Notes on a Riot

Police presence in Ferguson on August 11th 2014 image source: PBS news hour

Police presence in Ferguson on August 11th 2014
image source: PBS news hour

Like many professors, I live on the same campus where I work. As a result, I’ve watched drunk East Carolina University students urinate and puke on my lawn and toss empty red solo cups into the shrubbery around my home. But one evening I had a more troubling run-in with a college student. It began when I woke to the sound of my dog barking. It took me a minute to orient myself and understand that my dog was barking because someone was knocking on the front door. It was 2 am and my husband was out of town, but I opened the front door anyway. On the stoop was a college-aged woman dressed in a Halloween costume that consisted of a halter top, small tight shorts, and sky-high heels. The woman was sobbing and  shivering in the late October air and her thick eye make up was running down her face. She was incoherent and hysterical– I could smell the tequila on her breath — so it took me a while to figure out what she wanted .

She told me that she was visiting a friend for the night and that she had lost her friend…and her cell phone. She had no idea where she was or where to go. I think she came to my door because my porch light has motion detectors and she must have thought it was a sign. As she rambled on and on I could hear my baby crying upstairs. I told the woman to wait on my stoop, that I had to go get my baby and my phone, and that I would call the police to see if they could drive her somewhere. “Nooooooo,” she wailed, “don’t call the police!” I urged her to wait a minute so I could go get my baby and soothe him, but when I returned a few minutes later with my cell phone in hand, she was gone.

Renisha McBride image source:  http://www.nydailynews.com/

Renisha McBride
image source: http://www.nydailynews.com/

I felt many emotions that night: annoyance at being woken up, panic over how to best get help for the young woman, and later, guilt over my inability to help her. But one emotion that I did not feel that night was fear. I was never threatened by this young woman’s presence on my stoop and I never felt the need to “protect” my property. Why would I? She was a young woman, no more than 19 or 20, and though she was drunk and hysterical, she needed my help. I was reminded of this incident when I heard that Renisha McBride, a young woman of no more than 19 or 20, was shot dead last fall after knocking on Theodore Wafer’s door in the middle of the night while drunk and in need of help. Wafer was recently convicted of second-degree murder and manslaughter (which is a miracle), but that didn’t stop the Associated Press from describing the Wafer verdict thusly:

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McBride, the victim, a young girl needlessly shot down by a paranoid homeowner, is described as a nameless drunk, even a court ruling establishing her victimhood beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, just a few days later in Ferguson, Missouri, citizens are actively protesting the death/murder of Michael Brown, another unarmed African American youth shot down for seemingly no reason. If you haven’t heard of Brown yet, here are the basic facts:

1. On Saturday evening Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, was fatally shot by a police officer on a sidewalk in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri.

2. There are 2 very different accounts of why and how Brown was shot. The police claim that Brown got into their police car and attempted to take an officer’s gun, leading to the chain of events that resulted in Brown fleeing the vehicle and being shot. By contract, witnesses on the scene claim that Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were walking in the middle of the street when the police car pulled up, told the boys to “Get the f*** on the sidewalk” and then hit them with their car door. This then led to a physical altercation that sent both boys running down the sidewalk with the police shooting after them.

3. As a result of Brown’s death/murder the citizens of Ferguson took to the streets, demanding answers, investigations, and the name of the officer who pulled the trigger. Most of these citizens engaged in peaceful protests while others have engaged in “looting” (setting fires, stealing from local businesses, and damaging property).

image source: http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/

Michael Brown at 16 image source:
http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/

Now America is trying to make sense of the riots/uprisings that have taken hold of Ferguson the last two days and whether the town’s reaction is or is not “justified.” Was Brown a thug who foolishly tried to grab an officer’s gun? Or, was he yet another case of an African American shot because his skin color made him into a threat? 

I suppose both theories are plausible, but given how many unarmed, brown-skinned Americans have been killed in *just* the last 2 years — Trayvon Martin (2012), Ramarley Graham (2012), Renisha McBride (2013), Jonathan Ferrell (2013), John Crawford (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Ezell Ford (2 days ago) — my God, I’m not even scratching the surface, there are too many to list  — I’m willing to bet that Michael Brown didn’t do anything to *deserve* his death. He was a teenage boy out for a walk with his friend on a Saturday night and his skin color made him into a police target. He was a threat merely by existing.

Given the amount of bodies that are piling up — young, innocent, unarmed bodies — it shouldn’t be surprising that people in Ferguson have taken to the streets demanding justice. And yes, in addition to the peaceful protests and fliers with clearly delineated demands, there has been destruction to property and looting. But there is always destruction in a war zone. War makes people act in uncharacteristic ways. And make no mistake: Ferguson is now a war zone. The media has been blocked from entering the city, the FAA has declared the air space over Ferguson a “no fly zone” for a week “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities,” and the police are shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at civilians.

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But no matter. The images of masses of brown faces in the streets of Ferguson can and will be brushed aside as “looters” and “f*cking animals.” Michael Brown’s death is already another statistic, another body on the pile of Americans who had the audacity to believe that they would be safe walking down the street or knocking on a door for help.

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What is especially soul-crushing is knowing that these events happen over and over and over again in America — the Red Summer of 1919, Watts in 1964, Los Angeles in 1992 — and again and again we look away. We laud the protests of the Arab Spring, awed by the fortitude and bravery of people who risk bodily harm and even death in their demands for a just government, but we have trouble seeing our own protests that way. Justice is a right, not a privilege. Justice is something we are all supposed to be entitled to in this county.

***

When the uprisings in Los Angeles were televised in 1992 I was a freshman in high school. All I knew about Los Angeles is what I had learned from movies like Pretty Woman  and Boyz N the Hood –there were rich white people, poor black people with guns, and Julia Roberts pretending to be a prostitute.  On my television these “rioters and looters” looked positively crazy, out of control. And when I saw army tanks moving through the streets of Compton I felt a sense of relief. 

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That’s because a lifetime of American media consumption — mostly in the form of film, television, and nightly newscasts — had conditioned my eyes and my brain to read images of angry African Americans, not as allies in the struggle for a just country, but as threats to my country’s safety. I could pull any number of examples of how and why my brain and eyes were conditioned in this way. I could cite, for example, how every hero and romantic lead in everything I watched was almost always played by a white actor. I could cite how every criminal, rapist, and threat to my white womanhood was almost always played by a black actor. And those army tanks driving through the outskirts of Los Angeles didn’t look like an infringement on freedom to me at the time (and as they do now). They looked like safety because I came of age during the Gulf War, when images of tanks moving through wartorn streets in regions of the world where people who don’t look like me live come to stand for “justice” and “peacemaking.” Images get twisted and flipped and distorted.

image source: bossip.com

image source:
bossip.com

The #IfTheyShotMe hashtag, started by Tyler Atkins, illuminates how easily images  — particular the cache of selfies uploaded to a Facebook page or Instagram account — can be molded to support whatever narrative you want to spin about someone. The hashtag features two images which could tell two very different stories about an unarmed man after he is shot — a troublemaker or a scholar? a womanizer or a war vet? The hashtag illuminates how those who wish to believe that Michael Brown’s death was simply a tragic consequence of not following rules and provoking the police can easily find images of him flashing “gang signs” or looking tough in a photo, and thus “deserving” his fate. Those who believe he was wrongfully shot down because he, like most African American male teens, looks “suspicious,” can proffer images of Brown in his graduation robes.

