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February 22, 2009

123 321 Tooning In again

In my email introduction several weeks ago I mentioned a conference paper in progress on popular culture collections and civic engagement. One of the areas in White and Walker from our first reading assignment with possible relevance for the paper is the three methods for teaching with popular culture. So ready or not, the re-run of blog entry 1 is about to begin... (truth be told, as I work on this, there is a healthy dose of "what is civic engagement before the education stuff again)

As I learned recently at a U of M symposium, the term "civic engagement" is not without complications. Go figure.

Dr. Rick Battistoni, on 15 January while introducing the above symposium speakers, described how recent trends have had the effect of "dulling" the edges of the word civic (which if you say it out loud has many nice corners and points). While not suggesting that any of these are inherently problematic, he gave three examples of different ways contemporary practitioners and scholars as well as the press understand civic engagement: 1) service learning, 2) teaching civics (government facts, etc), and 3) the current practice of defining citizenship as status (rather than a practice).

For a healthy democracy, citizenship means more than being just a voter, a rights bearer, and a consumer. This is how contemporary America generally understands what is means to be a citizen. The civic engagement movement relies upon the notion of citizenship as public work. It is through communities embracing this model that democratic society will be strengthened and that individual members will experience increased self-worth.

Dr. Joel Westheimer (who is pictured on the video linked above), specializes in K-12 education and civic engagement. He described three "visions of citizen" typologies he has found in research, especially since 2001: 1) the personal responsible citizen, 2) the participatory citizen, and 3) the social justice citizen. (more later)

Higher education and civic engagement was the focus of words by Connie Flanagan. Gotta fill this part in...outta time. Hope no one minds this blog as "living document."

Popular Culture as Pedagogy (pages 16-18)
"Students can learn to associate important events in history with a particular song,..or movie..." (p.17). Learning moments are achieved through popular culture and not necessarily about that same piece. Emotion and engagement is piqued by the cultural piece and then transferred to the traditional curriculum. To some end this is precisely what has been done for "culture to civic engagement" efforts: Americans for the Arts. In many regards, this may be necessary if the end is to encourage civic dialogue or political engagement. However, what about the ways in which popular culture is political? Or in the arguments for political possibilities of popular culture engagement (aka consumerism, fandom)?

Popular Culture as Demystification, Self-Defense, and Social Understanding (pages 18-22)
Popular culture text as curriculum. Reading between the lines of media. When media is the source of civic and political information, it is vital for citizens to know how to critically assess that same media.

Popular Culture as Vehicle of Critical and Postmodern Exploration (pages 22-26)
Learners bring their expertise and are asked to read popular texts from multiple perspectives. These are essential concepts for the core of civic dialogue in which participants' diverse view points are vital to the effort.

February 20, 2009

Some other links

In case anyone has extra time on their hands:

Somehow I ended up on a list for Games For Educators . I've never really checked them out, but can forward their most recent "newsletter" to any interested parties.

And an interesting, albeit disturbing, op-ed on Roman Polanski and the power of media (spin):
Whitewashing Roman Polanski

Happy end to the Rest Week to all!

February 16, 2009

Is it true?

Didn't hear the entire report this morning on the radio while moving from sleep to shower:
French film on schools representative of classes in the U.S.A too?

February 15, 2009

Life and Death at the Mall

This week's topic, consumerism and "the Mall," has pushed my thinking in quite a number of different directions all of which merit thoughtful and in depth consideration. Thanks to generative thinking and how I love to link things to other things and to bigger and bigger concerns, there is just no way to tackle them all here and now. Of course, I can't let seem to let them go so l am starting with a bit of an overview of each and see where I end up...

Zombies, Malls, and the Consumerism Debate: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead
by Stephen Harper

in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2002, Volume 1, Issue 2
available at http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2002/harper.htm

p.2 (on my print out, not sure that they will translate for all) "In Reading the Popular, John Fiske argues that while consumer "tactics" are never radical, they may be "liberating" to a certain extent." (emphasis mine) Green consumerism (google search "buy green" and take your pick), pink ribbon everything, Gap's red t-shirt campaign. Howies? Is an anti-consumerist consumer company possible? (props to MJS for sending that one my way). Trouble is that pink ribbon yogurt makes more money for Yoplait or Dannon than it makes in funds for Susan G. Komen fund. Ditto pink ribbon Avon whose product line includes known carcinogens. Selling a high priced coat designed to be durable and long lived is wonderful. Having owned my present winter coat for over 10 years I wish more things held up for as long as I want to use them, but the actual long-life depends more upon my, the consumer, decision to wear the same coat winter after winter through all the ups and downs and flip turns of the fashion world. This being quiet the opposite of what contemporary consumerism demands of the end-user. Too what about the people on the front end: the producers...or rather the producers people. The issue of sweatshop labor appears and fades from public media focus, but has never gone away. Are Gap's Red products, while raising their sales in what proportion to funds for AIDS issues?, made in factories where workers receive fair wages and reasonable working conditions? This skips us ahead in Harper's paper - p. 13 "....under capitalist conditions, the productive origins of commodities are easily forgotten."

