Off You Go With a Manifesto


In the final lecture of my intro to graduate studies class on Monday night, I plan to send the students off with some inspiration and a call to action in the form of a manifesto. There seems to be renewed interest in the manifesto, attributable in part, I imagine, to a presumption that “radical” media have played some role in the uprisings in the Middle East and the Occupy movement.

I was a bit concerned that it might seem as if I’m trivializing this potent media form by using it to dispense advice to grad students — but I assured myself that a class dedicated to helping students identify who they are as scholars and practitioners, what values they subscribe to, and what kind of a field of study and practice they want to help cultivate, is inherently political — and is therefore perhaps deserving of its own manifesto, or at least something mildly “manifest-ish.”

Taking cues from numerous historical manifestos (the Communist and Futurist manifestos, Moholy-Nagy’s New Typography, Ken Garland’s First Things First Manifesto, Dogme 95, etc.) and some more recent examples (the Cult of Done Manifesto, the Information Visualization Manifesto, Bruce Mau’s Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, etc), and soliciting input from a bunch of my faculty colleagues and all my graduate-student instructors, I created what follows: the intriguingly titled A Sort-of Manifesto for Graduate Students in a Praxis-Based MA Program Who Have Just Completed Their First Semesters and Are Embarking Into the Great Beyond,” or, SMGSPBMAPWHJCTFSAEIGB, for short.

Damn, I need a new title. Nevertheless, here it is:

Think theory and practice together.

Consider theory a form of critical practice, and practice a means of “making” something with theory.

  • Resist the urge to declare yourself a “theory person,” a “production person,” or a “management person.” You’re more than that. Your brain doesn’t like to be pigeonholed.

Practice material consciousness.

Think about the affordances and limitations, the politics and aesthetics, the accessibility and flexibility, the built-in ideologies and epistemologies, of the media tools you have at your disposal, and choose wisely.

Consider the end-goals of your media making. When does your practice become scholarship?

Consider the possibilities of “multimodal scholarship” and the use of media technologies as research tools.

  • Practice constitutes research “if and only if it is (1) a systematic investigation, (2) conducted intentionally, (3) to acquire new knowledge, understanding, insights, etc., (4) justified, and (5) communicated, (6) about a subject” (Stephen A. R. Scrivener, “The Roles of Art and Design Process and Object In Research” In Nithikul Nimkulrat & Tim O’Riley, Reflections and Connections: On the Relationship Between Creative Production and Academic Research (Helsinki: University of Art and Design, 2009): 71).

Design your own challenges.

In undergrad, challenges were created for you. Now, you determine how, where, when, and to what degree you want to be challenged.

  • You could potentially get through by simply showing up for class, reading what’s listed on the syllabus, and handing in the required assignments, but what you’re implicitly expected to do is…

Learn in the interstitial spaces.

Only a small fraction of your grad school learning happens in a classroom. Only a portion is codified on a syllabus. The rest of it – the majority, perhaps – happens in the in-between spaces, which you map out and fill in. Take advantage of resources around the city. Visit faculty members’ office hours. Start a reading group. Attend conferences. Do other stuff.

Find your through-line.

And do work that connects to it.

  • “Writing an obligatory paper for Ideas that will end up in the trashbin the next day is of no use to anyone; Creating a paper or project that connects up to longer-term ambitions in the department and beyond makes sense. “ – Jessica Blaustein
  • Approach your course selection as if you’re concocting a “recipe” of courses — theory, practice, management — that can “react” with one another and add up to something more than the sum of the parts. — Dawnja Burris

Take the Long View  // “UMS and the M.A. aren’t the goals; you and your work are.” – Aron Hsiao  

via Peter Haratonik: “In teaching (and in learning, I might add — PH) you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” — Jacques Barzun (who turned 104 on Nov. 30, 2011)

  • “[Y[our other classes are merely means to help you to craft the passionate, practical, intellectually sound self and matching body of work and/or expertise that your M.A. will someday signify.” – Aron Hsiao
  • But keep in mind that it’s not all about you. As a “master” of your field, you do have some obligations to it, which is why you should…

Be curious about your field. All of it.

You’ll never know when the “irrelevant” will be relevant, or when you’ll discover an interest you never knew you had. Besides, as Masters of Media Studies, we do have an obligation to be familiar with the breadth of the field. I’m sure you wouldn’t rather that obligation be institutionalized in the form of comprehensive exams!

Be curious about things outside your field, too. 

Media of course operates as one of myriad forces in the larger social world. To understand media’s role in that world, you need to know more about those other forces, and the context within which they interact. Plus, media’s usually about stuff; you need to be familiar with those other fields that media take as their content.

  • “I constantly find new inspiration through reading outside the lines, as it were, and by talking to people who approach my topic out of different disciplines” – Katie Kelley. Particularly if you’re doing something interdisciplinary – that is, even outside the already very interdisciplinary space of our field of study – you have to be conversant with people and literature and methods and conventions in other fields. “I have also found that talking to people in other fields cements my certainty that I’m taking the right approach, and allows me to be reflective about why I’m doing [what I’m doing instead of something else,] even though all of those other fields enter into my approach – which in turn helps me be more acute in thinking about what defines my approach and what I’m trying to accomplish.” – Katie Kelley

Don’t wait passively for inspiration to strike — Sanja Trpkovic

Inspiration isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you have to actively seek out, and sometimes that means leaving your comfort zone.

“Mediation is not limited to media.” –Eugene Thacker

We may be surrounded by revolution, but we need to be wary of uncritical, sensational claims about media’s power. Avoid media imperialism or determinism.

“All media are new. Especially old media. (And vice-versa.)” – Eugene Thacker

Historicize. Realize that all the hopes and fears we have about today’s new media, our ancestors had about tv and film and books and writing.