Of course, as so many smart folks have already pointed out, it doesn’t really matter that Brown was supposed to go off to college this week, just as it doesn’t matter what a woman was wearing when she was raped. It doesn’t matter whether an unarmed man is a thug or a scholar when he is shot down in the street like a dog. But I like this hashtag because at the very least it is forcing us all to think about the way we’re all (mis)reading the images around us, to our peril.

The original images used in Tyler Atkins' #IfTheyShotMe hashtag

The original images used in Tyler Atkins’ #IfTheyShotMe hashtag

The same day that the people of Ferguson took to the streets to stand up for Michael Brown and for every other unarmed person killed for being black, comedian and actor Robin Williams died. I was sad to hear this news and even sadder to hear that Williams took his own life, so I went to social media to engage in some good, old fashioned public mourning, the Twitter wake. In addition to the usual sharing of memorable quotes and clips from the actor’s past, people in my feed were also sharing suicide prevention hotline numbers and urging friends to “stay here,” reminding them that they are loved and needed by their friends and families. People asked for greater understanding of mental illness and depression. And some people simply asked that we all try to be kind to each other, that we remember that we’re all human, that we all hurt, and that we are all, ultimately, the same. Folks, now it’s time to send some of that kind energy to the people of Ferguson and to the family and friends of Michael Brown. They’re hurting and they need it.

(Aca) Blogs are Like Assholes…

You’ve heard the joke, right?  There are over 152,000,000 blogs on the internet. And in one small corner of the internet are the academic blogs, the aca-blogs. I define “aca-blogs” as blogs written and moderated by an individual (as opposed to a collective) currently involved in academia (whether as a student, instructor or administrator). The content of these blogs vary widely but they are usually at least tangentially related to the blogger’s field of academic study. Most of these bloggers write in a looser, more informal style than they would for a more traditional scholarly publication, like a peer-reviewed journal or a monograph published by a university press (i.e, the kind of documents that — at least at one time — would get you a job or tenure).

Now, I’ve never been an early adopter. I’m a proud member of the “early majority,” the folks who watch and see what happens to the early adopters before taking the plunge. I was late to Facebook (August 2008), Twitter (March 2009), and (aca)blogging (August 2009). I only started blogging in the wake of the medium’s “golden age” (an era which, like all golden ages, varies wildly depending on who you consult). I use the term “golden age” to signal a time when a large portion of the academics I interacted with on social media also had blogs, and posted to them regularly (see my blogroll for a sizable sample of media studies bloggers). Starting a blog was common for people like me — that is, for people who liked talking about popular culture in a looser, more informal way, online, with other fans and academics. And with gifs.

Part of what (I think) my early readers enjoyed about my blog is that I was using my PhD, a degree that (supposedly) gives me the ability to provide nuanced arguments and historical context about the popular culture they were consuming.  I like that my online friends (including folks I went to elementary school with, my Mom’s friends, my kids’ friends’ parents) can read my mom’s Oscar predictions or why I think the Jersey Shore cast is a lot like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and they don’t need to buy a subscription to a journal or be affiliated with a university to do so. That’s important. If we, as Humanities-based scholars, are terrified about the way our discipline is being devalued (literally and metaphorically) then we need to show the public exactly how valuable our work is. How can we say “people need media literacy!” but only if they enroll in my class or pay for a journal subscription? That just supports the erroneous belief that our work is elitist/useless when it’s not. I know this work is valuable and I want everyone to have access to it. I also like the timeliness afforded by this online, open-access platform. I can watch Mildred Pierce the night it airs and have a review published on my personal blog the next day, which is exactly when folks want to read it. If I want to do some detailed research and further thinking about that series, then sure, I’d spend several months on a much longer piece and then send it to a journal or anthology.

Indeed, Karra Shimabukuro, a PhD student who maintains two different blogs, explains her interest in blogging this way:

I like [blogging] because it lets me share my work, and in this day and age perhaps get people to know my work and me. Now that I’m in my PhD program, I try to post stuff pretty regularly, and I always link to Twitter when I do, so get more views. I think it’s important to share my research. I read quite a few blogs, usually when I am looking for something specific though- job market, conference, early career advice type stuff. 

In the early days of my blog’s life I posted frequently (several times per week) and my posts were generally short (less than 1000 words). These posts were written quickly, often in response to an episode of television I had just watched or a conversation I had just had with someone on Twitter (or Facebook, or occasionally, real life). My early posts were also interactive. I almost always concluded posts with questions for my readers, invitations to engage with me on the platform I built for just that purpose.

Ben Railton, a professor who blogs at American Studies, told me via email:

For me individually, blogging has been infinitely helpful in developing what I consider a far more public voice and style, one that seeks to engage audiences well outside the academy. Each of my last two books, and my current fourth in manuscript, has moved more and more fully into that voice and style, and so I see the blog as the driving force in much of my writing and work and career.

 And collectively, I believe that scholarly blogs emphasize some of the best things about the profession: community, conversation, connection, an openness to evolving thought and response, links between our individual perspectives and knowledges and broader issues, and more.

Looking back at these early posts I’m surprised by the liveliness of the comments section — how people would talk to me and each other in rich and interesting ways. In 2009 my blog felt vibrant, exciting, and integral to my scholarship. A few of of my posts became longer articles or conference talks. Writing posts made me feel like I was part of an intellectual community exchanging ideas back and forth in a productive kind of dialogue.

In hindsight it’s strange to me that I blogged so much in 2009 and 2010 because those years mark one of the most challenging periods of my life — just before the birth of my second child, a beautiful boy who never ever (ever) slept. During the brief snatches of time when my newborn son was asleep, or at least awake and content, I would grab my laptop and compose my thoughts about The Hills or Google+ (LOL, Google+!). I found that, when the muse comes calling, you have to write then, not sooner and not later, or she’ll go away. So I wrote posts in the middle of the night and even while nursing my son. Blogging felt vital to me then, like a muscle that needed stretching. And when the words came, they came in a stream. The sexual connotations here are purposeful — blogging was satisfying to me in the same way sex can be satisfying. And like sex, sometimes when you try to blog, you just can’t get it up: the moment’s not right, the inspiration vanishes.

But things are different in 2014. I’ve had tenure for a year. I just completed a manuscript and turned it in to the press. My son (now 4 and a half) sleeps through the night (almost) every night and I find that I can work while lounging in a hammock next to my 8-year-old daughter as she reads. In other words, I have plenty of time to stretch my blog muscle. Yet,  I’m just losing my desire for blogging. It used to be that if I went more than a few weeks without writing a post, I got twitchy, an addict in the midst of withdrawal. But now, my blog’s stagnation engenders no such discomfort. It’s like the day you realize you’re over an old love. Dispassion and neutrality abound.

