Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Oh for God's Sake...

Given that so far this term 6 hours a week of class time has been primarily devoted to viewings, and thus discussion has been relegated to this blog, the question must arise: what is a blog? I'm not in the mood today to be cutely rigorous, so I'll jump to the conclusion that a blog is by nature an informal medium, and so yes, it is appropriate to be completing my blogging for the week while sick, cranky, and impatient with bullshit.

The OCW (open courseware) once disregarded my lack of consent, resulting in the world having access to my drunk, 2am responses. Since the context framed me and my classmates as knowing what we were doing, I found this embarrassing. Similarly, this blog is embarrassing.

Partly, our standards aren't high enough. I fall victim too, so whatever, it's everyone's fault. On top of classtime and readings, keeping up with the blog is time consuming and mentally challenging, if you want to write some really good entries and responses each week. And so we all, some more than others, cheat. A rambling notation of something of interest, without contextual analysis, and a few 'hey yea' responses, and done for the week. Once we start to go downhill, there is little motivation to turn it around. Except that we lose all hope of discussion, which can really only exist in very good, argumentatively rigorous and informed posts, or continued back and forth through respones and entries that respond to one another. Mostly, we see neither, making this entire experience useless for someone like me, who originally was excited to take the course based on the notion that I would be learning something.

The other problem is more worrisome, and it comes down to whether people in the class are even capable of good analysis. Blah blah blah, everyone's worthwhile, everyone's brilliant, no child left behind and mixing retarded kids in the AP classes makes everyone do better! Bullshit. CMS classes constantly have this problem - a bunch of kids think 'ooh, a class on tv/wrestling/movies! no way!' and move in, so self impressed that they're managing to get college credit for their weekend amusement that they fail to realize that CMS is actually a disciplined study, which here in CMS we take just as seriously as you take CS, or chemistry, or mathematics. And so class discussion goes to pot, we spend classes re-explaining readings, and those of us who are capable of trying to integrate the theory, practical, and intense body of literature relevant to this field are left to walk each other places after class, bemoaning the difficulties of learning at MIT.

Example? Look at all the times you guys are saying 'I think.' I think, I think, I think. Those words are always either a weak way of disowning your own ideas, or of skirting the need to have an actual basis for your claims. I don't care what you think, because I don't believe you know what you're talking about. How about 'I remember?' Dead useful, actually, since this comprises data, and data is what we need in order to apply theory and draw conclusions. But a bunch of random data is useless. Worse than useless, because this gives individuals the false impression that they are 1. contributing, 2. important and 3. know what they're doing. Congratulations for watching a certain broadcast five or ten years ago. Really, good job. Top notch work there.

I gave up hope of an intensely useful class weeks ago. At the moment I kind of hope we get to read each other's final projects. Sometimes people have this weird ability to glom on to something real for final essays, and who knows? I might actually learn something. Otherwise, it's always dead amusing to read poorly written treatments of poorly understood concepts.


Michael Wehrman said...

This might not alleviate your frustration, but CMS does not, by any stretch of the imagination, have the market cornered on empty thought pieces and projects.

Like Joshua, however, I'm struck by those who exhibit frustration and insist on things be done a certain way, instead of simply doing those projects as you envision them.

Structure can be an issue. Blogs are informal and the format of them a bit bothersome to keep up with (for instance, I may as well scream at a wall if I were to comment on a post over 2-3 weeks old, because nobody will see it). It's also a social location for informality, and a place where academics can say words like "bullshit" without feeling particularly naughty or embarrassed. Reading the posts, I find it's very similar to reading journal entries in classes I've taught - loose, unstructured, and devoid of empiricism. But that's what they are; I don't expect to see a "methods" section and regression tables in a journal entry.

I admit I'm pretty agnostic about what CMS is, so I try to not assume that you're bound to social science research methods of quantitative and qualitative analysis. I'd love to see more of that kind of stuff (consider Sam's ethnography of fans, for example), but I also don't expect to see that depth of work occur in the boundaries of (1) a single term course or (2) a blog of said course.

All that said, since I'm the anti-expert on CMS, I'm waiting for the post to show me what is and isn't good CMS blogging.

Sam Ford said...

