The Netflix “Canon”: Taste as Absence of “Taste”

Sight and Sound’s 2002 “Greatest Films Poll”  was voted on by the “world’s leading film critics.”   See  http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/polls/topten/   Here are the results:

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Vertigo
  3. Rules of the Game
  4. The Godfather — first two
  5. Tokyo Story
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  7. Battleship Potemkin
  8. Sunrise
  9. 8 1/2
  10. Singin’ in the Rain

One of these films was available on the Netflix “Watch Instantly” [WI] list.*  The other nine films can be obtained via the Netflix DVD plan.  But who wants to wait several days when everything should be accessible–instantly?

Netflix-classic list

It might be unfair to refer to either Netflix’s WI or DVD plan film lists as establishing a millennial film canon.  Of course, how Netflix organizes its titles has very little influence on the professional critic and academic thinker, but it can be argued that these lists influence general taste and determine what American audiences consider as good or best in film–or, at least, what they think they should view.  Arguments will be outlined here that Netflix film lists influence the unconsidered criteria that organize film judgments by Netflix client-viewers–and there are many.  In a recent call for papers for a publication to be titled How Netflix is Changing Media, the “Society for Cinema and Media Studies” reported that the online film supplier commands 30% of all Internet traffic.  How do the ways film titles are organized and the process of creating film lists in the Netflix website influence which films are watched and which films are known and which films are judged as “best”?  Netflix lists are influential in determining the place of a director or film within the cultural field; but rather than being evaluated (valued?) by a cultural worker such as a film critic, artistic worth is established by a corporation within the economic field of power.

Let’s begin with a traditional approach to aesthetic judgment and taste.  Sight and Sound‘s list of best films is the tip of a longer list of 100 best films.  Further, the journal presents another list of best films chosen by top film directors, as well as a list of top film directors as chosen by critics.  One may disagree with these critics’ choices, but, based on the accepted authority of the journal’s writers, this top ten list is a reasonable place to begin a discussion of film aesthetics.   Criteria–social, cultural, historical, theoretical– used by these cultural workers in distinguishing good from not-so-good films can be analyzed and evaluated. [Note: There is no list of top film critics picked by film directors.  Shouldn’t the quality of the film critic judgements also be judged?]  Clearly, such authorized “best” lists are influential, at least in a cultural field of power.

Can similar considerations be applied to Netflix’s lists of films?  Certainly, Netflix presents recommended, or what could be interpreted as preferred lists of films that are graphically displayed on the home screen of its website; these lists are then broken down into a variety of sub lists.  Each list has a consistent order–that is, lists are in the same order, every time one signs on.  Some criteria was used in constructing these lists, but it is not the criteria used by the Sight and Sound critics; rather, most likely, choices are made by something resembling a business-model algorithm.   Of course, this analysis is complex and more research is required.  This posting is far from an exhaustive analysis and is formed to point at something interesting in describing not only film aesthetics but audience agency.

Traditionally or historically, what has determined “taste” in the arts?   Historically, three basic questions have been asked about art [Western]; in significant ways, these approaches have formed the quality of aesthetic judgments:[1]  1. What are the characteristics of art–as in opposition to what is not art, like religion or philosophy?  2. What is the goal of art? Involved in this question is the possibility that art has no practical outcome.  3. Who determines what is good or worthwhile art?   Thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Bloom have considered the first two; Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about the third question.  Bourdieu identified who in a society was authorized (recognized as able) to determine what is aesthetically worthwhile.  Simply, from this perspective, “taste” in art is an outcome of family background, but it can also be engendered through education.  For the former,  discernment can be the inheritance of the aristocratic or merely upper-class child who absorbs her high-borne environment.  But Bourdieu also found that taste is an outcome of education.  Bourdieu’s  “disinterested” academic, like Hegel’s “connoisseur” is “thorough[ly] acquainted with the whole sweep of the individual character of a work of art … necessary for the study of art” [“Lectures on Aesthetics”].  From this perspective, appreciation of and enjoyment of art, as well as the capacity to discern good from bad art, requires a broad historical, theoretical, and comparative understanding of an art piece.  Thus, a film critic’s authority to judge is based on a recognition of her taste based on education and breadth of experience of the forms that films can take.  Thus, without understanding, there is no taste.

