Friday, June 1, 2007

More Conversations

It was Day Two of MEDIA: Overseas Conversations (IV): An International Conference on Media Literacy-Ecology-Studies-Education (see my last post, Screenings and Conversations), with today's events being held at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus, which meant that I was responsible for the event. So, I'm getting ready this morning, and it turns out someone's climbed up onto the cables of the George Washington Bridge (my way into the city), and they've stopped all traffic (I'm sure lots of people were saying, "jump already so we can get going"). Well, I understand that he didn't jump, and rescue workers got him down safely, but this made for a bit of a delay right when I needed to get across the Hudson and down to 60th St. to make sure everything was okay with the set-up. Somehow, though, they got traffic moving quickly, and it was heavy but no delays heading down the Westside Highway, and I got there just a wee bit late (still almost an hour before we were due to begin).

No screenings today, just 3 panel discussions. Here's the write-up on the first one:

New Technologies and Early Childhood Language Development

This panel will discuss current and emerging screen media (including ipods, cell phones, video cameras and digital storytelling) as tools in contemporary early childhood learning environments. What are the benefits and how are they used to support young children’s language learning in developmentally appropriate ways?

Robert Albrecht teaches theory and history courses in the Media Arts Department at New Jersey City University. He holds a PhD from the Department of Communications and Culture at NYU. He has published numerous articles on the relationship of media and culture in both Latin America and the United States. Albrecht’s book, Mediating the Muse: A Communications Approach to Music, Media and Cultural Change (2005), was awarded the Dorothy Lee Prize for its contribution to “scholarship in the ecology of culture.” He is also the recipient of an Organization of American States Fellowship for study in Brazil as well as the Carlos Vigil Prize. He has served as Arts Editor to ETC. and currently serves on the editorial board of several communications journals.

Renee Cherow-O’Leary is currently a professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University in the Department of Humanities. Prior to this, she was a professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University. She was director of research for the magazine Group at Children’s Television Workshop and national coordinator of the media literacy curriculum “Creating Critical Viewers” developed by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She is co-chair of the 2007 Alliance for a Media-Literate America’s first Research Summit. She holds a PhD in Culture and Communications from NYU.

Martin Levinson is vice president of the New York Society for General Semantics. and the Institute for General Semantics. He is currently doing educational consulting, teaching and counseling work. He is the author of books and numerous articles on general semantics formulations. He holds a PhD. His latest books include Sensible Thinking for Turbulent Times (2006) and Practical Fairy Tales for Everyday Living (2007).

Katherine Liepe-Levinson, founder of Muse Educational Resources, Inc. USA, has worked in the fields of education, prevention, and the performing arts for over two decades. She holds a PhD. Her workshops including stress and anger management, cultural diversity training and bully-prevention, explore topical issues through traditional therapeutic models and the techniques of the professional actor.

Moderator: Margaret Cassidy is an associate professor in Communications at Adelphi University. Her specializations include media history, K-12 media literacy, and current debates/controversies in media studies. She has written Bookends: The Changing Media Environment of American Classrooms and is currently researching and writing Digital Dilemmas: Ethics and Educational Technology contracted with Zephyr Press. She holds a PhD from New York University.

This first session was essentially a media ecology panel, with everyone connected more or less to Neil Postman and the old New York University media ecology program. Renee was a member of the first class of doctoral students enrolled in the program (starting 1971), Bob was my classmate, and Peggy got her MA with us at Fordham and then got her PhD in the program. Marty wasn't in the media ecology program, but in another one on English Education (the media ecology program was in the School of Education), and Neil Postman was his mentor, and Kathy is Marty's wife, so she is a media ecologist by marriage, but both of them are very involved with general semantics, both the New York Society for General Semantics and the Institute of General Semantics.

