Lessons From the Class Blog

Now that my semester is ending I am leaving teaching behind for a few months of writing, but I wanted to blog here about something I have been doing in the classroom. When I began having my students contribute to a group blog in a Principles of Media Studies class in September, 2006, I thought of it as an experiment. I didn’t know what the students would be like or whether they would be invested in the assignment, and I didn’t know how blogging would fit within the course. After four semesters now, I have collected some ideas about how a class blog works and doesn’t work that I thought would be worth sharing.

When I began the class blog it was my first semester teaching the course and the topic, but I was by then an experienced blogger. Although Zigzigger began only in December of 2006, I had previously blogged without using my full name on topics largely unrelated to my scholarly interests (I’m not going to link to that blog from here, but it’s not hard to find if you have Google). I knew the appeals and affordances of blogging (quick, personal response to ongoing events; membership in a community of bloggers) and thought they would add a lot to a class that would often be concerned with recent media and current events.

The purpose of my class blog is for the students to keep a public media consumption diary. This is supposed to make them more aware of the media in their lives and to prompt them to reflect on their significance. I tell the class at the beginning of the semester that it doesn’t matter if they write well in the blog or if they have a point to make. The students get credit for each entry regardless of content, as long as it’s 150 words long and media related. The assignment is to blog ten times during the semester for a total of 10% of their final grade, and they can post no more than once a week. (Each week begins and ends on Friday at noon, which means that most weeks the largest number of entries are posted on Thursday afternoon and evening and Friday morning.) Comments are encouraged but not required; the same goes for hyperlinks, photos, and videos. The class usually has about 25 students, which is a manageable size for a group blog. A much bigger or smaller class would not work as well.

I have read about other people’s class blogs, and it seems everyone prefers to do it slightly differently. Some people have each student create his or her own blog. Some require comments in addition to posts. Some give students topics to blog about or encourage them to respond to one another’s entries or insist on links or bullet-point lists or embedded video. I think a group blog works best because it makes the students more likely to read each other’s posts, and it makes the blog into a communal space like the classroom. I don’t like the idea of requiring comments because it makes it harder for me to track their participation and because I think voluntary comments have more value than mandated ones. (I got this sense from flickr groups where you post a photo to the pool and have to leave a comment on someone else’s; the comments on these photos tend to be pretty superficial.)

There have been some semesters when students did not blog as much as I hoped. I thought that giving them ten free points for writing anything at all was being really generous and making it easier for them to succeed in the class, but some students would just forget about blogging or not care enough to do it. This really frustrated me when students who could have gotten better grades by blogging regularly ended up with worse grades because they didn’t blog enough. I have wondered whether access to computers is an issue here. Students who do not have a computer at home (there are some in every class) are at a disadvantage. So are students who are less familiar with the participatory internet. (The idea that anyone born since the mid-1980s is a “digital native” is way overstated.) I learned early on that I would need to spend time at the beginning of the semester walking the class through every step of blogging, including where to type the content of a post, how to insert a link or photo or embed a video, how to publish a post, and how to comment on someone else’s. Any student who had not successfully blogged the first week would have to come to my office for a one-on-one session at my computer. Many things that are obvious to me about blogging, things that seem simple and intuitive, are not so to people unfamiliar with the format of the blog. I have found that some newcomers to the participatory web need special care and attention at the beginning of the semester if they are to become comfortable with these new experiences. Even taking these steps, however, is no guarantee that everyone will blog like you want them to. I still don't know how to solve the problem of the student with limited computer access blogging less than the student who has broadband and a laptop. My sense is that this is often a class (and race) issue, which is to say it's the product of a larger structure of inequality that makes it harder for some students to succeed in school.

