May 11, 2008

Final Project

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April 27, 2008

Week 11 Discussion board post

I know we were not required to post to the discussion board this week, but after reading the Cameron White article, I just wanted to share some thoughts. I know my group discussed this in their final chat, but I was at a funeral so missed the discussion.

In the second paragraph under the heading Introduction, White writes, “History education in our schools has suffered for some time. Issues include the ongoing culture wars between history and social studies, standardization leading to test preparation in place of history education, and low level transmission of information, among others.� The phrase “low level transmission of information� really jumped off the page as I was reading. Many of us are familiar with teaching to the test and dumbing down the curriculum, but I have not heard classroom education mentioned in such a way before. It makes it so clear in my mind what White really means: teaching rote facts, memorization, and recitation, but doing little to challenge students to think critically about the material or develop higher-order thinking skills (imagine Bloom’s Taxonomy here). Also, teaching material at a low level of transmission does not imply that students will retain the information much after leaving the classroom!

Further, I can see a true danger in low level transmission in our classrooms! Students are challenged by their world more than ever before and there is greater need than ever before for students to be critical thinkers, involved citizens, and informed individuals. Teaching basic-level material without challenging students to apply new information or think about the classroom material as applied to contexts outside the classroom does a huge disservice to the students.

This leads me to another portion of White’s essay that I agreed with very strongly: “The overt goal of our schools is to enhance knowledge, skills, and values development for our children. Unfortunately these goals are more often than not top down, authoritarian and promote passivity. These goals therefore seem to be driven by the ultimate goal of preparing our youth for the world of work. This is a realistic goal for schools, but should not be the driving force. Ultimately, we must prepare students for active participation as global citizens; and this means that we have a responsibility to teach for social efficacy, thus empowering students to be engaged in societal issues.� Last semester in CI 5155 our class examined at length the current and historical tension between these two different schools of thought: K-12 education as preparation for work and K-12 education as developing knowledge, skills, and values. Historically, the two have been set up as opposites, where one cannot exist when the other is present. As education has cycled and changed and evolved, one modality or another has taken precedence, then gradually has rotated to the other as the most dominant presentation. My question is this—why does one preclude the other? Why are people looking at these two ideas as ends of a spectrum? Education is not a linear field of knowledge and skills to be taught, nor are students one-dimensional, linear beings. Education is a web of interconnected ideas and skills and overlapping competencies. Similarly, students are complex, unique beings. We should not look at education with such simplistic ideas about what works or doesn’t work.

And finally this leads me to share my thoughts about inclusion of music into classrooms. Many studies have been done on the effectiveness of music in the classroom, even if the goal is not to study the music in a historical context—but that is a topic for another day! Specifically using music to supplement history or social studies lessons is a great idea. I think some people shy away from this—or don’t even consider it at all—because teachers often forget to draw on real-life, relevant information for students. There is a sad propensity for education to get stuck within the 4 wall of the classroom and not draw on examples that students can relate to. But using music is a great way to do this. There is a great lesson plan from PBS that studies history and music during the Revolutionary War era. (see link ) Similarly, studies of recent American history (the 60’s, Vietnam War, the 70’s) could be greatly enhanced by examining the popular music of the day. Or teachers could examine the spiritual music of slaves from the Civil War era. This is a great way to avoid what Howard Zinn says: we often decontextualize history in our schools by providing merely the winner’s perspective (2000).

Week 11 - Music and History

Week 11 Blog Post

DISCLAIMER: I work with deaf students and music is not an important part of their lives. I could have chosen a song to use in my classroom, but that is not realistic—they can’t hear the music! So for this assignment I chose a song that really spoke to me the first time I heard it, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to use in a classroom (with hearing students) because of the language.


Originally, I was going to use “Like a Rolling Stone� from Bob Dylan because, let’s face it, any music by Bob Dylan makes for great study. Then I started reading the article by Cameron White and I realized that he’s right about something—not all protest music was written in the 60’s and 70’s. There is great stuff still being produced today that is worthy of closer examination, so I chose a different song: “American Idiot� by Green Day from the album of the same name.

The title track was released as a single one week before the album in September of 2004. The album itself was the result of a misfortune in the recording studio—Green Day had been working on an album called Cigarettes and Valentines, but the master tapes were stolen shortly before recording was completed. This turned out not to be a terrible loss because they felt their writing was not that great and they decided to make an album that was more “relevant.� The result was American Idiot.

Here are the lyrics to the song American Idiot:

Don't want to be an American idiot.
Don't want a nation under the new media
And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind f--k America.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alien nation.
Where everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.

Well maybe I'm the faggot America.
I'm not a part of a redneck agenda.
Now everybody do the propaganda.
And sing along to the age of paranoia.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alien nation.
Where everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.

Don't want to be an American idiot.
One nation controlled by the media.
Information age of hysteria.
It's calling out to idiot America.

Welcome to a new kind of tension.
All across the alien nation.
Where everything isn't meant to be okay.
Television dreams of tomorrow.
We're not the ones who're meant to follow.
For that's enough to argue.


Consider the historical context of September 2004: 9/11 was only 3 years in the past, the Iraq war was in full swing, and a controversial presidential election was on the horizon. It was a very tumultuous time and news stories were dominated by talk of politics, war, and post-9/11 life. Here are some of the important historical markers and the context in which the album American Idiot was written:
-- politicians were fighting about the Patriot Act and its potential for protecting Americans (or invading privacy)
-- presidential campaigns fought about the motives and information used in going to war
-- President Bush touted his response to the events of 9/11 on the campaign trail
-- Democrats and some Independent voters were still angry about the 2000 election in which Al Gore won the popular vote but not the presidency
-- the 9/11 Commission’s report revealed that Saddam Hussein was not connected to al-Qaida and 9/11
-- American media and politics criticized for post-9/11 fear mongering and hyper-emphasis on terrorism and war
-- Bush administration perpetuated fallacies about 9/11 and Iraq war: events of 9/11 linked to Saddam Hussein even after Commission report is widely circulated; Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction despite UN weapons inspections repeatedly coming up empty-handed; Iraq purchased yellowcake uranium from Africa even after Joe Wilson’s explosive New York Times op-ed piece