p.4 "In recent decades, mall hysteria may be less common..." in relation to excitement at new mall openings. Has this been replaced by some of the rumored/reported mobs at openings of "superstores." Certainly, we see some of this still with the (embarrassing in my opinion, not to mention deadly) actions of shoppers on Black Friday or other big sale promotions. The 2004 film, Cesky sen, a documentary comedy social commentary could have been in the United States (well except for the government funding for young filmakers to even be critical of politic situations - in this case the question of the Czech Republic joining the EU - and the social).

p.10 "The typical audience response to the film..." Just a momentary turn away from the topic to a question about methodology. One of the recurring challenges for culture studies is assessing something like this. In this case I am left wonder too grammatically - is it a typical audience (in which case I'd like to know what comprises the typical audience for Dawn of the Dead) or is the the typical response of any audience in question. Later on the page, Harper extrapolates from second hand information that "ordinary" people have been "prompted" to "reconsider [their] relationship to consumerism." Using one isolated overheard comment to drawn this conclusion is a bit, well methodologically problematic. Furthermore, the comment in question might also likely ONLY demonstrate that the movie-goer shopper recognized the similarities between the movie zombies and the shoppers around her. This does not inherently mean she reconsidered anything about her role as a consumer.

p.11 "...consumerism is both morally perilous to those who can afford to buy into it AND economically exclusive to those who cannot." (emphasis mine) Indeed! This seems an important point for any educator wanting to "work" with consumerism or shopping and their students; not all students will have the same economic background. Even still some may enjoy a situation of relative wealth sustained by a familial culture of thrift (okay, maybe that is just my house and I don't have any kids!) or may be of more meager means, but whose family culture supports a consumerist ideology even if it may be more "in theory" than "in practice."

(so many quotation marks today...thanks for bearing with "me" ahem)

Having paused for most of the side notes I made on Harper, I just need to make a momentary aside. In the dichotomy between the "marxist academics" and the "consumerism liberates" schools of thought, once again I'm reminded that intellectual "elitism" is leveled as the worst of worst insults. Do not mistake me, there have been plenty of terrible moments of elitist thought and action. However, scholars time and time again seem unwilling to stand up and say "Of course I'm elitist, I have worked long and hard to earn a knowledge base and quality methodology so that I can be the best thinker and analyst possible." I don't expect Michael Phelps or Madonna to apologize for being (or have been depending upon one's take) at the tops of their fields and wanting to (elitistly?) keep the company of other expert athletes and artists. In our world people have widely varying skill sets, abilities, talents, and interests. Sometimes some people (in fact at some point most all of us) will be cultural dupes. Calling it like it is, does not inherently devalue that in other venues or at other times we same dupes can be experts.

Whew, and that is just one of the readings!

A couple of other general thoughts:

Not everyone goes to the mall. Really, I can count on my fingers the number of times I went to "the Mall" in 2008. I imagine (and would find supporting evidence somewhere) that especially people with limited mobility (walkers, bikers, public transit takers) that much of their shopping happens in urban city centers, at corner stores, via the internet. Is there a difference when we talk about the enclosed mall and the strip mall layout style. The concept of the mega-store or super-store is an interesting twist too. If the family does do their shopping together on a Saturday, will some of the questions raised and theories posited in the readings hold true if Wal-mart or Super Target are the one and only destinations?

There is consumerism, the ideology. There is shopping, the activity. There is purchasing, the transaction. What happens when these on conflated? What happens when we analyze each separately? More challenging still is when these overlap or look the same from one person to the next (my transaction trip to the mall for a new pair of trousers might, part of the time, look just like another's shopping outing or still another's ritualized reinforcement of capitalist consumptive world/life view)?

There are other places than the mall that people congregate, socialize, and create community: churches, gyms, schools, community centers, parks, barber shops or salons, coffee shops and diners, libraries, and even the internet. The cultural work of the mall to create status, define class affiliation, and provide means for seeing others actions in society is not exclusive to that the shopping site. I am sure that in some geographic regions this varies, but it is dangerous to general too greatly about the all consuming omnipresent or uniformity of "the Mall."

