Composition Across the Curriculum

Due to our many discussions about Communication Across the Curriculum and multimodal composing at the Schwartz Institute, I became interested in the idea of Composition Across the Curriculum. In particular, I wanted to think through the pedagogy of using writing, speech, and video in the same classroom. What is similar and what is different for students and instructors when it comes to these different technologies of expression?

Below is an interview with documentary filmmaker Sascha Just, who teaches film production and public speaking in Baruch’s Department of Communication Studies. Her short doc Ambassadors – The Native Jazz Quartet at Work has been screened at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA, the The Queens World Film Festival, where it was nominated for best short doc, and at Woman with A Movie Camera.

sascha

1. What kind of assignments do the film production students create?

The students have four assignments. The first one is a dialogue scene. They form groups and pick a scene. We then film the scenes in class and they edit them in the library computer lab.

For the second assignment, they go out and film a chase scene. Two or three people chase each other. It’s a very fun assignment, creative, somewhat adventurous. More than anything, it teaches how to compose a shot and how to create continuity. –How to build a story. We are dealing with structure based on logic. –Basic film language. At this point, most of them could handle [the editing software] Final Cut and all scenes turned out extremely well.

The third project was a fundraiser/kickstarter video for their final project, which was a short documentary. I figured this is a business school and I want to teach them the reality of filmmaking. It’s expensive. A short fundraiser forces you to focus on the essence of your project. The final assignment was 10-minute documentaries.

2. What kinds of writing do the students do during the semester? How does the writing prepare the students for filming or help them reflect on what they created?

For the chase scene, students drew storyboards to ensure that the shot order would be effective, economic, and logical. For the documentary project, they wrote a production plan: a premise of the project and description of what they were going to shoot, where and when. It helps tighten the production, schedule the shoots, plan interviews, and overall tailor production decisions to support the main idea of the film.

The students write a film analysis paper and an exam.  Both written assignments ask students to demonstrate their understanding of film language. This means on the one hand that they use the correct terminology and can communicate with other filmmakers. On the other, it means that they grasp the meanings a sequence of shots can express. For example, why does the filmmaker choose to shoot this scene with close ups? What did she try to convey?

3. Do you see any strong connections between structuring a speech and structuring a doc? –In terms of clarity of perspective, editing (knowing what to put in, take out, when and how to present information), etc.?

Doc films in particular work with reality but they are no more realistic than so-called fiction films. No matter how accurately researched, they always play with reality. The same can be said about speeches and academic papers. I guess, altogether I question the possibility of representing reality.

However, I believe in putting great effort into creating a structure built on logic. That turns out to be one of the most challenging aspects of filmmaking and public speaking. The questions of “does this scene belong here or there, why does it feel right to place this scene here and not there” preoccupy me a lot. It’s a constant negotiation between the style or aesthetics I am trying to create and the content/information I am trying to communicate. Again, the same as with speeches or academic papers.

AMBASSADORS is a very simple story without real dramatic climax, but was nonetheless difficult to structure. The musicians noticed it – I used the songs as a structure. I personally do not like to work with voice overs, but there are many great films that do (REEL INJUNS, a must see). I am trying to keep my own voice out of it as much as possible, because a) I am more interested in what the characters have to say and b) I feel that my viewpoint comes through a lot anyhow, simply because I select, interview, structure etc.

4. Any thoughts on the communication that happens between the documentarian and the subject and between instructor and student? If the same, how so? If different, in what ways?

I hadn’t thought of it before, but I think there are parallels between interviewing and q & a with students. Both require attentive and engaged listening. Waiting till the person is finished. Prompting further thoughts with short follow-up questions. Phrasing questions short and clear. Neither students nor interviewee should spend too much time trying to figure out what it is I am asking, right?

Both students and interview subjects respond much more willingly if they sense that I care. Once I cried in an interview, because what the person (an older, very unhappy Indian) told me was heartbreaking. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful and informative interviews I have ever conducted. So much for neutrality.

We never are objective anyhow, so why would I try that in such heightened situations like an interview or the classroom? It becomes dishonest.