In this way, cultural experts are authorized to create Leavis-like lists of best films that make their way into college film studies syllabi.   Even the most expansive lists are necessarily based on some criteria determined by expert authorities, and these recognized lists influence the “requirements” of “taste” for others.  Of course, any criteria can be rejected and reformed, but the point here is that any change is based on who, at the time, is recognized as authorized to create a canon of important films for a particular era.

Following this Bourdieuian approach, in the dominated field of cultural list-making [my term] there are two sorts of “position takers.” [See The Field of Cultural Production, pp. 16-17].  First, the traditional or “orthodox” list-makers–consisting of academics and sophisticated critics–who “as a function in their position in the field, of their specific capital, have a stake in conservation.”  High-end position taking results in Sight and Sound’s “best” lists, the Criterion Collection, Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation with the filmmaker’s goal of bringing old, influential films to the public–see  http://bit.ly/1nayTe9–and MUBI’s choices of streaming films–see http://www.mubi.com   But position-taking can also be engaged by the heretic list-maker who pushes the boundaries of what is accepted by the first set of position takers.  This heretical attitude is taken up, for example, by the Scalarama Film Festival–http://scalarama.com– or the Yellow Fever Film Festival– http://theyfiff.webs.com/

Netflix film list-making process does not fit into Bourdieu’s scheme.  Certainly, as a single entity, Netflix is a list-maker with something that can be identified as establishing a “taste.”  It’s lists and the order in which they are presented have a constancy and are enormously influential in which films are  “good” or at least worth watching.   But criteria used by Netflix for list-making are not comparable to the strategies used by position takers discussed above.  Netflix lists of film titles are not based on either academic/traditional/orthodox or heretical sensibilities.  Choices are not affected by relative placement within a cultural field in which taste is an outcome of knowledge or class; rather, list-making decisions arise from capitalist determinants.  This is not saying that Netflix film lists are “tasteless” or have no “taste”– these terms make no sense in this context; the Netflix process of list-making has nothing to do with authorization of cultural workers who possess what Bourdieu calls Symbolic capital.  Rather, the Netflix taste emanates from Fredric Jameson’s late capitalism; it is a postmodernist taste–that is to say–it is a “taste” that is distinguished by an absence of “Taste.”

What forms do these lists take?  Netflix engages different sorts of lists which are based on a corporate goal of creating and satisfying the needs of the individual client-viewer.  Netflix lists films in a variety of ways:

  1. General list of films on the home screen.
  2. Genres of films — and sub genres of films.
  3. Recently purchased or viewed films of the individual client-viewer.
  4. Lists of the client-viewer’s favorite films based on her own ratings.
  5. “More Like” lists.  Based on a particular film the client-viewer has searched, Netflix suggests other titles.

How are Netflix lists generated?  Who or what makes the decisions?  What are the criteria used to generate these lists?  What might go into the algorithm of choice?  Here are some possibilities of what is measured:

  1. The score–up to five stars–that the client-viewer gives to films she has watched.
  2. Commercial concerns of what is profitable.  Pushing a film or television show to support an investment..
  3. Popularity of a title.  Giving the audience what it wants.[2]
  4. Variables available to Netflix about their client-viewers via social media. [This is a reach, but it is possible that such information could be obtained and used.]

Shadows-Netflix

Let’s use an example to examine a specific “More Like” list.  Following my search for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) Netflix offered a “More Like“ list that included suggestions of other films I might like.  But titles in the suggested list were confusing.  What was emphasized by the algorithm that produced this unlikely list? Old films? Films seldom viewed? Critically controversial films?  Actor’s film?  Quirky films?  Films by independent producers?  This is what Netflix suggested I watch after viewing Shadows:

