The Leap

I would like to be able to describe the exact nature of the thing that brings me back to blogging. Is it inspiration? Necessity? The desperate desire to shout into the wilderness?

It is not a surfeit of time, I can tell you that much. Neither is it a deep and abiding confidence that writing here will about-face the daily announcements of calamity facing our shared values of compassion; reasoned engagement with one another; truth, both material and metaphysical; human autonomy and the public good. For now, it’s just a feeling—a feeling that there are things in the world that are delightful and wondrous and strange, and they are worth contemplation and the words expended to describe their sublimity, no matter how minute. A feeling, an impulse, a vague glimmer of a notion far away on the horizon.

My current delight: the Sundance short documentary “Ten Meter Tower,” which centers on a central conceit: people climb up the ladder of high dive and confront the fear of jumping. In its first minutes, it seems almost absurdist; a static camera records the platform and captures the silent contemplation of the perhaps-divers, one after another. As the video continues, however, something else emerges. Out of the array of responses to the challenge of fear comes a pattern of bravery. We cheer for those who take the leap, urging them toward the edge, reading their various rationales and rationalizations in real time, hoping for the sign that they’re resolved to go over. (I confess that my current favorite is the young man who takes the time to tell his compatriot “I’m not really present” to her encouragement, even as his knees buckle beneath him.) In a NYTimes article, the filmmakers, Maximilien Van Aertyrck and Axel Danielson, note the dual poles of the short. On the one hand, they describe it as  “a portrait of doubt,” and yet, the triumph of the series of leaps speaks to the desire for a unifying essentialism: “Overcoming our most cautious impulses with bravery unites all humankind.”

“Ten Meter Tower” makes us feel that hope for essentialism and suspend, for a moment, our necessary and intimate grappling with the realities of difference. I cheer for our leaps and everything necessary to convince us to take them.



Faculty Learning Community Teaching Demo

In anticipation of Jose Antonio Bowen’s visit to the Mount next week, I’ve been re-reading (and reading more carefully) his 2012 book Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. The book itself functions primarily as an argument for the seismic shifts to the landscape of higher education (akin to those in the music and print publication industries), and goes on to suggest ways that many of us in academe–professors, administrators, and by extension, staff members–can begin to adapt our practices to acknowledge the uses of technology and our students’ experiences and expectations of it, while at the same time preserving and reimagining the delivery of our core liberal education values. Don’t let Bowen’s emphasis on the culture and practice of higher education fool you, however. Throughout the book, he offers an array of practices to experiment with in the classroom, in the online version of the classroom, and programmatically.

For the purposes of this 10 minute teaching demonstration, I was struck by Bowen’s emphasis on two concepts: customization and curation—both key phenomena of the digital era. Customization is the process we experience almost every day: it’s evident in the way that the Waze app (or any GPS program) can instantly give us directions from our current location to the place we want to go; or the way that ads from a website that we’ve visited continue to appear on our favorite news feeds or Facebook walls; or the way that produces recommendations for our next purchase. Bowen explains the way that we can anticipate and adapt to this phenomenon as we teach: “Technology presents teachers not only with more content than ever before, but also more routes into that content…We can certainly almost certainly improve learning by offering more choices for preclass first exposure. If the point is to introduce material or learn content, then offering students a choice of preclass reading, an audio podcast, a video podcast, or an activity will improve their preparation for class” (54-5).

The second concept is curation. Here’s a good definition, courtesy of Maria Popova, editor (or “curator”) of the site brainpickings.  “Just as its origin in the art world, curation online is premised on the idea that a curator with a point of view culls content around a theme that he or she deems of cultural significance. A museum can make a name for itself by being consistently reliable in hosting these conversations (take the MoMA); likewise, a curator can make a name for herself by being consistently compelling in catalyzing those conversations (take Paola Antonelli). But the museum is merely the enabler of that conversation, the curator merely its catalyst, and the cultural conversation itself takes place largely outside the walls of the museum and the control of the curator” (see Popova interview 2011). Instead of producing content, a curator brings his/her expertise to bear in the process of locating and arranging existing content in the hopes of creating a meaningful conversation around the objects. Bowen adds this process to his list of new roles for faculty members: “The job of faculty needs to become more focused on designing learning experience and interacting with students…Now that technology has created a cheaper way to deliver content, faculty should spend more time finding the right entry point, creating a supportive environment, communicationg high standards, and guiding student learning…Faculty must become curators, performers, directors, assemblers, and pedagogues” (246-7).