Taking stock of her own blogging hiatus last year, Slaves of Academe writes “As it turns out, walking away from one’s blog was relatively easy, given the surplus of competing screens.” And I suppose that that’s the first reason why I blog less frequently than I did 5 years ago. Back in 2009 it seemed that the internet was quite interested in the proto-scholarship offered up by the academic blog. There was an excitement there of seeing new scholarship take shape right before our eyes. And Michael Newman, a media studies professor writing about this same topic on his own personal (neglected) blog, zigzigger, explains:

 People mixed personal and professional. They’d get first-persony and confessional even in efforts at engaging with intellectual concerns. They’d make the blog as much about process as product. No one was editing or reviewing your blog, so it had a raw immediacy missing from more formal writing. 

Newman notes the rise of academic blog collectives (like Antenna), a move which has, for better or worse, worked to legitimize the process of academic blogging:

As blogs become more legitimate and serve these more official functions, they seem less appropriate for the more casual, sloppy, first-drafty ponderings that made the format seem vital in the first place.

This has certainly been true for me. I often find myself starting to write a post and then abandoning it for it’s lack of intellectual “rigor.” I second guess my posts more often now, worrying that they might be too frivolous, too self-indulgent, too weird. But of course, that’s what my blog has always been. It just seems like that sort of casual, stream-of-consciousness style writing is less acceptable now among academics. Or maybe everyone is just bored with it.

Justin Horton, an ABD who has been blogging since 2012, has noticed an overall decrease in the numbers of posts coming out of personal blogs. He tells me:

Personal blogs have been diminished by other web spaces (Antenna, etc), but there is still a place for them, and oddly, it seems be occupied by very young scholars (who haven’t gotten their names out there) and senior scholars whose names are widely known and have a built-in audience (I’m think of Bordwell, Steven Shaviro, and so forth).

Years ago it seemed like blogs represented the next wave of academic scholarship: short bursts of freeform thinking published immediately and set in dialogue with other robust online voices. But blogging has not yielded the legitimacy many of us hoped for. While I still put my blog in my tenure file, citing (what I believe to be) its value, I understand that my department’s personnel committee does not view it as a major component of my research, teaching or service (the holy trifecta of academic values), even though it has greatly contributed to all three. So without institutional legitimacy or scholarly engagement, what purpose does the academic blog hold today? Has its moment passed?

I had a chat, via Facebook message, with three fellow aca-bloggers — the aformentioned Michael Newman, Kristen Warner of Dear Black Woman, and  Alyx Vesey, of Feminist Music Geek — to get some answers. I’ve pasted our discussion below:

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Kristen started things off, by addressing the rise of the so-called “critic culture”:

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Editor’s note: I really really love Google books.

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Editors’s note: here is a link to Kristen’s post on Jessica Pare.

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Editor’s Note: Alyx is referring to Myles McNutt, of Cultural Learnings (and the AV Club and my heart).

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 No, the slow disappearance of the personal aca-blog isn’t exactly a crisis — not like the academic job market crisis, or the humanities crisis, or the crisis in higher education. But the downtick in blogging in my field does give me pause because I see real value in the kind of intellectual work performed on blogs. Posts are loose, topical, and invite others to join in. They’re accessible in a way that academic journal articles usually are not. And unlike the think pieces and recaps I most frequently read online (and which I enjoy), personal blog posts are rarely subjected to the rabid feeding frenzy of misogyny, racism and obtuseness that characterizes so many comment sections these days. The personal blog affords a certain level of civility and respect. If we disagree with each other — and we often do, thank God — we’re not going to call each other cunts or trolls or worse. At least not in public for everyone to see. We’re…classy.

So while my blogging has slowed, I’m not quite ready to give up on the platform yet. I still think there’s value in this mode of intellectual exchange — in the informality, the speed with which ideas can be exchanged, and, of course, the gifs.

So, what do you think (all 10 readers who are still reading)? Is the aca-blog dead? Does it matter? Did you like my gifs? Comment below. And please don’t call me a cunt.

Teaching this Old Horse some New Teaching Tricks

Me, inspiring my students (from fanpop.com)

Me, inspiring my students
(from fanpop.com)

This semester I have experimented a lot with my teaching and classroom policies. While implementing new policies certainly adds more work (and frustration) to an already busy semester, my hope is to find the right mix of assignments and policies so that ultimately, running my class is less work and less frustration. One policy I tried out was changing my approach to student absences. In the past my absence policy has been that students could miss 3 classes over the course of the semester with no penalty. After 3 absences, I deduct 10 points (aka, a full letter grade) from their final grades  for each additional missed class. Though I think this policy is quite generous, it created a lot of headaches for me. Students would be cavalier about missing classes early in the semester (missing 3 within the first 6 weeks of the semester) and then, when cold/flu season hit the campus (and it always does), they would miss even more classes and then beg forgiveness. I once had a student  show up in my class looking like the Crypt Keeper. When I asked her why she came to class when she was clearly very ill and contagious she said that she had used up all of her absences and didn’t want to fail my class. Another student showed up to class drunk (very drunk)  for the same reason. This led me to become the “absence judge, jury and executioner”: I would have to determine  how the student would make up the additional absences in a way that was fair to the students who did the work and  showed up every day . I also had to determine which truant students would have an opportunity to make up their absences. Does a sick aunt warrant missing 3 additional classes? What about a really bad break up? A court date?

Me, dealing with truancy from liketotally80s.com

Me, dealing with truancy
from liketotally80s.com

This process is exhausting to describe and, I assure you, even more exhausting when experienced in real life. I have so much to do with my job and policing absences made me cuckoo-bananas. So this semester, after consulting with many other professors, I came up with a new plan. Students were still allowed to miss 3 classes without penalty. But then, I added this paragraph to my syllabus:

Students may “make up” missed classes by turning in a 4 page paper that describes, in detail, what was discussed in class during the missed day. This requires obtaining the notes of at least 2 classmates and piecing together the missed lecture/class discussion from these notes and from discussions with classmates (i.e., NOT me). If the missed class is a Tuesday, the paper should also discuss the reading assignment. If the missed class is a Thursday, the paper must discuss the week’s assigned film. This paper MUST be turned in within 2 weeks of the missed class. This is the ONLY way to “make up” a missed class. You must take care of obtaining notes from classmates on your own. After 2 weeks, the absence will be counted. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS POLICY.

This semester I had approximately 30 students and in that entire group, only 2 students missed more than 3 classes. One of the students missed many classes early on and took it upon himself to withdraw from my class. He actually apologized for his truancy and then said he hoped to try to take my class again in the future. There was no whining or pleading (and there usually is in these situations). He took responsibility for absences and removed himself from my classroom. I was actually shocked by how maturely my student handled the situation — it was kind of like interacting with a real adult! The 2nd student, who missed 4 classes, just turned in his make up paper. Again, this student did not attempt to make excuses for the classes he missed. He just turned in his paper and that was that. I say this because I have never had a semester at East Carolina University where students have attended classes so regularly. I could attribute this to the fact that I taught 2 upper-level seminars filled almost entirely with film minors who were invested in the class and its material — that probably helped. But I also think that having an absence policy that removed the weight of policing student attendance from my shoulders to their shoulders may have also helped. I also think that I have been making the mistake of coddling my students a bit too much. If I start treating them more like independent adults, they will act that way. Or at least, that is how it went down this semester.

The other change I made this semester was to the way I managed the students’ reading assignments. I had been finding that even in classes filled with my best students, there was a reading problem. That is, students weren’t doing the weekly reading assignments.

