New Materialism on Display

It’s hard to believe that it was only five short months ago that this project was still taking shape. And now it’s finally materialized — virtually, that is. This semester my Media & Materiality students, informed by the notion that exhibition can be a form of scholarly practice, created online “exhibitions” examining “media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication” (from the course description).

Here they are [I won’t identify the students by name, although some have chosen to identify themselves in their projects]:

We have two great Facebook projects: “Friends Forever,” which explores how virtual relationships have transformed our notions of friendship, and “Iamb Nobedee,” a fictional profile that not only repurposes profile conventions in examining how the Facebook template constructs identity, but also proposes a typology of profile self-portraits (visible only to Iamb Nobedee’s friends, unfortunately) in an attempt to explore how the physical self is transmitted, or translated, virtually. [This project is no longer live, unfortunately; all that remains is the screenshot, below.]


We have several excellent music- and sound-related projects, too. “Cassettes: Endgames of Obsolescence,” in the form of an exhibition-as-cassette-tape, explores the work of several artists — Hal McGee, G. Lucas Crane, Christian Marclay — who continue to use the tape format in their practice. We also have the foundation of what promises to be an ever-growing online encyclopedia of “Modular Audio Effects” pedals, which have altered the material basis of sound production [sadly, this project is no longer live].


Then there’s “Hip Hop Started Out in the Park,” a site that tells the story of hip hop’s origin in the South Bronx through the photos of (and original interviews with) Joe Conzo, “the man who took hip hop’s baby pictures“; this project draws a connection between the music and the physical landscape of its birthplace. The final piece in the “sound” series is “Soundscape of the Diaspora,” which examines, through photocollages and field recordings along 4th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, the echoes of immigrants’ homelands, as they mix with the sounds of their workplaces.

We then have our spectacular print series. “From Books to Bytes” explores new reading habits in the age of e-books; this project will support the efforts of Colombian not-for-profit Fundación La Fuente. The charming “Technotexts”  [case-sensitive password: Technotexts] tests, through the form of a choose-your-own-adventure story, N. Katherine Hayles’ assertion that “the physical form of the literary artifact” affects how its words mean and how readers experience the text (from Writing Machines).


“Magazines and Materiality” addresses the representation of fashion and female bodies in magazines as the publication form evolves. Meanwhile, “On a Wire” explores continuities in communication across evolving formats by asking what Twitter and the telegraph have in common.


Additional projects examine the evolving material forms of other textual media. The visually rich “Mapping Our Worlds” (see also the corresponding blog) looks at the history of maps and their representation of material experience. And then “Gastroporn” examines various attempts to capture sensory and erotic experience in food marketing.


We might by now be overwhelmed by ever-multiplying media formats and an ever-expanding history of material media. Perhaps we need to consider what’s worth forgetting. How to Delete explores, through the form of a “how-to” website, “the various material surfaces, tools, and processes involved in record deletion across a spectrum of media” — from wax tablets to World of Warcraft to pencils (be sure to check out the accompanying blog).

From How to Delete



Not So Delicious. Quite Bitter, Actually.

What a coincidence! On the very day I receive copyedits on an essay I’ve written on Delicious for Trebor Scholz‘s Thinking With Digital Media: A Pedagogy Reader In Motion, Yahoo! announces that Delicious has entered its “sunset” years and will soon be sent to hospice to die (actually, Trebor was the one who broke the news to me…and by the way, that’s not an exclamation mark at the end of Yahoo!; it’s a dagger).

Death by Powerpoint

I’m not a huge Delicious fan. I use it daily — but I do so only because I started using it several years ago, and in that time I developed a sizable collection of bookmarks (close to 3000; I know others who have waaaaay more) and eventually felt stuck. I hate migrating things. I know I could easily import those bookmarks to Google Bookmarks or Diigo or something like that. But it’s really not so much the bookmarks themselves I’m worried about; it’s the annotations I’ve created for a good number of them. A lot of time and energy goes into distilling an entire online article into a 1000-character abstract.