5. Do you have any thoughts about how people’s behavior changes in front of the camera (particularly in this digital smart phone age)? –I ask this particularly in the context of Baruch where we use the technique of taping students and doing an immediate playback so they can experience their vocal and bodily delivery habits as an audience member would.

Even very confident people who believe that they forget about the camera are on some level aware of it. In my opinion, they perform for the camera. Not necessarily a problem. Without the camera, they would perform for the teacher, class, or interviewer. Performing is so often defined as negative = fake. But ultimately it means that students or interviewees pull themselves together, focus, try to make a good impression, and eliminate distracting stories or habits to the best of their ability.

Sascha Just was born and raised in Berlin, Germany and is a doctoral candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Theatre Department. Her dissertation is about the cinematic representation of New Orleans performance cultures. Just’s in-process documentary film Heirs is a music-driven portrait of New Orleans composed of three artists’ journeys into the city’s past: drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Darryl Montana, and theater artist Lisa D’Amour. 

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.

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!

The Soundtrack to Productivity

Stop and Listen. What do you hear? Music coming through your earphones? The chatter of a coffee shop? The car horn-punctuated midtown din, filtered through library windows? The hum of your computer in an otherwise silent, isolated space?

It would seem prosaic to state that sound is a key aspect of our immediate environments, and that different tasks are best accompanied by different kinds of aural stimuli. A radio show on the most appropriate music for exercise and athletics got me thinking about this again recently. The expert interviewed on the program conveys some rather unsurprising findings: Music can have a positive stimulative effect on people seeking to get the most of their workout; songs with relatively fast tempos are optimal as background music to exercise—125-140 beats per minutes is ideal; changing the tracks in your playlists frequently will maximize the music’s motivational potential by reducing the risk of boredom. On the other hand, music can play a distracting role for elite athletes engaged in intense competition.

On the other end of the spectrum from workout music, pieces with slower tempos and softer sounds can help people fall asleep. What, then, is the ideal sound for that middle ground of activity between heart-pumping exercise and tranquil sleep that most of us are immersed in during the bulk of our waking hours? For the many folks I see with earphones on while ostensibly doing work in libraries and coffee shops, I assume that music is a motivational force. There seems to be a smidgen of scientific evidence out there indicating that listening to music can boost productivity for some people in some settings, and no shortage of advice on what tunes will help you get work done. Of course, workers in many cultures sing and/or use work implements in a musical fashion to coordinate complex tasks and to make boring or repetitive work more interesting. One of my favorite examples of work music is a recording that was made of postal workers at the University of Accra, Ghana in the 1970s:

But there are those of us who can’t envision getting much work done if we tried to type every letter on our computer keyboard in rhythm. (Or, if we broke into office supply-accompanied song. Just couldn’t resist!)

Personally, I can’t even listen to music while doing any work that requires the slightest bit of concentration. The fact that my field of study involves analyzing music in its minute details makes it too difficult to ignore the sounds unfolding around me. But I know that I’m also probably more sensitive to aural stimuli than lots of other people. I’ve never understood how people can concentrate in busy coffee shops, even if there is no background music playing. So imagine my surprise when I learned the other day that there’s a website that will bring the sounds of a coffee shop to your home or office. The Coffitivity site and its related smartphone and tablet apps were apparently inspired by research indicating that the moderate levels of ambient noise typical of coffee shops are optimal for creative thinking. Maybe I’m not a very creative person, since I couldn’t stand more than a few seconds of “morning murmur”—one of Coffitivity’s three coffee shop sound options—streaming through my speakers!

Please Open (Your) Textbooks…

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

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

just the ones i'm getting rid of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a NAP for that….

I have always enjoyed my routine of reading in bed before I got to sleep.   When I was a teenager, I often would get so engrossed in the book I was reading, I would sometimes read for hours into the morning without noticing the time go by.  This has not happened to me for quite a long time.  Nowadays, as a busy Ph.D student, by the time I go to bed I am usually too tired to reach for a novel.   However, sometimes I do end up reading the New York Times on my iPhone.  And more often than not, a dozen articles later, I realize that an hour just went by without me noticing.  Of course, when the alarm goes off the next morning, I immediately notice that missing hour of sleep.  However, I’ve now come to learn that I may be missing more than just that hour of rest.