It got so bad last semester that I finally just asked my students point-blank “Why aren’t you reading?” And they told me. They felt the reading assignments were either too long or they didn’t see the need or value in reading them on the days when I didn’t go over the reading in detail in class ( in my day we did 50 pages of reading for a class, the professor didn’t discuss it with us and WE LIKED IT! but I digress….). So I listened to this feedback and changed things up. This semester I taught shorter essays (10-20 pages tops) and I also required the students to compose 3 tweets about the week’s reading and post them to Twitter every Monday, using the course hashtag. Here is an excerpt from the assignment I handed out at the beginning of the semester:

Guidelines for Twitter Use in ENGL3901

General Requirements

-You must post at least 3 tweets each week by 5pm every Monday (the earliest you may post is AFTER 5pm on the previous Monday)

For example:

-you must read the following short pieces by Jan 22 [Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “After the War,” pp. 436-443; Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “Transformation of the Hollywood System,” pp. 443-451]

so the tweets about that reading are due anytime BETWEEN 5pm on Jan 15th and 5pm on Jan 22

-You may do all 3 tweets in one sitting or spread them out over the course of a week

-All tweets MUST include the hashtag #E3901 so that the class (and your professor) will be able to see them

-All tweets must contain at least one substantial piece of information on or about the week’s reading assignment

As with the adoption of any new technology, there was a learning curve involved in using Twitter for classroom credit. Over half the students had never used Twitter before and therefore were not accustomed to its 140 character limit. I also had to send out weekly reminders for the first few weeks of class. But by the end of the semester I was surprised to see that the students kept up with this assignment and that they were actually processing the reading in useful ways. Being forced to take a complex idea and express it in 140 characters forces the student to engage with the material more deeply than if s/he had simply read the assignment and then put it down (or not read it at all!). I also think that having to account for their reading labor (and it IS labor) publicly — to the professor and to classroom peers — made the students realize the value and importance of the weekly reading assignments.

last semester

last semester

I actually wrote about this experience — as well as my experiences using blogs in the classroom — in a new short piece over at MediaCommons. If you’d like to learn more about the value of social media in the media studies classroom, you can click the link below. Please comment!

Click here to read “Mind Expanders and Multimodal Students”

So while instituting new policies has been time-consuming — both in planning, executing and documenting — overall, I am really happy with the results. I have a tendency to “mother hen” my students. I check in and remind them of deadlines, I poke and prod, and ultimately I wear myself out. I think I must wear them out too. Both the new absence policy and the incorporation of Twitter to encourage reading in the classroom has shifted some of those burdens from my shoulders to my students’ shoulders (where it belongs). This was most apparent when I realized that no one had emailed me this semester to explain why s/he had missed class and why I should count a particular absence as “excused” (in my class there is no such thing as an “excused” absence, unless the university tells me so).  I feel like students took more ownership of attendance and engagement with their reading assignments. When I teach a 100-person Introduction to Film course this fall (a course with a notoriously high absence rate and low reading engagement rate), I will be interested to see how these new policies work. Til then though, I am going to go ahead and give myself a soul clap:

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“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the HARRY POTTER Franchise

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

Cast of the A VERY POTTER MUSICAL and A VERY POTTER SEQUEL

This week I attended the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I decided to share the paper I presented there as part of the panel, “Affect in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling” on this blog in an effort to make research that was presented to just 20-25 people (not a bad turn out for one of the first panels of the 5 day conference!), available for a wider audience. My paper was originally titled “‘Falling in Love with Hermione Granger': Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise” but I ultimately did not have time to discuss the song, “Granger Danger” in this brief paper (a note that drew at at least one “Booooo!” from the audience when announced), so I changed the title for this post to reflect that omission.

To watch “Granger Danger” start at the 2 minute mark

Other than the title change and some added clips (yay internet!), the  paper below  is what I presented last Wednesday. I welcome any feedback.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

A screen shot of my panel from the SCMS 2014 conference program.

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“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise

I want to begin this discussion of affect in the transmedia franchise by discussing a scene from A Very Potter Musical, a full length stage musical written, directed and performed by a group of University of Michigan performing arts students and recorded and broadcast online via YouTube in 2009. The show has 14 original numbers and over 9 million page views. The scene you are about to watch is a recreation of a significant moment from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire –when Lord Voldemort finally reclaims a human body after more than 11 years of painful disembodiment. What is the first item on Voldemort’s evil agenda? Why, to dance of course!

Begin watching “To Dance Again!” at the 3 minute mark:

In this number Voldemort usefully describes how music can compel the body to dance, even when the brain rejects the idea:

“The other boys would laugh and jeer

But I’d catch em tappin their toes.

‘Cause when Id start to sway

they’d get carried away.

And oh, how the feeling grows…”

These lines—and the whole number for that matter, highlight the relationship between affect and music—how the compulsion to sing or dance is frequently pre-cognitive.

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

Joe Walker as Lord Voldemort

In “Serial Bodies,” Shane Denson defines affect as “the privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations.” Denson then goes on to cite Linda Williams’ famous essay on body genres,  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in which she argues that when watching horror films, pornography or melodramas, “the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body onscreen” (144). Though Williams makes a passing reference to musicals in her list of potential body genres, the musical is rarely discussed in terms of its relationship to affect. However, the instinct to sing or dance to a catchy tune is frequently takes place just before our conscious mind reminds us that such an impulse could lead to public humiliation.

I am also using affect in this talk to reference the very real emotional connections between fans and the texts they love. In fact, the syntax of the musical favors emotion in that the genre’s most valued characters are those who sing and dance because they love it so much–because the pure bliss of performance cannot be resisted. Those characters who sing and dance purely for money or who overthink their art are usually proven to be villains, or at the very least, in need of reformation.

For example, in The Bandwagon (1953), Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is only able to create a successful show when he stops aiming for “high brow” status and just makes a show filled with music and dance:

So what does a singing and dancing Lord Voldemort have to do with transmedia franchises and affect, the subject of today’s panel? By translating key plot events from the Harry Potter franchise into musical numbers, I am arguing that A Very Potter Musical transforms the fantasy franchise’s key opposition between good and evil to the musical’s own preoccupation with joie de vivre over monetary gain. In her study of Roswell fandom and genre in fan discourse, Louisa Stein argues that fans “use generic codes as points of identification with story and character, making fictional narratives and characters personally meaningful or resonant through processes of genre personalization” (2.4). Likewise for fans of the musical, A Very Potter Musical offers an affective entry point into the vast narratological universe of Harry Potter, making the franchise more personally meaningful. This is not to say that Potter films and books don’t generate affect in their audiences, but rather that the structures of the musical create new opportunities for affect among Potter fans (and of course, for Potter fans who dislike musicals, AVPM will not provide any form of engagement because they won’t seek it out).

