Friday, March 13, 2009

Desktop DJs

Spencer Schaffner of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign presented at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication by screening a short film about "desktop MCing" that argued that the compositional practices of DJs could be understood as analogous to the fact that writing invariable involves multiple windows being open on a desktop where "no fewer than three applications" are required for generating prose. He even argued that corporate-style PowerPoint presentations could be seen as mixmaster extravaganzas. Although he acknowledged that there was a "difference between hiding and revealing" when it came to how sources were presented, he described himself as loath to adopt a Tufte-style "PowerPoint is evil" argument.

As an exemplar of the desktop MCing style, Schaffner pointed to Scientific American's presentations on BlipTV on subjects such as brain mapping or asteroids for "foregrounding desktop as site of convergence." He also argued that Michael Wesch's "The Machine is Us/ing Us" and "Desktop Wars" (or more accurately "Animator vs. Animation II") also manifest aspects of this style. I write about the latter in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book and the former in my current book project, so I certainly was sorry to see such a relatively small crowd for Schaffner's elaborate presentation.

Schaffner argued that such digital composites created by video screen recorders often emphasize a "do it yourself style" that may be further marked up with sticky notes. But he argued that there were some ironies to this DIY sensibility since the video screen recorder itself cannot be seen, nor can the editing software interface that creates the final product.

What Schaffner called the "informatics of electronic communication" could be traced to linking and HTML editors, according to his presentation, although I found myself having quibbles about the connections of his assertions about rollovers and mouseovers in which the "user’s presence is recognized" and reading is staged as playing, given how different his examples from, Surlyville, and were from his earlier examples.

It's interesting to think, however, about how playing videos live in lieu of more traditional conference presentations is being also done by scholars like Alexandra Juhasz. Particularly the practice of reading a paper that attendees could read for themselves has certainly been an issue at interdisciplinary new media conferences, where computer scientists express exasperation with their humanist colleagues. But, as Cathy Davidson explains in "Why Humanists Read Their Papers," there are justifications for this practice, which might be different from those that rationalize using video technologies as a stand-in for the speaker.

"Unsituating the Subject: ‘Locating’ Composition and Ethnography in Mobile Worlds," which is featured in the recent volume of Ethnography Unbound was frequently cited in the presentation that followed by Gail Hawisher about her ten-year study of "how students take up digital media." Hawisher showed samples from the videos of two students who came to campus with backgrounds that included home languages other than English. The assignment for which students created videos was very different from the one that created these YouTube essays by graduating seniors in my digital rhetoric class. The instructions for Hawisher's prompt read as follows:

You should attempt to capture a representation of your writing processes on camera. You do not have to video yourself.

In Hawisher's videos, we see students who did decide to record themselves, however, including "Ismael" cooking breakfast and pulling a pillow from his desk as he goes through his day's routine with his paper in the background. We also see Peruvian subject "Vanessa" going through cycles of eating reading thinking revising in a domestic landscape marked by post-it notes.

Unfortunately Hawisher's frequent collaborator Cynthia Selfe was hampered in her showing videos from Bosnian students about their use of social computing technologies, who participated in ethnographic reflections. Selfe was beset by technical difficulties involving the compatibility of dissimilar PowerPoint versions. Despite her self-confessed problems with her own "desktop MCing," she argued that the videorecording method not only includes the subject in the ethnography but also allows a scholarly audience to view the richness of the data for themselves and contribute to interpretive activities around the discourse.

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