The song is clearly a call for people to pay attention, get involved, think for themselves, and not be mindless followers of the media and talking heads. It is an important message no matter the historical context. However, when placing the song on a timeline and considering all the turmoil of the time in which it was written, the referents of several subtle comments become clear. For example, in the first verse, “the new media� is a clear reference to post-9/11 news journalists, often criticized for fear-mongering, sensationalizing, and presenting one-sided coverage of issues. In the same verse, “hysteria� can also be pointed at 9/11, but also at the political upheaval surrounding the 2000 and 2004 elections and even the Iraq war. “Mind f--k� is a way to drive home the point that American media audiences are falling for the media representations, that they are passive audiences not thinking for themselves—almost like being brainwashed.

In referring to himself as a faggot, the artist was commenting on the way dissidents were viewed in the majority of America and in the political sphere of the time. When the song was written, the Iraq war was just starting to come under criticism, but the majority of Americans—in group-think—still believed that the war was justified and people wanted justice in the wake of 9/11. Anyone who split from the supportive, ultra-patriotic view of the war was seen very negatively, almost as a heretic. By using such a powerfully charged word—faggot—the song makes the point that people who take different views from the mainstream are bad, heretical, and traitors. But the singer goes on to say that he won’t be part of a “redneck agenda�, likely a direct insult to the president (from Texas) and the rumors about his interest in Iraq and oil because of his own family’s personal involvement with the oil business in Texas. Further, redneck has many negative connotations. The last two lines of the verse again point to the media and the popular opinion of the time and the group-think surrounding post-9/11 fear, unquestioning support of the war and the Bush administration, and paranoia about terrorism and people who are different.

The third verse drives the point home very clearly, if there were any doubts from the previous verses and refrain, that they are skewering the media. However, instead of pointing only to the media as being part of the problem of hysteria and propaganda, the song then turns its angst on all of America for letting itself be controlled by the media and for being mindless, for being idiots.

This song is a protest of the popular media, of the hysteria of the American public and the media, and a rebuke to the American people for following the popular media outlets, for letting themselves fall prey to the propaganda and hysteria. However, considering the specific time in which the song is written, it is important for people to understand the specific media events and propaganda the song refers to. People listening 50 years from now may understand that it is a protest song, but without the historical context, they will miss some of the really great subtle references to events that happened around the time the song was released. Further, listeners may not understand the specific call to action that is made in the song—wake up, pay attention, get involved, don’t believe the hype of the post-9/11 media, don’t fall for the company line from the Bush administration.

April 13, 2008

Week 10 - Music analysis

Like most people in this country and around the world, music is a natural, everyday part of my life. Music is always in the background in the grocery store, the elevator, the shopping mall; it is an integral part of advertising on TV, radio, and internet; it creates emotion, suspense, and meaning in movies, documentaries, and TV shows; it is an entrenched part of religious ceremonies and rituals; it is part of civic and social proceedings. Music in my everyday life is escapable—and that is before listening to music for pleasure through radio, iPod, CD, etc.

Most of my listening is on iPod while at the gym or on my home computer through iTunes. I rarely listen to music on the radio, but if I do, there is only one station—89.3 “The Current�. Most of the time, though, I listen to what I know and like—Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead, Phish, Regina Spektor, Trampled by Turtles, 90’s bands (Pearl Jam, Green Day, The Offspring), Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald—lots of tried and true but with a few newer things thrown in.

My listening habits made this assignment particularly interesting because I was forced to face something I have sort of steeled myself against and pulled myself away from—what I think of as pop culture radio station music. I have no idea what is out there because I really don’t listen. I don’t have my head in the sand, so when I look at the Top 40, I recognize most of the names—I just don’t know the musicians’ work. Another struggle in working on this week’s homework? I work with deaf kids. I can’t really envision how music will be part of my classroom!

At any rate, I finally settled on a song for this assignment—“Mandy� by the Jonas Brothers. It is an upbeat song with a rock-ish sound and quick tempo. Here are the lyrics:

(Verse 1) Mandy used to be that girl
The one that never said a word
But she only sang
S Club 7 and all those boy bands
Now it's been a few years
It looks like things have changed
Now she's mine and I want to say

(Chorus) Mandy always laughs when I act stupid
I am unaware that I'm a nuisance
With her it's never wasted time
Mandy always knows exactly what I'm
Thinking she's always on my mind
And now I'm never gonna let her go
Cause Mandy always knows

(Verse 2) Mandy always tells the truth
Even when it's hard to do
And she always understands
Even when it don't make sense
Even though she is a blonde
I'm the one that feels so dumb

(Chorus)

(Bridge) When I have a problem
I'm sure that Mandy knows
When I'm feeling lonely
I'm sure that Mandy knows
When everything's crazy
She's always there for me
And I'm sure that she knows
I'm never ever gonna let her go

(Chorus 2x)

Never gonna let her go
Cause Mandy always knows


My adult self listens to this song and hears it as a poppy, cheesy little number for pre-teens and teens to listen to at slumber parties and school dances. It seems quaint, trite, and unremarkable—just another teeny-bopper song about simple, shallow teenage romance. When I try to put myself into those adolescent shoes and mindset, however, a part of my brain can relate. The importance and excitement of a relationship and the need to be understood are expressed in this song. As Powers points out in her article,
“Contemporaries of Langer, including Raymond Williams and John Blacking, similarly saw music's potential to help listeners grasp the subtleties of emotion. (…) What memorable songs offer, including banal ones, is a way not just to feel but to better grasp the structure of feeling, by re-creating the sense of becoming enraged, turning on, or falling in love.� The upbeat tempo of the song reflects the excitement, the novelty, the exhilaration of a fledgling relationship. The simple lyrics cut straight to the important parts in the relationship—Mandy understands, Mandy accepts, Mandy laughs at stupidity.