Renee began, talking about how children learn language, drawing on the theories of Lev Vygotsky about the internalization of language and other media, and using the Teletubbies as an example of children's media aimed at babies and based on an understanding of early childhood language development. Renee was pretty much in favor of technology, of understanding it, adapting to it, and using it, and this reflects Postman's own views back when he started the media ecology program circa 1970, before he became a great critic of TV and technology circa 1979.

Kathy talked about her own work in the New York City school system teaching drama and dance as part of an arts education initiative, and she talked about how this was used in conjunction with anger management and other forms of self-management where the goal is to eliminate violent and self-destructive behavior. It's all about trying to improve emotional intelligence, and she also discussed using uploaded photographs to teach about facial expressions and emotional cues.

During the question and answer session, I made some comments about theory of mind, the informal theory that we typically form that other people have minds like our own, so that we interpret their behavior in terms of underlying motivations, decision-making, and other mental process, which also includes considering the possibility of deception. There is an argument that's been made that the main deficit for people with autism is an inability to form a theory of mind, which is linked to major problems with linguistic development, and this idea is associated with, among others, Simon Baron-Cohen (brother of Sacha, so some think the Borat character is based on individuals with autism). It's pretty fascinating stuff, and relates to both Renee's and Kathys' presentations. Here's a link to Simon Baron-Cohen's Autism Research Centre, and to a site selling his DVD of Mind Reading: The Interactive Guide to Emotions, which uses video of facial expressions of emotion to teach theory of mind (which he also refers to as mind reading). A great book, from a theoretical perspective, whether you are interested in autism or just language development and human evolution is Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. A more recent work of his that generated a great deal of discussion is The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism.

On a different topic, an interesting anecdote Kathy related during the question-and-answer session was about an experience she had trying to get high school students in the Bronx to sign up for a dance program. No one signed up at all at first, so instead of asking students to participate in a dance program, she asked them to sign up for a dance video, and she got 60 students to come.

Marty Levinson read a satirical essay where he talked about replacing the 3 R's with the 3 I's, Imaging, Interneting, and Integer punching--a modest proposal. And Bob represented the critical view, reminding us about how Postman had argued that it was a mistake to think of capitalists as being conservative, that instead they have a reckless commitment to innovation and change in which profit is the only consideration, not the well being of our children. He suggested that when we talk about computers as technologies to be used in the classroom, we also think of drama, music, and art as technologies for education that deserve equal if not greater funding. And Bob was pretty much dismayed by Renee's optimism, but that's Bob for you.

All in all, it was a pretty stimulating panel. It was followed by one that I moderated on comics and graphic novels, a longtime interest of mine. Here's the write-up on it from the program:

Comics and Graphic Novels in Contemporary Youth Culture

In the age of the digital media revolution, the popularity of comics has endured and graphic novels have become quite a rage, within contemporary youth culture
Panelists will share their experiences as creators, critics, educators and organizers of international comic book festivals.

Michael Bitz is the founding director of The Comic Book Project at Teachers College/Columbia University. An internationally recognized innovator in education, he has worked to establish creativity at the core of academic learning, and he has done so for some of the most vulnerable children in the United States and elsewhere

Gerard Jones is the author of several books about "junk entertainment" and its relationship to American culture: "Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book," "Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes and Make-Believe Violence," "Honey I'm Home: Sitcoms Selling the American Dream," "The Beaver Papers: The Story of the Lost Season," and others. He was also a prolific comic book writer in the 1980s and 1990s, working on major properties for DC and Marvel Comics (Green Lantern, Batman, Spider-Man) and creating several acclaimed independent comics. He has also developed storytelling workshops for children and consulted with schools and entertainment companies on the developmental role of children's media. He is a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto and the father of a 14-year-old boy.

Benoit Mouchart is an author, exhibitions curator and since 2003, artistic director of cultural programming of Angouleme International Comics Festival, in France. He has a Masters of Literature from Sorbonne University in Paris. He is the author of several books including research on Jacques Van Melkebeke and in collaboration with Francois Riviere, a biography of Edgar P. Jacobs, creator of “Blake and Mortimer” .He has been a critic of Bang and 9e, and contributed to the comic strip of the French magazines Geo, Telerama, Science and Life, and Beaux-Arts magazine.

