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.


I just sent off my article to the patient and long-suffering editor this morning and then immediately jumped in the car to catch an afternoon train to NYC for a family visit. Whew!

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I’ve been thinking about the topic for the article (fan videos and their development of narrative) for 7 months or so. At least I seem to remember that it was a cold dark night in my office finishing up the proposal it.

One might think that with all that time and thought that the article would write itself, or at the very least flow trippingly off my fingertips and onto the page. (That is, after all, what my own delusional brain was depending on…).

Instead, it was days of grappling in the dark, wringing out pages that may or may not be relevant to the argument. When the time came to give a provisional draft to a gracious reader, the main editorial comment sounded somehow familiar: “your argument and energy really starts to emerge here at the end. Have you considered starting with that?.”. And I’m back in the writing bush leagues.

I’m transcribing this rather humiliating scenario becauseI do so love to publicly flog myself for my own shortcomings, but more importantly to remind myself (and the three readers of this blog) that the process of writing and thinking are never as straightforward and fast as I expect them to be. They are, in fact, almost as painstaking and frustrating as typing this entire post with one finger as I await the onslaught of the big family trip in the hot hot city.

Wish me luck.

Back in the Blog

The extended blogging hiatus below was sponsored by: an article deadline, a conference presentation, a visiting speaker, the letter W (for “what was I thinking?!!), and the number 4 (the average number of hours of sleep I got over the past two weeks).

For the past few weeks, with all of this activity, my constant refrain has been the one I borrowed from Jarhead: “Welcome to the suck.” And suck it did; too much to do, too little time to do it. Produce very polished writing and synthesize complicated arguments from research in film studies, composition pedagogy, and new media theory, and do it fast. Meanwhile, come up with a smart but conversational ditty on the translation of blogosphere protocols into the classroom, and then go and see what other people in comp/rhet are saying about the digital world. Finally, organize a set of activities to entertain your visitor, and strike the perfect note between professional and friendly. In short, the goals of the term boiled down to this: think smart; write well; talk pretty; socialize comfortably. Or, as I kept telling myself: don’t be an ass.

I’m not sure that I succeeded on that final front, but now that I’ve caught up on some sleep, I realize why it’s worth running the academic gauntlet. I’ve got so many new ideas running around in my head right now, I can’t wait to peruse them at my leisure. Here are my top three: how would we characterize the aesthetics of YouTube, and what are the pedagogical implications of this? If the retrieval of information is shifting radically (from hierarchical to folksonomy), what are the author’s new responsibilities for positioning his/her work? In what ways is convergence culture restructuring the boundaries of taste as a means of filtering information?

Not that I can address any of these right now, but they’re certainly the highlights of getting through some of my own research, seeing a great panel at the CCCC, and reading excerpts from Jim Collins’ new book. Hooray for new and exciting ideas!

And now, back to grading…

Excuses, Excuses

Why the light blogging here of late? Could it be the looming article deadline, quickly approaching? Or perhaps the conference paper on the horizon?

Could very well be. Could be both.

Between these two projects, I find that I’m running low on words. You know those days of writing where you’re just rearranging your five favorite terms over and over again? Epistemology + digital video + pedagogy + YouTube = conclusion to section. Add a verb or two. Move on.

When I can get out of my head a little, I’m noting some curious observations about writing process. Here’s the deal: I am co-writing this article. Which is due in a week. Not “about a week”, mind you, an actual week. The two of us have been diligent for sure, meeting weekly since January, reading, writing, discussion, drafting, revising, etc. Despite our plans to finish this thing by the first week in March, however, we find ourselves looking at the upcoming deadline like deer in headlights. Part of this could be that neither of us is a person who tends to get things done far in advance. But I prefer to think that it also tells us something about the process of collaborative writing: it takes longer. You would think that I’d have known that going in, but it didn’t really occur to me. What I’ve discovered is that when you’re writing with someone, you’re negotiating and discussing all the time. Which secondary sources to use and why; how much space a particular piece of the argument should occupy; the particular ways that data should be interpreted; style; etc. And that’s all the stuff that we actually articulate. I’d venture that there is also always a secondary level of negotiation going on non-verbally: should I just take the lead on this part?; am I slowing us down?; is my expertise relevant here?. Essentially, there are all of the interpersonal elements to negotiate as well. Is it any wonder that it takes longer than writing an article alone?

Meanwhile, note to self: next time I assign a group project to students (I’m looking at you, film class!), I need to give them ample time to work through not just content, but interpersonal stuff as well. It would probably also help if I could get them to move across the street from one another, and assign one person per group to be the baker who provides snacks for each meeting. And then someone to do the group’s laundry and grocery shopping while they get their article written—I mean project done.

