MediaCommons 2: renewed publics, revised pedagogies

What a week it has been since Kathleen first posted about the MediaCommons project we are developing at the Institute for the Future of the Book. The responses we’ve received so far have mostly been both exciting and constructive and they clearly point to a community out there hungry for a digital scholarly network providing new opportunities for interaction and new modes of scholarship, pedagogy and community building.
As a co-creator with Christopher Lucas of Flow: A critical forum on television and media culture, an online journal intended to foster accessible and relevant conversations amongst media scholars and non-academic communities, I have seen first-hand the positive impact that more fluid exchanges of ideas can have on media studies scholarship. Flow’s mission is to provide a space where researchers, teachers, students, and the public can read about and discuss the changing landscape of contemporary media at the speed that media moves. Flow is organized around short, topical columns written by respected media scholars on a bi-weekly schedule. These columns invite response from the critical community by asking provocative questions that are significant to the study and experience of media.
The journal has been put to use in various classroom environments as well, with students either responding to pieces online or the inclusion of various columns in course packets, though this aspect of Flow’s mission has never achieved it’s fullest potential. Moreover, while the journal has been a phenomenal success amongst media studies scholars, it has largely failed to attract other constituencies on a consistent basis or engage them in critical conversations about media. My involvement with MediaCommons emerges out of a desire to make these scholarly conversations relevant to other constituencies — whether they be media producers, legislators, lobbyists, activists, students, or informed consumers — re-establishing the role of the academic as public intellectual and steward or critical conversations.
Today, I am going to write a little bit more about the pedagogical and community outreach goals of the site. These ideas are still being developed and we are hopeful that readers will chime in with other possibilities and suggestions as well. While I will discuss each of these subjects separately, one of the exciting opportunities with MediaCommons would be the integration of scholarly discourse, pedagogy, and community outreach in symbiotic ways.

As high school and college students, as well as many other communities’ increasingly look to the internet and other digital media for news, information, and other forms of knowledge, the role of the media studies scholar has become vital in teaching the critical media literacy skills that will help these communities to analyze, decipher, and navigate between the various sources they engage and to better recognize the roles that power, profit, and policy – whether institutional or corporate -play in the construction of so-called credible knowledge. Yet, within this expanding digital environment, media studies scholars face their own credibility crisis. At a moment where academic forms of knowledge compete and co-exist with – as well as are blurred by – other types of expertise and information, how can media studies scholars establish credibility with non-academics? How do media scholars identify themselves as experts within a digital media environment?
We argue that media scholars must re-evaluate their modes of scholarly engagement and processes for credentialing expertise in a digital environment if they hope to be able to gain credibility amongst students and engage them in critical conversations about media literacy. MediaCommons offers many possibilities for pedagogical and community activist intervention.
Firstly, a digital scholarly network would foreground the process and progression of critical thought over its finished product. It would do so by allowing scholarly work to be written in “real time,” meaning that the development, drafting and revision of critical writing would happen in public. This would illuminate what is often a shrouded process for students, who are usually only presented with finished works to digest, but not the mechanisms for their creation to both learn from and evaluate. By continuing to value the current closed “peer-review” process and the romantic idealization of a secluded writing practice, media scholars fail to engage with communities that align credibility with the foregrounding of on-going and cumulative process rather than finished product.
The end result is a growing disconnect between scholars and the public they serve, precisely because the process of critical analysis is made to seem proprietary and removed from everyday experiences. By foregrounding the critical process and inviting feedback from myriad communities at an earlier stage before scholarly work is put through the traditional blind “peer-review” process, a digital scholarly network will make transparent the development of critical writing, encourage increased community sharing and critical discussion, and expose students to both the pains and rewards of critical analysis. As Olivier Tchouaffe deftly commented about last week’s posting:

It is interesting to point to the irony that new technologies, such as the Internet, are finally allowing us to go back to the basics of what Socrates intended to be the role of the intellectual which is to bring the fire of knowledge closer to the people and therefore enriching their lives instead of having it locked up in the Ivory Tower in an autistic discourse among academics.