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As a transmedia franchise that includes 7 novels, 8 blockbuster films, a Disney theme park, toys, videogames and countless other product tie-ins, Harry Potter fandom is necessarily broad, heterogeneous, and expressed through a range of media platforms: thousands of fan-created websites, newsletters, slash, conventions, a thriving genre of Harry Potter­-themed rock music known as “wrock,” and even an activist group known as the Harry Potter Alliance. A Very Potter Musical, which seems to straddle the spaces between fan fiction, wrock, and possibly even filk, disguises its budget limitations with winking musical performances, self reflexivity, and the unabashed passion of its actors. Fan love fills in production gaps and adorns the visible seams of this otherwise amateur production. The lengths that fans will go to express their adoration for a beloved text have been well-documented by fan studies scholars like Henry Jenkins, who describes fan fiction as “a celebration of intense emotional commitments and the religious fervor that links fandom to its roots in fanaticism” (251). Thus for scholars of fan studies, AVPM is nothing new. However, for a scholar of film genres like myself, the show is quite useful for understanding the role that genre—specifically the musical–plays in the relationship between fandom, transmedia franchises and affect.

Watch Darren Criss (Harry Potter) and Joey Richter (Ron Weasley) perform “Goin Back to Hogwarts” with some fans. Note the moment when the fans chime in at the 55 second mark and Darren Criss’ reaction:

One way that AVPM creates an intimate relationship between fan and text is by transforming the multibillion dollar Harry Potter transmedia franchise—the ultimate form of mass culture–back into folk culture. Whereas folk art is an expression of the community who is also its audience, mass art is disseminated to its audience already made, articulating its values for them. However, as so many fan studies scholars have noted, fan fiction allows fans to convert mass culture back into folk culture. I would add that by explicitly relying on the syntax and semantics of the musical, AVPM is even more adept at creating the sense that mass art is folk art. Jane Feuer argues that: “In basing its value system on community, the producing and consuming functions served by the passage of musical entertainment from folk to popular to mass status are rejoined through the genre’s rhetoric” (3).

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For example, film musicals often offer up images of the diegetic audience to compensate for the “lost liveness” of the stage, serving as a serving as a stand in for the film audience’s subjectivity (27). Many Hollywood musicals include a diegetic audience that cues the non-digetic audience in about how to feel about a performance—if they clap and cheer, the performance was successful. If they sit silently in their seats, the performance was a bust. A similar effect is created when watching the streaming video of the live stage performance of AVPM. As you heard in the “To Dance Again!” number, the laughter, applause, and hoots of appreciation stemming from the live, diegetic audience solidifies the non-diegetic audience’s understanding that these low budget performances are, in fact, successful — even when it is difficult to hear some of the actors’ lines and jokes are lost. This is especially important for something broadcast over the internet, since most viewers of AVPM are likely watching on their computer screens, alone. The diegetic audience thus serves as a viewing companion, reassuring us about when to laugh or applaud.

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Likewise, Feuer argues that many musicals include characters who are not supposed to be professional singers and dancers but who instead sing and dance for the love of it. This use of “amateurs” gives us the feeling that stars are singing and dancing on screen because they love to, not because they are being paid to do so. By masking this professionalism, the musical’s performers are closer to us, the amateurs in the audience. AVPM offers a similar experience, only the performers we are watching really are amateurs in that the show itself is a labor of love rather than a profit-generating venture.

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This feeling is bolstered by the show’s shoddy production values. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the evil Lord Voldemort attempts to revive his body by attaching what little remains of his soul to the simpering Professor Quirrell. In the book, and even more so in the film adaptation, this melding of two men—skull to skull–is a horrifying spectacle. However, in AVPM the inability to create a CGI monster and the need to improvise becomes one of the show’s best gags.

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We marvel, not at Rowling’s fantastical prose nor at the wonders of CGI, but at the cleverness of the students who have put on this show.

Watch the big reveal here:

When watching AVPM the amateurish costumes and sets, the imperfect sound and image quality, and the occasional mistakes, lets us know we know we are watching Harry Potter fans who are just like us—rather than seasoned professionals. Such moments work, to quote Feuer again, to “pierce through the barrier of the screen” (1). So while AVPM is not spontaneous (clearly it was rehearsed and well though-out), its imperfections create the feeling of spontaneity, which is so central to the task of making mass art appear as folk art. Furthermore, Glen Creeber argues that the rawness of online video and the solitary viewing conditions it generates creates a sense of intimacy and authenticity not found in cinema or television. He argues that the “homemade” aesthetic of webcam images creates the “profound intimacy of the image” (598).

Watch Harry Potter face off with a Hungarian Horntail at the 1 minute mark:

In addition to creating intimacy between fan and text, A Very Potter Musical—due to the genre’s focus on the joys of song–creates an affective relationship between viewer and text. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament leads him to engage in battle with a Hungarian Horntail, a fierce breed of dragon. Harry ultimately defeats the Horntail with his exceptional broom-flying skills. And in the film adaptation, we get to see this fantastical scene come to life through the magic of CGI. However, in AVPM, Harry defeats the dragon by summoning his guitar, not his broom, and then by performing an emo ballad about the futility of hand-to-hand combat entitled “Hey Dragon”.

Watch the number here:

The song concludes with the lyrics:

“I can’t defeat thee

So please don’t eat me

All I can do

Is sing a song for you.”

The dragon is eventually lulled to sleep by Harry’s song. Harry thus relies on the power of music—rather than magic—to win a seemingly insurmountable challenge. So while this musical number is a practical way to disguise the absence of state of the art special effects, it also highlights the way that music can impact the body, turning a fierce dragon into a purring kitten. The consumption of spectacle is a pleasure central to the Potter franchise but in AVPM these are replaced with the pleasures of musical performance.

 Like most examples of fan fiction, AVPM also highlights aspects of the Potterverse that may not be apparent in the novels, films and officially licensed paratexts, but which fans desire. For example, in the books, secondary character Ginny Weasley is defined almost entirely in relation to her older brother, Ron, and her love interest, Harry. Likewise, Ginny’s romantic relationship with Harry is primarily understood through Harry’s point of view. For example, in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Rowling describes Harry’s budding feelings for Ginny in this way:

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Likewise, the films cue us in to Harry’s desires via longing close ups or by frequently putting Ginny in a position to be rescued by Harry. This is such a prevalent plot twist, in fact, that wrock band Harry and the Potters wrote a song about it:

The fan knows little of Ginny’s interiority, other than through bits of dialogue or the occasional longing glance at Harry:

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In AVPM, however, Ginny performs the torch song “Harry,” which puts a literal and metaphoric spotlight on what it feels like to be in love with the Boy Who Lived.


Watch “Harry” here, performed by Ginny Weasley (Jaime Lyn Beatty)

Ginny’s moving performance, in which she dances awkwardly with Harry’s guitar—a proxy for her absent love object—provides a renewed emotional connection with this secondary character. And Ginny’s performance—which is passionate but imperfect as she struggles to hit her big notes—creates an affective relationship with this character that may not have been possible when watching the Potter films. The goosebumps that appear on my arms as Ginny sings, are a testament to the way that music generates an affective viewing experience.

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Here again we can see how the choice of genre—the musical—allows Potter fans an entry point into the transmedia franchise that is personal and intimate. Indeed, there are numerous covers of “Harry” on YouTube, a testament to the way that AVPM allows Potter fans a different, more embodied way, to express their fandom.

