One of the banes of my existence has, and forever might be, grades. I had a conversation a few years ago with someone about grades, and I remember the person saying you could define a course in two ways with regards to grades, one where you go for mastery of applying the material, giving everyone equal access to “As”, or one where it is mastery of content, at which point there will be more stratification. This is, of course, overly simplified. But it did empower me to think of other ways of assessing students that would enable the course to be as fail proof as possible. Much of it centers around the Final Project or Paper.

In my department every semester I can inform the chair that I will be meeting for the final exam at the designated time, as required for the University, but we will have a non-traditional format. I’ve been lucky enough that it has always been approved. The results have always been pretty amazing in terms of what it does for the class. I’ve written about the overallcourse design for these courses before, but this will be more about how the final projects come into being.

FLOW OF THE COURSE TOWARDS THE FINAL

GOALS AND OBJECTIVES

(for both introduction to media history, theory and media AND media & popular culture)

1. to read scholarly and popular texts critically; 2. to practice constructing and shaping arguments; 3. to find a voice in writing about, creating, and presenting media; 4. to creatively experiment

FIRST HALF OF THE SEMESTER/MID-SEMESTER CHECK IN

The first half of the course is always getting the lay of the land. This is usually gauging where the students are, introduction of central concepts (that will be revisited later in the semester), and review of previous courses (if the course has a requisite). The mid-semester check-in (formerly known as midterm) checks to make sure everyone is on the same page. Rather than asking for facts I tend to ask for application of concepts and/or identification of other spaces concepts can be applied. In addition to doing the mid-term, I ask students to identify what they think they’ll want to work on for their Final project or paper. I tell them they need to choose something they will actually enjoy working on, and not something they think I will enjoy because they will be working on this thing for months. I provide them with some examples and guidelines for the project. I encourage them to experiment and try to make media if they haven’t before (since, media course), because the classroom is one of the few spaces they have where if something doesn’t work properly we can control the consequences.

SECOND HALF OF THE SEMESTER/PROJECT PLANNING & REFINEMENT

My biggest fear in teaching theory heavy media courses is that students will think they have to show me how much they get theory rather than how much they get the media. As a result, during the second half we revisit and take a deeper look at the concepts we touched on in the first half of the semester. However, instead of just looking at concepts and theories without something in mind I ask that the students think through these concepts and how they apply to a project or paper of their creation, so they are never approaching theory as just theory. On the day the mid-semester check-in is turned in, they fill out a note card where they write the topic they hope to work on, and how they are thinking about executing it (traditional paper? blog? short film? look book? something else? no idea?). We then move into an activity. The most important thing for me when creating in class activities is that all activities in the class are meta-learning moments. I never want to make them do group work for the sake of doing group work. This semester I decided to make them do speed dating for the first time. In addition to it ensuring that everyone in the class actually spoke to their classmates at least one time, it allowed us to think about the role and norms of “dating” in popular culture (this was useful because gender and sexuality were one of the early concepts, and rom-coms, romance novels, and attitudes toward relationships were already in discussion).

PROJECT SPEED DATING: THE HOWS speeddating1

Above is the Speed Dating thematic. I am sharing it because the first time I tried to do this, I failed at figuring out what to do after the first circle formation finished talking. We start with two circles, an outer and an inner circle and then move to two smaller circles. In the background a YouTube playlist of all the favorite songs of the participants played in the background (these were collected at the beginning of the course). The playlist and the note cards are “icebreakers” so if someone is shy they have their list and something other than the project to talk about for a moment. The music videos also help change the “feel” of the classroom space. The participants are asked to take their note cards and spend 2-3 minutes with each person (depending on time in the course). In these 2-3 minutes they each need to:

    introduce Themselves (if they haven’t previously)
    share their topic and why they are interested in it
    explain how they plan to *do* their final project and why

These descriptions are brief. Once the time is up the people in the outer circle move counter-clockwise one space until they spoken with everyone. What is really great is by the end of the first circle, they’ve gotten down their description, why they’re interested in it, and what they want to do and why. They then move to the second circle (the people who were in the outer or inner circle with them), so they can speak to everyone in the course. Throughout this experience they record the names of people who have similar projects, or projects they might like to work on.

