Commentary: December 2010 Archives

New Media Seminar Final Thoughts

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We wrapped up the Baylor New Media Seminar this week, and our discussion turned again to the format. I think almost all of us had a love/hate relationship with the selected readings from The New Media Reader (MIT Press). I confess they weren't what I what I were expecting either, and, for better or worse, the infrastructure from Baylor was not what I was expecting either.

Despite the agony though, there was something valuable here - otherwise the discussions sessions would not have continued with as many people as it did. For me, there were two factors - the synergy of the group and (ahem) the readings.

The discussion was obviously very important and it was because we were willing to be open and honest. We were not afraid to use terms like "crap", nor did we back off from defending our ideas. I really learned a lot about my colleagues. I even learned to appreciate some readings that I felt were crappy in a new way. We had some really good, challenging discussions.

Would the experience have worked without these readings though? Obviously both the editors of the original volume and Gardner Campbell at Baylor felt they were valuable, so I'm assuming they "got" them even if some of them were opaque to me. I wonder if part of the disconnect was because of Campbell is approaching this as a literature specialist.

I have to confess that one of my least favorite classes in my academic career were literature classes. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy reading novels, even some very classic works, but the approach to analyzing literature does not always seem compatible to more technical analytic approaches. Even the way a theoretical linguist and a literature specialist views language is VERY different.

What do I mean by "VERY different", by the way. Take a language like Latin. A literature specialist would probably focus on the best authors like Cicero, Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro) and Ovid, and if they focused on Vergil, they would focus on his exquisite use of language and imagry and maybe discuss how the Aeneid reinforced the official Augistinian Imperial narrative.

When a linguist looks at Latin, they likely target graffiti, casual letters and "mistakes" to see how Latin was spoken on the streets. And when they look at Vergil, they may be comparing poetic syntax with related languages to see if any proto-syntax emerges. Sometime we catch a few sound changes in progress too.

Asking some technologists such as myself to approach the history of technology as rhetoric may be a challenge. BUT (and I keep coming back to this word), it is sometimes good to stretch your mind doing something you're not comfortable doing. I do recall books and movies that I detested in earlier years that provided interesting touch points in my later life. I don't necessarily want to visit these events, but they do make me realize that the experience was not wasted - I did learn something, even if I didn't enjoy it.

A good example is probably the original Alice in Wonderland which we read and analyzed in 8th grade. I admit that a lot of it went over my head, but now that I know more history, I see the parallels Carroll was trying to make and I find it much more entertaining...enough to enjoy the last Tim Burton Alice movie (maybe 3D helps).

At the last session we discussed whether it was worth continuing the discussions with readings a member of the group selects. I will be curious to see if we have the same passion when we don't detest that week's reading as much, but I will probably be relieved as well.