The teaching experiment that follows, then, is an attempt to design a learning activity that forwards customization (as a part of the student experience) through the use of curation (on the part of the faculty member).


The purposes of this assignment are threefold:

  1. To identify and articulate, in your own words, the key ideas—both literal and metaphoric—of David Foster Wallace’s essay, “This is Water.”
  2. To compare the benefits and drawbacks of different media on the transmission of those ideas
  3. To reflect on your own learning preferences, and to make inferences regarding the medium that works best for your first contact with new material.


Below, there are three versions of the same essay: one in print, one in audio, and one in video. Before you begin, think for a moment about which medium you prefer to start with, and why. Jot down your reasoning. Then, read/listen/watch the one that you’ve chosen. As you are working with the piece, try to identify the most compelling pieces, and jot these down on a piece of paper. Which quotations, images, or ideas grab your attention? Write these down! When you get to the end, look back over your notes. Choose three of your ideas that you noted. What do these three have in common? If you had to explain this speech to a friend, what would you say that it is about–what’s the overarching concept? How do your three noted ideas connect to that overarching concept?

PRINT: “This is Water


(to 5:48)

(to 6:13)

Tw-Oscar Night

Oscar night has finally descended upon us, friends, and with that, we can all heave a gigantic sigh of relief.  There will be a final riotous outcry of “I can’t believe X won,” (Argo) “X was robbed,” (Zero Dark Thirty) and “OMG, did you see what she was wearing?!” (J. Lo) and then a delightful nine month surcease until the awards season Rube Goldberg machine cranks into high gear again.  But in these final hours before what we know will be an interminable live-telecast, I find myself reflecting on the ways that participation has shifted the experience of awards shows, and the distinctive pleasures (and a few losses) that are incurred.

As I noted a few months ago, I’ve only recently made a return to television, after a two-year break.  My, how the world has changed!  Last year at this time, I would have gone along my merry way today, paying no attention to the official Eastern Standard kickoff time, blissfully unaware of the calculus needed to reckon the best window for red carpet coverage on multiple networks.  I would have gone to bed as happy as a clam this evening, knowing that, come morning, someone(s) (a heady combination of The Daily Beast, E! Online, and The Fug Girls) would have provided a just-meaty-enough curation of the evening’s bests and worsts for me to get the general idea.  Thus, I’d be informed; I’d get the goods.  My, wasn’t I efficient.

What I’d neglected to consider, however, were the manifold ways that participation in social networks expands the experience of “events” like The Oscars.  It’s fair to say, I think, that for all of the attempts at entertainment and concision that the showrunners produce, these shows D-R-A-G.  Four hours of nominees, speeches, musical numbers, montages, held together by an ever-diminishing thread of anticipation—it’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration.  It’s no wonder that the show is shedding its audience at an alarming rate, particularly in the all-important “younger” demographic (18-49?  Really?  Younger than what, exactly?).  In contrast to the boredom/rising-annoyance-fest, however, stands the never-silent mob on Twitter and Facebook, a field of voices processing images, statements, and affects in real time. There is a frenetic kind of energy that pervades this participation, for sure, and an intense competitive motivation to say something first and best.  In terms of resuscitating the Oscars (and award shows in general), I’d say there’s nothing like it.  (In fact, a month or so ago, the brilliant writer and effervescent Twitterer Alexander Chee noted something to the effect that Twitter may be the only thing maintaining appointment television viewing, anymore.  I think he’s nailed it.)

