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March 29, 2009

This is the sound of silence

Simon and Garfunkel Concert in the Park was the first CD I ever owned.

(I had to use the opening link where the back up band get their props!)

I listened to it on my Sony 5-disc CD player (12th birthday present, I think, no maybe 14th b-day) with headphones until acquiescing to hook the player up to the family stereo system thereby accessing speakers. I still have the CD player which makes it ancient in technology terms and the CD, which I now understand in the much longer context of S&G's career, falling out, coming together (in Central Park and again more recently), and separate solo ventures including Paul Simon's controversial global music making (Graceland album in particular). The Sound of Silence still reigns among my favorite tunes, along with I am a Rock, and Cecilia - each for varying reasons. (Please note the clip of Cecilia is craziness, but youtube offered very few options of S&G actually doing this song relative to the number of covers)

Come to think of it COVERS are an interesting conceptual spin off of last week's parody and satire. While an artist like Weird Al thrives on satire and parody, as do plenty of other cover bands, many instances of one artist playing or re-making the song of another is an artistic nod of approval or an example of the "copying is a form of flattery" apothegm. If nothing else, examining covers in a classroom setting can demonstrate issues of artistic and intellectual ownership, copyright, derivation and the evolution of artistic/intellectual content within the community of artists and fans, and meaning based in context. Each of these is also applicable when looking at "real and fake" news as well as fine arts or literary works.

My personal appreciation for musical derivation snuck (or is it sneaked?) out early this month. As a (former? I don't play all that much these days) musician I have spent a lot of time with the way that music of most genres connect people: composer to performer to audience to future song writer to garage band to past musicians to musicians of other cultures and styles and so on. This connection usually happens not intellectually (by understanding that Mozart studied with Haydn, that Fats Domino listened to Gene Autry as a kid, that Johnny Cash covered Gospel tunes and Nine Inch Nails) but viscerally through a non-verbal medium with very physical manifestations (pretty much all music is a dance in one way or a more subtle other). A very powerful place to be is one that works on an auditory, physical (movement), and intellectual levels and that is where music hangs out.

It isn't a far stretch for this imagination to understand why major entities from the medieval church, to monarchies, to multinational corporations would tap into the power of music for good, or evil, or profit (or all of the above). The patronage and support structures provided affect musicians and their craft, as does the socio-economic status of the musicians and their audiences, the historical happenings, and personal motivations often unknowable to fans and scholars (something we all like to ignore in the effort to know and understand and explain!). All in all, these provide such an exciting number of opportunities to engage with learners of all ages on social issues, on economics, history, and just plain music.

White and Walker suggest that a purely pedagogical approach with popular culture (hook 'em with what they like) stops short of critically engaging with the medium itself (p.16-18). While not entirely disagreeing with this position, it seems that the strong ability for music to connect with wider issues and for a single song to time-travel via the mode of "the cover" is a powerful and enjoyable "gate way drug" to those larger issues and other peoples places and times. In my experience to really analyze at a musical level (not the industry) requires more intense listening and training than the average class situation allows for. That is, a music teacher wouldn't be expected to cover social studies in music class the way the social studies teacher is and vice versa, a social studies teacher can't necessarily be expected to teach "the music" in their class.

All in all though, I can see a very rich class room project that takes a tune. The students find as many versions of it as they can. They look at the who what where and why of each or selected versions. They make a time line, a map, and a graph of the varying qualities. They write a paper/essay on some aspect (one of the recording companies, one of the genres, the artists, an instrument used, the historical time). They maybe make a cover themselves with basic recording equipment or by mixing, or they make a music video using one of the versions of the song already recorded. The album art is looked at and students design their own album paraphernalia. Maybe they do their own radio show on the evolution of a song or an artist with the artist's influences. Can they interview a local DJ and learn about radio production? Will a local station (KFAI or Jazz 88 here in town for example) let the kids participate in a segment? What about bringing in a local musician? Maybe a classical violinist and a guitarist from a band visit on the same day and talk about their varying styles?

And so the options generate. Maybe I just like them 'cuz it sounds like good fun learnin' to me too.

