Towards a 21st Century Multimedia Curriculum…

copyThe first college class that I taught was in 1998.  It seems so far, far away.  I had just left teaching middle school and high school for 5-6 years.  These days I keep remembering the ordeals—both in time and money— that I had to endure to show video or images in my classes, which I did quite often.  If I had some images I wanted to show, I would make color-copies and do them in multiples to pass around the room. Thank goodness for Kinkos, open 24 hours, where you could often find me at 4am in the morning copying in a last-minute pinch if I came up with some new lesson plan during the weekday rather than on the weekend.  My paychecks seemed to just evaporate buying books and rendering those color copies.  I always used full-color photographs and artwork because I was intent on making sure that my black and Latin@ students saw images of themselves that could sustain who they were and were meant to be.  If the classroom didn’t provide that, then we would be at the mercy of Hollywood and cable television, not the kind of fate I had in mind.

tvcartShowing documentaries and films was another ordeal and yet another place where my money evaporated. I had to be rather creative to get Blockbuster (do they even still exist?) to order what I wanted and then copy stuff at home for my own personal library.  I had a set of friends who would send me videos too, it was like a private youtube network.  On campus, I would have to reserve a VCR/TV at least a week in advance which came on a huge rolling cart with the television and VCR padlocked with the kind of thick, metal chains you use to lock down a motorcycle (in New York City, that is).   On more than a few occasions, I would have to wheel that thing across campus.  The wheels were never great and the sidewalks were never smoothly paved so you could be sure that I  was rolling that thing all up on the grass and in the flowerbeds. Then I would have to wait on an empty elevator upwards of 15 minutes to get to my classroom.  If you didn’t arrive at least one hour before classes, you were in BIG trouble because you had some serious work to do to get your class prepped (and I learned the hard way to CHECK the equipment to make sure it actually works before you leave the equipment room or you would have an even BIGGER mess and even more dead flowers on your hands).  If you had multiple classes back-to-back in different buildings, you would need to stagger the classroom viewing because you had to request the chained-TV/VCR-wagon in each different location. Time between classes didn’t permit you to drop off one wagon and pick up another wagon. If it rained or snowed, it was a WRAP!  Just be prepared to start the process all over again because no TV/VCR wagons could be taken outside then. It was, to put it mildly, an EXTRA HOT MESS!  You can see that with this kind of preparation and extra work, it was really difficult to become or nurture a teaching force who would fully incorporate multimedia work in their classrooms and teaching.  The only thing that was worthwhile were the jokes the guys in “tech” would make when they saw what happened to the grass and flowerbeds when I was done for the day!  Like I said, a hot mess!

radio_raheem-radioOn a reg’lar ole day, I just looked like Radio Raheem.  Playing music and incorporating lyrics was just so much easier; that is, if you had your own boom box.  Otherwise, you would be stuck requesting some too-heavy CD/tape player one week in advance with no kinda sound or bass at all (which, to me, was as much of a hot mess as rollin all up in the flowerbeds). So yeah, I just carried a boom box to class with me all of the time.  I got all manner of jokes from students (nicknamed “the professor with the radio” or, just, “Professor Raheem”) but it seemed to make them register for my classes all the more so I took it all in stride.

I am as committed to multimedia curriculum today as I was back then.  There’s not that much of a change in my disposition though many educators like to imagine that we are somehow more multimedia now than ever before.  It’s a really anti-historical argument, digital empire in full effect in its privilege/domination to imagine itself as brand-spanking-new. Am I more visual now than Lois Mailou Jones in the Harlem Renaissance?  Or black female quilt makers?  A stupid suggestion, if you ask me.

