An Amateur’s Guide to Creating Audio Projects in Audacity (captured by Camtasia) – Part I

Hello, my name is Josh and I’m an addict of public radio. I get my morning fix from the BBC. When I ride the subway, I keep my dosage steady with podcasts from the CBC. Over lunch and in the evenings, it’s news and talk from WNYC. Weekends, I binge on flagship programming from NPR and PRI.

I’ve tried to infect my students with this affliction by replacing at least one reading assignment every semester with take-home listening questions on a particularly good radio program relating to the topic we’re studying. While I don’t think I’ve attracted many converts, many students have at the very least said: “I thought it was going to be really boring… but it wasn’t.”

I think there’s plenty of pedagogical value to be harnessed from listening to public radio, but students could also benefit from creating their own audio projects modeled on public radio formats. A few years ago, I enjoyed having the opportunity to present my research for a graduate course in public anthropology in the format of a radio documentary. I’d done a bit of audio editing using the digital recording software ProTools before, but for that project I used GarageBand, which comes with every Mac and is much more user friendly.

Since I’ve mainly computed on PCs for a few years now, I figured it was time to try out Audacity, the free audio editing software for PC (and Mac) I’ve often heard about. After the workshop on Camtasia screen capture software at the BLSCI a few weeks ago, I decided to try to make a little video with some ideas about making audio projects using Audacity. You can watch it below.

DISCLAIMERS:

  1. As per the title of the video, I am a TOTAL AMATEUR at audio and video editing. I embarked on this project in the spirit of play mentioned by Suzanne at the last BLSCI meeting. I would feel vindicated if this prompted some of the experts in our midst to share some of their ideas about creating audio projects (and, ahem, what I could do better)!
  2. Yes, that’s right, there’s several shots of me surfing the web in there. Have you ever watched the linkbait videos on weather.com? Filming the internet is totally legit.

TEASER:

Features a cameo from a true expert in communications!

Seeing Weird Theatre: Analysis of an Assignment

My dissertation is about contemporary experimental performance, what I like to call “weird theatre.” I introduce myself to my students, joking that I write about weird little performances that happen in weird little spaces throughout the city. When I give this introduction, when I write on my blog, www.weirdtheatre.org, when I trudge out to these venues, I reflect upon my commitment to weird theatre. What draws me to these weird performances? How does weird theatre make meaning differently than more traditional theatrical forms?  When I teach weird theatre, I often think about the politics that undergird its weirdness. To whom is this theatre accessible?  Who are its intended audiences—is weird theatre only meaningful to “in the know,” experienced spectators?

Some people find experimental work hard to understand or pretentious, but I love its possibilities. As an actor and a feminist, I always found realistic theatre foreclosing; the possibilities of who I could play and what I could do onstage were limited to the realm of the real, which for me often meant sweet, femme-y ingénue characters, women I was not particularly interested in pretending to be. In college, my professors introduced me to experimental performance and feminist and queer performance art and my understanding of the possibilities of performance was forever altered. I can say with certainty that exposure to this work changed the course of my life.

I hope, in exposing my own students to experimental work, I will have some small effect on their perception of the possibilities of performance. Two summers ago, teaching an Introduction to Theatre course, I took my students to one of these weird little theatre spaces, the now defunct Collapsable Hole (sic) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a weird little performance called Space//Space by the critically-acclaimed experimental company Banana Bag & Bodice. It was a bit of a risk; in the intro course, many students have never attended live theatre, let alone experimental performance in an off-off-off-Broadway venue. But we had spent the semester defining theatre beyond conventional playtexts, we had discussed devised work, read Godot, and studied non-Western performance traditions. I felt they were prepared for the performance. Company members Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe generously agreed to stay afterwards to speak about their process and answer any student questions.

SpaceSpace-11-590x375

Image courtesy of http://bananabagandbodice.org/show/spacespace/

Some students hated the performance. Some loved it. But they all met the challenge of its weirdness.  I had them write reviews of the production, and I was so impressed with their writing, I asked their permission to quote their work in the analysis of the assignment I knew I would someday write. The following are some excerpts from their critiques, all of which demonstrate engaged critical thinking.