That all said Bacevich's article suggests that the greater message of "go to the mall and Disney World" speaks to much of the United States. Even if not an avid mall goer, it is probably true that most of us understand the meaning of "go to the mall" - take it easy, don't worry, just keep making your individual self comfortable in material ways. These days the answer to our economic crisis is "get people out to the stores" which screams to me that the notion that capitalism's drive for ever more and constant replacement - even in the midst of visible signs that it is not sustainable - is still widely believed to true and reasonable. In fact, an op-ed at Salon.com this week suggests that Americans are only angry when capitalism takes away the good old days when goods and services were more easily acquired (simple summation of the article), but that the media isn't covering the anger part of the present.

Thorny - that is what I think of when imagining a way to bring these things to students. Thorny and probably politically unpopular to many educators, administrators, parents, and politicians. Not to encourage sneakiness, but how about straight up critical thinking, analysis, and reflection skills? Observations of people and actions in shopping situations, compare to other social settings (gyms, churches, etc); price comparisons over time (is a sale really a sale?), media literacy (how to read marketing), science based investigations of resource consumption. The more we all are pressed to be critical of all aspects of our lives and world, the better we are at it an in theory better in our lives and worlds.

February 12, 2009

Lara Croft moves to Japan

News tidbit - http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/technology/article5715805.ece

February 8, 2009

It's a pin-up game?

“It’s a pin-up game – you can’t argue with tat. And as a pin-up game, it’s an outstanding success. I haven’t played it much yet, and I don’t think it’s very interesting to women, but it’s an honest game and I don’t feel offended by it. It’s silly, it’s like a beach movie, a “men’s magazine.? The domain is explicitly for men, and that’s okay. Nothing’s wrong with it, even if there’s nothing compelling to a female audience, either.? (game girl advice 2003/04/16)

Having never seen the game in question, DOA: Extreme Beach Volleyball, it would be unfair for me to pass any assessment or judgment upon its wrongness, rightness, gender success or failure. On the other hand, I have read the commentary above by blogger and gamer Jane Pinckard and can say confidently that there is a lot wrong with it. Pinckard is entitled to her opinion, but as an example of analysis of gender in video games analysis is sloppy and anti-thetical to the work of gender studies. Never is something “explicitly for men? and never is such a summation “okay.? Gender, likr its sibling sexuality, is not clear, clean, nor devoid of issues of power and identity.

Boys will be boys? This analysis of genderplay and video game characters is puritanical and biologically deterministic. Her statements reveal an utter lack of or disregard for the fluidity of gendered roles, not to mention the spin sexuality can drive. Presumably, by reading Pinckard, all gamers are straight men and women who retain the standard masculine or feminine traits mapped to them by American culture over the last 100 or so years. I may not be a gamer, but I know quite a few and I can assure you queer bois, bi-dykes, transfolk can be found in gaming.

Other parts of Genderplay: Successes and Failures in Character Designs for Videogames display some greater nuanced interpretations, especially around the marketing of Lara Croft and how that aspect of the videogame industry can drastically affect its reception. It wasn’t clear to me though if the game itself or only the marketing and reviews thereof alienates many female players or encourages a chauvinistic objectification of the protagonist by the player.

Perhaps the slow trend in the industry to include more women in the videogame workforce, suggested by Jane Pinkard in an interview by Jess McCabe, will inherently increase the diversity among game characters and structures. What about the racial make up of game makers? Ages, religion, sexuality, etc....a greater concern for me though is that even with a more diverse (in terms of demographics) set of game designers, programmers, and distributors, what about all of the diversity that happens between and beyond demographics? And even if diverse types of thinking, learning, feeling, and viewing of the world could be addressed, is this not a format that while encouraging a lot of thinking, problem solving, and creativity is in the end, most times, predetermined? Maybe not that, but at least the number of ends is to a degree predetermined.

My blog buddy and I came to a point in our chat where the timeless mantra "everything in moderation" surfaced and I feel that it is useful at this point as well. It would be a shame to deprive students at any level of truly open ended opportunities for creativity. Pre-determined finales in videogames, limited things to do or say, can fill many entertainment and educational goals - but in moderation, and well selected to avoid poor quality in character, plot, action development. Could students be encouraged to evaluate their favorite games and to propose challenges or improvements? Could they even be provided outlets to devise there own games (either in a technological way or maybe a "live-action" substitution)? Could they be presented with thoughts about pre-determinism vs. free will?

All forms of media present examples of the great, the awful, and combinations thereof. Videogames are not exempt. The more critical and demanding the audience is, generally the instances improve - or at least evolve. With the educational opportunities inherent with certain games and gaming interactions, it is encouraging to have educators involved in the audience for games and to be a part of their evolution.