According to a 2014 study by Lanaj, Johnson and Barnes, smartphone use after 9 p.m. is associated with decreased sleep quantity.  What is more, nighttime smartphone use disrupts sleep and increases depletion the next morning.  This, in turn, diminishes work engagement during the day.  During the study, 82 upper level managers and 161 employees working in a variety of occupations, had to fill out multiple surveys every day for two weeks.  The questionnaires examined their daily use of smartphones, sleep quantity, sleep quality and their state of depletion.  The study further found that smartphones had a bigger depletion effect than using a laptop or tablet or watching TV.

Worse, a recent article in the New York Times (which I read at 1:42 a.m.) reported a link between nighttime smartphone use and insomnia.  This was due not only to the fact that users becomes engaged by the content on their phone, but also due to exposure to the blue light emitted by smartphone and tablet screens.  A 2012 study from the Lighting Research Center (LRC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute showed that a 2-hour exposure to electronic devices with backlit displays causes melatonin suppression which may lead to delayed bedtimes, especially in teens and young adults.

This is unwelcome news to the growing number of the device owners.  A new report compiled by Pew Research found that, 58% of American adults own a smartphone, 32% of American adults own an e-reader and 42% of American adults own a tablet computer.  The study further found that 44% of cell phone owners have slept with their phone next to their bed because they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any calls, text messages, or other updates during the night.  As a nation, we are likely losing countless hours of sleep.

Fortunately, the solution to this particular problem is simple and obvious, but perhaps difficult to execute, as those of you who reading this in bed right can attest…

On gravitating and levitating (part one)

I’ll begin with a passage from James Joyce’s “The Dead” to illustrate reading as  an embodied experience in movement:

“Her voice strong and clear in tone attacked with great spirit that runs which embellish the air and, though she sang very rapidly, she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

I gravitate to the text’s directive “to follow the voice.” I repeat the passage aloud and experience the accumulative effects of soft, sinuous sounds that bring the words “attacked” and “rapidly” into sharp focus. At first it seems like an attack, a forced act, to merge my voice with the text. Oh, but those quickened syllables–rapidly–that delicately punctuate the legato of “embellish” and “grace notes”! The pitter patter of saying “rapidly” out loud makes me realize that my reading is a kind of running: my voice chases after my sprinting eyes. I jump in; the text springs. “Her voice” is faceless because it becomes “the voice,” our voice. Together, the text and I, we “feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

***

I frequently feel and share texts, as many of us do, on and through the internet. If an article, image, or video is moving–if it’s infuriating, amusing, or inspiring–you and I engage by commenting, upvoting, and reposting: we share. This all happens, rapidly, at speeds that make it easy to forget that reading and writing are embodied movements, activities of relating.

***

six-memos-millenium

What I learned in my international archival research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No cameras

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

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

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

Power Pointers

Power Point slides are omnipresent in today’s college classroom. Most textbooks in my field – I have been teaching introductory economics and finance – come with a set of PowerPoint slides prepared by the textbook publisher that feature content, examples and graphs from the textbook. These ready-made slides save a ton of time. Many instructors use them as they are, others personalize them to a varying degree. Instead of having to plan the class one can conveniently follow the slides along. However, although slides make teaching easier, they do not necessarily make it better.

We have all sat through countless lectures where the instructor merely displayed dense slides and even read their content out loud word for word. This is exactly the opposite of what we are trying to teach the students in presentation rehearsals at the Schwartz Institute. We encourage students to keep their slides brief and deliver the bulk of the information verbally.
I feel that slides tend to bore the students, and merely encourage them to copy and memorize as opposed to understand and analyze. Some students actually love the detailed, overloaded slides because they feel like they do not have to take any (or many) notes. However, as research suggests, this does not help their learning process. At the Schwartz Institute, we also encourage presenters to try to limit the number of slides in their presentations.

Excessive use of slides turns the attention away from the speaker and makes it harder to create an active interaction with students. Therefore, in my own teaching, I tend to use PowerPoint sparingly. Teaching microeconomics which is very graph-intensive, I have found that graphs are much better understood by students if I draw them on the board myself, as opposed to using the publisher’s animated slides that show the graphing procedure step by step. Slides also make it harder to pace yourself, and you are more likely to present faster than you probably should be when you are using slides.