A class blog really works only if there is an incentive greater than a grade to contribute to it. If you are going to have the class blog, the most important thing is to integrate the blog into the class. This motivates contributions, and good ones. The blog must not be merely supplemental. This is a challenge because the content of the blog comes from the students, and you as the teacher have little control over what they do on it. Indeed, the point is that this part of the class is pretty much their domain. It works better this way. How do you integrate the blog into class? I do it by setting aside time, usually at the beginning of class, to talk about one or two recent entries. I make a special point of doing one of these “something from the blog” discussions on the second day of class. By then usually a handful of eager students have posted their first entry, and I choose one to read to the class (I paste entries into a word document so that I’m not reading off a screen). When I do this, I am careful to appear impressed by the student’s writing, and I praise the entry for both its form and content. I say things like: “I like the way you raise a provocative question” or “It really works that you are responding in a personal way to something you find interesting in the media.” I overdo it a little with the positive reinforcement, but at the beginning of the semester this sets the kind of tone I like in the classroom. The point of this exercise is to give the students the idea of what a good blog entry looks like. (I am especially effusive with praise for properly inserted links and embedded videos.) More importantly, it makes students aware that someone is reading their writing. It gives them an incentive to write good blog posts: I might choose theirs to bring into class and single it out for praise.

As the semester goes along, I try to do something from the blog at least once every third class (Principles of Media Studies meets twice a week for 75 minutes). I try to spread the love around, so that by the end of the semester just about everyone’s writing will have been considered by the group. I sometimes don’t read the entries word for word, but instead just refer to them and ask the student to talk about what they have written. I always give the student who wrote the post we are discussing the first opportunity to talk about it. Sometimes I disagree with students’ points or question them in a gently challenging way. Then I open up the discussion to others. Sometimes these sessions take five minutes, and sometimes it’s more like fifteen or twenty. If a student posts a video, we might watch it.

A couple of times a semester, I also like to give the students the opportunity to talk about blogging, about the blog as a medium and a component of the course. I like to get their feedback about the blog as an assignment to know if they consider it a nuisance, to see if they read each other's entries, to get a sense of their idea of what blogging is and what it can be. Usually there are some skeptics and some enthusiasts. I have yet to hear anyone say that I should stop having students blog at all, but maybe that's something you wouldn't say even if you felt that way. When we talk about participatory media like fan videos and Wikipedia, having the class blog gives us an opportunity to use blogging as another example of "user-generated content" that everyone is very familiar with. The comments I most appreciate in these discussions are those that point out how having to blog regularly affects your experience of the world. Many students over these four semesters have said that blogging has made them pay attention to things they might not have otherwise (to get ideas of things to write about). It has made them more aware of the pervasiveness of media in their lives and of the significance of this. I would like to think that it has encouraged them to think analytically about their experiences. And that being in the habit of writing for an audience has made them better at expressing themselves in a style of writing which, while pretty casual, is still more formal than texting, IM, and Facebook wall posts.

Depending on the course’s topic in a given week, the blog entries might actually relate to the material we are covering. I don’t always try to get the blog discussion to relate to our class’s topics, but often there is a connection I can make. I can talk about an idea anticipating something we are going to discuss in a few weeks, or recalling a topic considered previously. Sometimes students get ideas for a blog post from class. For instance, after a class in which we talked about children’s television and read about and watched Blue’s Clues, a student posted some clips of Yo Gabba Gabba, which gave us the opportunity to compare the two shows and revisit and reinforce a couple of key points from the previous day. I like to think that this kind of repetition with variation often helps people learn better.

Integrating the blog discussion into the class does a number of things. It gives the students an incentive to blog and blog well. It encourages the class to see itself as a group of people with common interests having a conversation rather than as individuals listening to me and writing down what I say. It acquaints students with one another in a way that isn’t possible in the classroom setting, and gives me a window into their experiences which helps me understand them better. Many students share things in the blog that they would not in the classroom. They feel that their contributions to the blog are lower-pressure than their contributions to class discussions. Some students who are reluctant to speak in class say that the blog offers them an opportunity to participate. (I hope they don’t see it as a kind of alibi for keeping quiet in class, though.)

