dated in its activists tendencies. The play has even seen a celebrity TV version on HBO–a sure sign for any activist cause that the last vestiges of controversy had been stripped out of an artwork and remade for mass consumption. This is a play we teach in our theatre history classes to explore the sociopolitical climate of the 1990s and early 2000s. There has even been a revisiting of the source material, when the Tectonic Theatre Company went back to Laramie ten years later. The original play was stuck in its activism of the identity politics era, so even the original theatre company needed to update it. But obviously, this view was the result of my location within the echo chamber of East Coast liberalism and the academic theatre. In fact, a play like this can still reveal much about communities in which it is performed. As was evidenced by the reaction at Ole Miss earlier this month.

Despite the way that the play is usually advertised as a play about the dangers of homophobia, it is actually much more complex look at a small town in the midst of the media circus surrounding the Matthew Shepard murder trials. This community view–and not the simplistic moral “don’t hate gay people”–is the lasting importance of The Laramie Project.

When I took part in a reading at my college over a decade ago, we were caught up in the liberal, feel-good project that this play afforded us on a mostly like-minded small liberal arts campus. Our play was not activist since we were performing for the choir, After the performance, everyone, actors and audience together, could share a good cathartic cry and feel good about ourselves that we had taken part in this piece of important political theatre.

Not quite agitprop, but still thinking we were doing important political theatre

Not quite agitprop, but still thinking we were doing important political theatre

The production at Ole Miss, however, seems to have brought renewed life to this play that I had dismissed as dated. The Laramie Project at Ole Miss brought up many stereotypes. Not just the stereotypes held by the disruptive audience members. Stereotypes that out-of-touch liberal East Coast elites hold about the South.

If a production of this play can provoke this kind of outburst from students at Ole Miss, then obviously the themes touched on in the play are not as outdated as I assumed. There are places in this country where this kind of play is still dangerous. Of course, you might say, this was Mississippi, we expect that the students would react negatively to this play. We should not fall into the trap of painting all students at Ole Miss with the same stereotype.

The coverage of the event is telling. The New York Times–that grey lady of stodgy East Coast elitism–made sure that its readers knew that Ole Miss was only forcibly integrated in 1962 and that racist protest against the President occurred there as late as 2012. These events seem unrelated to the homophobic disruption that occurred in the theatre–unless you want to make sure to paint the Southern university as a hotbed of anti-liberal hate speech. Is this context or merely replaying the stereotype of Southern backwardness that seems so prevalent up North? But we must remember that the students on stage were also Ole Miss students.

Don't let Northern stereotypes define them!

Don’t let Northern stereotypes define them!

On the other end of the reporting spectrum, wanted to make sure that its readers knew that the school couldn’t verify if student-athletes were responsible for yelling slurs during the show. Is this just another way to make sure that student-athletes aren’t held to account for their actions on campuses that devote most of their resources to football? Or am I merely stereotyping the school’s treatment of its athletes?

In the end, one of the actors, Garrison Gibbons, wrote a moving and very public statement about the incident.

It would be easy to characterize what happened last week as the fault of just 20 to 30 football team members, but that would be unfair. This wasn’t a football team against a theater department. There were others in attendance that responded in kind. Let us instead use last week’s as reminder of why we chose this show and why it–and shows like it–are important.

As instructors, it is also important for us to remember that these football players were required to attend the production as part of their Intro to Theatre course. Making your students attend the school productions seems to be a near-universal assignment for Intro theatre courses, it is one that I know I have used in my Intro Acting courses. Could the instructors teaching these courses have better prepared their classes for this event? I wouldn’t have thought that I needed to spend class time instructing my students not to shout homophobic slurs at performers. So maybe that “we’re past this” mentality contributed to the problem. If we don’t talk about it in our classes, that doesn’t mean these problems don’t exist.

As Gibbons reminds us, this thirteen-year-old play can still be used as a tool to foster discussion, if we are willing to use it as a medium for discussion rather than merely a means to preach to the choir or to blame our detractors.

