Things I find interesting, and questions I have about digital media.
Appropriately, I will count off the things I find interesting about digital media on my fingers, because I like bad puns involving digits.
(photo credit: frankieleon. https://flic.kr/p/hSQ2a5 used under Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode )
A picture is worth…
I find storytelling through pictures compelling, and think of some iconic photos like Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl or Nick Ut’s 1972 Napalm Girl. But photos like those were in print media – National Geographic and AP News, respectively. They were professional photographers, who had editors as gatekeepers and monitors of history. Anyone with a cell phone can take a photo, but how can the still images be as compelling when there are millions of photographers and no editors? While some photos go viral, they are usually something akin to Ellen at the Oscars or Kim Kardashian attempting to “break the internet.” Where are the compelling single images?
One place I’ve found these images is in my Facebook feed. A friend of mine has an autistic son (we’ll call him Adam) and while I’ve read a lot about autism, and I read about the victories and the struggles (he likes to draw on any surface – driveway with chalk, basement walls with crayon, couch with Sharpie), her pictures help me see her world as she’s living it. Her son compulsively draws boxes and lines, and if there seems to be an incomplete series of letters, he’ll complete it. That’s interesting, but perhaps not compelling. It’s not a breakthrough. I could go to her house and see (mostly) what she sees. But one day, the bus monitor let Adam play with his cell phone camera. And Adam took pictures. He took pictures of what he saw, and how he saw it. He took pictures of angles, and of boxes made of light, and repeating figures that would escape my notice if he hadn’t aimed the lens at it. He also took pictures of himself – making faces, smiling, frowning, trying to get inside his mouth. They were the most informative selfies I’ve ever seen. Adam is a child that processes the visual world a little differently than I do, and his photos helped me see that better than any book by Temple Grandin, or sensitivity training course.
As a librarian, I’m fairly used to asking myself, “so what does this have to do with libraries?” Our Writing Speaking and Argument Program at UR is encouraging its instructors to be “multi-modal” – to use different modes to facilitate student learning – not just lecture (or having students write), but visual examples (and creation, including videos, Prezi presentations), using audio in song or sound, among other methods. I could certainly act, as I often do, as a sounding board for students, and discuss how they might incorporate visual images into their presentations. Am I great at finding images? I’m not bad, but I’m no expert. But is that all there is? How can I better use images in my own presentations? Just today, a job candidate used a still image of Keanu Reeves (as Ted from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) with the word, “Whoa” underneath it. I immediately knew the reference, but more importantly, I knew this was a person with a good sense of humor, who wanted to convey that she herself was a little overwhelmed, but that she was savvy enough to use a character that wins in the end. I immediately knew it was cute but not gimmicky. She thought a lot about putting that image right at the beginning of her talk.
I’m not sure yet how I’ll use images in my classes or presentations, but I know more media is coming my way and I’d like to be a little more familiar with the images that are out there, how I might use them, and how I might help others to use them as well. I can imagine finding images that help students present their ideas in the way that little Adam’s photos enlightened me.
Digital texts – we can search them, we can count words, we can annotate, can we do philosophy with them?
Right now, I’m working with a graduate student in philosophy and we’ve been talking about how to “do” philosophy in a “digital humanities sort of way.” And part of those conversations have to do with all the fantastic information you can glean from digital texts, the ability to easily share notes and annotations, to find patterns of dispersal of ideas from one place to another, and generally get a lot of data about books and articles written by philosophers. One challenge we’re finding is that the nature of (western analytic) philosophy is to consider ideas, formulate arguments, and consider objections. Searchable digital texts, google ngrams (https://books.google.com/ngrams/info ), and other interesting ways to view information, like the InPho (Indiana Philosophy Ontology Project https://inpho.cogs.indiana.edu/ ) work with words but not with concepts and ideas. And how to use the big data (or even little data) to help answer the questions of philosophy isn’t obvious. We’ve found a lot of information that would be interesting to tell us about how philosophy is done, and perhaps why there are some long-standing problems with women leaving philosophy, but those are more closely linked to work in social science than philosophy.
While my graduate student and I might not have a breakthrough on a digital humanities project, I have been thinking about the “doing of philosophy” and how digital texts might further the goals of formulating ideas and arguments and considering objections. I’ve met many undergraduates who thought the formal methods of doing philosophy are unfamiliar and needlessly complex. These are often the same students who can tell me the many different tropes of zombies, what works to kill each, how they were formed, and what is “allowed” in a particular zombie-verse. They are very familiar with strict rule-based worlds, and also familiar with the need to define terms, give clear examples, and debate the finer points of applying rules to those instances. Which is, in many ways, what philosophers do.
I don’t know of any philosophy teachers who use digital texts to be a “playground” for comments and annotations, or for reddit-like subthreads to develop in the margins, but it seems like it could be a new way to see the process of philosophy happening in one place, and by allowing students to link to other texts from other philosophers or reference sources like Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/ ), the development of theories, and the (usually) needful complexity of rules might be shown to be organic and not made up out of whole cloth. One single academic philosophy paper could be worked on by groups for a span of days or weeks, and the teacher would have a record of how the students came to formulate objections, to interrogate the author and each other. I am entranced with the idea that the Socratic dialogue might come back to life as an asynchronous conversation in the infinite margins of a digital text.
Digital communication: Or, how I created an echo chamber and I really like it here (but maybe I shouldn’t)
I hadn’t given a lot of thought to twitter and blogs and other sorts of digital media as a way to further my role as a librarian. I read some blogs, listen to podcasts, and drop into twitter once and a while. And the blogs, podcasts and twitterfolk I follow are from different places in the world, and share a variety of different experiences. But they do mostly share a particular kind of progressivist outlook. They engage with other viewpoints, sometimes with an open mind, sometimes with outright satire. The librarians and library-related postings usually say really nice things about libraries and librarians, and the authors and literature-related postings are interesting and y’know, “really make you think.” I’m not one of the 73 million Katy Perry fans following her on twitter, and the blogs aren’t Hot Air (hotair.com), nor is the TeaPartyExpress.org on my to-listen list of podcasts.
I’ve tried purposefully to make my Facebook page into a safe place, one with only friends and family, and a place where I get to make the rules about the kinds of conversations I’ll have. Otherwise, it would be like opening my photo album to have Rush Limbaugh yelling at me. No thanks.
But I get news from twitter, and I get advice and ideas from blogs (ok, it’s apartmenttherapy.com, so sue me), and the podcasts I listen to most (like Radiolab) help me to see the world in a different way. When I’m advising a student to look for papers that disagree with her base assumptions, I nearly always share some anecdote about seeing “the whole picture” and not creating a ‘straw man’ argument from another author who may not be an honest reporter. Simply, the answer is yes. I can keep my Facebook echo chamber, and I need not follow dishonest, vapid, or cruel bloggers/podcasters/twitterfolk, but I could stretch a little more. It’s a big podcast-blogging-twitterverse out there. Almost as big as the real world. I might as well engage it a bit more.