Yes, there are certainly differences. When I usedta put images on my  typical 15-to-20-page syllabi, I had to cut and paste in the scissor-and-glue style.  Glue sticks vs. them bottles of Elmer’s messy glue (or rubber cement) were the greatest technology to me when I was teaching back then.  Boy did them glue sticks save time, even if the glue did dry up too fast!  Granted, I am being somewhat facetious here in calling glue sticks new technology, but in my everyday life as a teacher, that’s exactly how them glue sticks were experienced.  As for now, where I once used blackboard to house the online hyperlinks and materials of a semester, I now use a website.  My students who have been dropped from the class can still tap in even when their university IDs do not work, my former students can tap in, and I can embed videos and music in new ways to create different kinds of visual and auditory texts for curricular content. It’s as convenient, fast, and streamlined as them glue sticks and makes my curricular goals easier.  No more equipment requests a week in advance and now, each day, a student directs a multimedia rhetorical analysis, something I simply could not have planned given the scarcity of equipment (there is a screen and PC in each classroom and all students receive a laptop).

Jacqueline Jones Royster

Jacqueline Jones Royster

Like before, I get to maneuver around all kinds of interesting quirks and new plannings. I don’t have page limits or the designs of the page to limit the content and presentation of the curriculum anymore.  I don’t have annoying digital pages on my university system as an appendix to the course with all of those annoying university logos and brandings.  Everything is all in one place now and I have more control over design (albeit, not full control).  I can link out and include photos of the authors who we are reading in the hopes that students feel more connected to them; the authors become metaphoric members of the writing community (the authors who we read sometimes contact me/us so the community is real).  It became important to me this semester, for instance, that students SEE Jacqueline Jones Royster and Shirley Wilson Logan as they are reading their work; these are not scholars from up on high but unilateral black female meaning-makers in their lives.

Shirley Wilson Logan

Shirley Wilson Logan

I haven’t included more audiovisual segments into the course (that has been there from previous semesters), but I have included more visuals and hyperlinks.  I suspect that I will learn a lot more about this curriculum and about teaching now that I have moved to a different platform.  I won’t lie here: I don’t miss what I had to do in them days of old though, sadly, I am no longer called Professor Raheem (many of my students don’t even know who Radio Raheem was and/or what he symbolizes).  Yet and still, my students do have new nicknames for me based on their newest cultural apparatus. I will confess that there are days when I wouldn’t mind running over the campus fauna a little bit.  I may still get my chance.

“Digital Griots” in the Era of Technoracial Formation

This week in class, we are reading Adam Banks’s Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age.  We’ll spend some time in class digging into the concept “Digital Griots” so that we can really take on this concept.

Prior to making the decision that this is what we would do in class, I had begun reading the last few years of texts in the journal, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy.  When I did a search on the terms, race, black, and African American, on that website/journal, all that consistently came up were reviews, actually, of Banks’s books, both the first book, Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground and now his new book, Digital Griots.  That’s all!  I can’t say that I was very surprised, though I do confess that I was very disgusted that, yet once again, the worlds of school, literacies, and textual production were overdetermined as white.  My point is that it becomes quite clear that there is a white void  that Banks is writing into (making it questionable if that journal has the history and political tools to actually offer relevant reviews), so I need to make sure that my class stops, pauses, and tries to really wrap ourselves around this concept of Digital Griots and what the cultural memory and presence of African American deejays offer us in terms of new technological and creative productions.

In relation to Digital Griots, I have also been thinking about an essay by Tara McPherson in the edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities that a colleague, Sophie Bell, suggested our program read.  McPherson’s essay is called “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” and is, in my mind, the central piece of the entire collection.  I love her question because I can immediately insert any number of institutions and practices: Why is Abercrombie & Fitch so white?  Why is Wall Street so white?  Why is Hollywood so white?  Why is administration in higher education so white?  The list of possible questions is simply endless but what I like about McPherson is that she offers up some answers.