There is a point; you just might need some help finding it.

If you’re unsure of why you’re learning something, or what a particular reading or exercise is intended to teach you, ask for some guidance, without resorting to righteousness or defensiveness.

  • “Pointless” is the perennial complaint of the chronically unimaginative.

A little humility goes a long way.

Even if you “know this already,” questioning your assumptions, reinforcing your understanding through new applications, can help to put your knowledge into new perspective – or might even reveal that you never really knew what you thought you knew in the first place.

  • “[I]n taking the decision to embark upon postgraduate work, you have:
    • Acknowledged that you don’t know something, which is why you want to do some research in order to learn and discover new things;
    • Assumed a position of humility – essential for learning anything;
    • A genuine desire to carry out the research to the best of your ability with integrity and honesty” (Gray & Malins, Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004): 69).

Rein it in.

It’s good to have big ideas, ambitious goals. But think about what you can feasibly accomplish with the time and resources you have. Consider how to partition a large-scale project into “modules” you can complete through several classes. Think about what part of your larger project is best accomplished within grad school – what would benefit most from your taking advantage of academic, advising, and technical resources here – and what should take place in your “extracurricular” or “after grad school” time?

Get used to talking about your work and your ideas in public.” – Brian McCormick

“Develop language you can use in presenting your work to different audiences. The importance of artist statements and the manner in which work is presented is critical to its success and reception.” – Brian McCormick

  • Brian Eno: “the lack of a clear connection between all that creative activity and the intellectual life of the society leaves the whole (creative) project poorly understood, poorly supported and poorly exploited. If we’re going to expect people to help fund the arts, whether through taxation or lotteries, then surely we owe them an attempt at an explanation of what value we think the arts might be to them.”
  • Same goes for academic work. Develop an “abstract version” and an elevator pitch version of your research goals. Think about how to translate your work on the page to a talk for the ear. Think about what type of presenter you want to be: a reader, an extemporizer, a performer, etc.
  • Cultivate your public persona.

Give credit where it’s due.

Keep an ongoing list of folks who’ve assisted with your work, and add “Acknowledgments” to published/distributed work.

  • Citation formatting might seem trivial, but it’s really not. For instance, it’s really important to know when and how to use “quoted in…”, to understand the differences between editors, authors, and translators, etc.

Help people help you.

If you need a favor or want assistance, make it easy for others to assist you.

  • Briefly introduce yourself, say what you want, and tell them why you think they’re particularly well equipped to help you (saying things like “I’ve found your work in XX very helpful,” and expressing genuine respect and appreciation, can’t hurt!).
    • “…there are some fundamental questions you need to answer before you ask someone for help: Why are you asking that particular person? Why should that person help you? And why now?” (Rachel Toor, “The Art of ‘the Ask’The Chronicle of Higher Education  (November 28, 2011))
    • Read faculty bios! – Christiane Paul; Read the syllabus! — Sanja Trpkovic + Many, Many Others
  • Ask specific questions; show that you’ve already done your homework, that you’ve already tackled part of the challenge on your own, but that you need the help of an expert to move you along those last few inches.
  • Check your tone. Make sure you’re framing your inquires as requests rather than demands.
  • “Be clear about what you want and make it easy for the recipient to comply. If you have a lot of general questions and rampant confusion, don’t write until you’ve done enough homework to be able to narrow the focus of your request. You shouldn’t start by going to scarce resources; that should come only after you’ve exhausted the most well-trod and easy paths. // Recognize that you are asking for a favor and that you’re not necessarily going to be in a position to reciprocate. Realize that for someone who doesn’t love you, poring over your prose is not generally a reward in itself.” (Toor)

Build credibility to attract opportunity.

Assistantship offers come to those who cultivate respect and trust. Take classes with faculty with whom you’d like to work. Be genuinely engaged, be responsible, and make sure your work is stellar. Express your interest in collaboration.

  • “Credibility isn’t just about turning in good projects—it’s about not making excuses, not emailing for answers to questions you could have answered yourself, not turning in un-proofread papers full of mistakes.” – Katie Kelley. Right on, Katie.

If you want something, express interest to the folks who can make it happen.

Let it be known what opportunities you’d like to see come your way, and why. Show, with an appropriate measure of humility, that you’ve got the right experience and you’d be good to work with.

Labor over your cover letters.

Generic letters immediately go to recycling. Very few people know how to write a compelling letter that addresses why this position, why you, why you and this position are right for each other.

Disappointment is, I’m afraid, inevitable – in school, at work, in life, everywhere. Turn it into an opportunity to learn something, then try again.

If you don’t get that grant or internship, if your proposal is rejected, etc., first, take some time to get your emotions in check, and then ask the decision-makers if they can provide constructive feedback. Inquire about what you can do better to increase your chances in the future.

  • If a class you really want is already full, lodge your interest with the instructor, then try registering again near the start of the semester.

Remember that institutions are made of people.

If you’ve got an issue with something, have a civil, “grown up” discussion with the person most directly responsible for the issue. Most folks are reasonable, and they’ll do what they can to help. No need to resort immediately to inflammatory letters, lawsuits, or protest.

From Mitch Goldstein’s “A Design Education Manifesto”:Look at everything. Dismiss nothing.”

Each designer is born from a unique experience. Classmates in the same program will have different educations depending on which teachers they have, what field trips they take, and what books they pick up. As a designer you need to always be looking at the world around you. You need to see everything—the kind of detailed seeing taught in freshman drawing classes—not just looking, but really seeing. You need to be an observer as well as a maker. You should rid yourself of any preconceptions of what is and is not worthy of your attention. Everything has potential to be interesting and influential. Not everything will be, but the more you see the better your chances are at seeing something that will be useful to you.”

From Bruce Mau’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth”: ____________________.

“Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.”

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