So what’s the collaborative writing payoff, if it creates deadline problems? Well, there’s the obvious: two sets of expertise, two readers, two thinkers. If you can truly work collaboratively, you can pool your ideas, which ideally become greater than the sum of your two parts. [I’m not necessarily making this claim for our work, you understand, I’m simply saying that it’s possible.] It is certainly the case that I know more now than I ever would have about the history of composition and rhetoric as a field than I would have if I had not worked with my present co-author. Less obvious: knowledge about your own process, by way of watching someone else’s. I’ve always known that I’m a balky writer; it takes any number of rewards and punishments to get me off the starting blocks. [Embarrassing confession: once, as an undergrad, I wrote a 20 page paper on Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse in a single day by tying my leg to my desk chair. Sad, but true. There was much cursing involved, and gnashing of teeth. And if we see our own sins at the time of our death, that paper is coming back to haunt me.] My co-writer seemingly has none of these problems—she’s happy to produce reams of text as a way of figuring out her ideas. Why has this never occurred to me as an option? Writing as process of thinking rather than as record of perfectly formed idea?! Preposterous!

I suppose the response to the article will be our litmus test for the success of our collaborative process. Regardless of the editor’s view, however, I’ve got a whole new bag of tricks to experiment with when writing my conference paper. Carnivalesque discourse + interpellation + new media = …

I Knew It Was Only a Matter of Time…

No, this isn’t a post about the havoc wreaked by Daylight Saving Time (although there is a considerable amount of that), neither is it a confession that I stayed in New York past my allotted time (although I was very, very tempted, camped outside the Magnolia Bakery, eating cupcakes and watching the person wearing a giant chipmunk suit dancing around in the Marc Jacobs window. God, I love New York!). Instead, it’s a post about fan fiction.

So if you’ve had the unfortunate luck to be around me for any amount of time at all this year, you’ve probably heard me wax rhapsodic about the joys and wonders of fan fiction. Really. No sarcasm at all here. Over the summer, I bought the Buffy the Vampire Slayer box set on DVD on a lark, started watching it as a break from the hard work at DMAC, and randomly looked around online for “what was out there.” Nine months later and I’m contracted to write an article about Buffy fan video. Stay tuned. [What I actually said to myself was “gee, this will be so far from work that it will be a mental vacation. It will be great to watch something that I don’t feel like I’m ever going to write about.” Oh, life-irony. You’re so clever.  Joke’s on me, I suppose.  Har har.]

The point of this is that I’ve been reading a LOT of fan fiction in my spare time. Is there some dreck out there? Sure. Does it bring up all kinds of questions about copyright? Perhaps. Is it a totally impressive, renewing-my-faith-in-the-human-desire-to-create, deeply communal practice engaged in by hundreds of people? Yup. Sure is. Let’s not forget: Buffy went off the air in 2003. Whedon stopped writing her life then, but the fans continue on. Not a week goes by that I don’t read something in the Buffyverse that blows my mind, either because of the author’s inventiveness, or the careful and considered feedback given to her, or the characterizations and/or re-imagining of the “canonical” episodes. [In fact, this week I’m fascinated by the inscription of feminine sexuality—but that’s another story.] And when you have this experience, over and over again, you begin to realize that it’s not an isolated event—this is an amazing phenomenon, period. These communities are both deep and broad; the authors slip between the fictional and the personal, the fecundity of their imaginations allow them to slip even across fandoms and to take their readers with them. For the record? Lots of loyal Buffy fans also dig Supernatural and Veronica Mars. Who knew? [And a better question: what’s the connecting point across these shows?]

So there I am, poking around on LiveJournal communities, reading from story to story, and I see it: heads up, Kate L! Torchwood fan fiction, complete with icons. In retrospect, it’s totally obvious: cult BBC show with lots and lots of ambiguous sexual behavior? It’s practically a set-up for fan fic authors—the equivalent of popcult catnip. And since Torchwood is pulling both plot points and images from Buffy (not to mention actors, as the appearance of James Marsters–a.k.a. Spike in the Buffyverse–in the first episode of season two), it shouldn’t surprise me that this is a combination that appeared early, and I expect to see it more and more often.

However, isn’t it amazing how fast a fandom is born? Torchwood is about halfway through it’s second season in the U.S., and we’re about a year behind the Brits. So, at most, we’re talking about a two year television phenomenon, yet a quick google search for “Torchwood fan fiction” yields 485,000 hits. ?!!!

I’d love to see someone track the scatter pattern of a particular fandom from patient zero onward. How many episodes before the first fic emerges? How fast do communities form? Are they largely comprised of fans from other shows? At what point do questions of canon emerge?