There’s one more thing I like about having a group blog in a media studies class, and it might seem obvious but I think it’s worth stating: I learn from the blog. I get links to viral videos and news about celebrities and condemnations of sensationalist local news. My students write recaps or little reviews of television shows I’m not watching or videogames I'm not playing or movies I’m not seeing or websites I'm not reading. Even when they write about media I do know, my students articulate perspectives that are different from those I might encounter otherwise. Having access to these experiences and perspectives helps me teach my students better by giving me more of a sense of who they are and what they’re like. This is partly, then, a selfish benefit. I like to know about cool new stuff. But it’s also a benefit to students when the teacher speaks their language, and a class works best (in my experience) when its participants feel that they know one another and are engaging in the pursuit of a common purpose. When integrated well into a course, a blog can afford this kind of feeling.


The Hills Is Too Real

Everyone who watches it knows on some level that The Hills is both real and fake, authentic and inauthentic, true and false, fictional and actual, honest and flimflam. People call this its fauxreality. Whatever its producers's intentions, an appreciation of these contradictions is a central appeal of the show. It exploits them in a way that is original and exciting, that makes the show into an object of intense fascination and wonder. I have blogged about this before and it's not news either to readers of Dr. T and Songs About Buildings and Food. In some ways, the balance has been skewing more toward artifice and contrivance and away from believability as the show was become more popular and its characters more savvy about how they function as agents of storytelling. At the same time, it is only because the characters are not actually fictional characters but real people that this kind of artifice is possible in the first place.

Among the fakeries typical of The Hills, perhaps the most audacious is the rigorous omission of any mention that the characters are in a show on MTV. Not only do we have no sense of the existence of a crew, which is usually true as well of Survivor and Project Runway and more or less every reality show, but we also never hear any reference to the show in dialogue. If you can imagine watching the show without knowing anything about the context of its production and reception (this is an impossible thought experiment), you would never know that the characters are famous, and that the very show we are watching is the cause of their fame. Contrast this with American Idol, for instance, which is all about nobodies being transformed into stars. Contrast this with other competitions like Dancing With the Stars, in which contestants regularly credit the show with providing an opportunity for personal growth and self-improvement. If Lauren or Heidi ever mentioned the existence of a program on television on which they regularly appear, the effect would be like a rupture in the space-time continuum. The first rule of The Hills is, you do not talk about The Hills.

In choosing to represent the narrative world in this way, The Hills departs from a convention of the reality genre: the confessional "on-the-fly" interviews that producers use to shape and craft storytelling and anchor meanings for otherwise ambiguous events. The confessional interview typically includes an address to the camera, a technique that aligns reality TV with the tradition of documentary film and television and with journalism. Some shows, like Big Brother, also have segments with an interviewer present to get the characters talking about their experiences. In BB's case, this person is even a journalist (Julie Chen, aka the Chenbot). Most forms of fictional cinema and television, by contrast, prohibit actors from acknowledging the camera, a convention often observed in the breach, as in comedies when the comedian appeals directly to us, breaking the "fourth wall". Godard and Woody Allen do this pretty effectively, and it always makes an impression because we are so unused to seeing this violation of stylistic orthodoxy in a dramatic fiction film. Mockumentaries get away with interviews and direct address because they make clear their terms of address as pseudo-reality.

The combination of avoiding all mention of The Hills and also of avoiding the direct address technique of the interview (aural and visual) has made The Hills (and before it Laguna Beach) distinctive all along. What has changed is not the textual approach, but the context in which the show is experienced. Now the show is a megahit, a pop culture phenomenon. Its characters appear on talk shows and in paparazzi photos and on the cover of Rolling Stone. John McCain and Barack Obama have mentioned Lauren and Heidi and people who would otherwise never watch MTV or reality TV know them by name and face. And now, much of the story is being told extratextually. In a sense, the US cover a few weeks ago spoiled the final episodes of season 3, alerting us to the growing rift between Audrina and Lauren. Their appearances on TV shows like Live with Regis and Kelly showed us that Heidi and Spencer were still a couple even as they seemed on the show to have split up. The lag in time between the appearance of Hills items in the news and the appearance of these same events on the show requires that we keep a story order straight in our minds even as the plot is presented through these different sources of narrative which we encounter temporally out of sequence. Thus we are constantly aware of the multiplicity of sources for narrative info and of their relative importance.