You raise a lot of interesting questions, Tess, some that this class was intended to tackle, others not. Henry Jenkins previously had a class blog in his Media Industries and Systems class at CMS; however, the class was not structured like this one, in that there were just a large number of blogs required by the end of the term, and no one was required to comment on each other's blog.

The intent for this class was to have some occasional discussions of readings in class, a lot of viewing and talking about that viewing, and a lot of guest speakers for the class time, with the critical engagement taking place on the blog.

Am I happy with the level of engagement on the blog? Actually, often, when people are not just reacting to what they've seen or read, but analyzing it in some way as well. The informality of the writing does not bother me--this is the blogosphere, and this is intended to be somewhat casual. Other times, though, when the ideas are dialed in, as an instructor I'm not quite as happy.

The class requires two blog posts a week for undergraduates, a task I would not deem as too much work, especially considering the wealth of material we have in front of us to discuss. Again, considering the informal and friendly nature intended for our discussion, this should be a useful space to delve into these issues, to have more reasoned response than we could have in class, but that does require a lot of thought.

This ties into questions that CMS regularly raises--the insularity of academia and the importance of engaging a wider audience. Most classes that require weekly journals in the way this blog intends ends up with a discussion between the instructor and the student, with no student aware of the writing of anyone else. My intent is that the publicness of the blog would lead people to strive to write more insightfully, even while writing informally. I think that has often happened--but not always, for sure.

So, in short, I as instructor see the blog as informal as well. But I don't see informal as necessarily linked to poor thinking, and I don't see it as an intellectual stretch to write two blog posts a week. The comments are intended to be more chances to question or clarify or bolster the arguments of your colleagues, so I don't see the comments as taking nearly enough time or thought as a blgo post, which is why there are four comments required a week, as opposed to two comments per week. In that case, I have been most disappointed classwide when people don't comment on each other's blogs because, while I understand the mental strain and need for inspiration that might cause people to have an analyatical block when it comes to writing a blog post, I don't necessarily see the same reasoning behind not commenting on colleagues' writing, even if it is to challenge that colleague's writing, as you are doing here in the case of all of us as a class.

Tess, you say, "Once we start to go downhill, there is little motivation to turn it around. Except that we lose all hope of discussion, which can really only exist in very good, argumentatively rigorous and informed posts, or continued back and forth through respones and entries that respond to one another."

I agree wholeheartedly, and this problem has been exacerbated post-spring break by the fact that the break caused several people to lose steam from writing at all. In that case, it's hard to respond from the writing of colleagues when your colleagues aren't writing. The insight and analysis of the February and most of March was strong in an informal way, and I thought the discussions surrounding most texts prior to J.R.'s visit was strong.

Since that time, we've dedicated our time to reading the two books, Sex, Lies, and Headlocks. Given that these are not academic books, that may have led to some slowing in terms of quality responses, and spring break and the mid-semester crunch could be to blame as well. But certainly a failure in the intellectual community is noticable as well.

The thing about the blog is that you can't hide your lack of thinking through issues, your lack of reading and analysis, and/or procrastination, since your work is out there for each other to see, for good or for bad, drunken rant or well-researched piece.

However, perhaps its a "glass half full" versus "glass half empty" question. The fact that this class is so open, intended to be driven by the students as much as the instructor, etc., I don't see how the class as a whole or the blog in particular can be deemed useless. It's only as useless as the community makes it, and the capital of good discussions in the past does not save the current status of the blog.

As for your other question, you raise important issues about analysis. We are at an institution where many people are not in the humanities and have not spent significant time doing the type of work that CMS majors or graduate students do. How do you strike that balance? If I were to take a mechanical engineering class, there is a definite right and wrong answer in those classes, and I would be a failure.

In CMS undergraduate classes, there is a discussion about how to take into account the writing and analytical history of students and their willingness to write regularly. This class, in theory, is designed to get people to write publicly on a regular basis, for good or for bad, with the idea that their interest in a media form will get them to think more deeply about it. Does this work all the time? No. But has it accomplished this? That's not for me to decide, other than grading each individual student for their own work.

