All posts by Bill Genereux

My Feeble Attempt At Media Literacy

For several years I have been interested in doing some lessons in media literacy with students. This first became an interest of mine while I was doing my doctoral research on using digital video as an alternative form of writing and literacy. Anyone who knows me and my approach to teaching very well knows that I frequently like to experiment with new ideas and techniques. This semester in our #DigMe256 online class on Digital Literacy, we have been working with the theme of Superheroes.

One of the themes I have been interested in exploring with students when interpreting media messages is the theme of human objectification, particularly the objectification of women. We see these messages frequently in the everyday media we encounter. Honestly, I have been a little timid about diving into this one. However, the idea has been simmering in my mind for some time, and I’ve spent a good amount of time collecting examples we can discuss, so this week I took the plunge.

This week I gave an assignment that shows superheroes in their most private, awkward and intimate moments. The artist who created these images is Greg Guillemin from France. The work of this artist came to my attention several years ago, and since we are doing a superhero theme in our class, it made sense to include his work for our media literacy analysis because it does in fact show objectified, comic hero men and women.

Captain Doubt
Captain Doubt

Here is the assignment.

Look at the work of Greg Guillemin, a French artist who paints behind the scenes images of superheroes and other cartoon characters. Check out the Secret Life of Superheroes to see Guillemin’s work. (Caution, some of these are risqué, depicting superheroes in unexpected ways.) Think about how answers to the key questions of media literacy might look with this body of work. Discuss.

I thought since I gave the assignment, I would complete it myself as well. My response is as follows.

The five key questions of media literacy are:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  • How might different people understand this message differently from me?
  • What lifestyles, values, points of view are included; or omitted in this message?
  • Why is this message being sent?
Rhianna wears Greg Guillemin tee dress
Rhianna wears Greg Guillemin tee dress

Who created this message? French artist Greg Guillemin is the man who created the Secret Life of Superheroes series. I have been unable to find a great deal out about him, but I did find this interview after the singer Rhianna was seen wearing a shirt with one of his images. From what I could glean from his website and the interview, Mr. Guillemin studied graphic design and worked in advertising for two decades before introducing the Secret Life series to the world. He originally began creating digital images and shared them on the Internet. As his popularity has increased, he has expanded into creating acrylic on canvas paintings and sculptures of his unusual superhero imagery.

What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?  Guillemin’s work is reminiscent of pop art icons like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He creates crisp comic book style imagery of bright colors and halftones and combines it with familiar brand names and superhero characters in private, intimate or awkward scenes. Guillemin gives the audience a voyeur’s glimpse of the everyday life of his superheroes. His work is unique because it provides such an unusual view of these very familiar characters.

In his book Virus of the Mind, Brodie (2009) tells us how ideas spread quickly because they are connected to our survival or prosperity. He argues that we are hard-wired to pay attention to things like danger, food, and sex because our very survival depends on it. Indeed, these things are the basis for what is now becoming recognized as memes, or ideas that spread quickly because of their content. As a former graphic designer in advertising, Guillemin is an expert at pushing our biological buttons.

Some of the Secret Life images are surprising, possibly even disturbing or offensive to some viewers. The food and sex memes are featured prominently in this body of work. It might be a bit of a stretch, but danger might also be playing a role in grabbing our attention, as voyeurs who could be caught spying in this secret superhero world.

Snow White Lolita
Snow White Lolita

How might different people understand this message differently from me? Let’s begin with my own perspective as a college professor. I thought it would be worthwhile for my students to view The Secret Life of Superheroes because we are studying digital literacy through a superhero lens. From my perspective, it is a struggle to keep students engaged and interested. I chose this body of work precisely because it is edgy and tinged with controversy. I was thinking of this very question, how different people might interpret the images when I included it in our classes exercises. Educated people must be able to consider multiple perspectives on controversial ideas, being fair about considering different points of view and ultimately believing in something because the available evidence supports that position.