An Experiment in Online Presentations

Creativity, imparted by Euterpe
(Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres)

This past semester I assisted a professor with using Blogs@Baruch (our local installation and customization of WordPress) in her class for the first time. The experiment was also a new experience for me. In a previous class I have supported in which the professor wanted to use Blogs@Baruch, the goal was writing as a means of thinking through the course material and spurring discussion as a means of creating a sense of community in a large, faceless lecture. This time, however, the blog was a semester-long project that students would use to work through drafts, receive feedback from the professor and fellow students, and scaffold three major assignments leading to a final presentation. Rather than have students stand in front of the class and use PowerPoint slides, which is an all-too familiar exercise for anyone who has taught or sat through a business course in the past decade, this professor wanted to try something new: to encourage a creative response from the business students.

The course was on multinational corporations. Therefore, we thought, why not embrace the theme of the course, and create a final project that more accurately reflects the way a multinational corporation would receive information? More and more, corporations are forgoing the sit-in-a-room-and-watch-a-PowerPoint form of presentation for video conferencing and other types of presentations that do not require all participants to be in the same time zone, let alone the same room. (The uselessness of PowerPoint skills in “real world” business also came up at my table in a discussion during this year’s Symposium on Communication and Communication-Intensive Instruction.)

Part of my plan for this course was to release students from an overly programmed assignment description that is detailed to the point where every final project will look alike and contain no surprises or creativity (except, perhaps, for the surprise of plagiarized content or a particularly well-chosen graphic).

Education—despite what national, homogenizing assessment legislation would lead you to believe—is not the same as rote job training. Including a creative element to a business course would help to get the class away from the fill-in-the-blank answers, the memorization of formulas, and other uncritical thinking assignments of standardized testing.

A less creative way to test students

A less creative way to test students

Yes, there is job applicability to learning how to think creatively–take for example the terms “outside-the-box,” “shifting paradigms,” and all of those wonderful buzzwords that lose all creativity when overused as managerial replacements for creative problem solving.

The assignment would include the important details to be covered—corporate financial data, research findings, recommendations, etc—all of the lifeless bulletpoints that would have been included on a PowerPoint introduction slide. However, the way in which this material was to be presented would be open to the students’ own creativity. Testimony before a congressional committee. A transatlantic video conference call. A video from a high-powered consulting firm on the future of the company. Students would record their presentations, upload them as unlisted videos to a video-hosting site, and embed them in the class blog for the rest of the class to view.

Students were not initially ready for the freedom and creativity afforded by this assignment design. And the professor and I were met with strong resistance when we asked for work that did not have clear-cut right or wrong answers—even a short answer section on an exam elicited complaints from the class. We would take student feedback into account while designing and redesigning the assignments, but that did not mean always kowtowing to their complaints.

We scaffolded the assignments to try to slowly introduce the multiple elements needed to pull off the creative part of the project.

First, teams would post a group-written company profile. This could have been an ink-and-paper assignment, but we had them post the profile so that the whole class could read the reports. Not only was this component an attempt to foster teamwork, it also covered the content area and familiarized the groups with the companies that we would be working with throughout the project.

The second part of the project was a series of posts chronicling the development of the international crisis. Students were given a number of elements that had to be covered—the sequence of events leading to the crisis, the immediate response, the short-term effects, and the long-term effects—but the way in which these elements were presented was left up to the groups. Most groups waited until the last minute and then wrote one post on each element, but a few of the groups posted moment-by-moment analyses of their crisis using all of the required elements in each post. Whichever method they chose, these posts led directly to the final portion of the project: embedding a video presentation on the course blog recommending specific responses to manage the crisis.

By this point, the stress of the semester started to get to the students, and they insisted to the professor that they wouldn’t be able to complete the project. Rather than completely overhaul the final project, we reached a compromise and gave groups the option to record and post a PowerPoint presentation with narration. As part of this compromise, rather than an optional rehearsal with me, I required all groups to meet with me at least once before they began their final recordings. We used this meeting to discuss the current state of the project, outlines for a storyboard, and possible recommendations drawn from the research presented in parts one and two. This meeting was also a chance to allay fears about technology, suggest tools, and help group dynamics (at the very least to get everyone in the same room once before they returned to working asynchronously on their projects).

After meeting with all groups, about half of the groups decided to post a video, and of the remaining half who wanted to narrate slides, most opted to use Prezi, rather than PowerPoint. Many of the students who decided to use Prezi brought up the non-linear presentation application before I even had a chance to offer it as a PowerPoint alternative. (It is important for readers of to know that Prezi does offer academic accounts which provide more space, allow private presentations, and remove the corporate watermark.) A native web application like Prezi allowed the files to remain accessible to all group members and to be easily embedded in the class blog when ready.