Watch my favorite fan covers of “Harry” here:

One thing all of these performances share is a nervous, almost giddy, sense of joy—we can trace the joy expressed in the original AVPM performance as it is then translated and transmuted through each fan video—a domino effect of pure love. Likewise, the comments on each video are generally supportive, with the Potter fan community coming together to support each new iteration of the original fan text.

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In this way, AVPM fandom appears to mimic that of the wrock community. Suzanne Scott argues that wrock, unlike filk, “mimics a conventional performer/audience dialectic rather than a collective creative enterprise when performed.”

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Although there is a separation between performer and audience here, I believe that the significance of AVPM lies in the affective relationships it facilitates between fan and text, even if the text’s various performers are performing online with one another, as opposed to face to face in a filk song circle.

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 In conclusion, A Very Potter Musical translates the fan’s love of the Harry Potter storyworld and its characters into a series of musical numbers that fans can then sing themselves. By depicting bodies that must express themselves through song and dance, A Very Potter Musical is an ideal venue for understanding the importance of affect in fan fiction. AVPM demonstrates the way that mass culture can be transmuted back into folk culture, thereby offering fans of the transmedia franchise a personalized, emotional engagement.

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Works Consulted

Creeber, Glen. “It’s Not TV, it’s Online Drama: The Return of the Intimate Screen.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.6: (2011): 591-606

Denson, Shane. “Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television.” Media Initiative 22 Feb 2013 http://medieninitiative.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/serial-bodies/

Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical, 2nd Ed. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993.

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. “‘Cultural Acupuncture': Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” In “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0305.

——-. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

———. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005.

Scott, Suzanne. “Revenge of the Fan Boy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.” Diss. University of Southern California, 2011. Online.

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2008. “Emotions-Only” versus “Special People”: Genre in fan discourse. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/43.

Tatum, Melissa L. 2009. “Identity and authenticity in the filk community.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0139.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” The Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 141-159.

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part III: Social Media

Earlier this week I posted “Part I: Television” and “Part II: Memes” of “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012′ List Ever.” There doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for these highly idiosyncratic “Best Of” lists that I’ve been producing BUT I’m the kind of gal who likes to finish what she starts, so today I present Part III of my list:

Best of Social Media

You thought this post was going to be about Pinterest, didn’t you? Wasn’t 2012 the year of Pinterest? And really, I should be the target consumer for Pinterest since, according to MediaBistro, 97% of Pinterest users are female. And I’m a female. But after just a few weeks of heavy use back in March, I stopped using my Pinterest account all together. Simply put, I found it overwhelming. So many crafts to make, so many recipes to try, so many quick and easy ways to “do it yourself!” and “make your own.” I want someone else to “do it” and I want to “buy my own.” Pinterest just made me feel bad about myself — which is, apparently, a common complaint about Pinterest. So, no, this post is not about Pinterest. All of you crafty go-getters and DIY-ers need to pick up your homemade Christmas ornaments and old timey cold remedies and go elsewhere.

My favorite social media this year is Facebook Groups. Now, I know, I know, Facebook introduced its “Groups” feature  way back in October of 2010. But remember folks, this is my list. I do what I want. Facebook Groups qualifies for my “Best of 2012″ list because it was not until 2012 that I began to use Groups in earnest and realized the potential of this excellent social media feature. If you have not used this function, it’s very simple: Facebook Groups allows you to start a group (on say, “bird watching” or “rabble-rousing”) and then invite select individuals to join you there. You can make the group private or public and can give those you invite the option to invite others to join as well.  Prior to 2012 I was not involved in any Facebook groups. Now I belong to nine:

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All of these Groups address different needs in my life and contain different users. For example “Greenville” is a venue for members to post questions and announcements pertaining to the city of Greenville (aka, the town where I live). Here people ask for recommendations for house painters, doctors, and babysitters, or post about Greenville-related events. Sadly, this is the least active group to which I belong — mostly because it is small and many of the users are not active social media users (so they don’t see posts or think to respond to them) and because Greenville is the place where fun goes to die (so why should its FB Group be any different?). I also belong to a Group for my children’s school and for a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and wanted a private space in which to update her friends and family about her treatments and prognoses. There are so many uses for this feature.

The most active Groups to which I belong were started by my fellow social media addicts — those who keep tabs on when fellow Group members make posts and engage them in conversation. For example, my all-time favorite FB Group experience from the past year was Skirthathon 2012. For those who do not reside in my small corner of the internet, Skirtathon is the brain child of Dr. Kristen Warner and its premise is simple: wear a skirt or dress every weekday for the entire month of April. For Skirtathon to work, the participants must announce what they are wearing each day to the group. That way, we can keep tabs on each other and shame one another for failures “to skirt” (sample excuses include: “Too tired” and “It’s raining.”). When I participated in Skirtathon 2011, we relied primarily on a Twitter hashtag (#Skirtathon2011) to track each other’s outfits. But I will admit that I often felt a little sheepish posting photos or outfit descriptions to my entire Twitter feed. Though it shouldn’t, it made me feel (like others would feel) that I was frivolous or shallow, a “silly girl.” That’s why this year’s Skirtathon was so much better — this time we had our own private FB Group where participants could not only post photos of their outfits, but the rest of us could comment on these outfits and even provide links to the stores where they were purchased. There was much ooo-ing and ahh-ing and skirt-envy in these comment threads.

Me, skirting in my office.

Me, skirting in my office.

As the month went on, the women participating in Skirthaton became increasingly creative and bold, not just in their outfit choices but also in the backdrops and poses used in photos. Suddenly, we were all living in our own personal Anthropologie editorial photo spreads. We also posed with our dogs, cats, babies and even our very large (and very beautiful) pregnant bellies. Even though many of the women using the Group had never met each other in real life (some had not even met via social media prior to joining the Group), everyone gamely commented on each other’s outfits, accessories, and artful use of lighting. I loved seeing a woman I know only because she is the friend of a woman I know through Twitter telling one of my childhood best friends how adorable her son is. It sounds forced but it wasn’t. This is going to sound incredibly cheesy but I’m going to go ahead and say it: this group made me feel beautiful and empowered. Go on and laugh, cynics. But I hold fast to this truth: Skirtathon reminded me that I can love a good sale, a well-placed belt, and a patterned stocking and still be an excellent and serious scholar. I’m every woman, it’s all in meeeeeee. Below are some of my favorite images from this past spring’s Skirtathon (used here with each lady’s permission):

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(For more on Skirtathon, check out Kelli Marshall’s post here)

Another FB Group I joined and loved this year was an online book club entitled “Fancy Ladies Book Club.” There was a little bit of secrecy surrounding this book club (for example, this In Media Res post discussing one woman’s participation in the book club was written anonymously for fear of tenure-related repercussions) since the club was formed in order to read E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey. But let me be perfectly clear: I was and still am a member of the Fancy Ladies Book Club. In fact, I gave the Fancy Ladies Book Club its “fancy” name as a subterfuge so folks wouldn’t know we were really reading mommy porn. Wasn’t that clever of me? A private group was perfect for such an endeavor since we all wanted to be able to speak as freely (and crassly) as the material warranted. Since completing 50 Shades of Grey (which culminated in a live, somewhat drunken reading at a bar this summer when a few of the Fancy Ladies found themselves at a conference together), we have also read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. In all cases our conversations were alternately funny, smutty, smart, and enlightening. I am hoping we read Louise Erdich’s The Round House in January and that I can continue to read and learn from this community of brilliant women.