There’s no question that this approach, and in particular, the way that it privileges speed over reflection, can allow for some of the worst kinds of responses.  (Self-censorship, self-preservation, and etiquette are apparently second-level instincts.)  I can’t help but wonder, however, if these events—in their online milieu—function as high-stakes training camps for wit: the equivalent of an improv class, where your spontaneous extemporanaeity blasts out to the ends of the ‘Verse.  At its best, event participation fosters a network that rewards the insightful, the funny, the pithy—all linguistic skills that I’m happy to see rise to the top of a discursive community’s values.  And this says nothing of the associated participatory skills of selection and curation via retweets—a analytical and socially generous investment in sharing things that delight you with your own network of followers.

Smarter scholars than I (Jean BurgessJason MittellKelli Marshall?) could say volumes, I sure, about the ways that social networks perform, and the histories of participation in television viewing, and the connections among these trajectories.  While I go look up what they have to say, however, I’ll be flexing my thumbs in anticipation of this evening’s event, more so for its commentary than for its content.

The “Real” and the “True”

I’m currently in the sixth week, or a third of the way (!) through, my contemporary narrative class.  I’ve drafted my students into the service of my current obsessions, and so we’re tracking the ways that a select set of contemporary narratives thematize reading/interpretive processes as methods of evaluating truth.  My intrepid students are going great guns, of course, and are finding all sorts of examples and avenues that never would have occurred to me.  Case in point: how to do we articulate the complex relationship between realism and the truth in any given narrative?  How does the former shape our expectations of the latter, and to what extend does the ambiguity of the latter force us to question the former?

To fully understand that question, you’d need to have an idea of the kind of texts that I’ve been asking them to endure.  To some extent, whether they are novels or television serials, they have largely cohered, thus far, to the genre pithily described as “mind-fuck,” or, in more genteel language, what Thomas Elsaesser calls the “mind-game.”  In essence, I’ve asked students to dig into narratives (Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, and now Moffatt and Gatiss’s Sherlock) that actively present a series of internal questions about which of many narratives or perspectives is true, OR real, or both.  Still confused?  (So are we.)  In Mr. Peanut, for example, we begin with a compelling and horrifyingly ambiguous image of a woman who has died from anaphylactic shock: death by peanut.  Her husband is present, with a bloody hand.  The question: did he shove the peanut down her throat, or did he try to prevent her from swallowing it?   The novel goes on to consider the complexities of married life, the emotional weight of a desire for freedom, and along the way, retells one of the famous American uxoricide cases, that of the Sheppard murder made famous in the television series and film The Fugitive.  Thus, the details of the protagonist’s daily life and the “ripped from the headlines,” crime scene evidence of the Sheppard case accumulate, attempting to verify these tales of matrimonial mayhem. It doesn’t take much to see how the status “the real” serves to support “the true,” until the processes of interpretation and abstraction are brought to bear: how do law enforcement officials assess guilt?; to what extent does the desire to kill one’s wife differ from the actual act?; in what ways does the indecipherability of one case reflect on another?  (And just when you think you’ve got a handle on those in this novel, we move on to the next one.)

The class, thus far, has enthusiastically assessed these narrative strands in each text, weighing them against each other in order to argue for the one that seems believable (we also like the word “possible,” along with “plausible”).   We marshal our evidence to make claims about where we stand as readers when we close the covers; we integrate the evidence that others provide to alter our own readings.  What we have yet to be able to do, however, is to consider the ways that the conventions of realism enter into the conversation.  Or to put this another way: it’s all we can do to get a handle on what is “the real story” of the text; identifying the mechanisms that get us there is beyond the pale.  Who designed this class, anyway?

And yet, the question remains.  For all of the retro-postmodern ambiguity these narratives possess, they also rest on a 200 year history (give or take) of a realist tradition: a painstakingly-constructed, historically and culturally situated, ideologically-rife set of conventions that registers to readers as “real.”  Where does our current cultural fascination with reality—our own dissonant belief, for instance, that “reality tv” is both a constructed falsity, and yet somehow also true—stand in relation to that history?