  1. Lion in Winter (1968)– Due to its good acting?
  2. Brick Lane (2007) — This is an Indian film about east meeting west, recommended on my interest in “Sunshine Cleaning”? How does this relate to “Shadows” gritty portrayal of inborn prejudice?
  3. The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) — Huh?  Memorable score?  Certainly the Cassavetes film was filled with interesting jazz riffs but nothing as hummable as the Kwai score.  Hear it at –  http://bit.ly/1vRJmS1
  4. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) — OK, I can sort of go with this choice–broody Actor’s Studio acting–angry actors–old film–characters yelling at each other–relationships on the edge.
  5. Citizen Kane (1941) — Both are “classic” auteur films–but how very different.
  6. Far from Heaven (2002) — This is a commercial film about marital problems with Julliane Moore and Dennis Quaid.  It does involve racial tensions.
  7. Annie Hall (1977) — Both are auteur directors dealing with relationships.  Both directors use improvisation.  Of course, one is a comedy and the other is not.
  8. Rabbit Hole (2010) — Sorry, I do not understand this suggestion.  A happy couple falls apart when their son dies in an accident – Nicole Kidman, Dianne Weist – directed by John Cameron Mitchel.
  9. East of Eden (1955) — Possibly Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause but not James Dean’s first film.  Dean is an improvisational actor who is ready to make in-the-moment, inspired choices, willing to spew out his emotional guts to the awe of the viewers and the consternation of the other actors. See how the actor Jim Backus struggles with Dean’s intense, improvisational acting style.
  10. Dr. Strangelove (1964)– Right.  What are you thinking Netflix?  Is it because both Kubrick’s and Cassavetes’ films make the viewer squirm?

Shadows-Netflix2

Netflix’s “More Like” list for Shadows did not guide me to Cassavetes-like films–a film maker dealing with actor improvisation and in-the-moment emotional reality–or to experimental films or to films linked to a certain period of American film making.  Why was nothing listed from the French New Wave or British Social Problem films of the period or with contemporaneous films dealing with black-white racial issues of the period, such as Flame in the Streets (1961)?  Why was no Mike Leigh film suggested–a director who also worked improvisationally with actors?

Netflix list making is a business-model, production process that resembles a democratic activity in which authority of choice appears to belong to the everyday film viewer.  In the past, Leavis-like academic authority over cultural taste was countered by an argument that valued the taste of the common person–an argument for popular culture–as for example was done by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall and British Cultural Studies since the mid 1950s.  Here popular taste was used to push a New Left agenda in which working-class social realism was seen as an engine for agency for positive–read “socialist”–social change.  But despite its everyman approach, with Netflix, there is no sense of a working-class taste or bourgeois taste; rather, choosing what is good has devolved into an absence of any particular taste.  A film [or director] is good or bad based how entertaining it is.  Does it please the client-viewer?  And never mind what “pleases” means.

Traditional sense of authority is eliminated as the opinion of other client-viewers replaces that of the academic expert or critic.   As is the case with social media in general, Netflix connects [sutures?] its client-viewers to its product by inviting him to “Write a review” of what was watched.  Further the client-viewer review is rated by other client-viewers–via a system of awarding stars–as to whether the review was “Helpful,” “Not Helpful,” or “Inappropriate.”  The “Most Helpful” reviews are featured at the top of the review list.  But without any criteria, what do these ratings mean?  Of course, that is besides the goal of connecting the client-viewer to a product. Shadows has over 60 of these reviews.

At the top of the “Most Helpful” reviews list was this one:

Shadows was one of those rare movies that I like, but I have no idea why. I was bored in places, and I think I might have fallen asleep once or twice. Somehow, in spite of all that the mood and style of the thing drew me in. The improvisational jazz, the cool beat lingo and certainly the racial themes left me thinking about it long after I saw it. If you often confuse yourself by liking movies you hate watching, it’s highly recommended.

Though there are some interesting observations here that may be helpful in making a decision about watching this film–it has “improvisational jazz” and “cool beat lingo” from the period.  But without knowing specifically what this reviewer thought about the racial themes or who this reviewer is, we are left with a generalized and useless opinion.  The following review was awarded a single star:

I have always been a Cassavetes fan from the start, but, usually only for his acting. This film was awful and a complete waste of time. I expected a lot more, and got a lot less from J. C. He certainly needed to learn a lot more of directing before he even started on something like this. I see where a lot of people here like the film, but, I think that they are only trying to be hip, and pretend to know something. There was nothing about the beat scene, as advertised. The only thing beat was the three guys in the storeroom, and, boy, were they beat.