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Finally, the most recent addition to my FB Groups list is also the most useful (not that dishing about erotic fiction and skirts isn’t useful too. But those Groups don’t impact my job). Approximately 2 months ago, Erin Copple Smith, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Austin College, started a FB Group called “Teaching Media.” Unlike the previous groups I just mentioned, “Teaching Media” is an “open group.” This means that posts to this group will appear in the poster’s FB feed and that members can invite others to join. The group now boasts 251 members and has, at least for me, been an invaluable resource for answers to questions I have had about the ins and outs of teaching a media studies-based curriculum.

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While Twitter has also been a great resource for me in terms of crowdsourcing information on syllabus building as well as my own personal research (I have detailed why here), the 140 character limit can be, well, limiting when trying to get an answer to a question that is nuanced and requires a more than a single sentence to explain. Furthermore, the “Teaching Media” page serves as an archive of sorts that Group members can return to a few days, weeks, or months after the original discussion took place (this is much more difficult to do with Twitter). In the two months since the Group has been online I have asked about: how fellow instructors use Twitter in the classroom, what kinds of absence policies have worked (and not worked), and about how to handle the possibility of inappropriate audience commentary at a student-hosted screening of The Room. I have also snapped up innumerable tips for future assignments (yes, Tony Bleach, I will be playing the “genres game” you described on the first day of my spring class, “American Film Genres: Then & Now”). What is great about this Group is that people really do respond — and quickly at that — to queries. Furthermore, they respond in detail (i.e., more than 140 characters), often offering links and examples. As someone who works at a university where there is only one other film studies-trained faculty member (Hi Anna!), I often feel like I have only one person (albeit a great person) to turn to when I have pedagogical questions specific to my field. But the “Teaching Media” group has gifted me an entire 250-person (and counting) department of smart, creative, highly engaged teachers. At any hour of the day, any day of the week (except, I guess, for the day after tomorrow, which is “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” when the world ends), I can get an answer to my teaching-related questions. Even flesh and blood colleagues can’t offer that kind of support. When I read about the innovative assignments, in-class exercises, and curricula being used by professors all over the world, I am motivated to be a better teacher. I am, in fact, becoming a better teacher.

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By now you may have noticed that 2 out of my 3 favorite Facebook Groups are populated exclusively by women and primarily by women who work in academia. I don’t think this is accidental.  Although the demographics of the Ivory Tower have changed a lot in recent years, it is still, in many ways, an “old boys’ club.” By that I mean: female academics are less comfortable with traditional modes of networking and often have trouble with promoting themselves aggressively as someone worth knowing. As Zdenka Šadl explains:

The academic institutions of higher education, where men dominate (both in terms of number and hierarchy) and act to prevent women from fully participating in and integrating into formal and informal networks, are prime examples of homosocial institution [Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi 2000; Fogelberg et al. 1999; Gupta et al. 2004; Hearn 2004; Husu 2004]. Academics generally establish informal connections on the basis of the principle of gender homophily. However, it is predominantly men who form social networks – male academics give support to their male colleagues. Husu [2001] reports that many senior women interviewed in her study observed that their male colleagues supported each other through ‘old boy’s networks’. These networks, also referred to as the ‘invisible college’, [O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990] involve informal power groups whose members are in a position to make (implicit) decisions about the academic rank, status, and position of an academic. Academic women are often excluded from academic networks, and this often puts them at a disadvantage [Kaufman 1978; O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990; Toren 1991; Vazquez-Cupeiro and Elston 2006].

(you can read the full article here)

These Facebook Groups have provided me with a welcoming intellectual community in which I feel free to discuss my love of clothing as easily as I discuss the weird blend of feminism and misogyny found in Junot Diaz’s novels. I feel like I have joined my own “invisible college” and it has improved my enjoyment of academic conferences and academic life immensely. I feel supported by these women in my field — I feel like they have my back. I know I have theirs.

On a side note, if you found this post interesting or would like to discuss it further in a [gasp!] face to face format, I am happy to say that a group of smart young female scholars will be discussing these various issues in a workshop entitled “Gender, Networking, Social Media, and Collegiality” at next year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I think it’s going to be fabulous.

In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear about your favorite social media site or tool that made your 2012 better. Please share below.

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part II: Memes

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Over the weekend I posted Part I of  “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012′ List Ever,” focusing on why I think Wilfred is the best, or at least the most unusual and innovative, television show of 2012.  I then promised threatened to continue to devote posts to “Best Film,” “Best Meme,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” of 2012. That list was ambitious, particularly since I am going on a long vacation in a few days. I’ve realized I may not get to cover everything promised in my first post before 2013 hits (when you will promptly stop caring about “Best of 2012″ lists). But as the kids say, YOLO! Let’s move forward as best we can:

I present Part II of my “Best of 2012″ list:

Best Internet Meme

It’s hard to select the best meme of 2012. There are so many and, like all trends, when they hit big they are all-consuming. Then the next meme comes along and we forget. Meme enthusiasts are fickle lovers. For example, all summer long I was enamored with “Mikayla is Not Impressed,” a meme that originated in a photograph taken  of gymnast Mikayla Maroney just after she won a  silver medal in the Women’s Vault Final at the 2012 summer Olympics. Maroney was the favorite to win this particular event, so when the following photograph was taken, many assumed the gymnast was “not impressed” with her silver medal:

Mikayla is not impressed with this blog post.

Mikayla Maroney is not impressed with this blog post.
Source:
Reuters

As much as I love “Mikayla is Not Impressed,” the principal behind it is one-dimensional. Take something that should be impressive —  like the Mars Rover or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden — and then photoshop Maroney’s unsmiling face into the image to denote that this event isn’t all that impressive after all.  Maroney’s recognizability, combined with the ease of the iteration (take photograph, add Maroney, no caption necessary), made this meme very easy to create, disseminate, and understand. Even my children (who are 3 and 6 years-old) understood the humor of “Mikayla is not Impressed” and frequently asked to scroll through the meme’s Tumblr.  In fact, the meme has so permeated my home that when one of my children does something that displeases me, all I need to do is scrunch up my mouth and cross my arms and my daughter will say “Why are you ‘not impressed’?” (true story). However, the moment that Mikayla Maroney and President Obama posed together while making the “not impressed” face, the meme effectively came to an end. It was fabulous to see our Commander-in-Chief embracing contemporary internet culture but where could a meme about being “not impressed” go after such an impressive photo op?

Another meme I have greatly enjoyed this year is “One Tiny Hand.” Like “Mikayla is Not Impressed,” “One Tiny Hand” does not require any text to make meaning. Its humor — or rather its horror — is based on seeing a famous person with “one tiny hand.” I enjoy this meme because it performs like a game of “Where’s Waldo.” You know a tiny hand is lurking somewhere in the photo. Sometimes it is foregrounded, as it is in the image of Kim Jong Il below. But sometimes, when there are multiple people in the image, it takes some time to locate the tiny appendage. The jouissance of this meme lies in the sudden discovery of the tiny hand.

Wait for it, wait for it, BOOM!