My adult brain comes back online during investigation of this song and I am tempted to write it off again as nothing more than bubblegum pop that points to overly simplistic views on relationships. Then I am drawn back into the world of the young adult brain by another part of Powers’ article: “And teenpop needs its candy clichés more than any other genre, since adolescence is all confusion, the time when music offers for many the first map to adult emotions.� The confusion and excitement of a relationship or the overwhelming feeling of peace at being understood may be difficult for an adolescent to sort out—friends may not be able to relate, it may be embarrassing to discuss, the adolescent may have the egocentric idea that nobody else had experienced the same feeling before—so to hear the sentiments reflected in music may normalize their feelings.

Even though I can understand how this particular song could evoke a response from young adults, I am still critical of some of the media messages sent in popular music. Young adults are constantly barraged with media messages about how they should think, dress, act, etc. This presents a great opportunity for a study of media representations surrounding music in a media studies classroom. This wouldn’t work for my population of deaf students, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise for other classrooms. As Beach points out in his summary of chapter 5, “By examining media representations, students are learning to interrogate the ways in which the media construct versions of reality and to recognize that these constructions influence their lives and identities.� A close examination of a sampling of popular music could reveal to the students any implied or explicit messages about gender, behavior, relationships, etc. and how those messages may influence the listeners.

Conversely, a media ethnography study (Beach chapter 6) of popular music could help students explore how “the meaning of texts evolves out of the activity of audiences’ social participation with media texts.� A study of the Jonas Brothers’ music could explore how listeners and audiences have created their own meaning and helped shape the culture surrounding the music. Afterall, popular music wouldn’t be popular if a fan base didn’t exist. A media ethnography study could reveal the ways in which that fan base has developed and how it interacts with the music—blogs, vlogs, YouTube, fan websites, live in concerts, etc.

I am very interested in the idea of pop music in the classroom and regret that it won’t work for me at this point in my teaching!

March 28, 2008

News viewing - week 8

Please download this .pdf to see my work for week 8.

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March 26, 2008

YouTube Mania

Two weeks ago, for the Media Representations assignment, I chose farming/rural life as my phenomenon. Growing up on a farm, I lived in a community and family culture that was mistrusting of city life, its people, and its ways, including many misperceptions and stereotypes. Now living in the city, I find the converse is also true—many people living in towns, cities, and suburban areas have misconceptions and misunderstandings about farm/rural life.

In exploring a variety of YouTube clips using several different keyword searches, I was expecting—even looking for—videos full of stereotypes and vaudevillian representations of farming. I imagined there would be a long list of clips portraying farming as a redneck, unsophisticated way of life with overall-wearing, pitchfork-holding, poop-slinging hicks. In all the keyword searches I conducted, nothing like that appeared. I was surprised. I reluctantly started my YouTube search with fears that farming—a topic and a way of life very near and dear to me—would be horribly misrepresented. Instead, as my searches and viewing progressed, I actually had to use words like “hick� and “redneck� in the keyword search to get any video portrayals of those things. These clips epitomized the stereotypes of rednecks and hillbillies—banjo strumming in the background, people carrying around fishing poles or shotguns, and speech with a drawl. Hillbilly and redneck are not usually associated with farming, so I was not surprised that the clips had nothing to do with farming. I did marvel, however, that a search for “hick farmer� yielded little more than satiric, sardonic user-created clips on what it means to be a stereotypical hick—but none directly associated hick with farming.

What I found instead were a number of clips all focusing on different aspects of farming. These clips were not significant so much in the way farming/rural life was portrayed, but rather for the specific issues they raised about farming. In all the clips I viewed, a few different themes materialized:
ď?® general clips about the farm process or equipment used in farming;
ď?® opposition to animal cruelty and support for animal rescue operations;
ď?® the negative impact of factory farms on human and animal health; and
ď?® support for family farms and the disappearance of the family farm.


The first category of clips is very process-oriented—the farmer tills the soil, plants the seed, nurtures the plants, harvests the crop, and hauls the product to market at the local grain elevator. Some of the clips focused specifically on one aspect of farming, for example the equipment and implements used for crop farming, but generally clips like this showed a very linear progression from one stage to the next. The clips I viewed in this group were all user-created—mostly home videos or photo montages posted to YouTube. I picked the following video as an example of the process-oriented, demonstration-type clips I found on YouTube. There is not a lot of artistic license taken other than to add background music and a few written graphics as the footage rolls. The shots are mostly long shots or mid shots in order to capture the activity of the farm process. There is a slightly sentimental quality to the clip because of the choice of music—Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind�—followed by another song that lends a sense of pride in the work—Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down� from Smokey and the Bandit. The sense of sentimentality and particularly the sense of pride were common in this group of clips—and even throughout some of the other groups of clips as well.


The second group of clips centered on the theme of animal welfare and opposition to animal cruelty. Most of these videos pointed directly to factory or commercial farms as the cause of suffering for animals, pointing out some of the horrible things done to animals such as clipping the beaks of poultry to prevent pecking and fighting and the force-feeding cattle to make them gain weight more quickly. Other practices were also examined, particularly the slaughter of animals. A number of clips mentioned that animals are often not killed prior to slaughter—they are only stunned or paralyzed—so live animals are commonly slaughtered while still alive and able to feel pain. These clips were a combination of user-created media and media derived from documentaries, organizations, or TV productions. The clip below went on to criticize all farm practices, whether family or corporate, for the purported abuse and degradation of all farm animals through the practices of castration, tail docking, and de-horning. This clip also criticizes the living conditions of most farm animals—particularly commercially raised animals—for the confinement and lack of socialization afforded the livestock. The video is mostly close-ups of a group of rescued chickens and shows them in terrible health—feathers have fallen out, beaks are clipped, many are too traumatized to eat, and yet they are so accustomed to laying eggs—forced to lay eggs in a corporate hen house—that many continue to lay eggs even though they are barely alive. The camera work alone paints a gruesome picture. Accompanied by the narration, it is heart-wrenching.