After everyone has had a chance to speak with everyone else, they are given 5-10Minutes to free mingle with people they might be interested in forming groups with. After speed dating they should have a good sense of what their topic is and how they hope to execute it. They should also have a group if they want to do a group project (papers have to be done individually), and a topic group of people they can check in with, in the event they are doing an individual project.

In addition to helping them define their projects, the speed dating serves a secondary purpose. Throughout the semester students give group presentations. One of the reasons I want them to speak to each other is, as we move to the more theoretical parts of the course, knowing what everyone is doing and/or is interested in allows them to bring illustrative examples for their presentations that are helpful and interesting for people in the course. They never have to approach the dense theory without a good sense of the types of things people might be thinking through it with because everyone has a general view of the landscape of interests/projects of course participants.

PROJECT PROPOSAL

Once the students have had a chance to speak with everyone in the course, determined groups, etc, they have four days to a week to create a proposal (depending on the course schedule). The parts of the proposal are as follows:

      Title
      Name(s)
      Topic
      Media/Experimental Project or Traditional Paper & Justification
      Project Summary
      Why are you doing this project?
      What will you be doing?
      How will you be doing it?
      What is the working thesis?
      Timeline (that incorporates workshop days, and draft project due date)
      Potential roadblocks or questions you would like more guidance on

In my experience the proposals tend to be written with a scope bigger than what can be completed in 6 or so weeks given other work required for the course and the overall course load. The proposal gives me a chance to see the parts that need to be better refined, rethought, or repositioned. I usually end up telling students to think smaller and deeper, and let them know I will help them with this during the workshops.

WORKSHOPS

These are done in groups so the students can meet with their group members and speak with other people in the course about what they are doing to get outside perspectives and feedback. They workshops are designed to mirror things related to the overall topic of the course, like all the activities, so we make mini-media projects (but you need not be limited to this! things like surveys, interviews, posters, pamphlets, or whatever your disciplines norms or topics of study are can be used too).

From the beginning of the course, at least two days are devoted to in class workshops. The first one happens after I’ve had a chance to go over proposals and give feedback. Once they’ve had a day to process feedback the first workshop is designed to help them refine their topic. This year I had them create an advertisement with a pithy catch phrase that restates their thesis statement, and a bit of explanatory text, and an iconic image. This allowed the students to think about the production process of advertisements. It was also a chance for them to make their projects exciting for external audiences.

The second workshop happens towards the end of the semester. The purpose of this workshop is to link the final project to concepts from the course. They are given a worksheet with a concept bank and asked to link their particular project to at least half of the concepts with a brief explanation.

While students are working on their workshop projects, I go around the class and meet with each group or student to check in and see where they are with their projects, to find out if they have any questions or concerns, and to make sure they are on track with the timeline they provided. I do this in class because not everyone can make it to office hours and I want to make sure everyone is on track. I also want to check in to make sure that they are able to link their projects to the course in a meaningful way that pushes their thinking. I give them challenges too, to make their projects a better learning experience that makes them push a bit harder than they might on their own against the concepts and format of their project or paper.

Depending on the course, there might be one or two additional workshops just to make sure people are able to “network” with people in the course to learn things they might need for their projects. If the class is mainly individual projects or papers, I try to add additional workshops so they have a chance to speak through their projects with other people enrolled in the course. I always remind them that their audience for these things shouldn’t be me, but rather, making sense of what they are doing and why to their classmates, because the final audience they will be presenting their work to is each other, and I am just one person.

FINAL PRESENTATION / THE FINAL

By the time we reach the final presentation, they should have spoken with me at least two times and gotten feedback from me 3 (proposal, advertisement, course concepts). If the final is very early in the final schedule, the project or paper is due BEFORE the day of the final presentation. If it is toward the end, they can turn in an option draft for feedback with specific questions before the final exam period starts. This is done to ensure that, as the students are stressed out about their finals, the course isn’t a big stressor at this point. Generally, since we’ve checked in throughout, they hopefully shouldn’t be procrastinating for the most part (though there are always a few). At the very least, even if they are waiting until the last minute, they know what they are doing and why, and how what they are doing is related to the course.