What was the impulse to write this or the general impulse to share online?  Like much of social media this communication is so personal it is impossible to decipher.   This last example has the tone of what has been defined here as a traditionally authorized review:

Just before Jean-Luc Godard was preparing to turn European cinema on its ear with the debut of Breathless, a charismatic young New York actor did much the same on this side of the Atlantic. Godard’s film ended up having more widespread impact, as it didn’t have the crowded American movie market that greeted Shadows to compete with, but John Cassevetes’ debut was no less revolutionary. And in the same way that Godard’s film changed the rules for the artistic side of filmmaking, Cassavetes’ ushered in a new business model, practically inventing the independent film industry as it existed for decades. The film, which began as an acting exercise in Cassavetes’ own upstart actors’ studio, tells the story of three siblings rooming together and trying to make it in New York. The oldest brother is singer whose old-fashioned crooning style is making him out of fashion and making it more difficult to find work. The younger brother is more of a beatnik jazz musician. And the sister is a light-skinned black woman who “passes” as white; one of the film’s most dramatic sequences observes the fallout that results when she begins a relationship with a white man who only finds out about her race after meeting her brothers. This was incendiary stuff for the late 50s, and Cassavetes, in what would become a personal trademark throughout his career, never shies away from the most difficult aspects of relationships and friendships. Springing as it does from an acting exercise, all the dialogue is improvised. Shot on the fly and written just as spontaneously and raggedly, Shadows’ energy is just as breathlessly invigorating as Charlie Mingus’ jazz score.

Does Netflix’s “Member Reviews” contain the possibility of Habermas’s “public space” in which aesthetic ideas are democratically shared and communal values formed?  Might this be a place for positive social change?  I do not think so and not because there is no mechanism for the development of ideas in any directed way; rather, the mechanism is directed by, ultimately, controlled by corporate profit considerations.

Netflix list-making is not opposed to Bourdieu’s models of how “distinction” develops and changes; rather, it is unrelated.  What had been understood as “taste” is irrelevant to the Netflix production processes and goals.  Film lists are de-authorized, or, rather, the client-viewer is authorized by other client-viewers.  But this opinion-making is not within a public sphere; rather it is under the hegemonic umbrella of the corporate structure in which film recommendations are based on business-models and computer algorithms and profit-driven goals of audience satisfaction –  in an ultimate fracturing of any notion of “taste.”

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*Eisenstein’s paean to Soviet Russia, Battleship Potemkin, can be viewed instantly on Netflix.  But you will have to wait a couple of days to receive Citizen Kane in the mail.   Is this a capitalist joke?

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References

Bourdieu, P.  (1984).  Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Trans. Richard Nice.  Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Mass.

– (1993). The field of cultural production.  Columbia University Press: NY.

Gilbey, R. (2013, August 30). This week’s film events.  The Guardian. Retrieved from http://theguardian.com

Hegel,  G.W.F. (1818-1829). Aesthetics: Lectures on fine art. Trans. T.M. Knox, 1973. Retrieved from  https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ae/index.htm

Olivarez-Giles, N. (2013, August 17). Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation brings eight rare films to Hulu.” The Verge. Retrieved from http//theverge.com


[1] There is much that could be said about the validity of making lists and what deep assumptions stand behind a particular formation or [production] process of making lists, or what a list means to a particular reader.  This analysis is engaging the “fields” approach as a way to examine list making from the POV of authority and what happens when there is no authority–in this sense.

[2] In a recent public discussion at John Jay College the Executive head  of Time/Warner’s Media Responsibility Division emphasized the corporation’s duty to give its audiences what they want.  This is the corporate definition of moral and civic responsibility.  Clearly in the present sense of corporations and business models, there is no place for aesthetic authority or attitude or “taste” or “distinction.”  There is no overlap.

Looking the Part: “Representative” Black Men in New Media

While re-reading a chapter of historian Kevin K. Gaines’ important book, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture, in the Twentieth Century (1996), I came across a passage that I had not given much thought to beforehand.  Writing on African Americans’ strivings for respect within a racist society at the turn of the 20th Century, Gaines explains:

It was difficult for African Americans to avoid minstrelsy, a major obstacle to the assertion of bourgeois black selfhood.  Because photography was crucial in transmitting stereotypes, African Americans found the medium well suited for trying to refute negrophobic caricatures.  In addition, black painters, illustrators, and sculptors, along with writers of fiction produced antiracist narratives and iconography featuring ideal types of bourgeois black manhood and womanhood.  At a broader, grassroots level, there is an extensive photographic record of African Americans’ concern to infuse the black image with dignity, and to embody the “representative” Negro by which the race might be more accurately judged.  Studio portraits of uplift and respectability—depicting black families with attributes of cleanliness, leisure, and literacy—found expression in the sitters’ posture, demeanor, dress, and setting.  In most portraits, whether of individuals, of wedding portraits, or of groups, one sees an intense concern for projecting a serious, dignified image…  Anything less than stylized elegance would betray the ideals of race advancement and, indeed, hold back the race, as did the profusion of commodified, demeaning portraits taken of unsuspecting, often youthful and destitute African Americans. (p. 68)