The third group of clips is very closely related to the second, in that the filmmakers tackle issues of corporate farming. In the previous group of clips, animal welfare, rescue, and humane conditions are the primary focus of the films, whereas in this third group, economic issues are explored as well as the impact of corporate farms on animal and human health. Most of the clips in this category were not user-generated content, but rather postings or excerpts from larger documentaries. Several of the clips were affiliated with the Humane Farming Association or at least referenced material from there. Unlike the previous group of clips, which were concerned primarily with rescuing animals and advocating for humane animal treatment, this group of clips actually examines specific practices of corporate farming and how animals are raised. This was the most difficult group of films to succinctly categorize, so I have included two different clips to give a better idea about the breadth of topics examined. The first clip is the final part in a 3-part series about farming in America. (Copyright 2002 by JW Creative Solutions.) It contains interviews of farmers, economists, sociologists, and agribusiness workers in an exploration of corporate farming and its impact on the food supply, the economy, and politics. It is a documentary-style film and consists mostly of close-up interviews with a few long shots of farms and animals.


The next clip is difficult to watch. It contains disturbing images of ill and dying animals being carted off to slaughter, forced to eat, or taken to slaughter alive. It contrasts the corporate, commercial farm with the pastoral lifestyle of animals on a family-owned organic farm. The images of commercially raised animals are dark, dreary, and violent, which are contrasted by the colorful, peaceful images of animals in pastures eating grass under blue skies.

The fourth and final category I observed in my YouTube viewing focused on the family farm—its importance to the American economy in days of yore, the present-day struggles to make it work, and the steady disappearance of small family farms. One clip also emphasized the decreasing awareness in America of where food comes from and what it takes to produce it—as our nation has become more urbanized, it has moved away from its agrarian roots and many people have lost connection with the sense of where food originates. These clips showed a respect and warm admiration of the work and lifestyle of farmers and a sadness at the decline in the number of family farms in this country. None of the clips I viewed were user-generated—they all originated from documentaries, promotional materials for organizations, or TV shows. I chose the following clip because it addressed something that few of the other clips did—the government. This clip is an interview with a husband and wife team who own and operate a small organic farm in Florida. They speak openly of their struggles to make it work, the financial strains of farming, and their frustrations with government regulation and lack of government support. It is basically an interview format that has been edited for sound bytes. There are a few medium and long shots of buildings or animals on the farm, but mostly the camera focuses on the farmers. The content of the clip took precedence over creativity.



I’d like to end with two amusing clips I found in all my YouTube searching—just to lighten the mood a little bit.



March 10, 2008

Ethnography

For my ethnography project, I decided to focus on the audience of the HBO series The Sopranos. My husband has rented the entire series from Neflix over the course of this winter (and I have watched many episodes with him) and he is loyally dedicated to the show and watching each episode carefully. Our home does not have cable, so neither of us had been interested in seeing the series until, in June of last year, the series had its finale and was splashed all over the news because of it. I know the series also received critical and popular acclaim, so it seemed a fitting place to start for an ethnography study. I wanted to find a source outside of the show itself and not affiliated with HBO, so I searched high and low for web forums on this series but was sorely disappointed. I found a few web discussion tools, but most of them had very small audiences, limited content, or very outdated postings. I decided to look at the HBO webpage to see if there was anything on the site and I was pleased to find an extensive Community page for the series—516 topics, hundreds of thousands of discussion posts, and over 1.5 million views (it is not delineated by number of viewers, but rather by the number of times the content has been viewed). (There are two ways to link to the forum: HBO Website for Sopranos or through HBO Community. The links are at the bottom of this post.)

On the Community page, there are a number of different bulletin boards on which users can post content. The page is currently set to discussion threads for a number of different episodes. There are also discussion threads for music, characters, favorite lines, and The Bing, a strip club owned and operated by one of the mob members and which also houses a mob office. It is also possible to subscribe to a Sopranos newsletter on this page. Discussion topics are divided into a few different categories, including HBO official threads, music for seasons 1-5, archives, member-created threads, and member-created archives. Some of the content is viewable and searchable by non-members, but it is not possible to post a comment without membership.

Specific practices on the site:
Most discussion threads were started with specific questions posed by a user. In one section, questions were posed by HBO staff people and in other sections, users posted their own questions. One question from an HBO staff was “Who is your favorite character?� but it lacked the usual follow-up question “Why?�. User practices commonly involved short responses to the direct questions. There was some interaction between users, possibly posing a short question in a response to a main discussion thread that would later be answered by another member. Generally, users answered the main questions or commented on the main topics rather than interacting with one another. In addition, HBO has rules for use of the site and reserves the right to revoke membership or delete content if the standards are not followed.

Social agendas and respondents’ stances:
In examining responses by the forum users, it seems the overarching agenda is to have a place to discuss various tenets of the show. There is an interesting added dimension to the discussions because some of the threads were started before the show went off the air and users are still adding comments now, nine months after the finale. Unlike our class online chats, wherein group members discuss topics to better inform our teaching practices or to work through an issue or an idea, the discussions on the community page are less interactive, less oriented at working out an idea and more about individual users just sharing their own thoughts. There does not seem to be much discussion between users in order to arrive at a decision or conclusion. This impression is reinforced by the brevity of users’ responses. Many comments are short—just a few sentences in length—and do not seem to build on the responses of others, nor interact with the responses of others. This is different from my own experiences with our class discussion board, where students post their thoughts and others post direct comments. In fact, the responses on the message board seem more reflective of a live, online chat room than an asynchronous discussion forum, because the responses are short, informal, lacking punctuation, full of IM abbreviations, and somewhat superficial in the sense that short responses don’t provide room to explore an issue in-depth or to fully develop a thought into a paragraph.