Even as a student expresses the ways in which the performance falls short, she still engages critically with it and supports her assertions about its weaknesses:

Sitting through the performance I was puzzled as to what was going on and what was the purpose. Simplistic and often single-worded dialogue left me waiting for that point in which things would make sense. I learned that it wasn’t meant to make sense. . . . Portraying the human mind as it deals with isolation, loneliness, and the downward spin to insanity is hard to achieve. The performance by the actors, I felt, lacked genuineness and therefore evoked feelings of confusion rather than acknowledgement and empathy. There was not enough information to bring the performance together as a whole due to the scattered, simplistic dialogue and limited actions of the performers.

One student, a former professional dancer who felt the performance “penetrated her subconscious,” provides a nuanced reading of Lumus’s transformation from male to female during the course of the play:

By the performance’s conclusion, Jelliffe’s transformation was complete: her pale skin, long hair, and naked, pregnant body, created an angelic, Madonna impression. She finally grew into her namesake, Lumus, similar to luminescence. In physics, luminescence is a form of cold body radiation, which contrasts with incandescence, light emitted as a result of heat. Although Lumus was now physically radiant, she had also undergone a cool emotional transformation. From her initial warm relationship with, and naïve dependence on Penryn (Craig), she evolved into her own entity: standing up to him, questioning him, threatening him, berating him, destroying his life’s work, and ultimately, holding his hand to her pregnant stomach, she cradled him as he died. Her final words, “I have no husband, okay,” completed this transition, and yet, spoken with a note of sadness, they conveyed a hint of regret. Neither completely good nor completely evil, Jelliffe succeeded in portraying the complexity of the human condition . . . Space//Space is a tragicomedy; it portrays man’s limitations and failures, with moments of comedy interspersed. In true Beckettian fashion, it puts its audience through the experience of the characters. We live their waiting and sleeping, we feel their desperation, and we observe their inner struggles, finding ourselves amused by repetitious dialogue, and humbled by the futility of life.

Another, a psychology major, who changed her minor to theatre after taking my class, offers a beautiful analysis of a musical moment in the show:

 . . . the performers used melody and rhythm to express their emotion. Jessica’s character sang a song about being a “space girl in space” when s/he finally accepted the change from a man to a woman. Her voice singing this song still remains in my mind as a very strong moment. I associate it with the feeling of embracing who we are for whoever we are and living with what we have.

Another reads the performance in a larger socio/political context:

Visual metaphors brilliantly included in the play emphasize the power of control the government, society, religion has upon humans. Depending on perspective the spectator takes, it can be interpreted as control of the market, power of surveillance, restricted liberty, the power of the law. For instance, “emergency sandwiches” that come from mysterious hatch, and blue liquid supply (must be water) available for the characters in “spaceship” (which looks more like a laboratory hamster cage), signify that humans throughout their lives are nothing but test subjects.  Human life is represented by the roll of tape that records every step we make, and every word we say. And what we have at the end? Just a broken record . . .

The performance led a pre-med student to reflect on existential questions:

Time and time again, Lumus would ask “Where are we?” and “Why are we here?” and Penrym  would respond with some frustration “We are in Space. We are doing our job.” What their job is exactly is left up to interpretation by the spectators themselves: is it to maintain society’s morals and values in space? Is it to test the effect of being in isolation from the rest of humanity? Are they supposed to give in to their natural instincts? Is their job to ponder their existence or simply just to carry out normal every day functions (such as eating and sleeping) without exercising their brain at all? . . . Space//Space brings to our consciousness the idea of how society have and will continue to shape our perspective of our existence. What the characters suffer from while isolated in space is choosing between living deliberately or serving society and it’s never ending expectations of proper conduct by doing their ‘job’ . . . Social norms and roles may appear restrictive but we now depend on them to give our lives superficial meaning by having us go to school, get educated, and create a career. These things keep us busy in the everyday, material world, but once left alone with just our thoughts our human minds seem to be vulnerable to despair and hopelessness. Space//Space showed us how outside of society, Penrym and Lumus were at a lost as to what they should do with themselves, resulting in both of them undergoing great turmoil that we don’t see get resolved by the conclusion of the performance.

My students’ inspired analyses and astute critiques confirm that spectatorship of experimental work encourages deep critical thinking and creative analysis. Their writing shows that weird theatre is not necessarily esoteric, that spectators of all sorts can find meaning in it.  In fact, the variety of students’ interpretations of the piece leads me to wonder if—because of the openness of the texts—weird theatre is actually more accessible, in some ways, than realistic work.  Regardless, their responses—positive and negative—reaffirm my commitment to weird theatre, and especially to making it available to all audiences of all experience levels.