This tail-wagging-the-dog dynamic might have begun two years ago, when Lauren and Jason's breakup happened offscreen but was reported in the tabloid media. This was duplicated a year ago with the sex tape episode between seasons two and three (more on which in a moment). The crucial events in these narrative developments are the reality out of which the show crafts its drama, and the exposure the characters get in the extratexts functions not as publicity and promotion (well, not just) but as narration across platforms. These events set our expectations of getting our story about the show from sources other than the show. Amidst all the talk of fakery, the fact that The Hills can keep telling its story through these other means is evidence of its reality--of the real relationships and identities at the core of the show's narrative.

I propose that we can understand the significance of all this by looking to film and narrative theory, and in particular two concepts: reflexivity and diegesis. In classical cinema--movies that follow conventional Hollywood formats of storytelling and cinematic technique--reflexivity is generally avoided in favor of a kind of realism (in the 70s it was called "classic realism") that makes no reference to its own fictional and textual status. The literary analog of this is the 19th century realist novel. Diegesis, often defined as "story world", is a term that captures the sense the viewer has of a reality represented onscreen in three dimensions plus time, fully formed and internally coherent, like the real world. Of course this diegesis is a construct of cinematic (or media) production. Devices like synchronized sound and continuity editing stitch together a diegesis that seems seamless, and offer viewers an experience of this fictional space which they can believe exists when they lose themselves in the story. This is why the classical style has often been called "transparent" whether in literature or cinema: it never seems like the fiction is being presented or represented; it just is. I'm not going to get into the way this style was understood in 1970s film theory to function ideologically by positioning the spectator as subject who masters the space of the diegesis, misrecognizing himself (it's a male subject position) as the origin of the image before him. This is not a position many film scholars tend to buy these days. The point is to recognize the usefulness of the concept of a diegesis to capture the experience of a movie or TV show that represents a seamless, transparent world. Reflexive and diegetic are on some level opposed concepts, as devices of reflexivity threaten the coherence of the diegesis as self-enclosed and realistic.

The Hills as a television series aims for classic realism, working toward a diegetic effect while minimizing reflexivity. In avoiding mention of the characters' status as celebs and the techniques of reality TV, the show prefers instead to present itself as classically cinematic (the producers say they're after the look and feel of a film), using many traditional techniques including continuity editing and scene dissection (beginning with establishing shots, then cutting in closer for shot/reverse-shot sequences), clear scene transitions, and redundant dialogue to remind us of earlier actions and future plans. The reflexive techniques of documentary and political modernist cinema and of many non-fictional television genres are totally missing from the style of the show, a sort of "structuring absence" that is especially significant for being avoided.

And yet the sense the producers seem to be trying too hard to achieve of realism and diegesis is constantly undone by the show's success. Because of this, the characters are celebs, and their stories are told in the tabs and talk shows as much as on the show. They offer commentaries on events, and occasionally even criticize their representation by the producers (e.g., Lo complaining during last nite's season finale aftershow about being made into a villain--did she go off message?). It is totally unbelievable that they don't talk about the show and their celebrity, and we might reasonably assume that when the cameras aren't on, they talk about little else.

Our knowledge of Spencer and Heidi's self-fashioning as entrepreneurial Hollywood stars (fauxbiz!) and Spencer's self-casting as villain constantly distract us from the coherence of their characterization in the show, which seems several degrees more bogus than the way Lauren and her crew are represented. The artifice of the setup of Audrina and Whitney and now She-Pratt as friends for Lauren make us more aware of the authenticity of her friendship with Lo. Articles in the LA Times and Rolling Stone and US Weekly fill in details we would never learn from the MTV broadcast. The diegesis is constantly being constructed contextually as incomplete and insufficient, and because the characters are real people, it is possible for their characterization to continue through multiple media and more or less perpetually.