In general, the social agenda seems to be that respondents gather in this online community to share their own thoughts and read the thoughts of others. It does not appear that site users are coming to the discussion forum seeking answers or clarification about what has occurred in episodes of The Sopranos, but rather are seeking out a common place to share their experiences and affinity for the show. In a few instances, members have posted longer comments or thoughts about the events of an episode or about the specific mores of a character, but usually there have not been responses to these longer posts and so the discussion board lacks a feeling of dialogue among users. Further, it does not seem that forum members are seeking socialization in the way that users of FaceBook or MySpace or even online chat rooms seek interaction. The use of The Sopranos discussion forum seems pretty straightforward as a place for viewers of the show to simply put their ideas, albeit briefly, to writing.

I noted one particular posting that was more in-depth and emotional than nearly everything else I found on the forum. User raymcd19 writes:

Has anyone seen the latest David Chase interview? It was in the papers two days ago. He basically calls all of us losers. Talks about the war in Iraq and how Sopranos fans are pathetic for buzzing about his bullshit ending when there were more important things going on in the world. As for me, this interview provided some real insight into the mind of this idiot. Must be nice to have enough money to rip your fan base after a series ends. I think I figured out why he sometimes took years to come up with a new season. He is an intellectual snob who enjoys sh****g on his audience.(ie-final episode) "We didn't expect them to be that **** for that long. It's one thing to be deeply involved with a television show. It's another to be so involved that all you do is sit on a couch and watch it. It seemed that those people were just looking for an excuse to be **** off. There was a war going on that week and attempted terror attacks in London. But these people were talking about onion rings." This guy goes and comes up with a final scene that would be laughed out of a film school. I had to TIVO the episode because I thought that my DirectTV crapped out and I missed the actual ending. Intellectual snobbery, disdain for your audience...it's all clear to me after reading his comments. I'm not sitting on my couch watching his show all day. I haven't even posted until now. It gives me comfort to know that we will probably not be hearing from this jerkoff again unless there is a movie. He's no David Milch and his track record of taking YEARS to come up with a new season is hopefully proof that he is creatively bankrupt. Good riddance.

My methods of analysis were pretty informal for this project. It required a lot of time browsing the forum to get familiar with the format, the layout, the threads, and the user content. I started my analysis of content simply by browsing content of various threads, observing the length of the post, observing if the posts were in response to other users, and by browsing posts on the same thread that were at the beginning, middle, and end. Then I started to read more closely for content to study how closely users were sticking to initial questions for a thread, to examine the interaction between users, and to watch for any emerging themes, agendas, or disagreements.

This was an interesting exercise for me, particularly in what I gathered about the limitations and abilities of this media construct. Users of The Sopranos forum seemed to be using it more informally, as in a chat room, than as a place to post ideas and respond to others. Users may be limited in their ability to interact with one another both because of the way members have used the forum—more of a question/answer format than interactive—and because of the asynchronous nature of the medium. Unlike live, synchronous chat, this medium provides an area for users to compose longer, more in-depth posts and responses, though most users did not take advantage of this opportunity. The high volume of threads and posts presents a challenge to users and viewers in that some threads had up to 8,900 responses. It would be inordinately time consuming to even attempt to read that many postings. If a chat room was established, it may be possible to limit the number of entrants in a room, thus enhancing the interaction and discussion and not allowing for too many discussions to be happening all at once.

For classroom purposes, I can see myself favoring a discussion forum over a live chat because of the opportunity for students to work through an issue and come to a conclusion, as opposed to a live chat where it may be difficult for students to stay on task. Further, a forum would allow students to interact with one another more in-depth and possibly more thoughtfully than in a live chat. It would also be potentially easier as a teacher to moderate a discussion forum than to monitor several live chat rooms. I will note here, however, that I enjoy the opportunity to interact with classmates during our weekly live chats because it is always thought-provoking to hear the thoughts of others and have a more conversational way of interacting than is provided through a discussion forum. In my own classroom, though, I would prefer the interactive, conversational discourse to be live and in-person rather than online.

Continue reading "Ethnography" »

March 3, 2008

Portrayal of phenomena in media compared to another discipline

In studying various scholarly journals, textbooks, and online resources, I noticed a striking difference between pop culture/media representations of rural life compared with the depictions in psychology. The stereotypes and iconic images are removed from psychology’s perspectives, replaced instead with awareness of, and even compassion for, the struggles and tribulations of life in modern rural communities. For example, one article provided an in-depth analysis of the local economy in a rural Missouri community and the impact of a corporate farm on employment, sense of community, wages, schooling, and school district boundaries. Another resource, The Center for Rural Psychology, is dedicated to serving the oft-underserved populations in rural and farming communities, places frequently dearth of adequate mental and behavioral healthcare professionals. Further, some studies in psychology posit that rural life has profoundly influenced modern public life, both urban and rural, in the United States. This is in contrast to media portrayals of farm and rural life as archaic and uncivilized.

The underlying value assumptions in psychology are much kinder than in mass media. As discussed in my first blog post on the topic, the assumptions in pop culture and media surrounding farm life point to an old way of living that does not keep up with the modern speed of life. Psychology, on the other hand, seems to recognize the vital place rural and farm living play in our country, even though this population comprises just a very small piece of a very large whole. Psychological perspectives seem to recognize the importance of the people and the way of life as very real and worth time and study. The stereotypes are removed and it seems psychologists studying this phenomena are prepared to look at the real lives of rural residents and not let old notions interfere with reality.

March 2, 2008

Media images

Having grown up on a farm and now living in a cosmopolitan urban area, I am sensitive to media images depicting both rural and urban life. As a child, I always felt a certain mistrust of urban life, a certain sense of disdain for what I perceived to be a lack of responsibility on the part of urban dwellers. A very clear us/them dichotomy existed in my mind and I am not sure if that was an organic creation of my own brain because of my lack of experience or because it was an embedded part of my family and community culture. Regardless, I knew from a young age that the way I grew up was different from most people in the state and the country. In fact, that way of life is for fewer and fewer families and children as the number of family farms continues to decline in the face of competition from large-scale operations, commercial farming, and corporate interests. After moving from tiny Alden, MN, population 652, to Sioux Falls, SD, population 142,396, to the Twin Cities metro, population 2.82 million, I have grown extremely interested in the way rural and urban life are portrayed in the popular media. For this assignment, I will explore specifically the way farm/rural life is portrayed.