I agree that I've seen students sign up for CMS classes, get hand-held through the process, and come out the other end having been caudled into a good grade. I don't intend to do that. I don't see a point in a college student doing reading on their own, coming to class and having that reading explained to them, and then writing the professor's own explanation back to her/him in a journal entry or in a class discussion.

Here, you cheat yourself, the class, and me when you don't put time into engaging with this content. The fact that the blog is made such an integral part of the class emphasizes this in a way most classes usually don't.

To tackle your last paragraph, though: "I gave up hope of an intensely useful class weeks ago. At the moment I kind of hope we get to read each other's final projects. Sometimes people have this weird ability to glom on to something real for final essays, and who knows? I might actually learn something. Otherwise, it's always dead amusing to read poorly written treatments of poorly understood concepts."

I hope in particular that this attitude can be attributed to your sickness and crankiness. I too hope for intensely useful final essays, although when people don't get back to me to tell me where they are at with their research project, it can be disheartening. From the projects that do seem to be developing, I am quite optimistic, though, and am always open to talk with or e-mail with...

Sorry for the longwinded rant, but I wanted to address your points fully, if somewhat disjointed, and hope the rest of the class joins in as well. Part of the thread is about the use of a class blog in general, the use of doing a lot of viewing in class to discuss and combine with the readings throug hthe blog, etc. From Henry's blog model, I learned that you can only foster a community by having students comments on each other's blog, because otherwise they won't read each other's work.

What are otheres' thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Being that this is analysis course, the "grab bag" approach of "trying on" certain theories is certain to manifest itself on something as casual as a blog. One wonders if the problems that Tess addresses might not be addressed by a "Part One, Part Two" type of approach. By that, I mean, one course on wrestling history and another on analysis.

In a history course, the tendency to apply more of the "I remember" vs. "I think" would come into play. Less need to try to put one's thoughts in order and more need to contextualize. This course seems to be designed as "history and analysis at the same time as we go," which can frustrate one of the two purposes.

Perhaps what may be frustrating Tess is the lack of followup on certain posts; to turn raw ideas into something more rigorous. (Looking at it from the outside, I actually did not know if Sam intended the blog to serve that purpose or not.)

Also, some of the emotional ambivalence can lead to the "hedging" that you allude to. Using the "S,L & H" e.g., the issue of whether or not McMahon is a sympathetic figure is frustrating as a CMS debate (although it would probably fit wonderfully in a literature class). However, we do often preoccupy ourselves with how we feel about the subject as we are scrutinizing it.

Michael also raises a good point: old posts tend to die out before we can let discussions reach their full potential. Perhaps, in future.....(may the crowd swallow me whole for suggesting it)....., a .php board? Then the conversations would continue as long as the thread demonstrated the visibility and recency of the subject?


Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

Well, I can only speak for me, but I tend to use a lot of "I think"s to acknowledge that I really don't know what the fuck I'm talking about. Raising questions is about the extent of my ability to contribute to this class. Throw in thesis work, illness, intermittent depression, and the occasional logistical nightmare (I am beginning to suspect that a law of physics prevents my three thesis readers from ever being free at the same time), and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not using the class blog as effectively as I'd like. But then, I tend to feel that way about most of my classes. To be perfectly honest, I'm feeling that way about my thesis lately.

I would like to see more substance on the blog, from myself more than anyone, and I'd like to hear from everyone about their projects, which are probably a lot less cautious about ideas. I haven't posted on mine yet precisely because it's still not tight enough for even this informal peer review. Also, fear that I'll write something particularly good on the blog, and then have to rewrite it word-by-word to avoid being accused of plagiarising myself. (Well, ok, that's a little hyperbolic, but the rules on using similar content for multiple assignments are always murky, and the blog is a different assignment than the project.)

In the meantime, I have some more vague, non-committal posts to write.

Carolina said...

This is the first time I've taken a class that's required me to blog online for a minimum requirement each week. I didn't know what to think about it when I first heard about the requirement, and it took me a while to come up with what I considered to be a decent intro post. As time's gone on, I personally think (nay, I don't think, I know) that the hardest part for me has been keeping up with the deadline and making the minimum requirements each week. No, it's not because it's a lot of work -- it's more along the lines of me being a perfectionist who won't write about a subject until I'm done reading everything to know about the subject. And sometimes that reading can take a while.