Contemporary forms of electronic media such as television and the internet are certainly just as, if not more, effective than traditional photography and minstrel theater were for disseminating or challenging racist propaganda.  The following recent new media campaigns were all at least partly conceived as platforms for challenging unflattering images of African American men and boys in the popular culture.  Each campaign employs various visually grounded emotional appeals directed toward vaguely defined audiences regarding discussions of how black men should strive to appear in public and how the “representative” black man looks and carries himself.  By engaging in these politics of respectability, the creators of the campaigns, through one lens, are heroically asserting black men’s agency regarding how they are perceived by the larger society, but through another lens, may simply be projecting a mass of black bourgeois status anxieties onto their poorer skinfolk.  As evidenced by the brouhaha over Trayvon Martin’s infamous hoodie, such messages can work to reinforce the deeply reactionary notion that blacks—particularly the poor and working class black men who are the foils for these campaigns—are ultimately responsible for the consequences of white racism by virtue of their own failure to behave properly and present themselves respectably in public.

The “Stop the Sag” Campaign

stop-the-sag-billboard-2

In 2010, then New York State Senator Eric Adams (now the Brooklyn Borough President), as a component of his reelection bid in Brooklyn’s gentrifying 20th District, erected a billboard in Crown Heights featuring the backsides of two young black men with their baggy jeans sagging to where their boxer shorts were in full view.  The sign extolled messages intended to uplift the peers of the young men in the picture: “We are better than this!” “Raise your pants, raise your image!” In the corner of the billboard, a campaign photo of Eric Adams in a conservative business suit sat juxtaposed to the image of the young men with their sagging jeans.  With the juxtaposition, Representative Adams situated himself as a “representative” black man whose trustworthiness was assured by his unwillingness to stand for the shenanigans of those black youth who were “showing their asses” in public, so to speak.

Adams’ followed his billboard campaign with a widely viewed and shared “Stop the Sag” YouTube video.  In the clip, Adams, speaking over flashing images of Jim Crow era racist propaganda and then snippets of black boys sagging, claims that sagging jeans are a part of a long legacy of racist stereotyping in the United States, “but this time it is self-imposed.”  By the end of the video Adams is, once again, pictured in a business suit ironically telling young black men, “Don’t surrender control over your own image.”  It was an apt message.  As Adams was willing to recycle unflattering images of low-status black boys—most of whom were likely too young to vote for or against him—for political expediency, it becomes immediately clear to whom he is not accountable as a public official.

Street Etiquette’s “The Black Ivy”

BlackIvy

Around the same time of Adams’ “Stop the Sag” campaign, another duo of enterprising young black men posted a seminal photo shoot onto Street Etiquette, their popular style blog targeting cosmopolitan young black men.  Travis Gumbs’ and Joshua Kissi’s “The Black Ivy” piece featured photos and video of about a dozen impeccably dressed college-aged African American and African guys leisurely hanging out on the campus of City College, CUNY simultaneously paying homage to iconic Ivy League preppy styles as well as mid-20th Century yearbook “campus life” photos from prominent black colleges like Howard University, Morehouse College, and Hampton University.  The young men in the photos, dripping with bourgeois confidence and comfort, wore contemporary “black dandy” staples such as colorful slim-fitting khakis, tanned wingtips, tweed sport coats, and bowties in stark contrast to the baggy, hip-hop styles that many have come to expect from young urban black men.  The piece was wildly popular, even garnering accolades in a New York Times Fashion & Style article in which everyone from hip-hop artists to college professors gushed on how Gumbs’ and Kissi’s “political expression” was expanding the repertoire of cultural archetypes to which black men can aspire and through which they might be viewed.  In that way, the collegiate theme of “The Black Ivy” thus reflects the creators’ aspirations of upward mobility and racial uplift by way of dressing well and respectable comportment—a curious logic that runs contrary to the conventional narrative that material improvements are typically the trappings of upward mobility and not the other way around.