March 24, 2009

Possible final project stuff

This class has focused on education for K-12 ages for just reason. It is quite interesting and very important. Lifelong learning (as cliche as the phrase seems to have become) is a bit more up my alley and I'm interested in the role of popular culture as a means for education and engagement after high school or college. Hoping Prof. Swiss will approve, in the meantime:

In 2002 the U.S. Census Bureau conducted SPAA, the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. 17,135 adults (18 years or older) were interviewed with a 70% response rate. In short, the results demonstrated that people who attended performing arts (classical or jazz concerts, plays, operas or musicals, and ballet) and those who were “literary readers” (short stories, novels, plays, or poetry) were more active in their communities and more socially engaged (charity or volunteer work, sports participation). While across many demographic measures arts participants engage in civic/social activities at much higher rates, rates of participation in both areas, arts and civics, are falling among younger adults. The study does not “attempt to show cause and effect” (p.2), NEA chairman Dana Gioia speculates the “proliferation of electronic entertainment options” has “drawn” them away from arts and social engagement. It is very likely that younger adults are “drawn away from engagement” only or largely in terms measured by the study, however it is an interesting point that when further explored might just indicated a need for other means to draw this cohort into civic engagement in some of its more traditional forms (ie. face-to-face). Perhaps this is a moment for popular culture collections as civic discourse catalysts.

Many popular culture collections are associated with academic libraries in institutions of higher learning. Such relationships provide a number of advantages for a civic engagement agenda: a relatively captive audience of young and lifelong learners, associated resources in library collections of the non-popular culture nature, and a growing awareness of the civic engagement movement among academic librarians and campus leaders. Past ALA president Nancy Kranich with co-authors Michele Reid and Taylor Willingham, highlight the role of colleges in "...reinvigorating the democratic spirit of the country..." while acknowledging that "...robust democracy and the public welfare depend on an engaged and informed citizenry..." (380-1). They suggest that academic libraries are “ideally suited to play a critical role in rekindling civic spirit by providing not only information, but also expanded opportunities for dialogue and deliberation…” (381). Sponsoring deliberative forums, guiding research for participatory action, moderating study circles, as well as engaging faculty, administrators, and community leaders are among the actions Kranich et al propose. In many cases, such activities are already underway within academic as well as public libraries – often with or without the explicit goal of civic dialogue or engagement. The content of popular culture collections and the important role of popular culture in many peoples’ lives opens another realm for hooking participants and providing fun and engagement together. (not to suggest that being civically or artistically involved isn’t usually fun…)


Kranich, Nancy, Michele Reid and Taylor Willingham. “Civic Engagement in Academic Libraries: Encouraging Active Citizenship.” College & Research Libraries News 65:7 (July/August 2004), 380-383, 388, 393, 400.

National Endowment for the Arts. The Arts and Civic Engagement: Involved in Arts, Involved in Life. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 2006. Second Reprint, June 2007.

March 17, 2009

Fake News, take 1

Satire is not a form/technique well integrated into American culture. Sure there is SNL and The Simpsons, The Daily Show and the charming Jane Bond, Nancy Clue, and the Hardly Boys novels of Mabel Maney and of course The Onion. Just the same, these are cultural artefacts more to the fringe than the center and often receiving harsh criticism when their satirical essence is misunderstood...or missed all together.

Ana Kothe's When Fake Is More Real: Of Fools, Parody, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, citing Paul Lewis's Cracking Up (2006), compares two forms of contemporary American political humor by contrasting Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart. The former uses mean-spirited humor to distract and self-eggrandize; the latter parody and satire to open reflective space while highlighting un-official truths in the face of political corruption. The nature of so much American comedy over the last 30 years, aka this author's memory, seems more of the first type: humor belittles and mocks otherness or makes light of more trivial human interactions (oh the standard sitcom) thereby propping up status quo. Would a cultural palate used to satire as a means for addressing the un-official truths (in Kothe's effective terms) of its own world ran to and been offended by the likes of Borat?**

What is the difference between Satire and Parody?
For that matter what really is Irony? In certain circles the witticism is "we can't be true hipsters, we know the real meaning of ironic." Hip or not, Kothe's article puts Parody in the title, but uses Satire seemingly interchangeably until discussing Play it Again Sam (1972) and quoting Linda Hucheon in The Dialogic Imagination: "What is parodied is Hollywood's aesthetic tradition...; what is satirized is our need...." The Oxford English Dictionary includes more interesting information than can be reproduced succinctly here: satire and parody and irony. Perhaps the finer subtleties are not of the utmost importance for teaching youth, but precision in language is valuable to any educational endeavor.