So what are some of the other ways that people could understand the message of the Secret Life of Superheroes? I can imagine a sort of person who is comfortable with sexuality and along with being a complete pacifist, abhorring any form of violence. This person sees the irony in parents who shield their children from any form of suggestive imagery but are perfectly fine with their children subsisting on a media diet of gore, death and violence. (My hunch is, although I’ve never been there, that people in France might lean in this direction.) Such people might see this body of work as humorous and entertaining. Some people will use these images to make a hip fashion statement (See Rhianna above).

There is also the type of person whose sensibilities are deeply offended by Mr. Guillemin’s work. He portrays the women as sex objects, sometimes showing only their body parts and not faces. He shows the men engaging in behaviors like smoking and popping viagra pills. He shows various characters holding sex toys and birth control. Some superheroes are shown brushing teeth, taking showers, using the toilet. Most of the subject matter he shows is taboo for discussion in polite company.

Some people feel our culture is media-saturated, often with highly sexualized imagery showing up in a flood of media messages. They feel this is adversely affecting us as it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Schools have long since abandoned time-honored mandatory showers for PE and sports teams because of the sexual connotation. According to some, we have a hookup culture that doesn’t include dating. We have a culture of slut-shaming, that blames women for how they dress instead of the young men who are distracted, attracted, or even perpetrating assaults on them. People who are concerned about these developments in our culture will not view The Secret Lives of Superheroes as innocuous.

Xanax Grumpy
Xanax Grumpy

What lifestyles, values, points of view are included; or omitted in this message?

The main lifestyle depicted is hedonism. Included in the imagery are condoms, viagra pills, smoking, drinking, lovemaking of all types, masturbation, guns, bodily functions and maintenance, dressing and undressing. Many of the things shown are everyday occurrences that we would hardly ever see outside of our own lives. There are some hidden visual jokes like Robocop drinking motor oil and Poison Ivy drinking weed killer.

An omitted point of view is that of people who value modesty and temperance. Another omitted point of view is one that thinks women should be valued as human beings, not as objects of desire.

Why is this message being sent?

The two primary reasons media messages are sent are 1) to obtain money and 2) to obtain power and influence. Guillemin began working with The Secret Life of Superheroes by creating digital images and sharing them online for free. He used the world wide web and social media to gain notoriety and influence. Once he established a following, he was able to begin charging for prints and expand his art business into making paintings and sculptures for exhibit in galleries around the world. The reason Guillemin is successful is because he provides a service to his audience of entertainment, amusement and perhaps even provoking thought through the works of art he creates.

 

Happy Birthday Song is in the Public Domain

For years I have wondered with disbelief how the century-plus-old song Happy Birthday could be protected by copyright. The DS106 Daily Create activity published today touches on this with an assignment that challenges us to re-imagine the Happy Birthday song and shows several examples of how different television shows and movies got around the copyright.

Whenever possible, I use my media and digital literacy skills to question the “facts,” so I wondered if indeed the song Happy Birthday is protected by copyright. The first thing I found in a quick Internet search was the 2015 Snopes article that stated a judge had ruled the song is in the public domain. Well, I think Snopes is a credible source for information, but I’m not one to accept it as the final authority, so I did some more looking.

I also found a 2015 Variety article that seems to confirm what Snopes said about the ruling. There were a couple of other articles related to the case, the most interesting is the fact that a documentary filmmaker settled a class action case against Warner/Chappell Music. No way! How did I miss this news about the Happy Birthday song?

To me, it was really heartening to learn that sometimes the little guy can prevail in these copyright disputes. An important takeaway for those interested in copyright issues is the fact that big media will often overstep what the law actually requires; in the case of Warner/Chappell Music it was to the tune of two million bucks a year in royalties. But someone had to have the resources to challenge them on it.

Always keep in mind that there are provisions in copyright law for fair use of media. It is worth knowing what those provisions are and what the US legal system has to say about it. But a copyright owner won’t encourage others to make use of content under those fair use provisions and certainly won’t turn down royalty money coming in that it isn’t entitled to. I think our Daily Create assignment today highlights some ways to avoid copyright entanglements, but with this new information about the Happy Birthday song, it looks like we can sing the original to our heart’s desire.