Sucker for Software

When it comes to technological “appliances” (i.e., gadget objects), I find that I most often have the magpie response: pretty!  shiny!  want to take back to my nest!.  With a very few exceptions (the iPhone, strangely, being one of them, but only because of my bizarre dislike for cell phone apparati), I can be convinced to want a lot of shiny metal objects run by computer chips.  That same love has now transmuted itself to software, all of which promises the functionality that I’ve always been missing; or in other words, it promises, like any good product, to fix all of my problems.  The focus here, in fact, seems to be on fixing the problems of research and writing.

It must have begun with Endnote, which promised to optimize my crap recording of research.  Back when I was working on the dissertation, I had a terrible habit of getting excited about an article, photocopying it, and neglecting to copy or write down WHERE THE ARTICLE CAME FROM.  Cue montage music of my hours in the library, retracing my steps from stacks to carrel to reshelving units (and yes, kiddies, this was in the days before JSTOR, dammit).  So Endnote promised to solve that fundamental issue: if I could stay on it, then I would have a neverending database of my research.  Three years later, Endnote is still in the box; in large measure precisely because online databases are so ubiquitous, and because it seems easier to type up a bibliography than it is to learn all of the functions of the program.

Round two: Zoho’s suite of programs.  Not software per se, but something that began to speak to my desire for a common storage place to put notes, upload relevant files of all types, etc.  I spent 3 days working with the Zoho notebook and found that it did just that, except that the notetaking function was a bit clunky for my taste, and I was doing a bunch of flipping back and forth between tabs when I wanted everything in the same place.

Round three: collaborative writing on a wiki.  Now that’s more like it!  What began as a mild brainstorm over the summer (Jeez, M., how are we going to keep everything in the same place so that we don’t lose it and can show each other what we’re working on?  What do you think about a wiki?).  By far the most productive and easy to use, our PBwiki site has been the central housing place for documents and files and lists and links and notes on a faculty lunch series for teaching and learning, a co-authored conference paper, a co-authored article, and virtually all of the secondary sources related to these.

And now there’s Scrivener (hat tip New Kid).   Promising to integrate the various tools that are now crucial to extensive writing projects (pdf files, word processing, digital movies, sound files, web pages) into a single format, Scrivener appears to be the hub that consolidates all of the errata that one brings into lengthy compositions.  Shiny!  Want to bring home!!

It’s difficult to tell whether I’m more attracted to the format itself (it looks awfully clean, that Scrivener, unlike my desktop), or to the promise that I could, someday, get my research organized.  And that promise is no joke: I’ve got a June 30 deadline to talk about a series of fan videos, and the thought of keeping them all in line is daunting, to say the least.  But the question, as always, is this: will it really work, in practice?  Because if I begin a project in Scrivener and end up hating the interface, then I’ve lost three days of work time getting everything set up.  And if one already has agita about beginning monumental writing tasks (no one I know, but I’m just saying), then the feeling of double jeopardy in a false start with untried software is pretty daunting.  Oh, but the promise of organization and clean integration…

On a less personal note, I’m fascinated by the number of emerging programs now that attend to this idea of organizing information for writing.  If I hear one more word about Devon and the majesty and wonder therein, I might scream.   Add Zoho, and Scrivener, and a host of other products with good press, and it just may add up to the ways in which our collective anxiety about the glut of information—and about finding and then later re-locating the gems within the glut—is growing, and with it, we’re creating a whole new sub-market of software.  For my part, I’m wondering how long it will take for someone to provide this service with humans—a personal research assistant to rival the Hollywood personal assistant.  Now who doesn’t want one of those?

Link Storage

Who says that blogs can’t be giant filing cabinets?

Here’s a link to a NY Times interview with David Henry Hwang (most famously the author of the play M. Butterfly) about his new play Yellow Face.  The play apparently features a character names D.H.H., who shares significant history with the playwright himself (thus giving my postmodernism students the chills.  or making them gag).  Meanwhile, the plot centers around a very particular conflict: apparently, D.H.H. casts a white actor thinking that he’s a mixed-race Asian American, and then believes that he has to cover up his mistake in order to retain his own reputation as an Asian American role model.  In the interview, Hwang explains what’s at stake:

For instance, the fact that the D. H. H. character in this play mistakes a white man for being part Asian. That’s actually a perfectly understandable mistake, because you can’t necessarily tell by looking anymore.

You can’t tell by the last name. You aren’t allowed to ask at auditions, legally, a person’s race. So what does race really start to mean when you add all that up?

I’m fascinated by the idea that Hwang sees this as a means of investigating the depths of race as a whole, but doesn’t mention the particular context of mixed-race identity here.  I realize that the first might encompass the second, but mixed-race identity in Asian American circles is no small deal; it’s linked to vexed political/historical relationships (e.g., war and post-war military occupations), deep-seated resentments about intermarriage, etc., etc.  Surely that’s got to play a role here?

Yellow Face opens Dec. 10 at the Public Theater (and apparently only runs through the 23?  Website info here.)  If I can get into the city to see it, I’ll post a review.