The first time I remember noticing a media portrayal of farm life was about 5 years ago in an allergy medication commercial. The ad portrayed a young, urban professional and his equally young, urban, and professional significant other visiting the man’s parents at his childhood home—which happened to be a farm. The young adults were dressed in contemporary, stylish clothes, while the man’s parents—the farmer and his wife—were in faded, well-worn, decades-old clothing. The farmer wore a plaid flannel shirt with denim overalls and a mesh farmer’s cap while the wife was in an old polyester dress with nylons, a cardigan, and homespun apron. The ad went on to portray a very pastoral, quaint, simple, uncomplicated, even unsophisticated, way of life: chickens pecking the ground in the barnyard, an old red open-cab tractor (circa 1930s), people sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs shucking fresh garden peas. Similarly, the 2006 film adaptation of the book Charlotte’s Web portrays a similarly simple, wholesome, slow-paced way of living. Other depictions show farmers and rural ways of living as backwards, unsophisticated, red-necked, kitschy, or frozen in time with a 50’s-era sentimentality.

In the Pixar movie Cars, several residents in the small town of Radiator Springs are depicted with character flaws: Mater is an uncivilized redneck, Sarge is a hard-lined, rule-abiding militant, Fillmore is a drugged-out hippie, Red is socially anxious and phobic, and Lizzie is amnesic and odd. The characters portrayed most positively, Doc Hudson, a mechanic/doctor and judge, and Sally, an attorney, are also the same two characters who have lived outside the small town of Radiator Springs and who have had education and life experience. Two other characters, Guido and Luigi, from Italy, are portrayed positively. (Could this be because they are outsiders with supposed broad life experiences? American media has a way of portraying Europeans as sophisticated, novel, and almost exotic.)

The depictions about rural/farm life are quite varied, as are the value assumptions connected with them. In the pastoral, quaint, simple view of farm life, the value assumption is the family time and wholesomeness are important. The impression given is often of a simpler, less complicated time, where people know their neighbors and have Founder’s Day picnics. In Cars, the town’s slow demise is regrettable, as though the world is passing by and does not value the wholesomeness of days of old. Unfortunately, depicting farm and rural life in such a sentimental way also falsifies the truth and leads non-farm, non-rural residents to have a misunderstanding of the way life happens in rural communities. I have met many people in my lifetime whose only exposure to farming is at the MN State Fair or through media depictions. My sister-in-law, who also grew up on a farm, came home from college a few years ago with 2 of her roommates, who are from the Twin Cities. When my sister-in-law took them outside to show them the commercial hog operation her father owns, the roommates were shocked. They told her they thought pigs were raised in little pens, in large open-air barns with cute little fences, like in the state fair’s swine barn.

Some less pleasant underlying assumptions are at work in the depiction of rural life as unsophisticated. The depictions imply that people living on farms or in rural communities are less intelligent, less civilized, or less educated than people living in urban centers. These portrayals can also make it seem as though people in small communities care less about the larger world and are more concerned with making babies and keeping up with town gossip than experiencing the world, getting an education, or keeping up with modern times.

Here are some images of farm/rural life that serve to perpetuate media depictions described above.

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February 18, 2008

Week 4 - Approaches to Analysis

I love to think about things from a critical lens. I often play devil’s advocate simply to bring more perspectives to a discussion or debate, even if I do not buy into the position I offer. Often in holding discourse in this way, I am able to sort out my personal feelings about any given topic. I find it incredibly fascinating in class discussions of any kind to hear the interpretation and analysis of my peers. Nearly always, a perspective is offered that I hadn’t previously considered and my own analysis is enriched or even changed by critically viewing the topic in another way. That is why I found chapter 4 so important—and challenging.

In all my school experiences, I have spent a lot of time analyzing text and media, but without considering the specific type of critical approach I was using—and also without ever being asked to use a specific critical approach. When I started reading chapter 4, I had a hard time getting familiar with what Beach was trying to say and how the different approaches would be used. My first reaction was dismissive, as if knowing all the different approaches was trivial. Analysis is analysis, right? Wrong. Media, literature, and texts of all kinds are multi-faceted and many layered, making them ripe for many different approaches to critical analysis. When students learn how to examine text or media from different angles and approaches, it has the potential to lead to a much richer appreciation and understanding of the media.

For this week’s assignment, I chose Poststructuralist and Critical Discourse to be my areas of expertise. Though the section on Poststructuralism was brief, I found it very important. In short, the idea of Poststructuralist analysis draws on the idea that binaries are often portrayed in text and media. To analyze media in a Poststructuralist way is to identify, define, and analyze the language categories that make the dichotomies present. In discussing this approach, Beach again discussed the Coors Light beer commercials, pointing to the male/female binary, which plays into stereotypes of gender behavior and interests. The virile, beer drinking males are juxtaposed with the voluptuous females, existing in the commercials for the pleasure and satisfaction of the males.

It is important for students to be aware of the either/or presentations frequently portrayed in text and media—good/evil, male/female, love/hate, peace/war, right/wrong, normal/abnormal, etc. By looking for these kinds of structures in text and media, students will be prepared to pick them apart and ask critical questions: How does the dichotomy present itself? What are some general associations or stereotypes associated with this binary in our culture? How are these associations used to play up the binary in this media? What perspectives are left out or ignored when employing such a binary? Is one part of the binary portrayed as better than the other?