The relative authenticity or inauthenticity of these people on the show is made irrelevant by all of these contextual discourses, all of which presuppose that the characters on the show are continuous with the people in the magazines and on the talk shows who share their identities. Even the more fakey-fake contextual moments like Spencer and Heidi's insistence that the sex tape really existed remind us that the characters on The Hills are also persons of flesh and blood and feelings. Even if they're lying (of course they are!) Spencer and Heidi are acting out real motivations---of pursuing fame and wealth and success in entertainment. Even the rumor that Lauren and Lo's house is actually a set and not their actual place of residence presupposes that the same Lauren and Lo who are characters on the show also live somewhere in Los Angeles. The extension of these characters and relationships beyond the diegesis forces us to question the coherence and stability of the text as narrative, reminding us of the reality that cannot be contained in the weekly 22 minutes of TV time. Thus the realism attempted by The Hills is constantly undermined by the underlying reality from which it draws the materials of its representation.

It's my sense that the sex tape is what really forced us into this terrain of instability, caught between the appeal of the show's diegesis and our excess of knowledge about the reality that it fashions into drama. The sex tape and the actions surrounding its ambiguous existence constituted an event or non-event between seasons, whether real or imagined or merely rumored, which directed the narrative into one of intense passion and drama--a real soap opera. The fact that no one can say if it exists makes the sex tape into the perfect emblem for The Hills as text and object of intense cultural significance--it is at once too real and not real enough. Presumably, if it exists, the sex tape is the mediated representation that could never be questioned in terms of its authenticity--it would be the true evidence of people's intimate lives. A sex tape, an amateur porn recording of Lauren having sex with Jason, made by them and not by MTV, not by paparazzi, not by TMZ, would promise to be more real than anything we have seen on MTV or in magazines or on Letterman. We can only imagine it, of course, and like Spencer we might think we prefer not to. Let's imagine that it's underexposed, unedited, framed so you can't quite see some things you might like to, that there are fragments of speech that don't easily make sense. Let's imagine it has those amateur qualities that guarantee authenticity. These characteristics, only hinted at or assumed or projected onto it as products of fantasy, are those of a true document of desire, untainted by dramatic performance and slick cinematography and editing and the pop hits of the next five minutes and the whole bag of tricks that MTV uses to make us at once so wowed by the magic of moving images and so suspicious of their manipulative powers.

Or maybe it was part of an aspiring famewhore's quest to be another Paris Hilton...



I put these songs on my muxtape cuz I love them all and want to listen over and over again. Here are a few thoughts one by one.

1. Mira Billotte - As I Went Out One Morning. I heard this today in Anthropologie and loved it from the first second. Later at home I figured out that it was on the soundtrack of I'm Not There. So I had heard it before. And I know the Dylan original very well. I usually love familiar songs covered by singers of the wrong gender (e.g., Cake's version of "I Will Survive").

2. Duran Duran - Save a Prayer. Reminds me of the gorgeous colonialist travelogue music video, my fave of all of Duran Duran's. The line "some people call it a one-night stand but we can call it paradise" might have been my introduction to the phrase "one-night stand". This song probably gave me the impression that you don't want anyone else to think you're looking for one, but that you might be anyway.

3. Lily Allen - LDN. I always wonder how much of her talent is really her producer, Mark Ronson's. It's tricky, because the very specifically young, female voice is essential to this track. (Updated: see the comments; I'm a little wrong about this.) I hate the faux naïeveté of "I believe it is called al fresco", which is to say I love it.

4. Rihanna - Please Don't Stop the Music. Rihanna is the best pop of the moment for sure. This song samples "Wanna Be Starting Something"!

5. Vampire Weekend - Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. My absolute favoritest song of today. I want to see them, check this out. The chorus is the same as the verse, only an octave higher. The guitar lick is as good as anything on Graceland, and I can't get enough of the revival of this style.

6. She & Him - I Should Have Known Better. I would never have heard of She & Him if Zooey Deschanel weren't the singer-songwriter, and I don't care. It pleases me to imagine Zooey Deschanel singing in a print sundress (the kind I saw today at Anthropologie!) as I listen to her sing. Another gender-reversed cover of a sixties classic.

7. Belle & Sebastian - Asleep on a Sunbeam. This is the most-played track in my iTunes library. On the choruses the male vocal comes in, and then it takes the third verse, with a variation on the melody line, joined again after the first few lines by the female vocal. Beautiful. A perfectly crafted 3.5 minute pop song about escape and dreaming.