Groups that opted for the creative presentation could use software like YouTube’s video editor—which has surprising features for a “free” web application and is fairly intuitive—to prepare their recordings for upload. I suggested running a mock video conference call. Students could run a third-party screen capture program to record a video chat, but that is one additional layer of software that could cause problems. Instead, I recommended Google On-Air Hangout which has an automatic recording feature that links to YouTube. However, no groups decided on the videoconferencing approach. Perhaps the very public nature of the On-Air Hangout was intimidating. (Skype has similar video conferencing capabilities, but requires a paid account to use them. There is free access to the video conferencing feature on Skype if you register as a teacher, but that doesn’t help students working independently on a project.)

Elmo, Telly, and friends use videoconferencing tools
(from the USMC program “Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families During Military Deployment”)

The results of this experiment were varied. But overall, the groups who opted for the “creative” video presentation were more engaged, appeared more knowledgeable, were more persuasive, and seemed to have more fun with the process. While some of the Prezi and PowerPoint presentations were informative and well-researched, they did not grab the audience the same way as a group speaking directly to the camera in a consultant pitch or a student taking on the role of CEO to defend his corporation’s actions.

In the end, even the students that were less-than-receptive to the idea of creativity in their business class assignments seemed to enjoy the project and learn something besides how to read a list of bullet points.


We tell our students “don’t plagiarize,” “cite your sources,” “attribute.” Often it is easier just to scare them. “You will fail the assignment” or “You will fail the class.” If we are feeling particularly threatening, we include the college or university honesty code and imply that they could be kicked out of school for plagiarism. I’ve never known a disciplinary committee to actually follow through with the policy, but we are supposed to report incidents, anyway.

If we have the time in a semester, then we get to the underlying reasons for proper attribution. Crediting other people’s academic work. Listing your sources so your readers can find out more. Building the network of research on which the academy is founded.

But part of the reason that we as academics cite our sources is the morality of it. We give credit, not because of legalities, nor threats, nor the larger picture, but because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps our students don’t feel that deeper moral imperative to credit sources, but it gets more difficult when highly visible media personalities see no problem with plagiarizing.

When a high-profile cable news reporter or a famous academic gets caught plagiarizing, they insist that it was a mistake and not plagiarism, are forgiven, and generally see no negative effects.

Recently, however, questions of copyright and plagiarism came into conflict in a more popular culture arena. The major players in this recent example are Glee–FOX’s television show about a high school glee club–and Jonathan Coulton–a singer-songwriter and geek-culture icon.

The entire premise of Glee is that a high school choir performs new arrangements of musical theatre and popular music–often drastically rearranged in order to fit the four-part harmonies of teenage show choirs.

However, in this case, the “new” arrangement was (allegedly) lifted directly from Jonathan Coulton’s own drastic rearrangement. When Coulton covered Sir Mix-a-Lot’s pop/hip-hop “Baby Got Back” in 2005, Coulton explained that “in the proud tradition of many white Americans who came before me I hereby steal and white-ify this thick and juicy piece of black culture.”

Another White American (not Jonathan Coulton) who whitified black culture

Another White American (not Jonathan Coulton) who whitified black culture

Of course, given Coulton’s self-conscious and irony-dripping view of the history of jazz, rock and roll, disco, hip-hop, etc., he did not actually “steal” Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song, but paid for a license to cover and record the song. In his version, Coulton wrote an entirely new tune using traditional bluegrass instrumentation. In effect, Coulton’s song is using Sir Mix-a-Lot’s lyrics and phrasing, but the music is Coulton’s. Nonetheless, Coulton still paid for the rights to record Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song.

Enter FOX and Glee.

They used a cover of “Baby Got Back” that sounds exactly like Coulton’s. Even to the extent that a character named Adam sings the lyric referring to himself as “Jonny C.”

Paul Lemere at the music tech blog, Music Machinery, even wrote a script to alternate between the “two” versions of the cover. The resulting remix sounds like it has an unbroken backing track. Which might imply that the instrumentation actually is Coulton’s performance.

Coulton was never contacted by FOX or Glee about using his version of “Baby Got Back.” After Coulton’s legions of tech-savvy fans stirred up Twitter over the lack of attribution, FOX officially responded. According to Coulton, FOX told him: “they’re within their legal rights to do this, and that I should be happy for the exposure (even though they do not credit me, and have not even publicly acknowledged that it’s my version – so you know, it’s kind of SECRET exposure).”