The second approach I studied in-depth was Critical Discourse. Unlike the Poststructuralist approach, which focuses mostly on language and categories—and the limitations of binary categorizations—critical discourse delves more deeply into perspective-taking and how modes of thinking are formed. Beach neatly points out that discourses define perspectives based on the world in which one lives. An attorney’s point-of-view is shaped by their experiences and lenses, which could be very different from the ways of knowing held by a teacher, physician, or priest. In using critical discourse to analyze text, students must be able to determine the dominant culture and ways of knowing that influence or permeate the text—and their reading of it.

Last semester in one of my courses, we discussed at length the roles of white privilege and white culture in our schools. Initially, it was difficult because we were examining very closely systems, thought patterns, and behaviors that are so ingrained many in the class were not aware of them. It is very difficult to define your own culture. It is easier to define what is perceived to be the culture of another, because it is defined in terms of how it differs from your own culture. In the course, it was initially difficult to examine the institutional practices of American education because they are so ingrained that it is hard to imagine things being different—or wrong. It takes careful consideration of what is believed and practiced in order to identify oppressive practices.

Similarly, using critical discourse analysis seeks to define the discourse being used so that students may consider and analyze how it impacts the meaning or the reading of the text/media. Beach talks specifically about discourses of class and race, but there are others as well, such as religious and Western. Using the book’s website, I followed the link for 4.6.4 and found this: “ [Critical discourse analysis] is concerned with studying and analyzing written texts and spoken words to reveal the discursive sources of power, dominance, inequality, and bias and how these sources are initiated, maintained, reproduced, and transformed within specific social, economic, political, and historical contexts (Van Dijk, 1988).� I find this especially helpful in getting to the core of critical discourse and how it can be used to analyze media and texts.

In the classroom, this approach to analyzing media could be very time-consuming, but I can also see that it could produce wonderful work, thoughtfulness, and growth in the students. The issues of class and race are very difficult to discuss because they often call to mind painful experiences or unpleasant thoughts about the establishment. In a classroom of high school students, I fear it could lead to tensions between students or a lot of misunderstandings if it is not handled carefully and thoughtfully by the teacher. That is, the process of analyzing through critical discourse often requires the reader/media consumer to first recognize their own discourse in order to identify their own ways of knowing that could be impacting their interpretation, followed by a viewing of the media from the perspective of the intended audience or from that of the creator of the media or text. The process of questioning and identifying discourse inherently raises a lot of questions, often about stereotypes or misunderstandings, which could cause problems in the classroom—especially in a classroom of mixed race, gender, class, and/or religion, wherein students may have questions about the discourses of others that could raise tensions.

I appreciate Beach’s examples of studying discourse, both for class and race, because they provide examples of existing media with clear weaknesses that are easily examined. In the first example, students analyze ads to determine the intended audience. The second example of critical discourse analysis, surrounding race, is taught through a viewing of the film Dangerous Minds. Students can examine the values placed on the teacher and the students and how those values ultimately become equated with race. Students relate to humor and another possible way to help students with the idea of critical discourse analysis would be to use satire or parody clips on race, class, religion, etc. MadTV has done a number of segments to this end, including scathing satires of films such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers’ Diary, and satirical commentary on race through mock episodes of “Survivor� wherein teams are divided by race. By using satire or parody, that which is being criticized is pointed out very clearly, so students may be able to more readily pick out bias and inequality than in a serious work. Starting with a satirical piece on race or class may be a good way to break into critical discourse analysis, followed by examination of non-humorous works.

I feel that the best way for students to appreciate the different kinds of critical approaches is to use them all! I think I would teach the approaches one at a time, starting with a description or overview of an approach, then offering a short demonstration or practice activity for each. Students may feel overwhelmed learning all eight approaches at once, so I may select a few approaches at a time that would best lend themselves to analysis of a class reading or media. For example, narrative analysis would probably not work well on the Coors Light commercials to which Beach so often refers, but Poststructuralist and Semiotic approaches likely would. The course text or media being studied would dictate the method of analysis I would teach students to employ.


(In case you missed it, there are 2 links in this post to MadTV videos on YouTube. Go back up and click on Dangerous Minds and Survivor.)

February 11, 2008

Shot by shot analysis

Please follow the link to see my analysis of a 60-second TV commercial.

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TV scene analysis

I chose the beginning scene from an episode of NBC’s The Office. The scene shows Jim, the office prankster, and his fault-finding, self-important, socially awkward co-worker Dwight, sitting at their desks, which abut one another. Throughout the series, Jim perpetually goads Dwight, who is incapable of resisting Jim’s provocations. In this particular scene, Jim claims he is having computer problems and restarts his computer, which makes a certain chiming noise, then he innocuously offers Dwight an Altoid mint. Then the scene cuts to an interview with Jim in the conference room, supposedly being conducted by a documentary film crew who films the day-to-day happenings of the office. In this interview, Jim admits he is playing a joke on Dwight based on a science experiment he learned about in high school, in which dogs are conditioned to respond to the sound of a bell (i.e. Pavlov’s dogs). He confesses he has been feigning computer problems for a couple of weeks, each time setting off the computer sound, then offering a mint. The scene cuts back to Jim and Dwight at their desks and shows several occasions on different days when Jim sets off the restart chime and offers a mint. Finally, Jim once again sets off the computer, which prompts Dwight to involuntarily thrust out his hand for a mint. When Jim asks Dwight what he is doing, he looks confused, then starts smacking his lips and saying that he has a bad taste in his mouth. The last part of the scene is a close up shot of Jim with a smiling, satisfied look.

The camera work, sound, and lighting in The Office are particularly interesting because the entire series is a mockumentary. It is a scripted series posited as documentary, wherein the characters are aware of the cameras—they are built into the series and acknowledged by the characters. This is in contrast to other scripted shows where the cameras function to capture the action but the characters are not addressing the cameras directly.