McPherson convincingly shows me that the gaps and whole-scale omissions in merging race and technological productions is an EFFECT of the designs of technological systems in post-World War II computational culture.  That’s one helluva notion, though this is surely not news for those who study this culture.   Her discussion focuses on the operating system of UNIX, the operating system for digital computers, though her discussion can also be applied to C programming given the focus on modularity.  The work of programmers then was always intimately connected to racial paradigms even if that was never the overt tactic or intention.  The logic of UNIX is, thus, a cultural logic with its:

  • embrace of multiple languages and systems that mirrors the typical mindset of neoliberal multiculturalism (the idea that a seemingly egalitarian field can exist that ignores social, material hierarchies)
  • design of covert systems that mirrors the move away from overt racism (Jim Crow signage, lynching, de jure segregation, etc) as if racism is now gone
  • focus on modularity (that now organizes capital) that mirrors the “containment” of large black, working-class/working-poor populations in city centers through the governmental housing initiatives that divested all energies and monies from de-proletarianized/ravaged black city centers
  • framing of a modular code that mirrors the bureaucratic standardization of divided disciplines and entrepenurial-inflected knowledge in the academy
  • privileging of text that mirrors post-Cold-War methodologies in the humanities that devalue context in favor of a new kind of valuing of text
My simplistic summary notwithstanding, McPherson shows that “technological formations are deeply bound up with our racial formations and that each undergo profound changes at the mid-century” so much so that these are “feedback loops supporting each other.” To use more of her words, there are “technoracial formations” where race is “a ghost in the digital machine.”  So I walk away from McPherson’s discussion ready to take on her suggestions: 1) engage David Golumbia’s work on the cultural logic of computation; 2) look past simple screens, narrative, and images and into machines and labor; 3) critically interrogate race, culture, code, and computational systems (in fact, McPherson argues that if we can learn critical theory, then we can learn code too).

For this week, with Banks’s Digital Griots at center, I am thinking about what it means to bring a consciously-determined black perspective to these discussions that McPherson has triggered for me, with the African American cultural formation of the deejay as signpost and guide.


(photos are of DJ Premier)

More History in the Spaces Left…

We open this week using Jackie Royster’s and Jean Williams’s 1999 article for College Composition and Communication, “History in the Spaces Left: African American Presence and Narratives of Composition Studies”, to bind together the 19th century (last week’s reading) with the 20th century (next week’s reading).  In particular, Royster and Williams remind us that to understand the contemporary presence of African American students and African American contributions to composition-rhetoric studies, we must begin with the 19th century.  In that spirit, they devote a significant part of their article to the work and history of HBCUs which have invented and maintained the record of educating African Americans in postsecondary institutions in the United States.  The masking of the work of HBCUs is, therefore, one of the (many) mechanisms that a broader understanding of the history of the field has been thwarted.

With Royster and Williams as inspiration, I would like to introduce the class to the HBCU Library Alliance Digital Collection.  Here is the introduction from the website:

A Digital Collection Celebrating the Founding of the Historically Black College and University is a collection of primary resources from HBCU libraries and archives. It includes several thousand scanned pages and represents HBCU libraries first collaborative effort to make a historic collection digitally available. Collections are contributed from member libraries of the Historically Black College and University Library Alliance.

The collection includes photographs, university correspondence, manuscripts, images of campus buildings, alumni letters, memorabilia, and programs from campus events.

These images present HBCUs as cultural, social, and political institutions from the early 1800s until today.

Here is Ira Revels (the first speaker) introducing the Digital Collection on a panel at Cornell University called “A Brief History of Black Education in America.”

This digital collection could very well support original research if you choose to incorporate this history in your final research project of the class, a history that is still not adequately represented in the field.

ePedagogy vs. eCommerce

As I write this, I am looking at an ad from a major department store (I will leave the store unnamed so as to avoid giving it further advertisement).  I received this mini-catalogue in the mail, though I did not supply this store with my address.  In the catalogue, I am promised some kind of free gift if I pin them, follow them on tumblr, follow them on twitter, Facebook-friend them, use/view instagram, watch them on youtube, download their shopping app, and visit their blog; and these shopping suggestions are presented in a circle as if one thing cannot stand alone. All that AND a catalog mailed to my home too!  “This is just crazy” is what I first said aloud.