If this isn't a style most Americans grow up appreciating, how do some of us learn to love it and how do we share that with others, especially students? One easy exercise is to start with a basic comparison of a story covered in the New York Times and the same story as in USA Today. What facts, figures, and information is provided? Are there experts or studies cited that can be confirmed? How long are the articles and where is each placed within its respective paper? The writing style, vocabulary used, ancillary charts, tables, or figures? Learners could do this a few times and then move on to a local paper, an online news source, televised or radio news articles and eventually into the formats more closely associated with entertainment such as The Daily Show or The Onion. Learners can look for "what is (supposed to be) funny" and state justification for why it is or is not by exploring the greater context and other relevant evidence.

In the moments when the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Sacha Baron Cohen are found to be offensive, why? What buttons are pushed? What values are challenged? It may prove to be quite difficult if not impossible for all viewers/readers to come to appreciate satire - but this does not preclude the opportunity to share and learn about the issues referenced in such biting parodies. In many cases, the age of the audience may serve as a limiting factor, as both satire and parody rely on prior knowledge for their effect. However, in many cases kid culture at least paraphrases older stories, formats, political figures, and so on. Much like the opportunity presented by youth oriented historical fiction, these pieces for kids present a keen chance to enlighten and engage young flexible minds with the more challenging nature of referential entertainment and communication.

There is a risk to stressing skepticism as a means for evaluating news of any kind from any source, though this is a fair assessment of what is required when comparing political candidates, policy solutions, and dish detergents. Disengagement, disillusionment, and even fear have been argued results. Instead of assuming news to be true until proven false, or false until be demonstrated true - both of which rely on unrealistic polarized dualisms - the emphasis in the public and in education should be on determining veracity by confirmation from a variety of sources, formats, and perspectives and with the understanding that any single "newsworthy event" cannot have its whole "truth" summarized in one article, series of television segments, or blog posting(s). Ongoing interaction with content and analysis is necessary to be "in the know." With continued information acquisition will typically come increased understanding and more opportunities for action and involvement, both important antidotes for anxiety or misanthropy inspired by news consumption.

**After thinking of Borat for this first time in a long while and referencing the film/character/phenom here, I noticed in the little "did you know section" of the Star Tribune paper at the coffeeshop a reference to him! Here's the related longer article: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/movies/41329077.html?elr=KArksUUUU.

March 9, 2009

Fats Domino & Gene Autry

"I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill" was one of Fats Domino's best known hits....and he got it from Gene Autry!

The cross-fertilization of popular music is to fascinating.

Also, did you know Johnny Cash's home down was created by the New Deal?

(information from the 2/23/2009 Bop Street show - archived at http://www.kfai.org/node/46)

March 7, 2009

Play time

Oh no! Liberty's Kids no longer "lives" on PBS.org and I was really looking forward to making my own newspaper. There is however a long list of other options in a drop down box. Alas, but how to pick which one? Mom!! Help!

Good news, Liberty's Kids still exists...with an ad panel down the right margin. Classmates and Cool Savings. Definitely valuable options for Liberty's Kids target audience. Caillou, like Liberty's Kids produced by The Cookie Jar Company), and Don't Buy It, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting production, lack ads presumably as they are hosted (and supported) by PBS. Huh, seems like a simple good argument for publicly/governmentally funded education(al productions).

This brief venture into online educational play zones for kid's illustrates another issue: how to decide? With 53 options on PBS alone, how to review, preview, approve of, and monitor all? The move from Liberty's Kids from PBS since the 2008 publication of our text indicates that there is a fluidity in ownership of these resources. Much like many things on the internet, URLs are not permanent (well unless they are PURLs of course), and the "wrapper" and display can shift the meaning and reliability.

How is a teacher to evaluate play related resources? Is such a process different from reviewing print or AV classroom materials? Which toys are appropriate? White and Walker (2008) chapter 15 (p. 143-4) implies that classroom toys will/are not subject to the commercialization or TV and holiday hype. (Incidentally, chapter 15 is really terribly written using too many vague generalizations and unsupported claims to be all that useful. For instance p. 145 "Personal computers became common in every home by the 1980s." In what geographic region? What sample and survey? Please.) When incorporating toys and kid culture into a classroom, it seems impossible to draw clear lines between the commercial and the purely educational (see the case of Liberty's Kids web relocation) and thus essential to raise the related issues with students.