In a World… of Uptalk, Sexy Babies, and God

Why do you speak the way you speak? Are you aware of your voice being marked by region, gender, or age? Do you consciously try to modify your voice, or do you just let it flow?

small_question mark pic

We know that word choice, inflection, and pronunciation telegraph our personal experiences and identity in multiple ways. I’ve struggled to temper the nasally short A  and hard R of a Western New York accent (though this recently popular NY Times quiz about word choice and pronunciation accurately identified  my city of origin). In her collection of personal essays Crossing Ocean Parkway, Marianna De Marco Torgovnick discusses feeling ethnically marked in academe because of her Italian heritage and growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

What is our responsibility to students to help them increase their vocal awareness?

I feel compelled to let students know when they engage in persistent “upspeak” or “uptalk” –the rising pitch shift at the end of a sentence that makes statements sound like questions. This vocal trend is so common that it often goes unnoticed, particularly among millennials. I like to tell students who are unconsciously using upspeak that it sounds like they are asking the audience if what they are saying is correct, when, in fact, they have done the research and therefore they are the experts.

Lake Bell’s 2013 romantic comedy In a World tackled the issue of how gender politics impact vocal styles and what U.S. society seems to want from  male and female voices. Here is the trailer:

In her interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Bell surmises that reality television has popularized what she calls a “sexy baby voice” (from 19:30-21:20 in the interview is particularly relevant). This multidisciplinary social science website The Society Pages took a look (or listen!) at the question of “The Sexy Baby Voice vs. The Voice of God” –gendered vocal styles taken to their extremes.

The same website also profiled the research of Tom Linneman, an associate professor of sociology at The College of William and Mary, who conducted a study of how gender affects use of uptalk and determined that, in his sample,  women used a rising intonation almost twice as often as men and actually increased their use of it when they were succeeding at a task (in this case, answering Jeopardy questions). This was perhaps “because women continue to feel they need to apologize for their success.”

On the other hand, the freelance journalist Jessica Grose, who often writes for Slate’s The XX Factor, found that her use of upspeak helped her sound “egalitarian and accepting” which was a benefit for some interview contexts. But when it came to hosting a podcast, those same vocal patterns annoyed listeners and undermined her credibility.

The Australian voice coach Victoria Mielewaksa, who has worked on several Hollywood blockbusters, offers a more generous interpretation of uptalk, suggesting that this vocal pattern “has something to do with the way we want to involve our listener… It’s the ‘you know what I mean, I’m trying to be nice, I want to include you in what I’m saying.’” Mielewaksa’s observations resonated strongly for me. I realized that when I am giving students a new assignment I often use upspeak as if to ask “Are you getting this? Do you understand?” But, maybe I should just ask those questions after I’ve explained the assignment without relying on upspeak.

The video with Mielewaksa’s observation is embedded in a recent  LinkedIn post. The post is worth a look. It summarizes a Pearson survey of bosses that showed employer use of upspeak can affect hiring and raises. It also highlights something I never knew, which is that upspeak is also called Australian Question Intonation (AQI) and is not considered a mark of gender or age in Australia, it’s just considered Australian.

On Disorganizing and Reorganizing

(Or, “8 Things That Listicles Tell Us About Process”)

  1. If I begin with a list, I’m about to start a project— maybe tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s trip, a draft, or a revision. “This is what I need to do,” I assure myself.
  2. The word “listicle” is odd and ugly. But I don’t mean ugly in the same way that Stanley Fish means it when he says: “…‘blog’ is an ugly word (as are clog, smog, and slog).”  The word, listicle, is crudely formed by smashing together “list” and “article.” It’s an article that plays on a system of classification.  The writing (thinking) process, the drafting of ideas, and evaluating of information can be uncomfortable, clunky, and uneven procedures. The word “listicle” honestly reflects the messiness of process.
  3. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool of organization. Some examples: What do I need to get at the grocery store? How many more course credits do I need? What don’t I know? What do I know? A list is a useful genre for prioritizing tasks, assessing objectives, and discerning values.
  4. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool for organization. A retail worker uses it to check a store’s inventory. A bartender scribbles a list of what to restock a bar with. An administrator of any rank is an expert in the form. A syllabus is a hybrid list. A student can use it to brainstorm.
  5. I make lists to remember. I realize I haven’t talked about what makes the word “listicle” an odd word… It shares sounds with unexpected words, like tickle, pickle, and popsicle. Listicle also conveniently rhymes with mythological and ideological.
  6. To create a list is to create a mission, a manifesto of some sort. Perhaps a list is content in desire of form; maybe it’s knowledge impatiently in want of coherence.
  7. A numbered list implies order. But sometimes the order seems arbitrary or trivial. “23 Signs You’ve Lived In New York City,” “31 GIFs That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Why 23? Why 31? Lists draw on the appearance of structure, but maybe they’re just disorder masquerading as (or maybe they’re new shapes waiting to supersede) order.
  8. A list can be a form of critical inquiry. Place two lists next to each other— one for pros, the other for cons— and a one person debate can commence. Art is in “listicle,” tactically obscured from view, and it’s present if one wants (or has) a poetic mission. A list can be a form of critical inquiry: a “to do” list might actually be a “to know” list. Or maybe a list is, at its core, a performance of: “This is what I do and this is what I know.”