Masami Toku is an associate professor of art education at California State University, Chico. She is the general director of the project Power of Girls’ Comics and of the international touring exhibition of Girls’ Power! Shojo Manga! Her research interest is the cross-cultural study of children’s artistic and aesthetic developments in their pictorial world and how visual popular culture influences children’s visual literacy. Her recent collaborative research project is a cross-cultural study of the relationship between art and children’s comprehensive ability in Japan and the United States. She holds a PhD. She is the editor of the online Journal, Cultural Diversity in Art and Education and Visual Cultural Research in Art and Education

Moderator – Lance Strate is a professor of Communication and Media Studies and director of the Graduate Program in Public Communication at Fordham University. He is a founding member and also the president of the Media Ecology Association and editor of Explorations in Media Ecology. He holds a PhD from New York University. He is the author of several books including Echoes and Reflections: On Media Ecology as a Field of Study and co-editor of several anthologies including The Legacy of McLuhan and Communication and Cyberspace.

This session was a great deal of fun. As moderator, I began by confessing that I had been reading comics since, well, since before I could read--actually, it came as a great relief to my parents when I learned how to read and they didn't have to read them to me any longer. I mentioned the terrible stigma that comics had when I was a kid, and how I thought it was connected to the fact that it's a hybrid medium--high art tends to be pure--for example classical music tends to be only music--add lyrics, make it a song, and it becomes a lower art form. And while I was discouraged from reading comics, because I was a voracious reader of books as well, I was able to ignore the criticism. I mentioned how much things have changed, that today we're happy if kids are reading anything at all, as opposed to watching TV, playing videogames, and surfing the web.

I also wondered if comics had not become too abstract, too low-definition (in McLuhan's terms, a cool medium), in contrast to the high definition (hot medium) of computer-generated graphics, photorealism, and digital photography. I also wondered if comics still is that much of a youth medium, with so much of the market being made up of the middle-aged like me (as it turns out, this is not an issue in other parts of the world, where comics are firmly entrenched as a youth medium). And I wondered if the medium had become obsolescent, noting McLuhan's point that media tend to fade into the background, become environmental and therefore all but invisible to us, until they become obsolescent, when we start to take notice of them again. Could this be why we've had studies of comics as a medium coming from the late Will Eisner and the brilliant Scott McCloud in recent decades? McLuhan also said that the obsolescent medium becomes an art form, and comics have also been recognized as an art from over the past few decades.

So, the panel discussion was quite interesting, with Masami talking about Japanese comics, known as manga, and Benoit talking about the massive influence of manga on the French comics scene. In contrast, Gerard (who, as I mentioned in yesterday's post,Screenings and Conversations, I had a great talk with the previous evening at the reception held for us at the offices of Listen Up!), gave an overview of comics history in the U.S., talking about how the comics industry always was marginalized, perhaps due to the fear of images coming out of Puritan/Protestant culture (which is based on Judaism's original prohibition against imagery and idolatry, ironic considering that most of the creators of the first comic books were Jewish), and how they were cheap to produce, for example by bypassing the need to pay linotype operators and instead just hiring teenage kids (almost all sons of working class immigrants, Jewish, but also Italian, Irish, a regular New York mix). Finally, Michael talked about educational comics, but mostly about his Comic Book Project, where grade school teachers help students to express themselves by making their own comics, and he showed us some examples of such student work (which I thought a great parallel to yesterday's screenings of student-made videos).