Concerns over funding affect "adult" learning situations as well, so kid culture is not alone. Funding of museum exhibitions, film festivals, and concert series is rarely devoid of corporate or commercial interests. In music and arts, scholars have long drawn some parallels between royal or religious patrons and contemporary grant funders. Do younger viewers and "patrons" of arts or media have the same capacity to critically assess their cultural consumption? Such a question implies that adult viewers have and exercise this ability, though this is not an uncontentious assertion.

Chapter 8, pages 76-77, criticize the media literacy movement and asserts that media efficacy is instead a better method with kid culture in the educational setting. In library and information science, media literacy (typically couched within the umbrella of information literacy) emphasizes critical assessment without preconceived judgments on type of media (though to be honest certainly some practitioners have biases, but don't most of use?). What are the differences between media literacy and media efficacy? Really, any thoughts?

The point of our responses probably is not to entirely question our texts, but consider this my bad habit. Tooning in continues to assert the power of popular culture for social change, but this student is finding little evidence within the text to support these claims, whereas I see around my the hegemonic powers of popular culture. Rarely is radical social change presented or supported. In so many cases, main stream popular culture serves as a site for advertising and homogenization. Popular culture on the fringes seems to provide more diverse voices and challenges to conventional wisdom. Discussing these differences and the various issues brought about by thoughtful assessment of any culture is often radical and can bring about social change. Then again, real change also requires agency, quality information, and a sense of the common good - none of which are inherent in popular media.

Pardon me as this post seems to have devolved into sweeping generalizations and unsupported claims. My migraine is unrelenting. Here's hoping edits tomorrow will clean things up. In the meantime, two other thoughts:

Teaching history to young people with fictional accounts presents the challenge of communicating the difference between fiction and historical realities, but it also provides the exciting opportunity to introduce learners to the vital and sometimes shocking interpretive nature of communicating historical realities. All history is created (insert Eric Foner here), but that doesn't mean all history is fiction. Very important to pay attention to the differences. Information may not be knowledge, but knowledge requires information.

Fun and play are very important. Appealing and accessible are too. The satisfaction of hard work, mastering new skills by trial and error and real effort, and rising to the challenges of appreciating that which is new and different are all also valuable and enjoyable - aka FUN times too. They however are generally in the "acquired taste" category.... education should be also about experiencing and acquiring new tastes and exploring new avenues to fun in addition to those already known.

March 4, 2009

Forewarned is forearmed

So the saying goes. When leaving comments for some blogs, I used my google/blogger account when name + this url wasn't accepted. Please note that if you follow the name link you will find my public...or is it private...anyway my non-school blog. As the question of "appropriate for an educational space" has lately arisen, I'd like to forewarn all that there is a reason and I did not just use it for the class blog (okay, in truth several reasons). They probably aren't near the top (though today's post might be considered racy) but if one were to dig one would probably not think "classroom appropriate." Whether this warning serves to entice or deter you is out of my control, do remember that forewarned is forearmed. Happy Wednesday!

PS: As a K-12 student, I loved crossword puzzle assignments...and I still love crossword puzzles. Look what I stumbled upon last week http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/xwords/archive.html

March 1, 2009

Second Verse the same as the first, a whole lot louder and ... ?

Before finishing the abstract for “When Sex, Drugs, and Violence Enter the Classroom,” I was thinking, a little deviously, of the times I’ve sassed automated phone services. Dare I say I have even cussed at them a little. Once I discovered that the usually one just has to fake the program out to get to talk to a real person, well that’s when the deliberate mumbling began. Such behavior I don’t admit proudly…but I did it, and now I understand a little better “what was really going on” - though I insist that to some end I was just mad that it didn’t understand me and I wanted an answer to, “where is my package, UPS?!”

I’m not so surprised that 14 and 15 year olds would challenge a CPA and not shocked that they would ask explicit questions. What does rattle me is the violent assertion of power and that once again sex is used to achieve it. This isn’t just about adolescents searching for identity. This kind of behavior is central to contemporary American society and culture. It is despicable and it is frightening.

Of course the true test of the data in this (and the later referenced) paper will be when replicated over time and space. Are race or disability status also used to assert power? In the same way or differently? Actually this begs the question, are their blind avatars? Is a wheel chair an available "accessory?" Are there changes in the results when students have used these over a longer period of time? Does the sexual (and other) "testing" stage wear off?