***

A confession and some brief notes on my pedagogy:

This blog post is an attempted exercise in demonstrating how meaning is built into form (which is what I tried to do with my previous piece on the mixtape). It is also an excuse to quarrel with an Internet form that I have long been ambivalent about.

In my classroom, students and I spend a lot of time discussing form and structure. Meaning, I tell them, is not just located in content and plot: meaning is also mediated through its structure. This might be obvious, especially for those who specialize in literary criticism, but it can be a challenge to get undergraduates to think about structure in concert with content. In our more dynamic and fruitful discussions, students and I merge our close-readings of a narrative’s texture and relate our collective reading to that narrative’s structure. Chapter seven, “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet,” of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form has been particularly helpful in getting students to think about form and structure, not just in terms of poetry, but also in terms of shaping their own form(s) of critical inquiry.

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 cac.ophony.org 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.

On Smartphones and Journalism

For the past two semesters, I’ve worked with students as they reported all over the five boroughs and Long Island for the Multimedia Journalism class. They’ve produced photo slideshows, videos, and podcasts for the class, and my role has been to coach them through the reporting and editing process.

Here at Baruch, we have audio recorders, video cameras and basic still cameras that the students can borrow from the school if they don’t have their own equipment. At this point, we don’t have high-quality DSLR cameras to offer them (and in any case it’s not an advanced-level class). So most of the time, for the photojournalism assignments, we had them use their smartphone cameras.

I noticed fairly early on that some of the students seemed a little bummed that they had to rely on their smartphones rather than professional-grade equipment when it came time to shoot their photo essays. I’ve been a student journalist myself and know what it is like to feel as though my student status and tight budget is holding me back from telling stories as well as I’d like—so I sought to reassure them that there was no need to feel limited.

The first thing I did was tell them about photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown, who has been featured on TIME’s LightBox photo blog for his iPhone photo essays made in Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He told LightBox that he began shooting on his iPhone after dropping his SLR shortly after arriving in Libya, and then found that in many ways he actually preferred it.

Our multimedia class discussed the pros and cons of using a smartphone as a camera. True, the quality of the image isn’t as great with a smartphone, and the camera is much more limited in terms of the light conditions where it can shoot. But something strange happens when you pick up something the size of your palm to take a picture of someone instead of several pounds worth of glass, metal and plastic: You become invisible.

You could be checking your email, posting on Facebook, or playing Angry Birds. But even if the person knows you’re taking their picture, a phone is simply less intimidating. Subjects have blinked and even physically recoiled when I’ve pointed my DSLR quite close to their face to take a portrait. Using a camera phone often conveys a certain intimacy, and it makes you seem less of a threat. I know journalists who have been allowed access to places—field hospitals, for instance—with their iPhones while their colleagues with heavy cameras have been forced to wait outside.

Halfway through the fall semester, Hurricane Sandy shut down Baruch for a week. Many of our students were directly affected, and getting back on track as a class wasn’t easy. But one wonderful thing to come out of Sandy was the fact that it afforded the students an opportunity to report on a major story unfolding in their own backyards, and they did some truly beautiful work.

Sandy also led to an historic moment in photojournalism. For the first time ever, a photograph taken with a smartphone made the cover of TIME magazine.

Screen shot 2013-06-14 at 7.29.42 PM

Photo by Ben Lowy

The photographer, Ben Lowy, along with Brown and three other photojournalists, was commissioned by TIME to document Sandy and its aftermath on Instagram.