We wholeheartedly embrace these ideals.
While MediaCommons will thematically cohere around topics relevant to the study of media, concerns over teaching students critical thinking and writing as well as digital literacy skills cross-disciplinary boundaries. My own students, even when they “get” an argument put forward by an article of book chapter (and often they do “get it”), seem baffled about how they might come up with similar critical perspectives of their own or to go about articulating or proving their theses. Every semester, I work to demonstrate that the positions scholars put forward were not reached over the course of a day, but were the results of difficult but rewarding critical engagement, discussions, drafting, re-writing, review, and revision. If we want to teach our students to be critical thinkers and writers, we must be willing to show them our own missteps and struggles through these processes, not just the finished results.
Additionally, more and more students are either being asked to provide critical responses in digital environments through message boards, chat rooms, listservs, and blogs. Many others rely quite heavily (and with mixed amounts encouragement and dismay from their professors) on the internet for research materials. Yet, there is still a fairly wide gap between student engagement with online materials and their possession of critical digital literacy skills that would allow them to effectively research and write in these environments. The media studies scholar does not simply teach about media; he/she teaches people how to be critical media participants, whether as creators, critics, analysts, activists, or consumers. The contemporary media studies scholar teaches critical thinking and literacy skills for a generation raised within (or increasingly aware of their lack of access to) a networked digital environment. Through MediaCommons, we envision opportunities for pedagogical interaction that would be valuable to many humanities and social science-based classrooms that exceed merely studying media, but extend to important questions of how to conduct research, write, and critically engage in a multi-mediated world.
In classroom settings, the best way to help students apply the experiences and knowledge they already possess into critical forms of engagement and inquiry is to promote conversation. The best educators are often conversational stewards, introducing a topic and a set of open-ended questions and then helping students to see the connections between individual experiences and larger social, cultural, political, economic, and/or technological processes. A digital scholarly network offers opportunities to take the critical conversational seminar experience into a virtual environment, multiplying the number of participants while using the networking capabilities of the site to help students make larger connections.
Moreover, there is no better way for students of media to learn to engage critically with these forms than by providing a challenging and interactive platform for them to explore and play with. In other words, a digital scholarly network offers approaches for scholars to reach students through the existing tools, strategies, and technologies at our disposal, without replicating the models we seek to analyze and teach about, all the while tapping into skills students have already developed and helping them put these skills to more critical use. Amongst the pedagogical possibilities enabled by a digital scholarly network (though by no means the only ones) are:

— Teaching students how to write interactive essays
— Creating integrated production and critical analysis lesson plans that teach about topics ranging from film language to representational politics, media economics and regulation and their relation to media ownership and authorship, the cultivation of fan communities, and trans-media branding practices. Such lesson plans might use interactive tools, game theory inspired simulations, and Do-It-Yourself virtual production experiences to teach about both the production of culture and production cultures themselves.
— Setting up online classroom discussion forums and critical response blogs that teach about communication in a networked environment while also taking advantage of opportunities for distance interaction between students studying like materials in different locations.
— Establishing cross-cultural interactions between students separated by geography, class, race, gender, sexual, religious, and even linguistic boundaries (for example multi-mediated lessons that incorporate visual imagery or teach about visual forms of expression might provide interesting opportunities for exploring cultural differences in interpretation)
— Supervision of networked research that teaches students how to judge online resources critically and incorporate these materials into their research in ways that go beyond merely cutting and pasting text
— Team creation and evaluation of multimedia lectures, lesson plans, and even entire courses
— Multi-authoring of digital, interactive textbooks
— Sharing resources ranging from audio-visual materials and “found” materials to publicly stored syllabi, lectures, assignments, etc.
— Customizing platforms for particular course uses, including setting up separate and discrete course-related message boards, e-packets, print-on-demand articles, etc.