I’ve been thinking about annotation a lot this past year — in part because last year I finally decided to scrap my old Word doc/Scrivener-based note-taking system and start using a DevonThink database. My old system wasn’t working for me anymore — I had known that for years — but it took a lot of research, and a lot of convincing, to bring myself to choose a substitute process and platform. That’s in part because I don’t entirely trust start-ups and social media and all those things floating around in “the cloud.” I never have any idea how long they’re going to be around, and I don’t know how they’re using my data (actually, I do know, and I don’t like it), so I’m always wary of investing too much in them. I’m not even sure about Acrobat Reader Pro, given Apple’s distate for Adobe. I’ve invested years in highlighting and annotating all my academic articles through Reader — and I’m just waiting for the day when pdf’s go all “8-track” on us, and I lose all that work, too.

I’ll find a way to save my bookmarks and annotations. But moving from Delicious before its impending implosion will require that I revise that essay for Trebor — which is a shame, since I had so many great gustatory puns (get it? delicious?!). Now I’ll have to think of some good archaeological plays-on-words (diigo? archaeological dig? where do I get this stuff?!).

And tonight I’ll dream of long-ago nights when I could go to sleep knowing exactly where my notes would be when I woke up in the morning. In fact, they’re still there — all those notes from 6th-grade Spanish, AP Calculus, and organic chemistry — in boxes above my dad’s workshop. All safe and sound in those archival vaults we called Trapper Keepers. I often mourn the loss of our “time-biased” media.


Syllabus Headache

A table at our wedding reception. This is probably what my brain activity looks like right now: disheveled, with a stroke of tumult.

The syllabus for my spring lecture course, which I wrote about earlier this week, is coming together. I have yet to finalize the guest presenters and panel discussions, which will take place in the second half of the semester — but I think I’ve got a basic trajectory and a set of “progressive” assignments that feed into one another. Syllabus v. 2.0 — still a work in progress! — is here [updated 1/13]. Once I get this pretty much ironed out, I move on to the “Libraries…” syllabus.

The e-flux room at last month’s NY Art Book Fair. This is what I’d like my brain to look like eventually.

The Other Spring Class

I suppose I did this to myself: when I was preparing to return to full-time teaching this year after (1) a half-year sabbatical last year and (2) three years prior in an intensive administrative position, I gave our current administration some options: I offered to teach a few familiar required courses and seminars, and I threw in a couple proposals for new seminars and studios. I don’t quite remember how this happened — but I now find myself teaching three brand new seminar/studios and a required lecture course, which I’m totally reassessing since I haven’t taught it for three years. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all the new specialty courses — “Media and Materiality” and “Urban Media Archaeology” have been awesome, and I’m looking forward to “Libraries, Archives & Databases” — but that lecture course is causing a little trepidation, in no small part because…well, let’s just say it hasn’t been everybody’s favorite class.

Of course nobody loves a required class — and they’re even less likely to love it when it’s, by necessity, a relatively large lecture class (we can’t duplicate guest presentations in multiple sections, so we have to gather all 180 new students in the same lecture hall; it’s simply, sadly a necessary evil of being a crazily big program). But I think the content has a lot of potential: on the first occasion I had to teach the class, in Fall 2008, I frequently thought to myself, wow, I wish I was learning this stuff as a first-semester grad student. And I know many of our previous graduates, who left the program before this class was instituted, said that they regretted not having a similar orientation experience to help themselves develop a broad view of the program, the university, the city, the field, etc., and all their opportunities to participate at those various scales.