Stay tuned, true believers.  We’ve still got 12 weeks to figure this stuff out.

New(s) Access

November 8: the day we recover from the election and begin to process the data with some modicum of logic, distance, and methodology, as opposed to the last two days of sleep-deprived enthusiasm, relief, and urgency to be the first out of the gate.  Like many of us, I spent yesterday in a haze, reading election coverage, trying to make sense of what we knew about the election after it had happened, the various parties’ reactions, and what we could discern about demographics, about responses to important issues, about America as a national body.  Of course, I was doing it on about 4 hours of sleep, in between classes and meetings, and so it was less than optimal cogitation on my part.  This morning, however, buoyed by yesterday’s 9 p.m. bedtime, I realized that one of the elements of this election cycle that I wanted to preserve and assess was the difference in the ways that I had accessed election night coverage itself, which describes a particular shift from television culture to internet culture.

A little background probably can’t hurt here.  When my husband and I moved into our current abode three years ago, we had a little skirmish with our local cable provider (I’ll spare you the gory details.  Suffice to say that it involved a lot of profanity and calling into question of the legitimacy of said cable providers’ parentage).  The question, at the time, was what our options were; could we live without access to television?  Our house sits in some mysterious blackout zone of reception.  We receive neither the public digital signal, nor much in the way of cell service.  We’re lucky to have access to FiOS here, or we might as well have hung it up and started our own Pioneer Days celebration.  It was a bizarre moment: we could get fiber optic service for internet and phone, but not cable through that provider.  Thus, the real question was whether we could live with what was available through streaming services and the mail.  This was an actual question, three years ago. Netflix was radically expanding its library of streaming media, Amazon had just entered the fray, but services like Hulu had not yet made the jump to a simple access point for television-viewing (and by simple I mean “don’t make me get an HDMI cable and my laptop to try and Frankenstein this mess together just so that I can watch an episode of 30 Rock).  In addition, this was juuuust before BluRay players began to integrate access to streaming services as part of their hardware.  In short: we weren’t quite your plucky, early adopters who were willing to figure out how to make the wifi talk to the computer talk to the television; we were looking for something not much harder than cable was: I want to turn on the television and watch what I want to watch.  And I don’t want to give any more money to the cable company.  Jerks.

The moral of this story is thus: with some research, we invested in a dandy little Roku box, and have been mighty pleased with it.  Because streaming offerings have, for the most part, expanded exponentially (hello, Criterion Collection?  Gimme.), we’re generally able to find things we enjoy, and we’ve gotten quite used to NEVER HAVING TO WATCH COMMERCIALS.  EVER.  In addition, we watch entire seasons in a go, rather than seeing an episode a time, weekly.  I’ll say more about this later, but moving to streaming media exclusively will change you as a viewer.  ‘Nuff said.

What this switch meant, however, is that we DO NOT have access to mainstream television, not in any timely way.  Sure, the internet and Roku both offer access to news shows after they’ve aired, but the timeliness of most news coverage tempers my desire to hunt down particular shows and watch them in their entirety.  In essence: why watch Rachel Maddow or NBC Nightly News hours or days after their broadcast?  I can skim the NYTimes, or the Daily Beast, and get a sense of the trajectory of news for the day.

All of these changes in media and news consumption, effectuated by the cutting of cable, have been, for the most part, painless and fascinating, in the “self-as-lab-rat” way.  But I had forgotten the ways that certain cultural events (The Olympics was one of these, but more importantly: PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS) demand a shared access to certain kinds of viewing for full participation. In the 2008 election, we gathered at a friend’s house to watch the returns, eating dinner and having nervous conversations as we waited for Brian Williams to call various states.  I’m sure that we could have suckered someone we knew into sharing their television for a night, but I wasn’t feeling totally sociable.  Surely, there was a way to experience this election with others?  To check returns as they came in?