I don't consider this blog to be embarrassing. I enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and I got a kick out of the storm that Joshua Shea brought to the blogs. While we were trying to engage with the texts we were reading, he was trying to engage us. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his posts, but I also have legitimately enjoyed reading most of the posts done here. Everyone brings a different approach, and that's a great thing.

You say that our standards aren't high enough, but the way I see it, no one will ever be happy with the way this blog is run with the class. We can get more in-depth with the text and learn more about the fascinating sport of pro wrestling and its theatrical tendencies... and earn another one of Joshua's posts about how we should get over ourselves. I can write about the time I saw The Rock and Hulk Hogan in the ring at the same time and what that meant to me as a fan... but most people probably wouldn't care. Maybe it's because I'm one of the people you mention that saw that MIT was having a class on pro wrestling (when Sam contacted me about it, I answered back with trepidation, thinking it was some prank by someone who found out I was a fan). I'll admit it in a heartbeat - I'm in this class because I'm a fan and I love pro wrestling. I've got shirts, posters, news clippings, ticket stubs, books, you name it. I had no idea what CMS even was, but I didn't care. I was going to get the chance to meet JR and Mick Foley, which is a huge deal to me as a fan. Does that mean I or any other fan is incapable of engaging in a meaningful analysis of Drawing Heat, Sex, Lies, and Headlocks, or Mick Foley's book?

No, not really. I'm saddened that you don't think you're getting anything out of this class, because I've enjoyed learning to delve into something I love deeper than just saying "man, John Cena sucks and needs to lose." I'm excited to write my final paper, and trust me, that's a first. A few months ago, I thought I'd be cringing at the thought of analyzing wrestling, fearing that it would kill any future enjoyment of the product. Instead, I'm looking forward to it. In the end, I think it's a hard line to walk, and that might just be because pro wrestling and academia are still learning to coexist without one side frustrating and/or offending the other.

Sam Ford said...

To answer a few questions/observations.

Bryce, I intended for the blog to be both a driver of conversation but also a way to test out ideas as the class moves forward with its own research. In other words, the blog could be a place to tease out research questions and to have an open forum to discuss research projects, in conjunction with all we're reading and viewing. I think it's interesting to see Joshua Shea complimenting Tess's post (we'll get to that in his post), primarily because they represent opposite ends of this spectrum. Joshua tends to criticize all that isn't about history or business, Tess all that is not theoretical. This is what Carolina points out as well.

Peter, aside from sharing your thesis anxieties, I want to emphasize that the blog is indeed a place to share the writing process with your classmates, so feel free--once your ideas are where you want them--to share parts of your research and get some class response here in this forum.

Brian "Louxchador" Loux said...

I am a sinner! And I repent! I am partially responsible for this. The wrestlemania thread was a one-time thing, I swear. I chalk this up to not being a real student taking it for credit, only being able to come in for the Monday viewings, and having little time to follow along with the readings (I'm actually taking another class for credit). But enough catharsis.

I would say the blog is in no way a total loss, but I agree that when points are made, we don't run with them. More often, there is a chorus of "you go girl"s or there is some riff on the most bizarre flame war I've seen. We don't tackle the intellectual/stuff-you'd-want-to-take-away-from-a-college-class like "what does it mean to be a fan?" "what does breaking the fourth wall mean anymore?" or "what happens to subcultures when they meet mainstream?". Threads may get to ask these questions, but they're soon buried in 5 new posts.

And I think, that is by and large because blogs are bad news.

Here's my anti-web 2.0 rant. Blogs and a lot of new devices are uniquely solipsistic in their design. They lend themselves to being soapboxes. I know that when I get on, I'm much more interested in writing my own reaction than listening to what others heard. I want my 5 min on the front page! As TIME noted, blogs and other devices give power to YOU, and not so much to US.
Thinking now of blogs that are successful. You have opinionated political blogs and glorified well-written diaries. The blogs I am most familiar with are Wonkette and Whyihatedc, which fit the above categories very well. These don't open the door to a lot of dialogue. They're more a sounding board for a lot of like minded individuals to congregate and applaud each post.

