Sunday, August 15, 2010

Revision & Digital Media

(Note: please see for the digital project that is the topic of this blog.)

Bonnie Kaplan—“bless ‘er ‘art” interjects a voice, probably echoing from my mother’s culture, as I begin to tell of my meeting with Bonnie some months ago. I’m a bit surprised at that voice and those words but guess they want to affirm at the outset Bonnie’s good heart in relation to what happened then and since then. Bonnie had wanted to tell me something for a few weeks, but she’d waited for a time when she could read the dynamics of face-to-face interaction. I’d sent her my latest digital creation, which she’d acknowledged; but the claims of our growing friendship were urging her to go further. I like to imagine that that impulse comes from more than the personal, and I believe our interaction and collaboration inheres in the responsibility toward professionalism and even in the ethic of social justice that inspires my commitment (and that of many others, including, I believe, Bonnie) to the work of the National Writing Project, particularly that involving digital media.

So Bonnie had waited until we were talking face to face at the NWP 2010 Spring Meeting in DC to respond more fully to my digital story* “On Knowing.” I’d mostly thought I was done with that project, but something had lingered from the composing, nagging, something unarticulated that I couldn’t quite push away. I was telling myself that I felt pretty good about it, but I detected in Bonnie’s uncharacteristic restraint that there was some feedback I hadn’t yet heard. While we’d exchanged comments on each other’s work a few times, we’d stayed mostly in the polite zone. Now, bless her heart, Bonnie wanted to risk telling me something that I really needed to hear, that is, if my expedition in digital media was going to move ahead.

So in the hotel lobby after the Friday morning sessions, Bonnie said something that synopsized in my memory as: “You’re a deep thinker, Joseph; and that music you put on for background stinks.” She mentioned other particulars, both positive and negative; but that music part grabbed my attention and joined up with that internal nagging that I’d tried to ignore.

Although the critique hurt a little, I respected Bonnie’s judgment in general, and in particular concerning music. After all, she cared enough to be studying classical guitar. After our conversation, she caught her train back to NYC and I left wondering about it all. Other priorities intervened, but the need to revise “On Knowing” persisted. Any still moment might be filled with a question like: In addition to convenience and copyright-free, why had I pasted that frolicky number on top of my voice-over? The stink of a cover-up was in the air.

In time, the wonderful Summer Institute closed, and the space seemed sufficient for revision. I forced myself to listen to the work and dove deeper into the motivations inherent in the process of its creation. Insights began to open offering the gift of revision in its genuine sense. First, the music just plain didn’t fit as background; it interfered just as Bonnie accurately pinpointed. The words and the music were discordant in tone, and consequently meaning was getting lost. I began to see that this was sabotaging my whole project. And I suspected, the damage probably wasn’t limited to one project because that kind of shadowy action tends to permeate in different degrees until it is brought into conscious thought and action.

Most of us don’t like to hear our own voice when we begin to put voice over or to use video in which we’re speaking. When Bonnie told me straight up that the music was getting in the way of what my digital media potentially offered, of what my distinctive voice had to say, I was put on the road to realize that I was hiding behind a screen of pleasant noise in the genre of shopping mall muzak or disneypark lala. Ouch. That’s something I want to revise.

In my long engagement with rhetoric, I’d struggled often with style. At first, I’d demanded that style never dominate “content.” Over time, I admitted the falseness of the dichotomy, and I began to discern the shrill ugly tone in my insistence. I came to realize that I agreed with the classical premise I’d been taught in grad school: “style is the (hu)man.” Put into contemporary language, any separation of style and content fractures integrity. And I believe that the power and right of rhetoric vests in integrity.

The discordance, then, between the music (as one aspect of style) and the words (as one aspect of the human) increased in significance. Why would I make digital media that way? I came up with two possible reasons beyond the superficial not liking of the sound of my voice: 1) I was somewhat embarrassed with the serious nature of what I was presenting and feared that I'd sound too much like a sermon; and 2) I wanted to cover over or distract from issues with organization. What if the piece wasn’t really coherent? What about the lack of unity? Were subparts effectively subordinated? Was I too preachy?