Shhhh! SECRET exposure!

Shhhh! SECRET exposure! [photo by left-hand]

 Even that bastion of free marketplace commercialism, Forbes, reported on the Coulton-Glee debacle. Forbes blogger Michele Catalano writes, “Coulton may not have any legal recourse here, but there is an ethical question at issue that FOX must answer.” It is an ethical question that Glee has avoided before.

While Coulton is still supposedly investigating his legal options, he did find some ethical restitution. Coulton released a “cover” of Glee‘s cover of his version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.” He called the song, “Baby Got Back (in the style of Glee)”, which was just renaming his original version. People who bought this file were buying the exact same file that he released in 2005, just renamed. This “cover” was then sold on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon, with proceeds going to Save the Music and It Gets Better, two charities that deal with social issues raised on Glee.

The month after airing a short segment on the Coulton-Glee kerfuffle, NPR’s On the Media dedicated an entire show to the problem of contemporary plagiarism. Included in this episode is an interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches a class at Princeton and requires his students to download a paper from a paper-mill and defend it in class. Drawing on the ready-mades of Duchamp and remix culture, Goldsmith argues that creativity is not in the originality of text. In a roundabout way, Goldsmith is emphasizing process over content.

A Duchamp ready-made. Where attribution is headed?

A Duchamp ready-made. Where attribution is headed?

Which brings me back to our students. How do we instill the ethics of citation and attribution, when the real world doesn’t seem to care about such paltry details? When even our own Academic Integrity policies in practice are not enforced? Besides, punishment of plagiarism doesn’t get to the root cause. I’ve tried to create “plagiarism-proof” assignments. Write from a character’s perspective. Analyze a specific school performance of a play, rather than the script. Keep logs of your own rehearsals. And yet, somehow, students find ways to copy without attribution.

I don’t want to give up, but I find myself less and less likely to bring these issues to the department, knowing that they will not do anything. Instead, I end up asking students to rewrite assignments (which only teaches them to copy ideas rather than easily searchable words) or giving the assignment an F (which doesn’t really teach anything, since it is usually end of the semester assignments where I catch this).

Are we approaching a post-plagiarism society?

Paper-writing Machine of the Future? [Photo by Plus903]

Paper-writing Machine of the Future? [Photo by Plus903]

An Audience for Shenzhen: part four, revisions and continuations

(I swear this will be my last entry on this topic)

Since my last post, even more has been added to the Mike Daisey and Foxconn story. This is the topic that just won’t die. Mike Daisey returned to the Woolly Mammoth to present a revised version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Apple released a new flagship phone. And stories of labor practices in electronics factories continue to shock readers (for at least a few seconds).

iPhone 5… “Assembled in China” Creative Commons License photo credit: Sean MacEntee

Last time, I discussed how the character of “Mike Daisey” is different from the actual Mike Daisey.
I must admit, I was taking a rather academic approach. I was arguing from the defensive position of a theatre scholar finding theatre under attack. Of course I will argue that a monologue broadcast on the radio is different from the same words spoken in a theatre. My academic career depends on that difference existing. However, with Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the difference is more than merely academic.

When Daisey defended himself from accusations over his This American Life episode, he argued that people seeing his show in a theatre know this is a performance. For the final production in New York after the scandal, Daisey even added an opening prologue to his monologue that (almost condescendingly) responds to the criticism by reminding audience memebers that this is a performance:

When the lights go down here, I will go backstage. When I come back out, the lights will come back on and I will be telling you a story – and that’s the oldest form of theater, you know. When the light comes onto the stage, I assume that role where I am speaking.

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This prologue was not for anyone in the theatre that afternoon. Anyone who watched the show could tell he was performing a character. While the monologue is delivered sitting in a chair at a desk with yellow legal pad and glass of water, Daisey almost never stops moving for the whole performance. And when he does stop, it is a calculated stillness that dramatically emphasizes his speech. This is almost a dance. On the radio, this element is lost. The dance-like aspect to the performance is lost, and all we hear is the voice.