Hardware & Networking Class – Fall 2018

 

class photo - Fall 2018

We have a small but mighty group of students in my Hardware and Networking class this semester. I’m sharing this picture for two reasons. Because 1) It’s the smallest group I’ve ever had for this class since I started teaching it about 14 years ago and 2) They have been really fun to work with and this picture makes me smile.

We are going to take the opportunity to try some new ideas this semester. I have ordered in some Raspberry Pis and we are going to experiment with doing networking stuff with that kind of computer. I’m really excited about how this semester will go.

 

 

Social Media and our Relationships

Last summer, my mother died from an aggressive type of brain cancer. When I think back on what happened, I definitely see how digital/social media weighed in to our family’s journey through her illness and passing. My siblings used text messaging and Facebook to stay in regular contact, and to plan our visits to her while she was receiving treatments out of state. Extended relatives and friends contacted us through social media to hear about her status. My mother sometimes used Facebook during her illness, and it was sometimes evident how her cognitive functions were declining, even on social media.

This and other experiences have made me reflect on how social media weighs in to someone’s passing. I’ve actually been thinking about this for a long time. I think the first time this issue of social media and life’s end came to my attention was in news reports of a soldier being killed overseas in combat and his wife learned about it first through social media instead of the usual formal notification from the military. Someone in the know couldn’t wait for the formal notification, and broke the news themselves.

Then the same sort of thing happened to me. A while ago, I learned that my uncle had died on Facebook before anyone in my family could formally notify me. A well meaning friend offered condolences to my aunt before the family had a chance to notify everyone, and I saw it. A few hours later, my father called with the news.

My wife was also profoundly affected when her dear friend suddenly passed away. The surviving spouse without warning took down my wife’s friends Facebook page, and along with it all of the photos and memories that the two friends had shared there. Fortunately, a year or so later, the spouse reopened her memorialized page so those who had been locked out could have a chance to visit whenever they like. But the shock of being suddenly locked out was a hard surprise to take at the time.

Of course, death isn’t the only time that social media comes into play in our relationships. There are wonderful positive experiences worth mentioning too. Reconnecting with long lost classmates, friends, and former co-workers makes social media a powerful tool to have. People use social sites to find new love, even finding a mate online is a popular thing to do.

But again, the dark side of social media can show up in these uses as well. Perhaps there is a reason you haven’t connected with your classmate these past decades, and social media is reminding you of why. Maybe you used an online tool to find a new love interest, only to have that tool used against you for the break up. Or worse still, it seems that ghosting is a thing in the 21st century, where there isn’t even a breakup, just a disappearance, never to hear from that person again. This ghosting happens in love and in work. People take a job offer, then quit coming, or don’t even show up for the first day.

How have our relationships with others been affected by social media? If you think about it, everyone using social media has personal experience with this. It seems to be here to stay, so we need to think through the best way to approach things.

Personally, I try to keep in mind that there is a real flesh-and-blood person on the other end of that online connection. I often ask my students if our online self should be viewed as an extension of our self. I think perhaps it should be, as the hurts we feel online are just as real as hurts that happen in the face to face world. But, as Sherry Turkle points out, our online connections are missing part of the feedback loop of the face to face world. Digital communication is tone deaf, and if we do something hurtful, either intentionally or unintentionally, we can totally miss it.

Whenever possible, if it is a difficult conversation, I recommend having a face to face conversation about it. It is harder to miss the  verbal cues and body language of the other person if we are in the same room together talking. I think we are getting into habits of mediating our difficult conversations though, and I’m just as guilty as anyone. I think I’ll just send this difficult news as an e-mail instead of telephoning or going to see them in person. We have to be aware that this is setting up a situation for missed feedback and ever harder feelings than what might be had we used a non-digital conversation.

You can’t ever go wrong with the golden rule that says to treat others as we would wish to be treated. If we always keep that one in mind, things will almost certainly go better than if we just fire off because we are angry and it made us feel better in the moment. The work of living a digital life well lived is difficult, but worth it, I think.

Questioning Twitter

This week, I’ve introduced the five key questions of media literacy to our online #digme406 class and asked them to use these questions to think about the Social Media platforms they use. The five key questions of media literacy are:

  1. Who created this message?
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
  3. How might different people understand this message differently from me?
  4. What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in; or omitted from, this message?
  5. Why is this message being sent?