A college classmate of mine, ca 1999, was a programmer for IBM while pursuing a degree in cello performance. He enjoyed video games and baroque performance techniques. His sense of justice and human rights was strong, so much so that he would even talk about the need to great a bill of rights for artificial intelligence. I suppose, after recalling yelling at the NWA phone conversational agent, this was a second recollection brought on by Veletsianos, Scharber and Doering (2008). Why would AI need a bill of rights? I suppose, preventing abuse and violence towards robots, avatars, and CPAs is a good start.

Speaking of prejudice and abuse:
(from the ever-reliable Fox news) http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,500824,00.html
and some British thoughts http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/shane_richmond/blog/2009/02/27/will_xbox_live_change_dont_ask_dont_tell_policy_on_homosexuality
(thanks again to MJS for the alert).

I expect that as "a people" we are striving to achieve a world of equality, liberty, and relative peace. To this end, we seek to eliminate discrimination and to value all kinds of diversity. Basing tools for education and entertainment on existing preconceived notions (i.e. authoritative CAs wear glasses, pretty female avatars are acceptable targets for sexual aggression, online gamers that self identify as gay/queer/homosexual are deviants) even in the cases when it is for an identified "good" (make the CA more authoritative to students so they learn more) only perpetuates points of inequality and misses opportunities for expanding our collective appreciation of the myriad human values and their myriad manifestations.

It is not okay to kick your child. It isn't okay to kick your co-worker. It isn't okay to kick your dog. It isn't okay to kick your computer? Or is it? Most all of us at some point need to work out some aggression. There was a time, and I suppose some people still maintain, that animals are acceptable scapegoats though we have largely moved beyond this. Maybe a conversational agent in a computer is a good place to voice aggression? No one, baring a sense that an AI agent is a "one," is really getting hurt. Alas, the trouble isn't as much in who or what is getting hurt, but that there is still a human partaking in a hurtful action. This does not go without consequence for that individual or the community around her or him. For many many years religions and philosophers and medical practitioners have developed means for work out aggression that does not involve harmful actions - there are other ways to address very real human frustrations.

In the meantime, the articles we have read suggest that the CAs themselves are a source of frustration. I do not quite understand how they can be described as ineffective and an exciting new pedagogical medium by the same participant group! It is perhaps worth considering some possible implicit biases in the sample for Doering, Veletsianos, and Yerasimou (2008). A group of teachers responding to a pedagogical tool may be predisposed to think of it as full of potential even when finding it lacking in practice, especially if they are students in the department where the study is happening, especially if that department is in the Midwest where sometimes people like to always point out the good. This is one small piece of an interesting study and I hardly think it invalidates the conclusions made - I just wonder in particular about that aspect of the feedback received.

Blog buddy and I were discussing "why use technology." (Thom, I wondering if we can access our chat transcripts? I can't find them myself, but can you share? It sure would be nice to get at some of my, ah, brilliant, thoughts) We both agreed that as described the CAs seem to be really just an avatar attached to a smart natural language search engine enabled frequently asked questions knowledge base. To this end, the negatives thus far highlighted (i.e. or is it e.g. students participating in highly inappropriate school behavior without consequence - lack of user content satisfaction), far out weigh what we could see a possible educational uses. Without formatting them as well to redirect or stop inappropriate behavior, my sense is giving tacit approval for such talk in a classroom is enough to put the CA on the do not use shelf permanently.

And on the topic of "do not use:" (I jest a bit)

Gizmo....I've spent the better part of my writing/study time looking for a suitable headshot! If only I had my passport and a scanner.... Finally! Unfortunately now the Gizmoz server isn't wanting to save my handiwork. No. Not saving. Does this mean all of my classmates are working on avatars at the same time? This glitch has provided a fine time in which to return to "Conversational Agents and Their Longitudinal Affordances" in which the topic of frustration with CAs is discussed.

Oooh, here I come (please note that I this is not my real voice...or is it???)

Web 2.0 is what she/i (?!) say in the middle. It is clear that for "text to speech" purposes I need to remember to write web two point oh. ;)

The last couple of hours has impressed upon me once again the high overhead for new media. To really use the Gizmoz site more easily, fluidly, efficiently, or well even I needed a better picture (web camera, digital camera and transfer cord, phone with camera and cord or wireless or bluetooth, or a scanner, and photo editing software). To make my gizmo speak I needed recording equipment. For many people, families, or even schools, these probably aren't all that scarce, but seems unreasonable to assume that they are readily available to all teachers and learners. Just a thought...economic inequality is still a significant component of any education equation.