Moreover, much as the scholarly writing on MediaCommons would be open to multiple types of review, ranging from informal commentary during the development phase to peer-to-peer review at the “publication” stage, pedagogical materials developed in the MediaCommons site would also undergo review by peers, whether teachers thinking of using these lessons in classrooms, or by students engaging with them. Pedagogical materials under review might range from individual lesson plans or activities, to entire courses, syllabi, textbooks, and assignments. MediaCommons might also allow scholars from different disciplines or separated by great distances to develop new courses, approaches, lessons and assignments collaboratively. We believe that these features are particularly valuable for scholars teaching in increasingly cross-disciplinary environments, emerging professors teaching classes for the first time, and innovative teachers who regularly use online materials in their teachings.
Though too often relegated to the ivory towers, we also believe that academics can, and indeed, must serve vital communal roles that extend beyond classroom seminars and published articles. As public intellectuals, scholars, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, are potentially powerful stewards of critical conversations. Further, given the public’s increased reliance on digital media in almost every aspect of everyday life, for news, information, communication, entertainment, work and leisure, the media studies scholar should be serving an important function in helping communities to access and critically assess the digital technologies that surround them. Yet, in order for academics to assume leadership roles within larger communities of activists, citizens, consumers, and producers, we must first be willing to be members of such communities, and recognize how non-academic forms of knowledge are often articulated quite differently than the modes employed within University settings. MediaCommons will offer scholars new ways of communicating with non-academics that will hopefully re-engage us with those communities.
Academic credibility continues to be informed by legacies of expertise that emphasize virtuoso performances of individual intellectual achievement (in the classroom, conference panel, or journal article) over communally built knowledge. This has not only handcuffed innovative scholarship and the development of peer networks, but has also alienated many non-academics when we have made efforts to reach out to these communities, who view these displays as undemocratic and condescending. By foregrounding the critical process over its finished product and by engaging in open discussion while works are still in progress, new forms of networked, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative scholarship are enabled and new ways of teaching critical thinking and digital literacy skills are engaged.
Presenting “work in progress” is critical to participant cultures and emergent knowledge communities, and allowing work to become “lost” or embedded in the fabric of an ongoing conversation, in which lateral, “linked” connections between new ideas and fresh contributions are the norm is essential for academic scholarship to once again serve its role as provoking critical discourse and diverse perspectives.
We argue for the need to change this hierarchical display of expertise to meet the criteria for credibility in a digital environment. Scholars should seek to be stewards of intellectual communities. “Intellectual,” in the sense we use it, is not confined to credentialed scholars, and “community” is broadly conceived and not confined to the academy or its R&D counterpart in the industrial formation. This model makes a virtue of building knowledge networks out into “alternative” communities (from an academic point of view), which would be a revitalizing addition to the current dissemination of academic knowledge.
Of course, we recognize that there is more to the process of engaging non-academics than simply building the MediaCommons network and waiting for them to discover it. MediaCommons must be proactive in seeking out non-academic voices and placing them in dialogue with both scholarly writings and with one another. Non-academics must be involved in all aspects of the site, from writing and reviewing materials, to decision-making positions as editors and advisors. Kathleen described one possible mode of scholarly engagement within MediaCommons as the establishment of network hubs focused on particular television programs or media issues. There is nothing preventing us from engaging multiple constituencies as writers in this process. Imagine a series of networked reviews about say, the ABC medical drama Grey’s Anatomy written by a combination of media scholars, medical professionals, lobbyists concerned with improving minority representation in entertainment, and even one of the writers or producers of the series itself. Such conversations would not only provide multiple perspectives, but in a controlled, networked environment such as MediaCommons would allow for a cross-pollination of ideas and a delineation of where different communities diverge and overlap in their approaches. In fact, as lines between media activists, scholars, consumers and producers continue to blur, it is important that we not artificially re-inscribe differences, but rather, that we seek to actively cultivate conversations amongst these constituencies.
We believe that MediaCommons might also provide opportunities for historically marginalized communities to respond to and engage with the media that (mis)represent them, opening up new forms of self-representation while also teaching crucial digital media skills such as web design, multimedia creation, blogging, etc. MediaCommons would also serve as a center for community activism, building virtual town halls that afford community members opportunities to publicly air grievances, discuss local consequences of larger media ownership, legislative, or representational politics and permit communities’ facing like problems to interact with one another and form coalitions. The network might even provide Q&A opportunities for visitors to ask media experts about the implications of particular media policies and practices.
Finally, we conceptualize MediaCommons as a community in its own right, where participants share resources and engage in critical conversations about media. We believe that the materials created on MediaCommons should be community-owned and freely accessible to all MediaCommons members, but we also recognize the importance for scholars to continue to own the intellectual rights to their ideas and have a certain say over how those ideas may be incorporated/combined/referenced by other community members. Thus, we endorse the creation of a community of shared resources where individual authors still have a say over how they engage with one another. Much like the Creative Commons initiative, we believe that authors should have the rights to determine whether their works can be used by others for commercial or non-commercial purposes, what aspects of a given author’s work can be networked with that of another’s – the whole or parts – and what forms of attribution are required before resources can be shared by others. We believe that these rights should be equally available to commentors and peer-reviewers as they are to authors and other creators.
We also believe that membership in the MediaCommons community should be free, though we distinguish between members and peers on the basis once again of author choice. Quite simply, we believe that rather than the editors of the site imposing an arbitrary categorization of who is constituted a peer and who is not, these decisions should be placed either in the hands of individual writers or the larger community and should be determined according to goals set forth by individual writers for their work. Thus, for example, if an author is so inclined, community activist work might be credentialed by the communities of peers that work is trying to serve as much as work by other academics. By expanding our definition of what constitutes a ‘peer’ and by allowing authors to select peer communities, we believe there will be greater potential for the inclusion of non-academics as more than just visitors, but as equal and valuable members of the MediaCommons community as a whole.
All of these ideas are still at an early stage of development. We welcome alternative suggestions, constructive criticisms and diverse perspectives on how MediaCommons might best engage in community service and pedagogical interventions. Ideally, these should extend from and co-exist with the site’s emphasis on foregrounding the critical and creative process and encouraging transparent review and discussion of scholarly work.
The ideas I have put forward in this post owe a great deal to conversations I have had over the past year with Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Christopher Lucas, Bob Stein, Ben Vershbow, and many other colleagues. Thank you.

One thought on “MediaCommons 2: renewed publics, revised pedagogies

  1. Jen Petersen

    I’m interested in your discussion of the pedagogical potential of the commons. The possibilities of working together on lectures, courses, and other teaching materials are, I think, an exciting direction. So are the ideas for using the commons as a tool in teaching (I know that when I began my graduate studies, such a transparent forum modeling the process of academic writing would have been a great boon). I wonder, though, if the content, address, and even architecture of a commons dedicated to interventions in pedagogy and the process of scholarly review would look anything like that required for a commons that is more aimed at outreach, linking media scholarship to broader communities….

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