I think these questions apply not only to “media messages”, but media platforms as well. The software applications that we use are also constructed and contain biases of the creator, just as any other form of media.

For an example, I will work through an analysis of Twitter here.

  1. Who created Twitter? 
    • The founders of Twitter are Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone,  and Evan Williams. There is controversy surrounding the founding of Twitter (Carlson, 2011). From what I can tell, Jack Dorsey was the engineer who thought of the concept and Noah Glass was its champion at the original parent company Odeo. Some say that CEO Evan Williams snookered the Odeo investors by convincing them that Twitter was heading nowhere and buying back their shares from them. The stock has since increased in value over 1,000 times.
  2. What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
    • Twitter’s original appeal was that it was compatible with phone SMS or text messaging. It was succinct, limited to 140 characters. Many people found this brevity invigorating. Get to the point! Do it with style! As with most social media applications, if you have an app installed on your phone, it will alert you when someone sends you a message or something else interesting is happening. Simplicity rules the day here.
  3. How might different people understand this message differently from me?
    • Twitter has been an invaluable tool to me over the years. While others were sharing photos of their lunches, some of my best Internet friends and I  held Twitter “chats” discussing a variety of topics related to teaching and learning. I have built a world-wide network of contacts who share my interest in improving the experience of school for students. Some people think it is mainly for fun, and I use it that way too. I also see it as a way to connect with people who know more about things I would like to learn about. I think it can be used to build a professional learning network. Some people see it as a tool for spreading propaganda and hate. Some people see it as a good way to be attacked by online trolls, or to mess up and lose your job, so to them it is dangerous territory. It is actually all of these things. But driving on highways in cars is also dangerous, but it gets us where we need to go. I see Twitter like that as well. Learn how to do it effectively and safely.
  4. What lifestyles, values and points of view are represented in; or omitted from, this message?
    • Let’s begin with the omitted points of view. I think a big POV (point of view) omitted from any social media platform is the POV that rejects the need for always-on communication. I don’t personally carry a smart phone. I use technology enough as it is, to not need to carry a mobile computer in my pocket sending me constant alerts. I want downtime to recuperate from the fast paced digital life. This habit and attitude runs contrary to the end goal of social media; the goal of gaining my attention. These technologies are purposely built to entertain and engage us, to distract us away from other things we might spend our time on.
    • A represented point of view is one that recognizes the human need for connection, and this technology meets this need. It also acknowledges the fast-paced, busy lives we lead. It expects that most users of Twitter will be mobile users.
  5. Why is this message being sent?
    • The ultimate purpose of building a service like Twitter is for it to earn a profit. This profit comes from advertisers who pay to access the millions of people who give their eyeballs and attention to the Twitter application. (The way that attention is gained is described back in question #2.)
    • Another purpose that a service like Twitter is created is to enhance and improve the lives of its users. I think many designers and engineers do what they do with this aim in mind. However, sometimes I think the first goal, earning a profit, sometimes directly competes with the second goal of improving lives.

 

References

Carlson, N. (2011). Real History of Twitter. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-twitter-was-founded-2011-4

 

Definition of Social Media

This week in my #digme406 class, we are exploring definitions of Social Media. According to Kaplan & Haenlein (2009) Social Media is

“… a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content.”

In other words, it is a digital media form that simplifies online publishing for average users. Web 2.0 as opposed to the original World Wide Web (version 1.0) does not require particularly extensive technology skills. To publish commentary on a web page in Web 1.0, you needed to know HTML and you needed to obtain hosting, among other things. To publish commentary in a Web 2.0 environment, you need to be able to sign up for an account on a service that simplifies everything.

Myspace and Facebook were created around the same time in the early 2000’s. Facebook won out, largely due to its simplified and uniform interface. Both services were free, but Myspace was highly customizable and more akin to Web 1.0. Facebook was easy to use for everyone, so it won out and became the giant social media service it is today.