Earlier this spring, Baruch invited Australian photographer Andrew Quilty, one of TIME’s five Instagrammers, to speak at a panel called “Your Smartphone: A Window On The World.” Sitting on the panel alongside Quilty were Genevieve Belmaker and Kirsti Itämeri, who have both used smartphones extensively in their work. The presentations and discussion delved into the practical aspects of using smartphones, the ethical ramifications, and the future implications for journalism as they become increasingly ubiquitous and cost-effective tools.

Just two weeks ago, for instance, the photojournalism world was stunned by the news that The Chicago Sun-Times had laid off its entire photo department in favor of putting iPhones into the hands of its reporters. From reading my musings up until now, you might think I applauded this decision, but let me point out one key distinction: Quilty, Lowy, and Brown are all experienced photographers who have spent many years developing an eye for style, composition, and content. When they take pictures with an iPhone, it isn’t as an afterthought, so they have something to run along with the story. As far as I’m concerned, there will always be a need for photojournalists who devote their lives to the craft.

One of the Sun-Times photographers started a Tumblr shortly after being laid off. In the description, he writes, “Rob Hart was replaced with a reporter with an iPhone, so he is documenting his new life with an iPhone, but with the eye of a photojournalist trained in storytelling.” And he delivers.

Ultimately, that’s what I want my students to see. That it’s not about the type of camera, it’s about the journalist holding it.

Anything You Tweet May be Used Against You in a Court of Law…

As is becoming increasingly clear, the United States government is laying claim to virtually all forms of electronic communication. The latest revelations tell us that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been, since at least 2007, working with private corporations to monitor and archive the emails, phone calls, text messages, and internet browser histories of millions of people. The secret program, called PRISM, is part of a disturbing pattern of government surveillance in the years since 9/11.

While the details of these programs are still in the process of being disclosed, many Americans, as this New York Times piece suggests, have become resigned to the idea of a total lack of privacy in the digital age, assuming that nearly anything they type into an electronic device could be subjected to government snooping.

I’m certain that our students have internalized this notion. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, young people are increasingly aware that their internet activities, including on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, may be viewed by potential employers and factored into hiring decisions. This thought is horrifying enough, but the reality is that more than just employers are interested in mining your data:  corporations want that information for advertising profits, and the national security apparatus wants to run your Tweets and status updates through A.I. keyword algorithms, collecting and archiving justifications for your future arrest and incarceration. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe. But with the New York State Assembly currently considering a law making it a felony (like, prison time) to “annoy” a police officer, please excuse my cynicism.

So, how do we address these issues as teachers of communication? Since it’s basic psychology (and physics) that the act of being observed alters a subject’s behavior, we can assume that the wide cultural awareness (whether conscious or unconscious) that our digital life is being observed by forces potentially hostile to our interests (whether those interests be securing employment, maintaining realities free of personally-tailored consumer propaganda, or avoiding being black-bagged and subjected to extraordinary rendition by private security agents) changes the way we and our students behave online. Since I’m the type of person that frequently experiments with charged political language on social media, I’m often running my thoughts through a legal processor in my mind before clicking “Post,” wondering if what I write might be projected on a screen in front of me someday while a cigar-chomping investigator asks me accusingly what I meant when I posted a photo of a kitten dressed up as Che Guevara on Christmas morning, 2008.  And I’m afraid I won’t have a good answer.

Are my fears overblown?  Again, maybe.  I’ll concede that, being a historian of the Cold War era, I’ve internalized a certain amount of pathological distrust for giant security states. And I’m definitely pre-programmed to become immediately concerned that government surveillance intimidates and silences people that are working for social and economic change, exactly the kind of voices that we need to be listening to and honoring at this moment. But beyond the political stuff, I suppose my main concern for our students is that they will be even more cautious in their digital lives, fearing that they might not “get a job” if they post anything deemed offensive. While it’s important for them (and us) to be thoughtful about the ways that we communicate online, that impulse should not come from fear of punitive action from companies and governments. It’s frightening and disheartening to think that, at the very moment that humanity develops technology with seemingly infinite potential to foster connection and innovation, particularly for young people, elite forces are hard at work creating the practical and psychological frameworks to put severe limits on that evolution.