The performances, however, have extended beyond Daisey himself. Regional and college theatres, Fringe Festival productions (including the mother of all Fringe festivals, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), and even a Twitter “production” that sends out the monologue in less than 140 characters at a time. There is something strange about a Twitter production of a show by a monologist who heretofore never wrote out his scripts. When Daisey performs the monologue, the text is an outline on a yellow legal pad. But when @AgonyEcstasy “performs” it, all we have are the words. Even more than on the radio.

These worldwide productions were possible because of how Daisey distributed his first written script. The scripts are released under a modified “Open Source”-like license. Performers are allowed to download, edit, expand, and produce the show royalty-free. Daisey recently posted “version 2.0″ of the script on his website, which includes a section in the middle about the controversy surrounding his This American Life appearance. Version 1.0 is still available, since, as every computer geek knows, version control is important.

Foxconn Creative Commons License photo credit: Ged Carroll

Since the end of The Agony and the Ecstasy‘s second run at the Woolly Mammoth this summer, the story continues. Apple released a new iPhone. Student “interns” at Foxconn assembled iPhones, but don’t worry, the students were “free to leave at any time,” provided they didn’t care about their future educational or professional opportunities. Samsung, Nokia, and basically every other electronics company uses similar practices.

Foxconn workers in Taiyuan (who make iPhone parts) were not paid their promised wages and went on strike (or riot, depending on which source you read). Armed military guards were called in to quell the dissent. Workers were killed. The factory threatened to shutdown, destroying the livelihood of thousands of workers–but in actuality, it only closed for a few days. Never worry, though, Apple iPhone 5s were shipped with only a slight delay.

Perhaps most tellingly, the influence of Mike Daisey’s monologue and the coverage of his radio scandal managed to provoke not only news coverage, but mainstream satire. This past weekend, Saturday Night Live even poked fun at the tech reviewers’ willful blindness to the conditions in factories–in a mind-blowing bit of “yellow face” racial stereotype, complete with glasses out of Mickey Rooney’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

When an issue is well-known enough to be used in Saturday Night Live, people can no longer feign ignorance.

You always knew. Just like I knew, before I went, before I read the reports lit up in the glass of my laptop. We’ve always known.
And that’s the lie.
–Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (v2.0)

An Audience for Shenzhen: part three, an unexpected turn

In the third installment of this piece, I originally had intended to look at how Mike Daisey’s audience for his stage monologue shifted as the location of his performance changed over time. However, given the developments in the This American Life, Mike Daisey, and Shenzhen story, I have slightly altered my focus for this penultimate installment.

To recap what has been all over the public radio, theatre, technology, and business blogs, Chicago Public Media/Public Radio International’s This American Life program “retracted” the episode by Mike Daisey based on his stage monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (so my links in previous posts to this episode will not work). The retraction was itself the basis of an episode of This American Life, released online earlier than its air-date and coinciding (intentionally or accidentally?) with the release of Apple’s new iPad on March 16. For two weeks, Daisey claimed dramatic license in his fabrication of details that led to this retraction. This American Life claims that Daisey lied during their fact-checking interviews, which led to misleading listeners as to what was truth and what was not.

Which path will you choose?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Im Kelsi

Daisey’s claim was that while some of the incidents related in his monologue did not happen to him, they had been documented by other, journalistic as opposed to dramatic, sources. Therefore, according to Daisey, the deeper truth of the monologue and its ability to spark empathy trumped the surface details of his actual visit to China.

At the heart of this conflict is the question of truth, genre, and audience.

Besides changing the media from theatre to radio, Daisey’s performance also straddles the uncomfortable divide between monologue storytelling and documentary drama, two theatrical genres that have their own problematic histories with “the truth.”

Plato and Aristotle
Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor

The question of a storyteller’s report being taken for truth goes back to Ancient Greece—that source of so many tropes used by white males when justifying their theatrical choices. The mime (an ancient embodied storyteller, not the white-faced mime) or the epic poet were both held in ill repute by Plato. All artists were at fault for attempting to replicate the world through lies, according to the philosopher. (I might also make the observation that another element to the story of Daisey and This American Life traces its lineage back to Ancient Greek theatre: hubris)

Daisey’s particular form of stage monologue has a much more recent precedent in the sit-at-a-table-and-read-a-monologue: the late Spalding Gray. Both Daisey and Gray came from the off-off-Broadway world of experimental theatre. Both were able to command larger audiences (and larger box office receipts) of New York’s largest off-Broadway houses at the Public Theatre and Lincoln Center.