When you live on the East Coast, election results come in late.  And when you’re used to getting up at 5, bedtime comes early.  As much as I wanted to know how this was going to turn out, I also wanted to get some damn sleep.  So rather than sitting up with my laptop all night, I took my phone to bed with me.  “I’ll just check in periodically,” I thought.  “You know, just to see the electoral map at”

What actually emerged from that decision, however, was a frenetic experience of monitoring several apps and sites in an attempt to access breaking news, and then to verify it; to get a sense of the reaction to said news from friends and from the wider world.  And there wasn’t a clear-cut distinction between news outlets and social outlets: I received as much breaking information about local races, about leading poll numbers and districts from Facebook as I did from the CNN website.  As many have noted, Twitter itself became a crucial and almost overwhelming hash of early, rescinded, hoax, and legitimate calls, in addition to a hotbed of snark that was feeding television discourse as well as making its way on to Facebook.  (I’d see a particularly snort-worthy tweet approximately 3 minutes before someone posted to FB.)  I got to watch how excited and anxious many of my students were about the returns, even as people swapped tips and questions about where reliable information was coming from—and how’s that for internet haters?  A consistent and running discourse, throughout the evening, about how we could verify the information coming in: first calls vs. the number of calls vs. grudging calls by networks opposed to the results all were vetted as probable functions of veracity.  Fool us once, Election 2000, but not again.

On the one hand, then, I got the equivalent of a back-stage pass to a much larger community of shared reactions than I would have received with a small group of friends, parked in front of a television all night.  It was a networked amalgam of sites, for sure, but Twitter, Facebook and news websites, strung together, created both a local and national view of the election that was utterly new to me.  On the other hand, there was a thread of the conversation that I did NOT have access to: a band of discussion/snark that was reacting to the media’s reaction: Brian Williams’s discussions of the legalization of marijuana, Diane Sawyer’s demeanor, Karl Rove’s questioning of the Ohio call.  There remains an important dimension of shared media experience and critique that revolves around the dynamism and unpredictability of live television that can’t be accessed, necessarily, via web—at least not on my phone in the dead of night with no audio.
So, Election 2012 is behind us, with its new landscape of media access and participation.  And as the interpenetration of the social and informative grows, I can only imagine the ways that the next scheduled political event will be accessed, unevenly, by viewers with a variety of devices and inputs, both singular and jerry-rigged together.  To what extent are the experiences that are shared by the most of us (e.g., national politics) accessed differently?  And in what ways will those continue to shape disparate or common experiences of the same event?

[NOTE: If your question about this post is: “Hey!  Didn’t you commit to #digiwrimo, you slacker?  Isn’t this your first post in 4 days?  Are you just going to ignore that?!”, then your answers are, in order: yes, yes, and obviously, no.  I mean, did I fall off the wagon, hard?  Yes.  And I spent some time feeling bad about that, in between reading student portfolios and writing up materials for my department and advising 12 students and teaching classes.  And I even thought about counting the tweets and comments and class-related posts that I’ve written since then, as it would make a significant contribution to my word count.  In the end, I decided against that, because I think the spirit of #digiwrimo, or at least my own commitment to the idea, is that it should be a certain kind of writing, the observational/analytic writing that I associate with public academic blogs, that public humanities intellectualism that I wrote about last week.  And on Nov. 30, I want a clear picture of my accomplishments in that arena, rather than the kinds of writing that I do, and do for my job, regardless of writing challenges and communities of writers who are challenging themselves.  And in that same vein, while I thought about throwing in the digital towel as of Nov. 5, I also thought that perhaps the larger purpose of Digital Writing Month is not that participants achieve 50,000 words and a daily post, but rather that they form a habit of being called to writing and expression in digital formats; that they practice a kind of mindfulness about their writing, and cultivate a desire and readiness to find experiences and events worth writing about, and to do that writing, regardless of word counts and months.  And so, in that spirit, I’ll soldier on.  So there.]