8. The Guess Who - She's Come Undone. In Canada this song is on the rock radio stations every ten or fifteen minutes and you can't help yourself. The last "she's come un....doooooone!" is so passionate. I'm mad that that Wally Lamb novel has the same title, though. (I haven't read it, but now the song reminds me of the cover of the book and I would rather not.)

9. Miley Cyrus - East Northumberland High. "You're my type of guy, I guess, if I were stuck in East Northumberland High for the rest of my life, but people change thank god I did." Now she's singing as Miley, not Hannah, and making an identity for herself. Totally constructed, of course, just like the rest of us.

10. Billy Joel - Don't Ask Me Why. The Latin-ish number thrown in between more guitar and synth-driven songs on Glass Houses, the most aggressively rock (i.e., least credible) of Billy's good records. He's a much better singer in his self-searching ballad voice, free from posturing and affectation.

11. Leonard Cohen - Democracy. Everything Leonard Cohen writes or says or sings is profound. This is the best kind of political song: not preachy, simplifying, or accusatory, just critical and passionate.

12. Joni Mitchell - Carey. I wish Joni Mitchell would invite me down to the Mermaid Cafe for a bottle of wine. In the verse, the jump up an octave comes as a surprise the first time ("oh you know it--octave--sure is hard...") and a delightful reminder every subsequent one of what a fantastic song this is.

(PS 5/14: muxtapes are subject to change...out with Rihanna today, in with Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now"...it's pretty smart to limit the muxtape to 12 tracks so you have a reason to keep updating and revising and getting the songs that you just have to have today...)


Trouble for the Milwaukee International Film Festival?

10/9/08: Maybe you got to the page searching for Milwaukee International Film Festival 2008. Sorry to say, there isn't one. Next year, we hope, the new organization called Milwaukee Film will stage an international film festival here. Here's an MJS story about its new director.

My local film festival, MIFF, began five years ago as an effort launched by the publisher and film critic of our alt-weekly, the Shepherd Express (known as Express Milwaukee on the webs). Film fests are rarely money-making ventures; as I have been writing in my book on indie cinema, their noncommercial institutional identity lends them artistic legitimacy as arts organizations like museums and symphony orchestras and in contrast to for-profit multiplexes and art houses. Apparently the Milwaukee International Film Festival, although successful as a cultural event, now faces financial problems that threaten its future. These stem from the relation of the non-profit fest to the for-profit alt-weekly, from which it has been buying ads over the years with money in part raised from philanthropic foundations. When the festival claimed an outstanding debt to the alt-weekly, the foundations who have kept it afloat decided to cut off its funding. The story as such is in Bruce Murphy's online column at Milwaukee Magazine. The Shepherd Express disputes some of Murphy's facts and the implication that the festival's future is in question.

The economic and institutional underpinnings of alternative cinema are topics for much further analysis. Items in Murphy's comments and in the Express reply make clear that the public rationale for having film festivals is largely cultural rather than economic. High-profile arts events like a film festival give us a sense of our city's importance and vitality. The identity of Milwaukeeans seems to hang in the balance: having a film festival, like having a major league baseball team, makes us feel better about where we live. To the extent that festival films are better or different from the films we can see in other venues, the event promises edifying and educational opportunities that we don't otherwise get. This is presumed to be an unambiguous cultural good, like farmers markets and public parks.

But despite the prevalence of the cultural logic in asserting the significance of film fests, there is also an economic one. The film festival here, like in so many other places, is meant to spur growth in the local media production biz, and in local retail and service sectors. A film fest is a way of attracting and keeping "creative class" types, whose presence is deemed essential for the future of any city's economy. And of course, local media like the Shepherd Express benefit greatly from having high-profile cultural events. It gives them material to cover and provides opportunities for boosts in circulation and ad revenue. The idea, then, that a film fest is merely a cultural good is naïve. Film festivals depend on donations from corporations and individuals and on state support of various kinds, many of which are given in part in hopes of economic, not just cultural, benefits. Whether the dealings of MIFF's leaders have been truly shady or not, this episode reveals the complex web of interests that produces a film festival, and the fact that bringing great cinema to a city and making a city a good place to live are only part of the agenda.

[where: 53201]