My Fall 2008 version of the class tapped into the “craftsmanship” zeitgeist. Sennett’s The Craftsman had just come out, and several other craft-related books — and some new craft-y journals — were soon to follow. As I mentioned in my final lecture,

We used the metaphor of “craftsmanship” [throughout the] semester to think about our various roles as researcher-producers, scholar-activists, producer-mangers, etc., because models of craft ask us to think about the commitment and engagement that…distinguish graduate work. Thinking about our work as craftsmanship, Sennett argues, helps us to get at enduring cognitive models, translatable skills, which, Shoemaker reminds us, are essential in an economy in which many move frequently from job to job. Plus, as we produce material and symbolic forms – films, theories, research papers, etc. – we also produce ourselves as subjects and our social relations; we can investigate “what the process of making…things reveals to us about our selves” (Sennett 8). And thinking about our commitment to and engagement in our work promotes “knowing-in-action,” reflexivity, Gray and Malins say (22-3).

The class was meant to provide an overview of a program that combines theory, practice, and management — threads that, traditionally, many students had kept separate. It was also, as I mentioned earlier, an attempt to provide an introduction to the department and the field, so students could start to orient themselves within it and determine how and where they wanted to make their marks. At some point in the middle of that fall semester, I encountered an article, published in Duke UP’s Pedagogy journal, by several graduate students who expressed their desire for an introductory grad course that “prepare[s] graduate students for taking an active role in shaping the future of the discipline” (Crisco et al. 372). This course would (1) “survey the historical development of the field”; (2) “critically examine some of the key terms presently at the center of debates concerning the defining goals and purposes of the work” in the field; (3) “create a collaborative, explicitly intradisciplinary space within the department to explore the often competing commitments of our discipline and to articulate the stakes (individual, fieldwide, institutional, cultural) of the various approaches to reforming” the field; and (4) “provide students with opportunities to locate themselves and their professional commitments in relationship to the field” (ibid. 369). I felt to me like that’s what we were doing in my class, and that was reassuring.

But some people, I learned, didn’t want to waste time on self-reflection, orientation, and exploration of “epistemological and methodological diversity.” They just wanted to learn how to make films. A long while later, I discovered an article in The Review of Higher Education in which Michael Gunzenhauser and Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin suggest that “students obsessed with instrumental goals are resistant to challenges to their time and their existing (and often unquestioned) assumptions and conceptions about their professional practice.” Of course I don’t want to blame my own failures, or the failures of the class, on students’ “instrumentalist” thinking, but I do think this paradigm is the reason for some students’ resistance. The authors also mentioned another risk of such “intro to grad studies”-type classes:

In many ways, it resembles a rite of passage into a discipline—a process of learning the language, developing specific research skills and habits, and reframing past experience and past knowledge. In this model, graduate students learn the cultures of their chosen disciplines—becoming familiar with the institutions associated with them (such as associations, conferences, and journals), perhaps mimicking the characteristics and actions of their mentors early on to “try on” the discipline—and devote themselves to becoming members of a research community. This model infantilizes graduate students, treating them as if they know little of consequence and inviting them to disconnect themselves from prior knowledge and experiences in favor of a superior, enlightened subject position.

While I appreciate the risk, I think we take care not to devalue the students’ own knowledge and experience or make them feel as if they’re there to mimic the “enlightened” faculty members’ practices. To the contrary, we encourage students to cultivate their own interests, their own “subject positions” — and thereby, perhaps, transform the field. That said, while I’m confident the course wasn’t “infantilizing,” I do know that some found it “remedial.” They learned how to do research as freshmen in high school; what more could there be there to learn in grad school?

A lot, actually. I know from personal experience. And even my TA’s, all advanced doctoral students, said they took a lot away from the class.

Joan Wink, Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World (2005): 178-180

I think there is tremendous value in a course that helps one cultivate frameworks for processing — and questioning the assumptions of — the material presented in other content- and skills-based classes; that helps provide a macro-scale overview of — and demystifies — the curriculum as a whole; that helps one reflect on his or her professional and intellectual past and consider how one might want to use his or her graduate experience. I’m going to try my best to make this spring class a useful and, dammit, enjoyable experience. I already have a few students soliciting advice from classmates for me. I’m posting a draft syllabus [file updated 1/8/11], and I welcome constructive feedback.


This Is Happening

We’re having a launch party for Alphabet City’s AIR (MIT Press 2010) on Monday, December 6, from 5 to 7pm @ The New School.