Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Forty-Year-Old Ballerina

I have a friend who often asks me if I am still taking "those stupid classes." By "those stupid classes," she means the classes in digital video production, web animation, and 3D modeling through which I've familiarized myself with proprietary software packages, such as Final Cut Pro, After Effects, Maya, and Flash. As she puts it, this exercise in futility is as "ridiculous" as if I had decided at forty to pursue professional training as a ballerina and to devote myself to arduous study late in life to further this specialized career.

I suppose she has a point. Unlike the one-time faculty workshops from which I learned about programs like Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and iMovie, these classes are time-consuming and aimed at an audience of younger professionals. There are also homework assignments, hours logged in the media lab, projects to complete, and lectures and demos to attend, for which a bookish researcher with a PhD in Critical Theory may be often less well-equipped than her hipster classmates from local animation schools or studio arts colleges.

On the other hand, on principle, I don't think it is really possible to have too much education. Perhaps it is professional bias on my part, but even if these classes had absolutely no real-world utility at all, I'm not sure it invalidates the personal worth of the very experience of learning. After all, as a teacher, I often have returning students in my classes who are older than I am and yet who feel motivated to complete their B.A. degrees long after the time of college graduation has passed. Some are at retirement age! Should I tell these "forty-year-old ballerinas" to go home?

In any case, these classes actually have a lot of utility for me as a researcher. These aren't formulaic lessons limited to an instrumentalist approach to software. Because these courses are aimed at active jobseekers, I've learned a lot about workflow conventions and collaborative communities of practice from my teachers and from fellow students. I would have never ventured into the LA Flash group or the Rich Media Institute, where I learned a lot about how Flash developers rely on the message boards of user groups for trouble-shooting and how often independent contractors must handle delicate legal matters that challenge social norms or their person feelings of ownership of their work. Whether I'm interviewing teams of game designers or committees of digital librarians, I also find we have more vocabulary in common as a result.

Since I'm a rhetorician, it's important to understand the constraints of digital media production and what the defaults of a given system may be. In other words, because of the way particular interfaces are set up, some messages may be easier to create than others. What may seem to be an intentional rhetorical strategy may just be a pre-set option. Or it may be a creative workaround that represents a very conscious subversion of the available menus. Without some knowledge of the software, it's hard to know.

As a teacher, who expects her students to produce as well as to critique digital media, I need to be able to mentor more advanced learners who might want to experiment with new tools. How can I teach students about identity construction or discursive personae without also showing them that the software that they choose (or don't choose) sends a message as well? If I'm interested in literacy as a social practice, isn't it important sometimes to be willing to learn alongside my students?

I've also been inspired by fellow academics who argue that it is important to create more works that can be shared and used by other faculty members and even appreciated by the general public. Because of its portability and potential for interactivity, digital media is uniquely important to this philosophy. About the time I started taking these "stupid classes" years ago, I heard a talk by Alan Liu who talked about the cultural dead-end of being a critic without in turn producing anything.

Now, I'd agree with open-source advocates for free software, that it's a shame that these courses propagate the dominance of proprietary software in the market, as expertise becomes associated with particular brand names. But I often find that I can open up and operate generic versions of these software interfaces more easily as a result of these classes, so I can actually use the open-source tools rather than just evangelize for them for others.

Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with the forty-year-old ballerina or think that she's inherently ridiculous or unworthy of attention or admiration. I read those chapters on "postmodern dance" with everyday people in grad school and accept those ideas as valid. And I've enjoyed performances I've seen with older non-professionals, whether it be Butoh dance in San Francisco or improvisational dance in Venice.

Besides, wouldn't the forty-year-old ballerina look a little less silly if she's taken some dancing lessons first?

(For those who would like more lessons on their own, check out the new Moviestorms machinima software, which is free and easy to download online. Last weekend I took a workshop from Frank Fox, in which he encouraged me to contribute 3D models of my own to the community.)

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Blogger Kelly said...

I ran across your blog and this post by accident. I wanted to link you to a post I made about being an old ballerina:


I don't feel ridiculous in the slightest. Like you said...education is never a bad thing.


2:57 AM  

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