An Educational Revolution in the Age of Digital Production:
A Review of Michael Wesch’s talk
“The End of Wonder in the Age of Whatever”
by Sarah McLemore
''It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing and there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that's the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and... this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... and I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it, like my heart's going to cave in.'' (American Beauty)
Michael Wesch’s powerful talk, “The End of Wonder in the Age of Whatever,” given on Thursday, November 15th in the GCC auditorium to a full house of faculty, staff, and administrators, took his audience on a tour through his approach to digital ethnography. Wesch is chair of the Anthropology Program at Kansas State University. In his teaching and research, he uses new media including hypertext fiction, Youtube videos, wikis, and other genres to probe at the myriad problems facing the American educational system. Wesch’s primary thesis seems to be that the structures in place in our overcrowded, underpersonalized, and overregimented schools lack forces which could productively impact students’ success. To undertake an educational revolution, he argues, we need to harness the power of new media to effect change in education. His talk focused on three systemic problems and solutions:
While I’m guessing this was not his goal, throughout Wesch’s talk which included a viewing of some of his digital ethnographies (available here: http://mediatedcultures.net/), I found my mind wandering (wondering?) a lot to the 1999 Sam Mendes film American Beauty.
In the film, character Ricky Fitts is a social misfit, aspiring film maker, and keen observer of those around him. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Fitts recalls the sublime experience of watching a plastic bag dancing in a winter’s day. As he narrates, the audience watches Fitts’ film of the bag as it floats around a nondescript sidewalk. The video is shaky and amateurish. The object and setting of the film are less than impressive. Yet by the end of minute-long scene, the viewer, like Fitts, recognizes the awesomeness of the bag’s journey. Fast forward 250 years or so from Immanuel Kant’s conception of the sublime and the beautiful, or 200 years or so from Percy Bysshe Percy Shelley’s terror and awe at Mount Blanc, and this is what we’re left with: the bag is the Sublime 2.0. It’s beauty and wonder in the age of digital production.
So what’s the connection between Wesch and Fitts? Why consider a plastic bag alongside a Carnegie award-winning professor of anthropology?
Well first, I think that if Fitts was Wesch’s student, he would have given him an A+ for his film of the bag and put it up on his Mediated Cultures blog. But second and more importantly, the clearest charge I took from Wesch was to find examples of wonder, beauty, and the sublime in our distinctly digital and often depersonalized era. By uncovering these examples, he believes that our students will think critically and grow as scholars and empathic individuals. Fitts is a student who, if you’ll recall from the film, can’t find a place for himself within a pressurized, depersonalized, and highly conformist educational system. Yet he’s also the most thoughtful and engaged character in the film. At GCC, all our classes have Fittses in them on the margins, scraping by, and trying to find their place. Wesch’s talk reminded me of our paramount obligation to draw them in and help them to succeed.
It’d be easy to end this article on a high note and in the paragraph above, but as I go out to apply Wesch’s inspirational charge (and as I suddenly and ineluctably feel drawn to leave my reusable grocery bags at home and come back from Von’s loaded up with food in flowing white plastic bags…) I can’t help but consider some of the questions that I’m left with.
Despite my lingering questions, I enjoyed Wesch’s talk quite a bit and look forward to investigating the topics he’s raised through future conversations on campus and through the forums that the GAUSS and Gateway grants are able to provide us with.
For those who missed Wesch’s talk, it will be archived on the GCC Title V campus website: http://campusguides.glendale.edu/content.php?pid=378681&sid=3250233