“You Don’t Upload Me?” Pre-Election Women’s Video

The new face of women’s political video?

It must be said, up front, that I am no scholar of elections, or even someone who follows political rhetoric carefully, in all of its complex historical manifestations, carefully.  I’m not even someone who religiously tracks the ways that video gets circulated during elections.  (There are, for the record, people who are fantastic at this: Chuck Tryon, for one.  Go and read his blog if you want expertise.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.)

But even for a layperson/concerned citizen/casual observer like me, it’s difficult to ignore the video production and circulation by and for women as we approach the final lap of this presidential election cycle, in part because it is beginning to counteract some assumptions that media scholars have made about the ways that women use video.  How does that work, you ask?  Stay with me, now.

Look: you don’t have to dig deep to find the news that women voters will play a major role on Tuesday; sources as disparate as the Huffington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,  and the Wall Street Journal have detailed the ways in which, as a constituency, women may very well choose our next president.  It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that we’ve seen an a significant amount of female-focused political video throughout this campaign.  But in the last few weeks, there’s been a decided uptick in the number of videos themselves, in addition to the kind of circulation they receive.

The clip of Fey’s speech for the Center for Reproductive Rights lapped the internet on Oct. 25; it’s been uploaded to YouTube in a number of formats, made the Facebook and Twitter rounds, and garnered some coverage in entertainment, culture and political coverage (E!Online,, and the Wall Street Journal, who is hosting the video above, which now sits at ~137,000 views,).  And Fey’s video is just one of a handful that have emerged in the final two weeks before election day.  I’m also interested in the recent release and dissemination of Lena Dunham’s “First Time” video, the Nov. 2 “Don’t Turn Back Time on Women” video, with Cher and Kathy Griffin, and Lesley Gore’s 10/22 “You Don’t Own Me PSA” (see below).  What’s so significant about this handful?

Here’s the thing about this emergence of explicitly political video by and for women : it flies in the face of the data that women, particularly women over 30, are less likely to create and post video than men.  In a 2007 Pew study of online video, Mary Madden notes that while a small-but-meaningful gender disparity exists when one tracks video watching and downloads, the gap widens considerably when we consider uploads:

Nearly two-thirds of online men (63%) use the internet to watch or download video, while just about half of online women do so (51%). Video posting produces a more dramatic disparity; 11% of online men say they upload video, compared with only 6% of online women.

She goes on to mention, however, that the gender gap lessens considerably when you look at younger internet users:

When looking exclusively at the viewing and uploading habits of young adults (those ages 18-29), young men and women report roughly the same incidence of video watching and uploading. Instead, users age 30 and older are the ones who exhibit the most pronounced gender differences.

With these ideas in mind, it’s even more significant, then, that the majority of the figures in these election season videos are squarely outside of the 18-29 demographic (I’ll cheat a bit here and include Lena Dunham, who was born in ’86).  But for the most part, we’re seeing women making videos to persuade other women to vote for a particular candidate.  And the reaction itself is notable: not to pick on Dunham’s video in particular, but it is, as far as I know, the only one to get a special shout-out from the Family Research Council for being “disgusting.”  (You can follow that controversy here.)  Without Dunham, however, we have videos featuring women in their 40s (thank you, Tina Fey); 50s (Kathy Griffin); 60s (Cher and Lesley Gore).  It’s a cavalcade of mature women who are registering their political discontent, mobilizing women to vote and to vote for a progressive slate of candidates, and, in opposition to demographic media trends, have decided that video is the most powerful medium to accomplish their aims.

Is this political cycle, one that has focused on women as perhaps the most treasured voting bracket, while simultaneously featuring some of the most retrograde policies and opinions about women’s health and autonomy, simply an anomaly that is great enough to interrupt gendered, generational practices with video?  Or rather, does this indicate a growing interest in older women to harness video as a viral tool to represent their beliefs?

