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Chaparral 2012-2013: Innovations Expo 2012

Innovations Expo 2012 (December 2012)

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:

  1. The lack of authenticity in teacher/student relationships and the correlative need for instructors and students to engage empathically (possibly through the use of new media such as wikis, blogs, or jointly-crafted videos).
  2. The lack of personal interaction between students and students and instructors and suggestions for how different types of learning communities might be created to formulate missed connections between these groups.
  3. The lack of wonder in schools and ways in which different teaching modalities such as project-based learning may create experiences of wonder and critical thinking leading to increased student engagement.

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.

 

  1. Do we have any data to help guide us towards effective changes?  Wesch’s talk was inspirational and his examples powerful.  But as we all know that the plural of anecdote is not data.  It’s not totally clear how changes to teaching and learning of the sort he described may actually impact student success.  While Wesch would probably not approve, I feel the need to quote that most draconian schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind, from Dickens’ Hard Times, and state for the record that “what I want is facts.” 
  2. Wesch’s talk did not address how the types of wonder-inspiring teaching scenarios he examined could be scaled up.  Does he have any systematized examples to share?  A pocket of innovation can be powerful, but it may be more tactical than strategic and, possibly, less effective overall.  One of the best things about the Gateway and GAUSS Title V grants at GCC is that they are creating systems rather than pockets of innovation.   I’d like to hear more about these types of projects.
  3. Is there really such a thing as an authentic self?  Wesch is focused on concepts of authenticity and identity.  But in this most postmodern world, I think the idea of an authentic self has more or less been unseated and moved beyond.  Besides, I’m not sure that my students, personally, would want to see my authentic self (if one does exist) when I teach a 7:15 class.  It’s just not a pretty sight.
  4. Does Wesch have examples of the types of innovative learning he finds most fruitful taking place at community colleges?  The pressures we face to accord with standards from the Chancellor’s Office, for articulation, and other forces have a strong impact on what we do and how we do it.  It would have been gratifying and useful to see some of these types of examples addressed in his talk.

 

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

 

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