Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Media and the Failure of (My) Imagination

As I've mentioned previously, I'm currently participating in a New Media Faculty Seminar at Baylor, under the guidance of Gardner Campbell, who runs the Academy of Teaching and Learning here.

This week, our reading from the New Media Reader was "A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect" by Douglas Engelbart and William English, written in 1968. Englebart is one of the reasons we have the computer interfaces we have now. The man invented the mouse. So in reading these essays by people like him, I was struck by how imaginative and forward-thinking these people were.

The imagination these men had was staggering - to be able to see the form and structure of what we currently take for granted when nothing like it had ever existed boggles my mind.

And what I am referring to in the title of this post? Well, simply put, I was thinking that, if it had been left to me, we wouldn't have too much to work with now when it comes to imaginative computer interfaces. It makes me wonder what else we'll come up with if the modern Engelbarts out there are encouraged to do their work.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Got Tenure

I have been looking forward to this day for a long time - five-and-a-half years, to be precise. I was notified today that I have been granted tenure at Baylor University. What this means, for those of you unfamiliar with the world of academic employment, is that I have earned the right, according to Baylor, to have a job for life.

What an immense feeling of relief this brings. My family now knows that we will be here for the long term, and that I won't lose my job in a year (which, by the way, is the consequence of NOT being granted tenure; it's pretty much "up, or out").

I don't think the shock has yet worn off. The feeling of relief is all I can claim right now. Well, that plus a feeling of thanks and gratitude towards all those who supported me through this - family and friends who wanted nothing but the best, colleagues who were there with me as they too pursue tenure, and senior colleagues who supported me in so many ways. Thank you to all of you out there who have been with me through the past five-and-a-half years of working towards this goal.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

A Good Teaching Day

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like everything just clicks? Today was one of those days in my two classes this semester.

(Incidentally, I'm not entirely sure I should tag this post with the new media tag, because I'm not sure there's any talk of new media, but since it's teaching-related, I decided it was relevant enough).

First up was my Directing class. For the next few weeks, we're partnered with the Theatre Department's Camera Acting class. The directors from my class have been given a scene with dialogue that could be taken a number of different ways. They are then assigned two actors to play the scene, and they must communicate to the actors their interpretation of the scene, rehearse it for 20-30 minutes (with me and my colleague, Prof Thomas Ward from the Theatre Department, observing the rehearsal process), and then perform it. After the performance, the entire class (or, rather, both classes -- actors and directors) critiques the scene and the process of getting to the end result.

I was a little skeptical and concerned that this wouldn't work, but I was wrong. This seemed to be a great learning experience in that we were able to challenge what the directors were asking the actors to do, how much information they were offering, and -- though it might not seem important to a novice -- what words they were using to communicate these things. We were also able to critique the actors' processes. In writing about it now, I'm not sure it sounds as interesting as it was, but it seemed to me that it worked well as a learning-by-doing experience. I could tell the directors in a lecture that they need to communicate in terms of the characters' objectives and what tactics they use to achieve them in the scene (and in fact we did a little of that in preparation earlier this week); but actually letting them direct and then critiquing the process that got them to their end result was a much more direct learning experience.

Later, I had my graduate Documentary seminar. The class has been good so far but also a little dry. Discussion hadn't yet gotten at some of the deeper issues. But today featured our first screening of short documentary projects done by groups of students. And wow -- what a difference "doing" makes in the process of learning.

I don't want to get into tons of detail because these were projects intended for the classroom and not for general distribution. But one of them featured a 'direct cinema' approach (which was part of the assignment) in which the filmmakers "lucked into" a dramatic situation in which one of the subjects in their documentary was put into an embarrassing situation. I won't be more detailed than that because it's not necessary, but let me just say that the person in question was in an awkward situation and ended up in tears, and of course all of this was caught on camera.

Now, when we finished watching this footage that turned out to be quite compelling regardless of the fact that it wasn't particularly well lit or shot (and the sound wasn't great either), we got into a fascinating discussion about the ethical boundaries presented by this situation.

Should they have showed this person's pain and embarrassment without their being some greater lesson for us? Or was that exploitative? Should they not have filmed it? Or not have edited the piece to make that embarrassing moment into the main feature?

It did happen 'just that way," so the student filmmakers did not manipulate the situation or the editing of it. One of them, in fact, said that in the four-plus hours that they taped, this awkward event constituted almost two hours - so it was, proportionally-speaking, a large part of the larger event.

So there was the ethical discussion of the appropriateness of actually exhibiting the footage and making it part of the film, but there was also the question of the objective nature of the direct cinema style. We have been talking about that style and how the proponents of it use it because they feel it is more "truthful" to present the events unvarnished by non-diegetic music, voice-over, or interviews. They just show the events as they occur, without anything getting in the way.

But one of the filmmakers said that he desperately wanted to include voice over narration or something that would place the whole occurrence in context. He felt that they were NOT showing "what occurred" because what occurred happened over four or more hours, and what they were showing comprised ten minutes of summary. In other words, it wasn't "objective" at all because they had to select footage (a very subjective process), and their belief was that the extra-diegetic stuff like voice over and interviews, rather than ruining the objectivity, would have allowed the filmmakers to put this ten minutes of footage into the larger context of the whole event.

Regardless of your opinions on these issues, I walked away from the class thrilled that we had had this shared learning experience centered around the making of this short documentary project. We learned more about balance, objectivity, and ethics in that one discussion than I could ever elicit from abstract conversations about these ideas.

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Monday, February 01, 2010

Blogging about New Media

I'm trying valiantly to blog more regularly in part because I'm taking a faculty seminar in New Media in the classroom, sponsored by Baylor's Academy of Teaching and Learning and taught (though I'm sure he'd prefer that I say "facilitated") by my friend Gardner Campbell.

I most often blog about my film work or my experiences in the film world, so this is a switch for me. I'm very interested in new media, especially where technology intersects with my field (which is, well, almost everywhere), but since this isn't a typical topic around here, I hope my regular readers won't find this too boring!

Right now, I'm a little unsure of what I want to blog about when it comes to this topic. The only thing on my mind at the moment, when it comes to new technology, is the Apple iPad and what it might represent.

It's interesting to see Apple moving away from the complexity of the standard computing interface and more towards the all-in-one solution. I love my iPhone and have quickly become a junkie who cannot live without the thing, a fact to which my wife will attest... but I'm not sold on the iPad as a device that will replace anything I currently use.

I can see it's usefulness as a media device - and especially insofar as sharing the media experience with someone would be a lot easier with the larger screen iPad than it is with the tiny iPhone. But I'm not sure it would work for me as a unified system because it doesn't, at this point, integrate all of the computing needs I have in one system, and I don't see the point of carrying around multiple devices.

I do, however, love the iPhone OS, and I think it's interesting to see that interface applied to a larger device. I'm curious to see how the iPad develops in the future and how such a device will be put to good use by filmmakers (previsualization devices?) and in the classroom.