However, the problem is not the tool itself, it is how you use it. Power Point can be an immensely useful tool in teaching, if used properly and limited to situations where the visual representation of an idea or concept increases comprehension. Here are a few ideas of how to avoid boring students to death with the slides.

  1.  Use the slide as a prompt, to bring focus to a discussion of the information. Go light on text, use images, statistics or charts.
  2.  Use the slide as the vehicle to deliver a question, problem, or example, not as a tool to deliver information.
  3. Consider not handing out print-outs of your slides. By summarizing the slides in their notes the students’ comprehension and retention may be enhanced. Writing things down facilitates learning.
  4. Turn off the projector to focus attention back on you, when necessary. Alternatively, if you press the letter B on your keyboard, it makes the screen go black. Pressing it again brings the screen back. Similarly, pressing W will make the screen white.
  5. Finally, when using a screen, if possible, try to position yourself near the screen, so you keep the focus on people’s attention and eyes in the same place. This also allows you to quickly place yourself in front of the screen during discussion when the screen may be black or white. Positioning yourself too far from the screen is distracting and force you to compete with the screen for the audience’s attention. In other words, do not make your listeners feeling like they are watching a tennis match.

Once Upon a Time: Web-based Timelines in the Classroom

Last week, Dana Milstein and I led a faculty-development roundtable on the online timeline design app Tiki-Toki. The app has become popular in academia over the past year or two because it provides a simple, user-friendly way to create professional-looking, interactive timelines. While a timeline-building app might have obvious applications for a history class, we used the roundtable to explore ways to adapt it to literature and writing classes. I’ll explore some of those here.

First, a bit on how it works. A free Tiki-Toki account allows you to create one timeline site (though there’s nothing stopping you from creating multiple accounts with different email addresses). You set the time scale for your timeline — which, depending on your topic, could be centuries, years, days, hours. You populate the timeline with “stories,” which are essentially micro blog posts that you identify with a time marker, placing them chronologically on your timeline. These stories can contain a range of multimedia including text, images, video, PDFs, and hyperlinks to external websites. They can also be sorted into various categories you invent for your timeline. So, if you’re creating a timeline of — say — the Harlem Renaissance, you might have different category tags for key people, works of visual art, music, literature, or political events.

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. Moments from 2010 - 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline: http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/55/The-Fight-for-Democracy-in-the-Middle-East/

This screenshot comes from one of the model timelines Tiki-Toki provides on their website. The background image shows a political rally. Five text boxed show stories on the timeline. Moments from 2010 – 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East are sorted into categories by country. The bottom shows the slider bar that allows users to scroll chronologically through the timeline. Full timeline: http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/55/The-Fight-for-Democracy-in-the-Middle-East/

There are a few clear reasons why Tiki-Toki has caught on in the academy over the past few years. For one, it provides a dynamic alternative for assignments that ask students to represent historical research. Unlike a static, text-based researched report, the digital timelines students design allow users to explore the content in a way better suited to the digital age: while users might choose to move through the timeline chronologically, they also have the option to jump around, to navigate by theme or category, to interact with the content in original ways. Likewise, because the multimedia format allows for hyperlinking and embedding multimedia in the stories, users can dive deep into the moments that interest them most, leading outward into further resources on the web.

It seems obvious that a tool like this — and similar open-source apps — should find a natural home in the history classroom. But what about literature and writing classes? Dana and I asked the participants in our roundtable, who were all Great Works of Literature instructors, to imagine possible applications for timeline-building within their own contexts. We asked them to consider how timeline-ing could add to their classes. A few speculative answers:

  • Students could create timelines about characters in literary works to better understand their trajectory, especially in works that have non-linear chronology (i.e. a timeline of Odysseus’s journey or one character’s trajectory through the single-day novel Mrs Dalloway)
  • Students — or groups — could create timelines of cultural movements from which works emerged (i.e. timeline of the Harlem Renaissance or western Women’s Rights movements)
  • A whole class could create timelines tracking the influences of key ideas or key works up to the present day (i.e. a timeline of works responding to Sophocles’ Oedipus plays)

For those who are interested in getting students to represent their knowledge and analysis in ways that go beyond the straightforward prose essay, these kinds of projects offer something new and exciting. They lend themselves to extreme creativity, collaborative knowledge-making, and the incorporation of contemporary digital composing skills within the study of classic literary texts. Of course, they also raise new challenges for assessment, but that’s a topic for another post.

