Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Meta Lecture

Yesterday I gave a talk as part of the Annenberg Research Park Colloquium series called "What Could Go Wrong?: The Baked Professor, the Runaway Résumé, and Other Cautionary Tales From the Digital Campus.”

Although I discussed how blogs, social network sites, file-sharing, and cut-and-paste plagiarism by students and faculty is creating conflicts on campuses and magnifying the anxieties of university administrators about new social media, the main focus of my talk was devoted to online lectures and the possible new genres of this traditional form that are being developed for distance learning on the web.

Because the talk was filmed and will eventually be posted on the web, it is odd to think that I gave an online lecture that was largely about online lectures. I hope that my rhetorical performance was at least less embarrassing than the one that I showed part of from the so-called "baked professor."

The riskiest part of the talk probably dealt with the much beloved "Last Lecture" on YouTube by Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Randy Pausch, which has been seen by over seven million people.

In my talk, I argued that Pausch's "last lecture" may be a problematic model for the distance learning experience, because the primary subject matter of his hour and fifteen minute speech is Pausch himself rather than the transferable knowledge associated with critical reading, scientific demonstration, research, design practices, or the interpretation and representation of data. Although it was a traditional one-to-many form of communication, as "Mourning the Internet Famous: Randy Pausch's Distributed Funeral" argues, many wanted to participate and address Pausch -- sometimes posthumously -- after watching the video.

I also asked some provocative questions -- as respectfully as possible, given that Pausch is deceased, has worked in fields related to my own interests in interactive entertainment, and is deeply admired by many friends and colleagues. Based on a close reading of the actual transcript of the lecture, I speculated about how this particular web genre obscured the fact that Pausch often expressed a surprising amount of hostility toward university rules and conventions governing faculty conduct in the course of his lecture, which was posted on the official Carnegie Mellon YouTube channel.

For example, consider the following sentiments that Pausch expresses and ask yourself if they would have been received so warmly by his faculty superiors and peers if they had appeared in the form of text in a faculty blog.
  • He exults about breaking a NASA rule against faculty joining students in zero gravity experiments.
  • He sides with a corporate collaborator who says that academics are "in the business of telling people stuff and we’re in the business of keeping secrets."
  • He compares his former dean at the University of Virginia to the nefarious "Dean Wormer" of Animal House and calls him "our villain." Furthermore, he describes this confrontation using the terms "pissing match" and "pissed off."
  • He complains about getting "arrows" in his "back" from faculty colleagues who didn't support a student projects course he taught.
  • He advises others to insist on special privileges and exceptions to standards that govern admission when he describes how he overcame not being initially admitted to Brown as an undergraduate or Carnegie Mellon University as a graduate student.
Slides from my talk are here, and a selection of links to video clips is here.

Update:: The IML has written up the talk in a post called "The Baked Professor and More."

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