In the scene I chose, the lighting, sound, and camera work are all very subdued and the pace of the scene is slow, reflecting the tedium of office work. All but one of the camera shots are medium close ups, close ups, and big close ups, and all but one of the shots uses a normal angle (not high or low). While camera angle is frequently used to depict status or insignificance, I do not think a normal angle is used to convey status, even though it is true that Jim and Dwight are peers—one does not have a higher position than the other. My feeling is that the normal angle shots are used to give a neutral effect, as though the action of the office is benignly being observed through the eyes of the viewer, rather than through the lens of the camera. There is one shot that uses a slightly high camera angle and a medium shot, which conveys to the viewer that the “documentary filmmaker� is watching one exchange between Jim and Dwight inconspicuously from afar. Very important in this scene are the big close-ups of both Jim and Dwight because of the emotion conveyed. When Dwight thrusts out his hand involuntarily, the camera angle and shot are such that his face and hand are both in the screen. When Jim asks Dwight what he is doing, the camera zooms in on Dwight’s face, revealing a quizzical, confused, bewildered expression, then a gnashing of his tongue and a comment that Dwight has a bad taste in his mouth. The final shot, a big close-up of Jim, reveals a very pleased, satisfied, almost gleeful prankster, though he also appears a little surprised that his experiment worked.

The use of lighting gives a very bland impression. Because of the mockumentary nature of the show, the lighting in the scene is supposed to appear as plain old overhead fluorescent lights. There are no highlights, lowlights, or backlights. Again, the absence of dramatic lighting serves to point out the everyday ordinary-ness of the office. The sound is slightly different, in that each little sound between Dwight and Jim is very clear and picked up on camera. There are few, if any background noises, which would be expected in a normal office. Instead, the lack of clacking keys and ringing phones serves to focus the audience on the interactions between Dwight and Jim—the chime of the computer restarting, the crinkle of the paper in the Altoid tin, Dwight fanning some papers in annoyance when interrupted by Jim’s offer of another Altoid. The final sound in the scene is that of Dwight gnashing his tongue in his mouth because of a perceived bad taste.

The entire scene perpetuates the on-going bickering and banter between Jim and Dwight. The neutral camera angle may hint that for as much as Jim picks on Dwight, and for as unbearable as Dwight can be, they are still peers and nobody is getting ahead of anyone else. There is no race or contest between Jim and Dwight to be won, but rather an ongoing series of petty skirmishes that cannot be won by any amount of wit on Jim’s part or pompousness on Dwight’s part.

February 3, 2008

Media studies rationale/school board presentation

Undeniably, we are living in the media and digital age. Our young people are more connected than ever before. They are also more barraged by media and media messages than ever before. If a school exists to educate students and prepare them for the future, then we must include studies of media literacy to serve our students’ needs for the world they live in.

The school district’s attitude toward media seems cold, indifferent, as though not warranting time or attention. Currently in our district, students have limited ability to access technological media in school. Computers are few, as are technology classes. Media studies are non-existent, either as a stand-alone courses or as an integrated set of student competencies. This is not fair to our students. The Kaiser Family Foundation studied the habits of young people ages 8-18 in 1999 and 2004. The latter study found that America’s youth were spending 6 ½ hours per day using media. In the words of Kaiser Vice President Vicky Rideout, “Anything that takes up this much space in young people’s lives certainly deserves our full attention.�

Unfortunately, a strong back-to-the-basics movement has been taking over our schools and curriculum in response to a never-ending series of tests mandated by local, state, and federal entities. Rather than using an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to teach reading and writing, many curricular components have been jettisoned in favor of a strict and stringent reading and writing approach. This is shortsighted.

Admittedly, schools are under pressure to perform well on tests. But bowing to the tests and dumping courses of study is ridiculous. Standardized tests have long been criticized for oversimplifying the learning that takes place in our classrooms and reducing the measure of student knowledge to some number, some test score, on reading and writing tests. This is a fundamental flaw in the way the tests are set up—they only measure concrete skills and achievement in a couple areas. The tests do nothing to measure other skills that are vitally important—critical thinking, problem solving, synthesizing data, evaluating information, etc.—skills that our young people need forever.

Our curriculum should not be created based on the kinds of test students are required to take. The curriculum should be based on the skills and knowledge students need to be successful in the world, based on teaching students how to be critical thinkers, and based on teaching students how to think for themselves.

The purpose of media studies and literacy in our classrooms is myriad:
1. Students learn to use the media available to them
2. Students learn to think critically about the media
3. Students learn how media can shape culture and society
4. Students learn to recognize bias in the media
5. Students learn to communicate in a variety of ways with a variety of media
6. Students increase their classroom engagement by using a variety of media
7. Students learn to recognize forces influencing media

It is my goal as a teacher to incorporate media and media literacy into all my classes. The world is moving quickly and schools need to keep up so that our students don’t fall behind in the global marketplace. Students must become familiar with and learn to use the media tools available to them. Using media in my classroom means teaching students to think critically about media, teaching students to use media to express themselves, and using media as part of required coursework. For example, students may be required to read an online journal article rather than a chapter from a textbook or respond to a writing prompt on a blog rather than writing on looseleaf paper.

In the back-to-the-basics era of education, the idea of media studies scares people into thinking that reading and writing are not important. That is just the opposite. Media literacy and media studies are best employed as an integrated part of all classrooms, just as reading and writing are not reserved for English classrooms. In college, I wrote excruciatingly detailed lab notes for biology and read extensively on the Romans for Western Civilization class. The integration of reading and writing applies to all content areas, just as media studies and media literacy do. An online video tutorial can be used for a chemistry lab, a You Tube video can show a scene from Shakespeare, or actual footage from political debates can be used in civics class.

Media is not separate from classroom activity. It needs to be an integrated part of classrooms as another avenue for learning and gathering information. For those of us more comfortable with the analog age of getting information and communicating—via newspaper, radio, TV, telephone, snail mail—we cannot simply dismiss conventions of the digital age as fads—cell phones, blogs, wikis, webcasts, podcasts, You Tube, social networking sites—because they are our students’ reality. We must draw on these media as tools to make student learning more useful, engaging, and relevant.

My buddy Ella

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