Other social media platforms have since come along , challenging Facebook directly, or carving out a special niche of their own. There has long been a trend in the technology world for big, successful organizations to gobble up and integrate smaller competitors. For example Facebook now owns Instagram and Microsoft owns Skype, along with a couple of hundred others.

For everything there is a season, and Social Media orgs are no different. Young people have moved away from Facebook and into greener pastures, although plenty still are using it. Time will tell which technologies will be around for the long haul and which will go the way of the dodo. But one thing is certain—it is hard to beat technologies that are simple and easy to use.

Reference
Kaplan, A.M. & Haenlein, M. (2009). Users of the world unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons, 53(1). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2009.09.003

Coding Success in C#

I’ve been working on a web application for an agri-technology company here in Kansas. I’ve been away from web application development for a long time, and this project has been built using .NET. I’ve never made a web application in .NET.

I’ve made some desktop applications in C# using .NET and Visual Studio, which made me think I could assist with this project. But, I’ve never dove into an existing project like this and tried to make useful modifications to it. So this is another first for me.

Today I built a piece of code that I think will be useful for solving one of the problems on my to-do list. It is a console app that reads a specialized JSON file, a GeoJSON actually, and converts it to a CSV file. When I started looking at solving this issue, I thought it would be a matter of reading a JSON text file, parsing it, and re-writing it out in the new CSV format. Well, it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds.

I wound up using a couple of data structures in C# I was familiar with, a List and a DataTable. I suspect if I was smarter, or found the right example, I might have been able to do it with only one of these. But alas, I have been hacking away at this issue for some time now. Anyway, for now it goes from .GeoJSON -> List -> DataTable -> CSV. I thought I could go directly to the DataTable, but because GeoJSON is JSON data within JSON, my attempt to skip the List caused a problem.

It’s a lot of shuffling of data, not very elegant, but it works. Now I’m going to see if I can optimize things a bit, and integrate it into the bigger application.

Teachers As Learners

I think one of my frustrations as a student was with teachers who’ve forgotten what it is like to be a novice learning something new. I have to wonder how many teachers ever intentionally put themselves in the learner seat?

I’ve long felt that it is important to do this regularly so I never forget what it is like to be a student learning something new for the first time. One of the things I like about where I work, K-State Polytechnic, is that we value and emphasize industry experience with our faculty. Everyone who teaches in a technology field here has some industry experience to bring to bear in the classroom.

I think far too many teachers have spent their entire lives in school, never having experienced other contexts for working and learning. That doesn’t fly in computing. You wind up obsolete in a hurry if you aren’t always learning something new. This summer I am learning about ASP.NET. A few years ago I had the opportunity to do some applications programming using MS Visual Studio and .NET framework, but didn’t do anything significant with the web side of things.

I recently took on a new consulting work project that involves updating an existing web application. Let me tell you, this is some of the most challenging learning I’ve ever done. Trying to understand the logic of software that someone else has built well enough that you can make useful changes to it is tricky and takes a lot of time. I’ve spent over a month just trying to get the source code I was supplied to compile and run.

I was finally able to get that to happen this week! At long last, I have a system that runs locally and I can tinker with it without disturbing the actual production system that this business relies on for its livelihood. Wouldn’t you know it—less than a day after I got things working for the first time, I started getting compile errors again. It made no sense. All I had been doing was looking through source code. I hadn’t changed or saved anything (or so I thought).

It took several hours, but finally this evening I figured out how to make the error go away and I am back in business again

I suppose one thing that I’m learning in all of this is basic humility. Computers tend to keep you humble if you work long enough with them. They are constantly changing and evolving. And they aren’t very smart. One small accidental change can upset your whole program.

But over time, you start trusting in your ability to solve problems and to persist through adversity. I suppose if there is one skill I would like to model for my students it is that—you can do it if you stick to it and don’t give up.

If there is one piece of advice I can give other teachers is to regularly put yourself out of your comfort zone and take on some challenging learning. That will help build empathy with your students who don’t seem to be learning quickly enough, or working hard enough or really anything that isn’t working out as planned. Learning is tough business and it is hard to remember that when you are always teaching something that you’ve learned long ago.