When we meet for the final the students share their projects or papers (one of the rules for projects is that the project has to be a stand alone piece that makes sense without explanation. It forces the student to edit it like they would a paper). However, since we are together for the final, they need to explain some of the connections between their projects or papers course concepts. By the time we make it to the final, they have their position down. It is reflected in their projects and papers. And it is wonderful. What ends up happening on the last day is, rather than them cramming to take in all the concepts and references for the course, we meet and they show each other what the course was about. It ends up being a really big student led review of the course. Student work and effort are centered. And, instead of cramming a bunch of information for an exam and forgetting it, they leave with something they can put in a portfolio, or a new skill (like video or audio editing, etc.), and an experience that makes the concepts “real” in a way a paper exam cannot. And, because the projects tend to be really fantastic, they will also remember their favorite project from another person or group, again, reinforcing learning so that it can remain meaningful.

BLOG POSTS

The last thing done as a student in the course is optional. If someone’s online participation (blog posts) grade is low because they haven’t done all their posts, or if they need/want extra credit, they are able to write a response post to projects from the final presentations. These allow them to give feedback to each other after they’ve had some time to think. The posts give me a chance to check in one last time to see how the students understood the course.

DOES IT WORK?

So far it hasn’t failed. If a student doesn’t pass their final project, it is generally because they simply did not participate or didn’t complete the project. Because we spend so much time in class working on the projects, this is extremely rare. In terms of how the students perceive it, after the presentations on the final day I’ve students tell me how helpful the process of the course was in helping them with their other courses that were more theory focused. I take that to be a good thing. One of the other things the students remark on, especially in the blog posts, is how, despite being so different in terms of execution and topics, the themes that we covered in course are evident in everyones work, usually in really fun and interesting ways the student hadn’t thought of (they of course explain what the new and interesting ways are and how they are different from how they were thinking about things).

And then, I get permission from the students who did their work on public platforms to share their work more widely. I give them the option to opt out. Every end of semester on twitter I share their work, and, I say genuinely at the end of every semester, I really love giving finals. I learn so much from my students. Just like their classmates, each year my students show me new ways to understand and see theory, and they give me a glimpse of what was happening in their mind as we went through the course.

I have to accept certain things about myself. I tend to think more theoretically, and/or more towards the future than many people. I’m not a deductive thinker. I am an inductive thinker. I’m really good at seeing different parts of complex things and how they work together to make “predictions”… that to me are just observations. All this to say, what my experiences in Higher Education have taught me is that I do not think like most people. As a co-learner and as a teacher, that means I have to come up with ways to make the things that are “obvious” to me visible to others. I have to also create openings for people to critique, expand, or disagree with those things I think are obvious. Because I do not know everything. In fact, I maintain that I know very little. I just exist in a perpetual state of confusion and curiosity (great mindsets for learning and exploring imho). So, what’s a girl to do???

Playing and Making

I’ve always been drawn to playing and making. And I didn’t get why until I started my drone tests to see which one I would attempt to get for my class next semester… and which ones I would get for us at the Duke PhD Lab (all the grad students there are super into the idea of playing with drone, from the classics people to the digital humanities people). What I think I determined, which is one of those things that was probably obvious to everyone else, is that when we play or make, we immediate go to the more theoretical imaginary space. We make towards a potential thing, and playing is all about that which isn’t there but could be or is only symbolically.

I cashed in all my store credits and discounts to put together a little fleet of drones. I have a small rolling FPV that is just very intuitive and really fun to play around with. A mini-qudrocopter drone that films excessively grainy HD video onto a microsd card. It has the biggest learning curve to fly too. There is a very stable quadrocopter that is fun, has a small learning curve, but only takes photos from directly below where it is flying. And finally, I have a low-midrange bigger quadrocopter that takes really nice video (the first flight video is above). I’ve done my first few flights with a series of drones and my brain is whirring (I imagine that word came to mind because of the whirring of the propellers).

I think when I was originally planning on possibly teaching with drones I assumed, naturally, that the primary thing I’d be working with and against is surveillance culture. That is a part of it. The second part was about creating world perspectives. I was thinking about literature and film, and how one would go about writing what can be seen through a drown, or creating new aesthetic practices in film that go beyond the panning scenery. I was really excited when I saw this Ok Go video because it took advantage of the mobility and perspectives of drone filming:

(There’s an interactive version of the video here: http://iwontletyoudown.com/)

But, after playing with the drones, and their different interfaces, I’m thinking a lot about how we imagine the body with technology. Like a broken record, I am thinking about how useful McLuhan’s idea of technology as an extension, and ultimately, amputation of the body, is when we try to conceptualize what are relationship to technology is when it becomes the only thing we can see through… I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared for a piece of technology as I was when I saw on the screen that the bigger drone was going above the trees and it was a speck and I wasn’t sure if I could keep control.