After taking some time to absorb this discovery which involved conceptual revisioning, I went back to the piece and managed to reconstruct it, to revise in practice. Although more could be done, I focused on getting rid of the soundtrack. I added brief lead-in and closing from what I’d recorded of a good friend playing guitar. But for most of the seven minutes, I chose to leave my bare voice out there. It seems that’s what has to be done if I’m really going to get further in this digital media work. If it’s received as too preachy, I hope some friends will help me learn to tell it differently. Similarly with the organizational difficulties, I’m going to have to put it out there and be willing to learn, to revise, and to welcome more constructive criticism.

As evident in this account, I learned more and more about revision. I already knew that it was much more than the reductionist editing routines; but I hadn’t appreciated so fully the variety of more substantive acts of revision: to see again, to re-see after being seen, to make a new vision. The resources of digital media open doors to the value of re-visioning through this capacity to see again and again, to be seen by others, and to make changes that offer improved visions built on increased insight and consciousness.


* Although “digital story” is the term typically used for what we’re doing (with Photostory, imovie, movie maker, Pinnacle Studio, and Final Cut), I don’t think the process nor the product fits sufficiently with “story.” I have great affection and respect for “story,” but the form of what I’m doing in digital media production spreads out, octopus-like, outside the perimeters and expectations of narrative.

Also, the dismissive attitude that many academics turn toward “story” doesn’t do justice to the work or the form of digital media. We could redefine the scope of narrative, along the lines of David Boje, but I prefer the open search for another emergent construct, like Gee’s “DMAL (digital media and learning).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Convergence Culture

I just finished reading Henry Jenkins' Convergence Culture: Where Old & New Media Collide (2006; updated 2008). As one who entered digital media late and from classical rhetoric, this book worked extremely well for playing catch-up, especially about the rich texture of participatory culture. Baffled by the appeal of contemporary media (Survivor; American Idol: and the Matrix), I eagerly soaked up his interpretation of these which explained them in the context of "large scale collaborative knowledge communities" that were made possible with the web. His elaboration of trans-media storytelling further brokered the transmutation of what I value in rhetoric and narrative into the contemporary media with open access not only to spectatorship but also to production and to community. I already liked Harry Potter but came to appreciate even more its relationship to how "kids are mapping out new strategies for negotiating around and through globalization, intellectual property struggles, and media conglomeration."

Perhaps most importantly, Jenkins avoids the polarizing tendencies typically found around media activity and criticism. His conclusion and afterword reach toward the best of what has compelled me toward a lifetime of engagement with rhetoric and symbolic action. As suggested above, his depth accounting conveys the resurrection of hope and the potential for democratic activity through the grassroots engagement in media production and publishing about both personal and social matters. But he also shows the limitations of this ground-up dimension. Although he doesn't label it as such, the king archetype is needed to balance the everyman/woman/child. The final answer is not to abolish mass media because it potentially offers a public space needed for a world vision (to which Jenkins references Habermas). This balance connects with his title: convergence culture.

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the popular voice, sometimes referred to as the "fan." The significance of Jenkins' work can be seen in this paragraph from his conclusion (p. 267). In it, he also venerates the timeless essential place of story.
"Fans reject the idea of a definitive version produced, authorized, and regulated by some media conglomerate. Instead, fans envision a world where all of us can participate in the creation and circulation of central cultural myths. Here, the right to participte in the culture is assumed to be 'the freedom we have allowed outselves,' not a privilege granted by a benevolent company, not something they are prepared to barter away for better sound files or free Web hosting. Fans also reject the studio's assumption that intellectual property is a 'limited good,' to be tightly controlled lest it dilute its value. Instead, they embrace an understanding of intellectual property as 'shareware,' something that accrues value as it moves across different contexts, gets retold in various ways, attracts multiple audiences, and opens itself up to a proliferation of alternative meanings."

I don't believe our children automatically develop into "fans" of the quality Jenkins just named, and I don't believe their unguided engagement in Web 2.0 makes us into persons characterized by these values either. Transformed teaching and teachers are vitally needed to meet the opportunity provided by the convergence culture. Jenkins' book calls us toward an "achievable utopia." Supporting teachers to be able to play their role in this demands a comparable act of accomplishment. That's what I believe we are about in our projects around Digital Media and Learning and in our work with the National Writing Project.