Wait for it, wait for it, BOOM!
Source: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/one-tiny-hand

Other 2012 favorites:

source:http://imgur.com/pD1KV

Inappropriate Timing Bill Clinton
source:
http://imgur.com/pD1KV

While I love all of the above memes, they are fairly straight forward image macros: take a stock image and add some text to make comedy gold. Likewise, the joke behind each of these popular 2012 memes is always the same: Grumpy Cat and Mikayla hate/are not impressed by everything they should love/be impressed by; Drunk Baby says things a drunk old man would say if he were actually a little baby; Bad Luck Brian can’t seem to do anything right; and  Inappropriate Timing Bill Clinton just wants to have sex.

My pick for Best Meme of 2012 is based on the fact that it has been able to grow and evolve into different iterations, possibly because it has been around since 2007: the “Yo Dawg” or “Sup Dawg” meme. Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, that meme has been around since 2007? Then how can it be on your “Best of 2012″ list?  Great question, my intrepid reader. But, I prefer to think of memes the same way we think of television series. 30 Rock may have premiered in 2006, but the show’s writers have produced new seasons every year (some better than others). Similarly, the “Yo Dawg” meme came into existence in 2007, but  it has continued to grow and change over the years, existing in several different iterations. Its dual structure — based on recursivity and the smiling face of a man — has proved fertile ground for innovation. In its most basic form (pictured below), the meme features an image macro of rapper/actor/ TV host, Xzibit (née, Alvin Nathaniel Joiner), smiling and claiming to know what the addressee (aka, “yo dawg”) “likes” (a car, a kitchen, a rocket ship) and then promising to give that person an even better version of the coveted object.

In order to get the humor of this meme in its original form, you need to remember that Xzibit hosted the MTV reality series, Pimp My Ride from 2004-2007. In the series,  car owners  in the Los Angeles area were given the opportunity to have their old, broken down cars completely rebuilt (inside and out) and outfitted with luxury features ranging from leather seats and LED lights to TV screens and (yes) fish tanks. These extravagant touches were usually an homage to the car’s owner, like the  surfer whose VW bus was outfitted with a clothes dryer  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pimp_My_Ride).  When presenting the lucky car owner with his new, personally customized ride, Xzibit would point out each of the added features. showcased by MTV’s frenetic cinematography and editing. The original meme plays on Xzibit’s signature voice overs (“Yo Dawg, I heard you like X, so I put X in your X so you can Y while you Y”).

Note: Couldn’t find a clip of Xzibit presenting a newly pimped car, but this episode (hosted by fat Joe) offers the template. Go to the 9.25 mark

This version of the meme always features the same image of Xzibit,  taken from a “set of studio portraits that were originally used to promote the 2006 sports drama film Gridiron Gang, in which the rapper plays the role of a minor character named Malcolm Moore” (www.knowyourmeme.com). One of the three images pictured below always serve as part of the image macro.

This image, much like Xzibit’s persona on Pimp My Ride, presents the celebrity as a figure of altruism. His smile, which is just on the verge of a hearty laugh, is inviting and generous. Therefore, when Xzibit claims to know what you, dawg, really likes, it feels loving. In this way, the “Yo Dawg” meme mirrors the popular Ryan Gosling-centered “Hey Girl” meme. Particularly in its feminist iteration, the “Hey Girl” meme is all about turning the Goz into the meme-makers’ own movable Ken doll. Talk about the male gaze, Ryan! Say “interpellate,” Ryan!  Mmmm. Yes, Ryan, yessssss. Instead of making sweet, sweet love to Rachel McAdams, the Goz is speaking my language, which is almost as good as making sweet, sweet love to him. Almost.

Likewise, the appeal of the Xzibit meme, at least initially, is that after pimping so many rides for so many years, Xzibit is now going to pimp something for you.  As I discussed in a post about memes last year, so many memes are based on a certain amount of cruelty (something or someone is being laughed at). But the “Yo Dawg” meme is based on affection: I heard you like this, so I am going to give that thing that you like, along with a smaller version of that thing inside of the bigger version of that thing. For example:

My personal favorite of the standard variation.

My personal favorite of the standard variation.

According to KnowYourMeme.com, the “Yo Dawg” meme is “recursive.” That is, the standard version of the meme relies on nested images — one image contains a smaller version of itself, which contains a smaller version of itself, which contains a smaller version of itself, etc. While the “yo yo” example featured above does rely on an invented  image, generally this meme is funniest when the image is a found object:

As the meme evolved,  the text of the original is no longer necessary. Just the presence of Xzibit lets us know that the object we are looking at is recursive:

By 2009 the meme was so widespread that Xzibit himself was frustrated with it. He tweeted the following on February 27th of that year:

My guess is that Xzibit wanted to distance himself from his Pimp My Ride days, and resume his rapping career. I would also imagine that, at least in 2009, Xzibit might not have realized the power of social media — if he had, he would have known not to tell his followers/meme-makers to commit suicide via a public Twitter account. It’s futile to try to control the internet, Mr. Xzibit; one can only throw oneself at its feet in supplication. Indeed, that is exactly what Xzibit did:

The most recent examples of “Yo Dawg,” appearing in 2012, are premised, not on recursivity, but on Xzibit’s infectious smile. In this iteration of the meme, Xzibit is depicted in a series of vertical, multi-panel image macros, a structure meant to be read like a comic book (only from top to bottom rather than left to right), in which his solemn expression is proven to be unsustainable:

The version of the meme below combines sad-to-happy Xzibit with “Happy Motorcycle Dog,” a meme that first appeared in December 2011, further proving the adaptability of the Yo Dawg meme:

Thus, the contemporary iteration of “Yo Dawg” is almost completely different from its standard, recursive version.  The semantics of the meme (smiling Xzibit) are divorced from their original syntax (Xzibit likes recursive imagery!) and instead become a meme in their own right (Xzibit can’t stop smiling!). Here we see memes functioning in a manner similar to that of film genres and cycles, which are able to take familiar imagery and use them for different purposes. It is this complexity and adaptability that makes this particular meme my favorite of 2012.

So now I must ask: what are your favorite memes of 2012 and why?

The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part I: Television

Thank you, http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-playlists-top-10-tv-shows-of-the-2011-2012-season-20120613

Thttp://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-playlists-top-10-tv-shows-of-the-2011-2012-season-20120613

Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the  “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of”  lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.

You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.

So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012″ list:

Best Television Series

FX's WILFRED

FX’s WILFRED

2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finalein which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.

Dog smoking cigarette = win

While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks. 

“Can you hear it?”  “No, ma’am, I cannot.”

The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred.  Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead  (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A  PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):

In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy.  I often read about how shows like  Louie  and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to  see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.

images

Bear!

Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course,  every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?

Bruce, aka, Ryan's sanity

Bruce, aka, Ryan’s sanity

Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna,  he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,”  Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course).  Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.

Ryan's hopes for true love are dashed in Season 2 of WILFRED

Ryan’s hopes for true love are dashed in Season 2 of WILFRED

But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.

Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).

Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), Wilfred's owner and Ryan's love interest.

Jenna, Wilfred’s owner and Ryan’s love interest.

And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 12.41.56 AM

Learning is fun!

The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:

And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?

I will be posting my  “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!