It could be either of these, as well as any number of other considerations that I’m not taking into account here. As a parting observation, however,  I will just mention that there is a fascinating rhetorical concurrence in the “Don’t Turn Back Time on Women” video and the “You Don’t Own Me PSA.”  Dunham’s video invokes a shared second person audience—the “you” that wants your first time voting to be with someone special (wink); but both Cher/Griffin and Gore invoke a “we” voice throughout their videos.  For Team Cher/Griffin, this is a multidimensional “we”: it’s “women and people who like women and respect them.  I’m looking at you, LGBTQs…”; later, it’s a “we” that is calling on voters in cities in crucial swing states (Portsmouth, Fort Lauderdale, Cleveland).  In short, it’s a “we” that is held together by values, and must be tended to/protected by those in key geographical locations (implicitly, also part of the “we”).

Gore’s “we,” however, is different, and that difference is one that may well instantiate the role that women’s political video is playing in the final days before Nov. 6.  Gore lends her iconic 1963 song for the video, which consists of women in solitude, in pairs, in groups, lip-syncing to her song in front of their webcams.  The video functions as a collage, then, of women making their own video in collusion with others, for the sake of a particular cause; almost literally singing with the same voice.  “You Don’t Own Me” is comprised of a multi-generational, media-making and producing collective of women, oriented toward the same political goal.

And so, as we move into the final hours preceding the election, I find myself hoping for an enormous voter turnout; a clear and decisive winner of the presidency; and the continuation of an emerging media trend that might disrupt some of our assumptions about who can make and circulate video.

Voting via Video

With election fever in the air, I’ve been holding on to Errol Morris’s Op Ed video “11 Excellent Reasons Not to Vote?“, waiting for a time when I could give it my full attention.  Thank you, Friday morning!

Morris’s piece interests me for two reasons that will be familiar to literary types: form and content.  As many readers will know, Morris is an award-winning director and author (who keeps a vibrant website that corrals all of his various projects).  For me, however, Morris is most notable for his documentaries: films like The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line not only take up some of the most fascinating and complex questions that we have as a society (war, justice, ethics, belief), but do so in a visually compelling way.  [I’ll just come right out and say this now, so as to reveal my prejudices: I dearly wish that more documentary filmmmakers, working both in short and long form, would pay more attention to aesthetics.  Realism can be a trap; dependence on interviews, static camera, and archival footage can be flat. I’m looking at you, Ken Burns.]  His recent piece for the NYTimes, then, is actually labeled an “Op-Doc”: an neologism that I assume brings together the ideas of “Op-Ed” (a term that I assumed grew out of “opinion-editorial,” and certainly fulfills that role, although Wikipedia tells me that it actually comes from “opposite the editorial page” to indicate its difference from the editorials penned by newspaper staff themselves.  Huh.  You learn something new every day.) and “Documentary.”

Before we even get out of the gate with Morris’s piece, then, we’re already talking about a new genre: what is an “Op-Doc”?  What are its components?  Are the expectations for it different than they would be for an op-ed piece?  What happens when you move the requirements for an op-ed into a video form?  And for that matter, what happens when a short documentary becomes an opinion?

I’m overly concerned about these formal questions right now because they’re the questions that my first-year composition students are wrestling with as they move into their final research project for the course.  Up until now, they’ve crafted essays in print and moved them into digital text (by uploading them into an online portfolio); they’ve also composed a remix video, and thus worked with visual and audio sources (with a bit of text sprinkled throughout).  But as we move toward the end of the semester, I’ve asked them to think about how to use the best of both formats: digital text, along with visual and audio sources, to help their audience to understand a complex question and their attempts to answer it with their original research.  Piece of cake, right?  (If you’re interested, you can follow their good-natured discussion about this and other class issues on Twitter at #DEW1: a hashtag that grows out of the name for the class—Digital Expository Writing.)
On Monday, I think I’ll ask them to look at the ways that Morris does just this in his Op-Doc: his question, as you might note from the title of the piece, is manifold:

It made me wonder: What’s stopping us? Do we have reasons not to vote? How can we hear so much about the election, and not participate? If hope isn’t doing it, isn’t the fear of the other guy winning enough to brave the roads, the long lines?

