Archive for November, 2011

Looking to the End

Now that we are in the home stretch of info age, I am gearing up for the final project. This piece is only worth a tiny 5%, but it stands in as my final monumental act in this class. Further still, I have an overwhelming desire to leave even the slightest impression of my existence on this campus. The grade percentage does not mean anything to me, I am more concerned with its meaning and contribution.

The question becomes, what do I do for this final project, for the final battle?

Naturally, I chose something related to the ever-present Reverend, Jim Groom. I spoke with a number of my peers about setting up for another documentary. This time, we will be tracking the evolution of the digital storytelling course here at the University of Mary Washington, some of you may know this course as ds106. There has been a great deal of news about DTLT’s work with this project, and it seems fitting that a final information age look into its development over the years. Having watched ds106 evolve from afar, I can see that there have been mutations, complications, and major successes with this course. I am excited to jump right into meeting with thinkers who have put the course together, different student participants, and potential skeptics about the course.

Due to time constraints, we will more than likely keep the project tied to our campus, but I think that we can still speak to the larger context of open education as put forth by many of the iterations of ds106. Frankly, the course became a firestorm when Jim Groom opened it up, so it seems only fitting to take the course and study it at the point of origin. As with the other documentary, I think there will be issues of knowing how to tell the story and understand what is there to be told. I do not simply want to make a work devoted to singing ds106 praises. As a historian, I feel it problematic to take a specific side without looking deep into context, issues, and the voices of a specific event/group. The documentary should be all about the research and understanding what is happening on the group through multiple points of view.

Fine Points of Documentary

In this blog post I begin with a consideration of the pitfalls and issues with the documentary project. I follow up with a brief exposition on my personal development through this project and ponder suggestions for any future groups taking on this project. A quick note of thanks to Dr. McClurken, I greatly appreciated the opportunities we have this semester to take on unique projects. He risked this course’s success by entrusting us to select viable projects and course readings.

I acquired a number of new skills that I would not have otherwise even begun to think about, yet even this process came with issues. In crafting a documentary I had no idea where one began. You can read first, which may inform your questions, but without doing interviews right away the rest of the documentary feels formless. However, many guides and tutorials suggest building a storyboard of what you would like to tell. While I am certainly not artistic in my storytelling, but how can you create a storyboard without already having the story? I learned how to start building relations with interviewees and set up meetings. My group thoroughly discussed tips and techniques to keep an individual somewhat on subject, namely how to politely steer the conversation back to a relevant direction. The best skill I picked up was how to edit video.

Prior to this project, I had some inkling of how to work out audio issues, but video presented a new mystery to me. Thanks to substantial online tutorials and my project partner’s strong eye for editing, I felt supremely confident in my ability to sniff out bad cuts and how to overlay a good b-roll. There will always be the obstacle of learning a new piece of technology, but consider that the technology is a platform for you to tell a story. If such is the case, despite the difference in buttons and functions, different programs will expect the user to bring the same set of skills to the table. Do you know how to find a problem with video? Do you understand how to keep a viewer mentally engaged with your work? These are a couple of the underlying questions one must ponder. My partner was not familiar with Premiere but felt right at home with Avid. Although these are two different programs, her strong editing skills can shine through in both. I love editing video and adding audio tracks that blow people’s minds.

With any project, the key lesson is knowing how to budget time, however time is again an overarching issue. One should mainly note that in a group project the core issue is dividing workload. I found balancing the work power of four people to be exceedingly difficult, especially given my dearth of skills. Regardless, I should have considered ways to play to each individual’s strengths and time availability. Each member of my group gave this project their full time and attention, but at some moments there was little for them to take care of. Truth be told, video editing can be a solo job and does not require a committee at the very beginning. Given that, how do you divvy out a four person group? Perhaps the lesson here is understanding the nature of the project and potential job roles for each participant. I wouldn’t want to take away from anyone’s learning experience, which can easily happen when individuals only take jobs they are already proficient at. I find this to be a particularly hard balancing act and would love to get other opinions on the matter.

I fell in love with this documentary project and already have ideas rolling through my mind about the next short piece. With only a few weeks left in the semester, I can’t believe it has taken me four years at UMW to realize that I love film work. Better late than never, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing documentary as a hobby, right?

Who Do You Trust?

After leading class discussion last week, I began to mull over this question of trust. “Oh,” you say, “why is trust even a question?” As an academic-sort of person, I wonder at little things now. I read through Chuck Zerby’s Devil’s Details as well as Grafton’s Footnotes: A Curious History wherein both of them trace the development of footnotes and methods of trusting scholars findings.

Dr. McClurken added an additional set of readings about an academic hoax a few years back. The comments on this post struck me with the idea of “trust networks.” Dr. McClurken had mentioned this issue that the authority behind the project duped a number of colleagues into believing in the legitimacy of the work. I have to admit that I can appreciate the unsettling of the academic waters. Projects like this kick up a bunch of muck in the water and teach us that trust can sometimes be misleading. Just as scholars could fake early footnotes with sources that were tampered with, we historians and scholars will struggle with these issues. Somehow, we become far too trusting. Yet it is impossible to fact check every footnote or each aspect of a project. Something will slip under our radar, yet the more vigilant the scholar, the better the field.

At times questioning trust causes rifts between groups. How dare you doubt x researcher? Don’t you know that he/she has a degree in such and such a field? But academic work does not necessarily equate with bias-free texts. It might even be a bit depressing to know that the scholarly field is not as trustworthy as it might seem, but aren’t we all better off for having the wool taken off our eyes? Although we should expect that our colleagues will be honest and upright, knowing that the academic career is more than a little cutthroat gives us a better lay of the land. Why yes I am dancing around this issue! If academics will question the validity of primary source materials, should we not question our trust circles even further? Watch your back, things are not as clear as they may seem.

Maybe this whole matter of trust turns academia into a spy game or a thriller of sorts, filled with dangerous scholars toating deadly footnotes meant to lull a colleague into a false sense of security. You can place more mechanisms to ensure trustworthy work, yet in the end anything can eventually be circumvented. Trust at your own risk.

Conducting Interviews and Gaining Skills

My work with the documentary process has opened a whole other set of skills to me. I have spent much of my time familiarizing myself with the digital media lab’s copy of adobe premiere. Admittedly, I deserve to write a rather glowing post for lynda.com, which offers detailed and amazing video tutorials.

Like most of the Info Age’s projects, this one forces one to acquire non-traditional skills. Although the advertisement project might leave a few gaps in understanding how it relates to the historical discipline, the documentary offers very clear-cut, transferable skills. You are still crafting an argument about the ways in which events occurred and, more importantly, why it happened. Where are the differences? Well, primary sources in your typical paper include documents, not actual living people. There is a certain danger in conducting interviews, namely asking leading questions. If questions shape the project, it even more strongly influences the sources for this type of project. Unlike a traditional project, you cannot bully a piece of paper, much less make it answer a question specifically in your favor (perhaps a debatable point). I must warn other students conducting similar projects. Please put thought into your questions. As I understand it, the documentary typically needs a direction and form before interviews even begin, and the temptation is to make sure that interviewees’ statements match with your own interpretation, but such attempts create weak projects. While our main interviewer crafts questions as objectively as possible, I can imagine a scenario where an interviewer pushes interviewees to produce very specific answers. I enjoyed sitting in on an interview to watch my project partner work. Of course, she already brings a great deal of skill to the table, so I had a wonderful learning experience.

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