I am having lots of thoughts about public space, and how we imagine technology being in these places. When I made it to the park where I did my test flight, there was a group playing competitive boomerang (yes I live in that type of place). When they saw me go to another part grass near the field with my flying thing, they moved where they were playing to a neighboring baseball field without saying a word to me, sort of handing it off. Additionally, as we pulled in to the community park, I reflected on drones being banned in National Parks. There was a story this weekend, too, about an emergency helicopter pilot who had to avoid a drone while flying. I’m also trying to figure out where I can go with my students so they can film with a drone without others feeling like there is an invasion of privacy, and, where this is no risk of them hurting someone by dropping technologic object with spinning blades, as they learn to fly. So, lots of things I didn’t think I’d be thinking about until the technology was in hand.

And, of course, I always wonder about the implications of having all of these technologies that are designed so specifically for a visual experience and not really much else. It isn’t a bad thing. It’s just… curious.

I imagine as I play around a bit more, and as I play with more people with these things I’ll have lots of other thoughts, and they will too. I am just grateful to have another fun bridge to help break down some of the thought barriers into something other than language. And I’m happy to have more toys to play with. I’ve let my little ones play with all the drones (except for the big one… it was too windy) it’s been interesting to see how intuitive some are versus others.

I am slated to teach Introduction to new media again (very happy about that). In this course I try to have a signature project for the students that is relevant to their life or the current socio- cultural, political, and historical context. Last time, all of my students were seniors so they did a “master of your own domain” project. This semester, I am planning on some how getting a video capable drone and having the students push the drone to its creative limits through making experimental digital shorts, with the backdrop of learning about the current political and legal, commercial interest etc. conversations around drones.

So… I sent an email to a few drone companies asking if they have any form of educational discount as I will more than likely end up having to purchase the drone myself for use in the classroom, especially if I can’t find an adequate discount. One company replied, not only not answering my question (they suggested a different model), but they started the email to me with “Dear Sir“.

email1

It wasn’t an auto email. Someone replied and called me a sir. I think there are two reasons for this. Someone sees teaching fellow/professor and assumes male… (and I guess Jade is sort of unisex, but I’ve never met a man named Elizabeth) and drones seem to be for boys and men… specifically middle aged white men with a good amount of disposable income. Now, I am not saying they are the only ones who use drones for fun. However, I spent almost all of Saturday and half of Sunday watching people’s drone videos and tips, and comparisons, etc (I should probably be ashamed of the amount of hours I spent (seriously, it was more than 15)… and none of the people coming from the US did not fit that demographic. It was a bit shocking. I didn’t expect it to be so homogenous. So, I feel even more determined to have my class use a drone for the purpose of a creative intervention. The demographics of my University and the major means our courses tend to have more women than men. I want them to make videos and share them.

Boys grow up and get remote control toys like airplane and cars. I guess girls are supposed to get easy bake ovens and baby dolls. Boys grow into men and the toys are upgraded to drones. Girls become mothers and get the kitchen. That is what this is feeling like. When girls are depicted as doing surveillance it is almost always to show they are crazy and unhinged. There are a few things where women get to be spies or thieves too with special gadgets, etc, but the popular trope of the snooping girlfriend or wife seems to be dominant and pretty well accepted. When are doing surveillance they are generally super cool spies, action heroes, military (or related career) men, or hobbyist with a bunch of disposable income and time. I was one of those little girls that loved cooking, but on a stove… and even more than cooking loved my chemistry set and my race track. I always wanted remote control vehicles instead of the barbies and baby dolls i would get. The barbies lost their heads, and the dolls were never touched. I longed to see commercials as a kid that showed that things like hotwheels were for me too so when I told my family and other kdis that I wanted boy toys it would be normal. This is part of the reason the lack of representation of girl droners out in the world populating the YouTubes was so… epically sad for me. That this seems to be so culturally ingrained, and from a young age makes me sad too. But it seems to be our popular surveillance culture. I desperately want drones to be for girls too though.

Anyway, if anyone out there in the silence of the internet has suggestions for affordable video capable drones, please send them. I’m thinking that all the companies will say no about educational discounts right now (and all of them might call me a sir), but… I will find a way to make this happen.

