Thursday, January 31, 2008

Multimedia Manifestos

In the intimate setting of today's session about DIY Texts: The Future of Student Writing with colleagues Jacqueline Rhodes of Cal State San Bernadino and UCI Writing Coordinator Jonathan Alexander, there were some provocative questions raised about how faculty judge our students as digital media-makers in academic settings in preparation for a larger conference about the subject that will take place in the months ahead.

For their part, Rhodes and Alexander reviewed the discursive exchanges surrounding the Virginia Tech campus shooting and how not only could the murderous rampage of student Seung-Hui Cho be seen as prefigured in his writing courses, as well as in the "mulitmedia manifesto" that he delivered to NBC news, but also -- more importantly -- how these works reverberated in subsequent extracurricular reflections about college composition and student expression more generally that were disseminated in the days after the shooting. As Alexander and Rhodes write, "The proliferation of texts in the aftermath of Cho’s murders points toward a necessary consideration of the affective realm of new media, that is, the intersection of pathos, discourse, and technology that demands that we reconsider the figure of Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the myth haunting many of our discussions of technology."

By focusing on electronic "aftermath texts," Rhodes and Alexander propose that the acceleration of discursive exchanges associated with the speed of digital texts is also "put in the service of disciplining responses to the tragedy," so that what Pierre Lévy has called "collective intelligence" is actually used to propagate a particular master narrative that serves the agenda of the dominant culture. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of their argument had more to do with what Foucault calls "the technologies of the self" and the aspects of self-regulation that Web 2.0 technologies necessarily entail, as Geert Lovink similarly uses Foucault in his recent critique of blogging, Zero Comments.

For example, Alexander and Rhodes pointed out how websites that published Cho's grand guignol works of would-be literature after his murder-suicide rampage also had certain self-regularizing structures of pseudo-peer-review in which commentators on various blogs would be taken to task by other commentators and be reminded of the appropriate affect to adopt with regard to the campus shooting. Although they cited "The Borg" from Star Trek as an analogy for this process of cultural appropriation and de-individuation, they could just as easily have cited Jaron Lanier on the hive mind of Digital Maoism.

For my part of the presentation I looked at two different reference points for the composition classroom and recounted what I call the "Tale of Two Students": Georgetown senior James Kotecki and Yale senior Aleksey Vayner. Although digital composition and play is often associated with tropes of criminality in the mainstream media, as was in the Cho case, I focused on how professionalism and professionalization might be an area of pragmatic concern for graduating seniors, who may be creating media personae that persist for years in the future, with good effects in Kotecki's case and bad effects in Vayner's.

Of course, one of the uncomfortable aspects of teaching about digital rhetoric, is that you yourself have to consider the problems of digital publics, and what could be called the "Tale of Two Kinds of Professors": those who are praised in the Chronicle of Higher Education as Professors on YouTube and those like The Stoned Professor who are humiliated in the theater of distance learning.

From the vantage point of having recently taught a course in Digital Rhetoric, I also argued that it could often be difficult to assess student work, particularly when undergraduates who are proficient in the editing of digital video may turn in what are essentially well-produced rock videos rather than the academic discourse with claims, evidence, and warrants that we may privilege for credit-bearing units in the university.

As audience member Julia Lupton pointed out, however, the work of faculty member Michael Wesch itself uses many of these music video conventions. Lupton's comment returned the discussion to my opening review of myths about the "digital generation" and the ethnocentrism of Wesch's work, which Mark Marino lampooned in one of his own video responses. Wesch's comments on Marino's video revealed two interesting aspects of "A Vision of Students Today." First, we learned that the Google doc shown in the film wasn't the only source of student comments written on the students' signs since many were composed spontaneously on the day of filming. Second, we learned that Wesch himself was an active editor who shaped the message of the film, in this case by editing out a "powerful moment" that "defies any simple reading." Both pieces of information undermine the degree to which this video can be perceived as a collectively authored composition that reflects student work, which is what this online film purports to be at first viewing.

(The outline of my part of the talk is here, and more tips and reflections are here.)

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Blogger Lupton said...

Thanks for a great event -- and this helpful re-linking to the main images, which stay on my mind.

4:18 PM  

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