Posthumous Tweets, Postmortal Updates: Voicing the Dead in Writing Assignments

A recent blog post in The Guardian, “Why Death is Not the End of Your Social Media Life,” describes how “social media is…bridging the gap between the living and the dead” through digital services such as LivesOn and DeadSoci.al. The former—with its mildly witty tagline “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”—builds a profile of you based on your tweets, who you’re following, who’s following you, and so forth. After you have exhaled for the last time, the Twitter app LivesOn takes over where you left off and keeps “you” tweeting from across mortality’s threshold. DeadSoci.al, a “free social media tool,” takes a slightly different approach by allowing the user to craft her or his own “digital legacy,” which links to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and would be deployed upon notification (and presumably verification) that one has died.

As someone whose research centers on matters of death and the dead in early modern English drama and whose pedagogy is aimed at strengthening and expanding written and oral communication skills across a range of media—not to mention, someone who’s more than a bit fidgety over the inevitability of her own expiration—I am intrigued by this technology and its applications. While I don’t see myself creating a posthumous social media “me,” my immersion in my subject matter has my mind abuzz with all sorts of imaginings. Will my FB newsfeed someday include others’ posthumous updates? And just what might such updates say: “It’s your birthday, live it up” “I know who’s going to win the election,” “Dante was right?” Will my own updates be “liked” by assorted dead people in the future? Part of the fascination with these new tools, of course, comes from the creepiness that surrounds them—one reader comments that this turn in social media is “pretty creepy,” while another ventures, “this definitely has a certain weird appeal.” Of course it does because the dead don’t remain entirely dead. We don’t let them. They’re part of our individual and collective psyches.

At the same time that we try to shield ourselves from the dead by limiting our contact with corpses (we have created hospitals, hospice centers, and funeral homes to take care of what our forebears routinely did), and by dieting and exercising our way towards death-at-least-a-little-deferred, we remain pretty drawn to them. The popularity of forensic television dramas such as CSI, films such as the Twilight Saga, and exhibitions like Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds series underscore our simultaneous revulsion and fascination with death and the dead. LivesOn and DeadSoci.al extend this connection—that is, the connection between the living and the dead, which cultures have sought via the creation of Purgatory, the belief in the visions of sages and clairvoyants, the establishment of philanthropic endowments, et al. In our seemingly endless quest to maintain communication between the living and the dead, the world of social media—which draws together at least half the world’s population—is a logical addition to this constellation. These latest forays in social media also speak directly to our fear of annihilation and our indignation over the cessation of personal identity.

I’ve been giving thought, as well, to the classroom and how the idea of tweeting or updating posthumously might be used in writing assignments. Admittedly, nothing has really crystallized yet, but I find myself returning to an example set by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Twitter-driven 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet, titled Such Tweet Sorrow. Taking place in real-time over the space of five weeks, six principal characters (Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, Friar Lawrence, Mercutio, and Tybalt) tweeted improvised lines, which were supplemented by characters’ tweets on current social and political events, and tweets from the actors reflecting on their roles and responding to audience tweets. What if Hamlet took to Twitter or Facebook? How might his meditations on death read in 140 characters? What could we learn from rephrasing or supplementing these vast thoughts within such tight parameters? What sorts of photos would he post on FB and who would some of his FB friends be? Imagine Hamlet Sr. tweeting from Purgatory or Gertrude’s closet, Polonius continuing to insist himself from behind the arras and from his plight as “supper,” Ophelia updating her status as she floats away or as Hamlet and Laertes come to blows in her grave? How might the study of early modern beliefs about death and the dead be enhanced by role-playing through social media and what would these classroom tweets and updates reveal about our own thoughts on the subject? By directly weaving their voices into the play, exchanging tweets, and sharing insights and questions coming out of these tweets on a course blog, students could produce a rich conversation from which to draw their own questions towards a thesis statement for their papers. As I continue to play with the shape and learning outcomes of this assignment, I’ll let myself be guided by the idea that it should stir the students’ sense of investment in their writing. This, plus the belief that their voices can productively comingle with language that is often thought of as arcane and closed off to postmodern ears, eyes, and mouths.

Publicly Sponsored Hate Speech

I hadn’t intended to write another post about the virulent hatred of fat, fatness, and fat people that is currently shaping our culture. My previous post on the topic led to some interesting and intense conversation, but there are many other topics to discuss and many other dangerous political trends to analyze. Besides, this is a communications blog.

But when I came across this astonishing campaign image on the subway recently, I realized that it deserves its own post.

"Cut the Junk" NYC Campaign

“Cut the Junk” NYC Campaign

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Post-Plagiarism?

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]