Needless to say, I am probably on the left end of the spectrum, always interrogating new modes of capitalism and the ways it structures thought and behavior.  Technology is never immune to the critique since new technologies make new modes of capitalism possible and vice versa. However, I am not necessarily inclined to reject all new technologies simply because they have been co-opted for hyper-consumerism. Obviously, we need to build radical community uses of digital media for our own purposes in a world that co-opts all technologies for consumerist purposes.  This seems to apply to college students especially since they are the target consumers for seemingly EVERYTHING. And that’s just my point here: we need to know when we are being co-opted.  When I meet other people of color who are suspicious of new technologies for its co-opting, I do not assume they are tech-phobes, too primitive to understand the advanced world, or merely indulging conspiracy theories.  I know that people’s histories with institutions (COINTELPRO did, after all, also use the new technologies of its time) can never be ignored. I like to hear these suspicions and analyses that keep my social observations sharp.

I think back to the first time I ever used blackboard (a learning management system bought by many colleges) in my classes circa 2000.  There were uses of it that I have always found invaluable (archiving 100s of assignments and digital texts, for example) but I never fell for the incessant, institutional dogma that insisted blackboard would save my teaching. There were two problems with this dogma for me. The first was that if we simply co-opted young people’s uses of and inclinations towards new technologies into our own curriculum and instruction (without the need to really change any of that), then we will capture their interests.  The second issue for me was this notion that students could be tricked into experiencing their classrooms as something other than impersonal, post-industrial, large lecture halls because they could post questions on blackboard (or, in today’s parlance, tweet their professor and 300 classmates).  This all seemed rather convenient to university’s budgets: there is no compelling need to rethink large lecture-based classes and, therefore, hire more tenure-track faculty, build new spaces, or create smaller learning communities.  You can just pack all the students in, make them feel like they are making real-time connections by co-opting their favorite means of social networking, and collect money from them in the process without really having to shell any out. Convenient, indeed.  This is all the more relevant when you consider Manny Marable’s argument (in Wells of Democracy) that universities (private universities, especially) often function today like Fortune 500 companies.   Convenient, indeed.

When I think of schooling’s uses of technologies, I think of scholars like Ngugi and Walter Rodney. They remind us that those students who were supposed to be the passive recipients of the empire’s models and modes came back to bite the empire in the behind with the very education that was supposed to domesticate them.  That’s all that keeps me going on those days when my college students and me are publicly asked to “brand” ourselves using new social networks. As a descendant of enslaved Africans, the legalized branding of my person and body stopped with the Emancipation Proclamation so I simply can’t see taking on this language or EVER using it with black students in a classroom.  This is when I think back to the black college students of the HBCUs who were the catalysts for a new sit-in movement (like the Greensboro Four from North Carolina AT&T on February 1, 1960 pictured at the top of this post) and a branch and method of Civil Rights protests that perhaps no one foresaw: black college students who questioned the ways their bodies and minds were socially patrolled as part and parcel of a new kind of educational curricula that they shaped and defined for themselves.  I find hope for the future looking at these patterns of the past.

I tend to get worried when I am simply expected to plug in information into an institution’s pre-determined templates where my needs, social-political purposes, linguistic designs, vernacular imaginations, and aesthetic philosophies are never consulted or regarded.  Even though I get worried, I always remember how domestication, co-opting, and colonizing never fully work, never really take with color-conscious people (the term I use to mark a politics distinct from color-blindness).  Capitalism tends to contradict itself and that’s where those little fissures of new possibility get magnified.  A blind allegiance to the kind of eCommerce awaiting me in my mailbox won’t ever be the full picture.  A radical ePedagogy for people of color will always be possible as long as we do what we have always done: question the how and why of what institutions do.