“Suit and Tie at the 217”

suitandtie

Earlier this year, a group of black Illinois high school students came together, with the help of their school counselors and the local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a prominent African American Greek-letter organization, to create “Suit and Tie in the 217.”  In the viral YouTube music video cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” the boys are depicted moving through their school day—dancing in the hallways, studying in class, and playing ball in the gym—while, once again, dressed in the collegiate preppy style, similar to the guys from “The Black Ivy,” indicating their high aspirations and personal discipline.  Of course, none of the boys are sagging their jeans or even have their shirts untucked, thus distancing themselves from the supposedly “self-imposed” stereotypes in Eric Adams’ “Stop the Sag” campaign.  All the while that the boys are walking confidently toward the camera and coolly smoothing out their collared shirts, messages flash on the screen: “We are not gangsters and thugs.” “We are scholars.” “We are athletes.”  These are certainly important words for a world that views black youth with contempt and fear, and they are messages that the video’s creators, thankfully, were insightful enough to realize that photos of black boys wearing bowties cannot convey.  I wonder how such a campaign might have been received had those same positive messages been flashed across the screen in a light-hearted video full of black boys with sagging jeans.  Can racism be thwarted by videos of well-dressed black boys?  For a historical perspective, Kevin K. Gaines further notes, “Many [early 20th Century] whites, however, remained unmoved by African American’s attempts at respectful self-representation.  If images of black respectability were not omitted from the white press altogether, they were relentlessly mocked and parodied through minstrelsy.” (p. 69)

I certainly cannot fault the “Suit and Tie in the 217” boys, the Street Etiquette men, or even Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for wanting to combat negative images of young black men in the larger culture, and it is a testament to their thoughtfulness and ingenuity that they would engage those negative stereotypes through their creative use of new media technologies.  Nevertheless, by suggesting so strongly that racial (self) perception is simply a matter of black men’s sartorial style, that the creators as exceptional to other black men, or that it is incumbent upon black men to “evolve” into mature, respectable citizens (evidenced by donning fitted pants and neckties) in order to eliminate racism, the campaigns end up cosigning the very same negative stereotypes that they are trying to dismantle.

Gaines, Kevin Kelly. Uplifting the Race: Black Middle-class Ideology in the Era of the “New Negro,” 1890-1935. N.p.: n.p., 1991. Print.

Close Encounters of the Library Kind

I’m going to piggyback (okay, outright copy) from Catherine’s passionate communiqué and write briefly around an image from a recent archival trip. My experience of archives is less passion– although I think I’m getting there– and more tentative fumbling through books and papers. However, as I get more proficient, I’m finding that research is turning into a process that’s very different than I expected it to be.

Woodcut image from "“A lytell treatyse of the horse, the sheep and the ghoos” with sketch

This is the bottom portion of a woodcut from A lytell treatyse of the horse, the sheep and the ghoos by John Lydgate, printed at Westminster by Wynkyn de Worde about 1499. It’s in the Rare Books collection at Cambridge University Library, where I had the great fortune to go in March of this year. I went specifically to look at another small book printed by de Worde, a 1501 pamphlet excerpting portions of The Book of Margery Kempe.  Cambridge was the third archive I’d been in for my dissertation research and by far the most intimidating. I felt far from home, a novice researcher who hoped she didn’t look too much like a clueless American. I decided that while I was there I should look at as many examples of de Worde’s printing as possible.

This image, particularly the rough ink drawings underneath, charmed and comforted me.  Was it evidence of a previous reader who wanted to learn to draw animals?  Incontrovertible proof of a timeless obsession with cats?  I have to admit that I have no idea who made these little sketches — they also appear in a 1906 facsimile published by Cambridge University Press– but they remind me that books are objects with their own lives and personal histories, used for purposes well beyond what may have been intended by their producer. My dissertation considers how encounters/performances with medieval objects (construed broadly) shape the way later periods understand the Middle Ages.  This image made me think about the (casual?) intimacy with books and their contents that may have developed as they became more accessible, wide-spread, and portable.  My work is preoccupied with people’s relationships to material objects.  As my own relationship to archival material changes and deepens, I am challenged to think more broadly about how others may have related to these objects, in the past and today.

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.