Also, if there are any amazing girl droners or research out there and on gender demographics and/or the culture of drone hobbyists (did a search and found nothing), that would be awesome too.

After the wonderful panel yesterday, I had some people ask for more details on what I’m doing. Here is an abstract:

Historical glitch: Understanding digital media through the photographic lens, explores the intersecting media ecologies of social media, digital heritage content, and culture. Specifically, this project focuses closely on what a digital project that takes advantages of the formal changes inherent in the shift from analog to digital media looks like. The project highlights how social media can be used as platforms for change and also looks at their limits and potentials for knowledge and culture when such media are used to construct alternate historical narratives. The case study for this project, Vintageblackbeauty, which was digitally born on the social networking site Tumblr, puts digital tools into practice by disseminating historical photographs of black women in their everyday lives from across the black diaspora. The effects of this experiment are theoretically understood through the works of Fanon, Hurston, and McLuhan. Additionally, a digital performance piece that analyzes the effects of this practice, informed by Dada art practices, puts the theoretical implications into motion by placing the digitized photographs gathered on Vintageblackbeauty in conversation with media from the same time periods. Through exploring this ecology, I posit that we can gain a better understanding of some of the differences between digital and analog media, their different potentials for change, as well as the inherent limits they pose. While digital media do allow for greater access and dissemination, they are still tied to a screened experience and held to ethical standards determined by various stakeholders who are often ephemeral or evolving and in contradiction with how we have been trained to conceive of knowledge production.

Today was the first day of class for me. I’m teaching Media & Popular Culture. One of my favorite classes to teach. I generally like to start the course with something fun, but things are… complicated right now. I couldn’t imagine starting the class without talking about this thing that is happening right now. At the same time, me being me, I didn’t want to isolate the class before it started. So, I started with a Dizzee Rascal’s “Love this Town”. It is similar enough and other enough to allow for students to recognize their own reactions to the video. And their reactions are a perfect starting point to start discussing what is happening. After we watched the video I asked why I wanted to start with this video in particular. A few students immediately said Ferguson. Only two students didn’t know about it. I asked if a student felt they had a good handle on what was going on. A student raised his hand and I had him share what he knew. Other people in the class what they’ve been hearing and how they’ve been learning about everything that is happening. Naturally some students were more versed than others, but I think together we did a good job of laying the foundation. A funny thing that the student said was he didn’t understand why people were making a big deal about the college thing. We talked through that, the idea of making the scary human, which is what happens in the video above.

The talking points that I went into a bit more were:

  • social media versus mainstream media
  • (western) international media and false censorship in the US (built into the system because of limited number of providers and concentration of sources)
  • cultural and historical factors that complicate this situation
  • police state, and the media ecology of prison (and how as students at UNC they have a direct connection to prison’s in the state)
  • surveillance state
  • the media ecology of tear gas (from US to Gaza, to Egypt, etc)
  • vilification of black males in media (especially when they are killed this way)
  • the problem we have with language

None of these students took the pre-requisite course with me (the first time in years this has happened), so they didn’t get my thing that I always want them to think about. They got that today. We have a language problem. When I think of media, the basic medium we have to communicate our thoughts and feelings to each other culturally is language. I feel like we don’t have the right language to talk about this situation, and that is a problem. I told them, if I had come in screaming racism, supremacy, and black power, we would get no where. But things are more complicated than that, and their experience of the event might not be those things. And I need that to be okay, and I need them to be willing to interrogate that. So, the assignment they have as this goes on is to spend at least 5 minutes before we meet for class either going over twitter or reading 1-2 international press pieces on the situation.

Here is a list of some of the options I remembered of the top of my head:

They asked me if I could name some people they should follow on twitter. I told them to use the hashtags. I told them to do this because each person, including me, is biased, so getting news from a single stream or resources will be biased as well. And this is bigger than that. I’d rather they see both the bad and the good, the protestors, the racist trolls, the people who “need more facts”, etc to understand what it means to see Ferguson for what it is. Complicated. Especially since it is happening right now, something the students noted immediately.

We’ll keep having discussions as long as this thing is going, and I imagine for a while after. No one seemed too put off so if anyone drops, I don’t think that will be the reason. I’m hoping that as we continue our discussions together we can figure out the language that lets us talk about this in a meaningful way.