Gerard's friend Jerry Robinson was in attendance. He was hired as a teenager by Batman creator Bob Kane to help with the artwork, and wound up creating The Joker and co-creating Robin (the Boy Wonder), and I was very pleased to have a chance to meet him and chat with him a bit. Two of my undergraduates came for the session, Jonathan Hogan (who's doing a senior honors thesis with me next year on Iron Man), and Brian McNamera (both were in my Science Fiction class this past spring semester), and I was pleased to be able to introduce the two fan-boys to Gerard Jones, who they knew from his days writing Green Lantern, Batman, and Spider-Man.

The final session was on new media in general, and here's what the program said:

New Media and Social Networking

Panelists will converse on contemporary modes of communication including blogs, vlogs, text-messaging, emails, games and sharing multimedia messages through new media platforms. A range of websites, from My Space to Linked-In to Second Life to You Tube, as an integral part of current social exchange and popular culture, will be discussed.

Robert W. Kubey is professor of Journalism and Media Studies, and director of the Center for Media Studies at Rutgers University. His publications have focused on the psychological experience of media and the state of media literacy education in the United States and worldwide. He has been an Annenberg Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow. He holds a PhD from the Committee on Human Development, Department of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Chicago. He has published over 50 journal articles and book chapters as well as his latest book: Creating Television: Conversations with the People behind 50 Years of American TV

Robert Logan is professor emeritus of Physics at the University of Toronto. He is also a senior fellow at the following institutes: The Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary and the Best Institute for Strategic Creativity at the Ontario College of Art and Design. He obtained his B.S.and his PhD from M.I.T. He was active at McLuhan’s Center for Culture and Technology from 1974 to 1980 where he collaborated and published with Marshall McLuhan. He was a policy advisor to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and numerous cabinet ministers. A selection of his writings can be found at

Vitor Reia-Baptista is a professor at the University of Algarve, Portugal with a PhD in Communication and Education - Media Pedagogy; and the Coordinator of CICCOM - the Research Center for Communication Sciences, where he is coordinating several research projects about media literacy, intercultural communication and new environments of media exposure. He is a member of the steering group of the European Charter for Media Literacy He was also the Coordinator of the Portuguese research teams within several international projects such as Educaunet -a European program to develop critical awareness of internet risks through media education; Glocal Youth - an intercultural project about media products for young people; Mediappro -a research project about youngsters’ appropriations of internet and new technologies, especially mobile phones, video games and multimedia supports.

Bu Wei is a professor and the director of the Research Center for Media and Children at the Institute of Journalism and Communication in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China. Her main research fields include media and children; feminist media studies; empowering vulnerable (marginal) groups through communication; and social sciences methodology in communication research. Bu Wei has a Bachelor of Arts, Department of Chinese Literature and Languages, Beijing Normal University, and a Master of Law from Journalism School, People’s University. She is the initiator and coordinator for the website Combating-Domestic Violence Network of China Law Society.

Moderator: Mark Glaser, is the editor of PBS Mediashift, a blog looking at the way technology and the internet are changing media. Glaser is a longtime journalist and columnist, writing in the past about hip-hop music, videogames, eco-travel and tech gadgets. He lives in San Francisco.

To be honest, this session was a little disappointing because not all that much was said about social networking, and having started a blog, gotten heavily into MySpace, and even uploaded a video onto YouTube this year, I was hoping to hear much more about the topic. Mark was very interesting, to be sure, and I would have liked to have heard more from him. My friend Bob Logan always has some interesting things to say, I should add. I also enjoyed hearing Vitor's European perspective on media literacy, and BU Wei's report on China. And Bob Kubey had some interesting things to say about how we tend to feel uncomfortable with unstructured time, and with being alone, and that's why we turn to media such as television and the internet. So it all was interesting, but not enough on role-playing games, Second Life, podcasts and videoblogs, and all that Web 2.0 stuff, and too much on copyright, which I've heard enough agonizing about, thank you.

Still and all, a very stimulating day, and a very successful two thirds of the conference. Now, it's off to bed, I have to get up early again to get back down to our Lincoln Center campus for the last day.

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