I want to close by speculating on a few possibilities for how Tiki-Toki could be used in a different context: self reflection on learning. In a history class or a literature class, timelines allow students to represent their research and analysis skills. What would happen if we asked students to timeline their own experiences as learners? How could they use their digital literacy skills and the adaptive possibilities of Tiki-Toki to better understand themselves as developing writers and learners?

Many freshman composition courses include some sort of literacy narrative assignment. Typically, these projects ask students to reflect on their past lives as a reader or a writer, often asking them to show through storytelling one important factor that has made them the literate person they are today. Many composition courses begin with such a project. At the beginning of a course in college-level reading and writing, a project like this allows students to gain confidence, both by asking them reflect on the complex literacy skills they already possess, and by allowing them permission to write confidently about something they know well, their own biography. 

Rather than asking students to reflect on a single moment from their literacy past, Dana and I have both started asking them to create digital projects that put these moments into the broader context of their literacy development. (Dana calls her version of this assignment a Literary Autobiography.) Some students choose to use the timeline to represent the various influences on their reading lives — everything from family influences to literature and pop culture touchstones. By contrast, some students use the timeline format to explore their lives as writers, presenting excerpts from important creative and school-sponsored writing projects they’ve done throughout their lives. For example, one student chose to reflect on her history writing and giving speeches, and using the multimedia capabilities of Tiki-Toki, was able to include actual video clips of her public speeches as the basis for her reflection.

Whenever I have my students create something experimental or creative like this, I always ask them to reflect on the experience in a more straightforward essay that accompanies the assignment. Since the overall project is about literacy, students often make compelling analogies between the digital literacy skills they had to employ in this project and the overall literacy history they were trying to represent. The experimentation, in essence, supports their discovery of what, exactly, literacy means to them.

The second example of a reflective timeline-based assignment comes out of my work this semester with George DeFeis’s Business Policy 5100 capstone course. All BPL5100 courses require students to work in groups on a large-scale business simulation called Glo-Bus. In the Glo-Bus simulation, students design a business strategy for a fictional company, and through the accelerated time of the simulation (1 week for the student equals one year of  the business), they compete with rival teams to see who can make the most profitable company through 15 years of business strategy.

At the end of the semester, Professor DeFeis asks his students to prepare an oral presentation in which they explain how they approached the simulation, pointing out their key decisions as a company, and explaining what they ultimately learned about business in the “real world” through this experiment. As a teacher, I have a lot of respect for this kind of assignment. The simulation gives students a rich and complex experience that they can then analyze and synthesize in their final presentation. Unlike oral presentation projects that ask students to base their content purely on external research (say, a presentation on Dell Computers), this project asks them to present on their own experience over the semester — something about which we can reasonably expect them to have authentic expertise. To create a convincing presentation, students must take ownership of what they learned in the course by critically reflecting on both their successes and their mistakes.

This assignment seems perfectly suited to Tiki-Toki. Groups could construct timelines of their own business, making separate stories for the key decisions they made. In each story, they could embed images from the simulation interface to show the data they consulted, while in the text of the story itself they could reflect on the way they reasoned through the choice. Not only would building the timeline allow students to examine the decisions they made in more concrete detail than they usually achieve in the abstract through their oral presentations, they would also leave the project with a professional-quality archive of their simulated business experience.

Obviously, I see many intriguing possibilities for incorporating timeline-based projects into college classrooms. I could go on. Dana Milstein and I are hoping to host another roundtable workshop in the spring that would take a more interdisciplinary focus, including ways that the software could be used in non-humanities courses. Keep tuned to the Schwartz Institute workshop page for more details as they develop. To access the materials we distributed at the November 18 workshop, click here.