Unlike Gray, however, Daisey does not restrict his source material only to his personal life—regardless of how the monologue presents that information. In the dramatic genre called documentary theatre (or its British equivalent verbatim theatre), exact words from sources are reported to the audience in order to create a story. The audience knows these words are sourced and easily could verify the sources if they wanted to do the research. It is the arrangement of these out-of-context quotes where the fictionalized version of reality enters into the theatre. Daisey, on the other hand, presented all of his researched material as first-person accounts that happened to him. Factual events placed in a fictionalized version of reality, but without citing the sources.

[An earlier controversy with Mike Daisey’s 2007 monologue, Invincible Summer]

Previous Daisey monologues also included words spoken by a character “Mike Daisey” that the writer Mike Daisey did not himself experience, but they were not subject to the same scrutiny as The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Perhaps this is why Daisey felt he did not need to explain every detail and cite every word. However, as the This American Life/The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs saga shows, you can’t always expect a new audience to understand the conventions of your previous work. As I tell my students, always cite your sources.

[As I was writing this response, Daisey posted an apology. Rather than continuing to defend his position in the tradition of storytelling, Daisey acknowledged that he “fell short” of his own expectations for telling the “truth.”]

I use the word “truth” a lot in my work. These words from the opening scene of How Theater Failed America come to mind:

Some of you are hoping tonight that the rarest of things will happen: that someone is actually going to tell the truth.

That’s rare. That’s hen’s teeth.

You should know better.

And so should I. Because that’s what I’m looking for—every time I come back to this place, and all the places like it. Looking for the truth: that rare, random descent, like a feather across the back of your hand.

I speak about truth because it is what I aspire to. All my stories, even when I’ve fallen short, have been attempts to experience the truth with my audiences.

I am sorry for where I have failed. I will look closer, be more patient, and listen more clearly.

I will be humble before the work.

An Audience for Shenzhen: part two

Last time, I wrote about the increasing popularity of stories about high tech factories in Shenzhen, China.

In this post, I will examine the audience for the early peaks in the US news coverage of the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen.

Frequency of US Google searches (above) and news stories (below) on “Foxconn”

As is visible on the chart above, the first major spike hits on July 22, 2009. This coincides with broad news coverage of the first reports of what would be come a more familiar story: suicides at Foxconn. In this case, a worker committed suicide over a missing iPhone prototype.

Prior to this sensational news story, the most significant coverage in US news outlets was the discussion in 2008 of a Shenzhen nightclub fire and Shenzhen overtaking Honk Kong as China’s innovation capital. Before 2008, the biggest story—which pales in comparison to either the 2008 or 2009 coverage—was the 2006 announcement that Apple would manufacture the new iPod at Foxconn in Shenzhen and the ensuing PR “problems” wherein Foxconn froze “assets includ[ing] apartments, a car and bank accounts” of Chinese reporters publishing articles about the working conditions in Foxconn factories.

Close-up of US Google searches and news stories on “Foxconn” for the year 2006

This was covered predominantly by tech blogs and foreign-language (i.e., English) Chinese news sites. AppleInsider, Macworld, CNET (the Asian edition), and, while of varying influence in the tech community, are not generally picked up by major US news outlets. The story by the Shanghai Daily (an English-language Chinese paper) was picked up by British sources and reported on FOX News, but overall ignored by non-tech US news sources. The blow back against Foxconn’s actions received slightly more coverage in the tech sections of papers like the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is the audience where Mike Daisey encountered the story of Shenzhen.

Daisey describes these kind of tech blogs as “news sites, which, I should specify, have no actual news in them. They’re instead filled with rumors about what Apple will do next, written exclusively by people who have no fucking idea what Apple will do next, but, for some reason, I find this soothing.” This is an audience of rumor-driven, speculators who are soothed by even the slightest hint of possible future technology.

My Favorite Book Destroyed
Creative Commons License photo credit: William Wilkinson

The audience for these “news sites” comprises specialists and amateurs—from the Latin amare, to love. Daisey never explicitly draws the connection between being an amateur and its etymological root, but he does admit to loving Apple technology. While I am reprinting the relevant section of his monologue dealing with his love of technology, the written word does not do justice to his delivery. Go see his show or listen to the segment on This American Life. His section on love of technology is a brilliant paean to in the tradition of the Classic Greeks. Suffice it to say, Mike Daisey proudly counts himself right in the heart of the amateur technology community, the very audience for these tech blogs.