And to skip the apocalyptic "the Internet is a vast wasteland" speech, blogs do not allow the soundest points and arguments to bubble up. Discussions with Josh are still going back and forth on MIT/CMS snobbery and the appropriateness of analysis. I haven't seen key points discovered from Kaufman's treatment of Kayfabe carry over to our discussions about Montreal, or Cactus Jack's ECW promos. I think in some instances, such as here, you can't substitute for good old roundtables and the Socratic method.

Ok, now I feel like I deserve a social security check.

Sam Ford said...

Brian's got some interesting points here as well. I don't agree that blogs are bad news, but I agree that they can be. Here's the conundrum: I wanted a communal written requirement for this class. Message boards seem even more informal than blogs, so I chose the blog as a way for people to write their own hopefully well-thought-out pieces as well as have conversations around each others' posts. This got away from the problem we had in one of Henry's classes where the blog was a major component but no one was required to comment, so no one read each others' posts. It's like what you said--everyone wants to say their 10 cents' worth more than read someone else's.

Henry's class also had the problem of people waiting until the end of the semester and then making a whole bunch of posts, so I required them on a weekly basis, with the ability to make posts up down the line. What that still doesn't tackle, though, is everyone making their posts at the end of the week, right before the "deadline," so that there's nothing to comment on for days at a time. It's like a conversation where everyone sits in a silent room for 80 minutes of class and then all start talking at once in the last 10 minutes. It's not what I envisioned, but it's nevertheless what happens. I haven't figured out what the remedy to that problem could be, other than to give each student an individual deadline each week, to ensure posting throughout the week. But that sounds so contrived and complicated...

And the other problem is that, while Blogger software is great in its ease-of-use, there is no way to put part of the post "above the fold" and the rest inside. In other words, if a post goes long, the whole thing has to be on the main page of the blog, causing everything else to get pushed so much farther down the page.

But you're right about blogs not being able to replace good class discussion, and now that we've covered the breadth of wrestling history and have a lot of guests joining us for discussion, I hope we get to have a lot more of these in the Wednesday/Thursday sessions. The positive of the blog is that the conversation is forever archived and open to the public, but nothing replaces class dsicussion.

narwood said...

To respond to Michael's comment, since I don't at the moment have time for more than a cursory read through of the rest of it: oh god, I know. I was a linguistics major before adding CMS, and the slew of people who thought it would be fun to take our advanced courses without bothering to care about, for example, what various types of verbs are, and how they relate to syntactic trees, drove me crazy and wasted large blocks of time when I could have been learning something I hadn't already put in the effort to learn.

I know blogs are informal. And that blogger in particular is poorly structured for ongoing discussion through comments, especially with the large number of posts this blog gets. But there is a huge difference between informality and sloppiness. This difference is between typing up arguments that could be published, or making the same points, while using contractions, conversational language, some misspellings and slurring over references and citations.

If I had ever taken a class from you, you would have found my journal entries to be informally empirical, containing arguments, and each easily developed into essays. This is because talking my head off is entertaining, but only academically useful if I'm saying something. If anything, the blog should promote less mental informality, given that 1 - it is not a journal. It is our class discussion. 2 - it is published online. 3 - there are no rules. There is no 'CMS' way to post with research methods and stuff. There's merely the indication that logic and rational thought should be applied, which it is hoped anyone at MIT, who ought to have some scientific background, possesses.

narwood said...

One note about what makes a good CMS post - CMS stands for COMPARATIVE media studies. So... You compare things. Which isn't hard. "Hey, this looks like that other thing that I know really well! I'll write about how they compare... and contrast..." and suddenly you have a worthwhile post that given the paucity of research probably points out something new, provides potential routes of analysis, and brings personal knowledge into the discussion within a context that adds to everyone's knowledge base.

Sam Ford said...

I agree that the "comparative" part of CMS is quite instructive, which has made Kate's posts comparing wrestling to dance, Peter's comparing wrestling to video games, and the myriad posts comparing two readings, or two wrestling time periods, or two particular figures. I think these juxtapositions almost always require analysis, at least to some degree, because you have to make arguments in order to make a comparison or contrast.

As we move forward with our research projects, I hope the blog becomes a place to do more of what Peter has done, for instance, and Kate, in testing theories out on the class along the way.