To answer that question, he interviewed a series of young people who actually DID intend to vote (a characteristic that makes them unusual by national standards) and asked them to engage his questions before explaining their own motivations.  I love this approach: it sets his subjects up to think beyond themselves from the very beginning, which may very well help them to imagine their initial motivations very differently.  But before I jump fully into the recognition of the content of Morris’s piece, I want to finish up this assessment of the form: how does this position his audience?  If you are a reader first, then you know what’s up with the video—he reveals his methodology in the fourth paragraph.  You would know, then, by the time you double back to watch (assuming that you do), that the interviewees don’t endorse the “11 reasons not to vote” that they’re articulating.  But if you’re a viewer first and a reader second, you’d be at least a minute and 30 seconds into the video before you began to see the speakers questioning the arguments that they provide against voting.  And perhaps this is at least part of the work that the video achieves: if your assumption is that these are young people who are apathetic/confused/slackers, then you need to take a closer look at them.  It’s a clever, and subtle, rhetorical move on the part of the filmmaker, who might be calling out the readers/viewers of the Times on their willingness to castigate a generation for their unfathomable lack of civic pride.

On the question of content, which has already managed to slide into the conversation here, Morris quickly runs through, and largely dispels, I think some of the more popular reasons for not voting (e.g., one vote won’t matter; confusion and complexity; no candidate is good; “it’s just a way to make yourself happy”; “awkward family dinners”), before listing some very serious reasons to vote (i.e., Florida in 2000; the legacy of the Voting Act of 1965) with some less serious ones (e.g., spite voting).  Along with some chipper music and Morris’s own good-natured hectoring from behind the camera (“How much would you sell your vote for?”), it makes for an incitement to vote that is free of the hectoring, guilt-inducing messages of some “get out the vote” messages.

As a side note, however, I’d like to point out one of the themes that emerges from the interviews.  At the end of the written portion of Morris’s Op-Doc, he says this: “Voting is a leap of faith. Calling it a civic duty is not enough. Either you believe that the system is both changeable and worth changing, or you don’t — and most new voters are not convinced.”  Very probably true; and as someone who is particularly interested in the ways that language works, I’d venture a guess that “civic duty” is not a term that lands with very many young people nowadays.  It barely lands with me, and I’m almost 20 years beyond many of the people interviewed in this piece.

The theme that the interviewees DO pick up, however, is the dismissal of the individual and the pleasures of joining a group.  The video begins with the argument against voting that hinges on the acknowledgment that a single vote could matter; five minutes in, a participant reminds us that “it’s not about you, it’s about all of us…Get off Twitter, stop talking to your friends about how great you are,  go down to vote and throw your lot into the sea with everyone else.”  The next person talks about the “on the other side” experience of having voted, a kind of shared practice that should inspire people to go and get a drink.  We later see a very pregnant mother whose vote is now “twice as important,” along with a newly-naturalized citizen who will vote for the first time.  It’s a bit of a vexed message (what’s up with the Twitter hate?), and yet seems to suggest that dedicated voters in a demographic notorious for NOT voting imagine themselves and their motivations as being distinctly communal; they’re in a group who vote right now, in this election, and/or they’re in a group that prizes voting in a historical trajectory.  Everyone else is in the sea, or getting a drink after having voted, or voting in honor of those who couldn’t vote before him.  This is what we all do; you should do it too.  Is it going to far to say that individualism, here, is shunted aside for the priorities and pleasures of the generation as a whole?  Where does the rationale for voting as a mode of belonging fit in the rhetoric of civics, of responsibility, and in the description of the millennial generation(s) as individualistic and navel-gazers?  If Morris’s interviewees are representative of young people who DO vote, how do we use these insights to capture and incite more of them to “throw their lot into the sea”?