I love technology, I love everything about it. I love looking at technology, I love comparing one piece of technology with another, I love reading rumors about technology that doesn’t exist yet, I love browsing technology, I love buying technology, I love opening technology—even when it’s in that bubble packaging—I love it. I love the smell of a new piece of technology—that sort of burnt PVC smell when you run electricity through it the first time?—I love that.

And of all the kinds of technology that I love in the world, I love the technology that comes from Apple the most.

Because I am an Apple aficionado, I am an Apple partisan, I am an Apple fanboy, I am a worshipper in the cult of Mac. I have been to the House of Jobs, I have walked through the stations of his cross, I have knelt before his throne.

–Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Besides love of technology, this early audience has specialized knowledge, what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “specific capital.” Technology aficionados understand, purchase, and discuss technology at a much higher rate than the general public. This behavior allows them to renegotiate their position in the global market of ideas—or what Bourdieu terms the “field of power”—and trade their specific capital—understanding and following bleeding-edge technology—for other forms of capital. These various forms of capital include social capital, where they are held in higher esteem in specific social groups; economic capital, where they make money off of future tech trends; and, in Mike Daisey’s case, cultural capital, where he converts his fanboy cache into a work of highly regarded performance art.

In the third installment of this piece, I will look at how Mike Daisey’s audience for his stage monologue shifted as the location of his performance changed over time.

An Audience for Shenzhen: part one

“Shenzhen is a city of fourteen million people. It is larger than New York City, it is the third largest city in all of China, and it is the place where almost all of your shit comes from.

And the most amazing thing is, almost no one in America knows its name.

Isn’t that remarkable? ” -Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs 

Night view of one of Shenzhen's six "Special Economic Zones"

Over the winter break, I finally got around to listening to a podcast of Mike Daisey’s This American Life episode.  The piece is an excerpt from his stage monologue entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which Daisey has been performing for over a year—long before the sudden interest in Steve Jobs following the Apple founder’s death. Daisey has toured the country with his investigative storytelling (he would be the first to tell you this is not “journalism” in the professional sense).

The broadcast on Public Radio International was not particularly timely in other ways, too. Stories about the conditions at Foxconn (and other similar factories in Shenzhen) had been circulating the internet for years on technology news sites. “Which,” as Daisey remarks in his monologue, “I should specify, have no actual news in them. They’re instead filled with rumors about what Apple will do next, written exclusively by people who have no fucking idea what Apple will do next.”

Usually these stories are reviews or marketing, and are dropped when newer, faster, more exciting technology comes along. However, in this instance, stories of suicides at Shenzhen was a recurring theme, since it didn’t entail one specific device, but assembly plants for the whole industry. These stories were not being covered by major news outlets—or if they were, they were only a minor blip relegated to a few seconds during an already abbreviated “tech beat” segment.


Frequency of US Google searches (above) and news stories (below) on "Foxconn"


Then, all of a sudden, I started hearing about Foxconn from non-technology websites, looking at the story from a labor and international trade perspective. There was a spike every couple of months in the number of outlets paying attention to Shenzhen factories. Of course, when Steve Jobs died, very few people dared to write anything negative about Apple for a few weeks, but then Mike Daisey’s piece aired on This American Life.

The New York Times, who had sporadic references to Foxconn before January, started publishing articles and web pieces multiple times a week on this company.

Even Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, that bellwether of news important enough to satire, covered Apple’s problems with labor relations in Shenzhen.

After all of this publicity, Daisey released a script of his monologue for free. This is strange, and not for the open-source-inspired royalty-free conditions Daisey attaches to the script, but because Daisey does not usually work with a fully written script. His monologues are outlines, which he fills at the moment of performance, in front of an audience.

The sudden surge in coverage of Shenzhen coincided with Daisey’s appearance on public radio, despite the fact that this story had been in circulation for years. In my next blog entry, I will examine the shifting audience for the story. Where was Daisey’s monologue performed, which news outlets were covering Shenzhen, and how—to use French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s formulations—class tastes might operate during shifts in this monologue’s multiple media. How does the audience for this story change in the telling and hearing?

Human vs. Technological Amplification

I originally planned to write this post about the difference in communication between human and technological means. Specifically, I was going to look at the use of the people’s mic and police bullhorns as exemplified by the events on October 1 at the Brooklyn Bridge. While the group had been using the people’s mic to amplify communication within itself and to outsiders, the police used a single bullhorn. In a letter on behalf of the people kettled that day, lawyers argue that the bullhorn was unintelligible.

However, events at Baruch College last night changed my planned post. A clearer example of the unintelligibility of technological amplification, when compared to human-centric distributed communication, occurred in the lobby of the Baruch College William and Anita Newman Vertical Campus Conference Center on the evening of November 21.

CUNY Police Attack Student Protesters from keith on Vimeo.

As this video shows, the security guard attempts to use a bullhorn within the Vertical Campus lobby. Sound waves are directed only toward part of the group he is addressing. The group above on the balcony or behind him past the turnstiles must rely on sound waves bouncing off walls in order to hear his transmission. Additionally, according to the Baruch website, the lobby consists of two “stacked atria, one rising from the ground floor to the fifth floor, with a glass curtain wall facing Baruch’s Information and Technology Building to the north, across Bernard Baruch Way; another, wider atrium rising above that, from the fifth to the eighth floor,” that provide much vertical space in which sound waves can get lost while reflecting off of the eight floors of glass. Since the security guard’s attempt to use directional technological amplification based on increased volume is insufficient to communicate his message to the students, one of the students must institute a people’s mic in order to ensure that the message is understood (see 00:13 in the above video). Distributed human communication succeeds where top-down technological communication fails.



A second incident from the Board of Trustees hearing that serves as an example of the failure of technological amplification comes from the first people’s mic check within the meeting itself. As this video shows, before the chair of the meeting Valerie Lancaster Beal requests, “Security, please eliminate the young lady,” (at around 1:30) her microphone cannot make her heard above the people’s mic.

Since this is a small room—only able to hold a fraction of the public who wished to attend—the issues of technological amplification are different from the bullhorn in the lobby. In this instance, a distribution of bodies throughout the room ensures that no individual—whether a part of the people’s mic or not—is very far from another person who is repeating the message. Valerie Lancaster Beal’s microphone and amplifying speakers are placed at the front on either side of the room. Therefore, her disembodied voice appears to come from three distinct locations, whereas the people’s mic emanates from a few dozen bodies throughout the whole room. This second approach not only allows listeners to hear words as spoken by human beings—rather than relayed through electrical wires—but gives an indication of how much support there is in the room for any relayed message. Just as in distributed network computing, if one of the people’s mic speakers is “eliminated” (to use Valerie Lancaster Beal’s word choice), in theory the message could be picked up by any other member of the group, thus ensuring instantaneous redundancy backup unavailable to the single-point-of-failure electrical microphone system. If the cable breaks or power is cut to an electrical microphone system, then the ability to continue transmission is interrupted.

The benefits of the human-centric people’s mic over a technological amplification system in these circumstances—whether bullhorn or electrical microphone—seem clear and come down to a division between “many-to-many” communication and “one-at-many” top-down transmission.

With technological amplification there is merely unidirectional speaking at a group with significant opportunities for miscommunication. By contrast, the people’s mic encourages a network of one-to-one communication which allows for instantaneous dialogic communication to clarify any points that were missed.

Technological amplification passively objectifies the recipients of the message—it is unconcerned with whether or not the group agrees with the statement being transmitted. The people’s mic, however, demands active participation by all of its subjects, even if they are in disagreement. While not the ideal way the people’s mic was designed to work, the choice can always be made not to relay a message if the matter becomes too disagreeable to the participants.

The means by which distance is overcome also differs between these two methods. With technological amplification, directed volume is employed. As the message gets further away from the specific direction that speaker is facing, sound waves dissipate and the message is lost. Increasing the volume on the technological device can improve the distance at which the device can be heard, but also increases the distortion, making the message unintelligible even to the listeners close to the device. With the people’s mic, sound radiates from the speaker through the crowd of the listeners’ collected bodies. Distortion is possible, as in the children’s game of telephone. However, since the number of repeating bodies is significantly lager than the single person in the children’s game—a whole group rather than one child whispering to their neighbor—redundancy is built into the system to make distortion very unlikely. There is also a chance to clarify anything unheard or misunderstood through an immediate side conversation.

His Master's Amplified Voice