The Social Web and Critical Pedagogy
YouTube poses certain basic challenges to teaching effectively and ethically. It relies on a cataloguing system driven by shallow popularity metrics, and its library of videos is maintained largely by the labor of fan communities rather than by the deliberative practices of archivists and instructors engaged with evaluating the credibility of sources or the coherence of the curricula. As Siva Vaidhyanathan explains in The Googlization of Everything, YouTube “uses its members to police its content” and uses a rhetoric about “community” that suggests the presence of “community norms,” despite the fact that the site has “no mechanism to establish what those standards or norms should be” (52). Elsewhere, Vaidhyanathan has asserted that the classroom or the lecture hall is a “sacred space” that can’t be easily translated to the marketplace of distance learning schemes that depend on online video and other automated and modularized computational media delivery tools (Vaidhyanathan, “The Classroom as a Sacred Space”). For him, the “universal surveillance and infrastructural imperialism” that is central to the Google mission makes any of its products that are designed according to its search algorithms and its logic of personalization unlikely venues for effective teaching (“Googlization” 96). As Vaidhyanathan explains, learning is “by definition an encounter with what you don’t know, what you haven’t thought of, what you couldn’t conceive, and what you never understood or entertained as possible” or “an encounter with the other—even with otherness as such” but “the kind of filter that Google interposes between an Internet searcher and what a search yields shields the searcher from radical encounters with the other by ‘personalizing’ the results to reflect who the searcher is, his or her past interests, and how the information fits with what the searcher has already been shown to know” (182). Furthermore, the core technologies of YouTube violate participants’ privacy and their sense of individual agency by planting cookies that mine data about user behavior and consumer preferences. The entire business model of YouTube is based on targeted advertising, not pedagogical empowerment, so YouTube is in many ways an unlikely teaching tool.
Alexandra Juhasz, another critic of the Social Web, argues that because of YouTube’s ad hoc epistemological structure, the site is much more likely to reinforce stereotypes than to encourage critical thinking appropriate to the classroom. As she puts it, “What is popular on YouTube does what we already like in ways that we already know . . . it is entertaining, but in ways that can not threaten” (Tour # 3). Although Juhasz describes her professorial self as “keen on refiguring power, expertise, and objectivity in the classroom,” she argues that YouTube’s seemingly flattened hierarchies actually present significant obstacles to creating “more collaborative, imaginative pedagogic interactions where there is a self-awareness about how embedded structures of power (race, class, gender, age, expertise) organize classroom participation, and access to learning” (“Learning from YouTube”).
Nonetheless, cross-campus informal collaborative practices teaching with the site by YouTube critics like Juhasz, Vaidhyanathan and myself contribute to an emerging YouTube pedagogy that uses the Google-owned video sharing service as a way to dramatize the importance of audience and purpose in computer-mediated communication while also seeking to caution students against drawing easy analogies between the Internet and participatory learning or the Internet and participatory democracy that are propagated by Social Web hype. In 2008, Juhasz described the principles of curricular design at work in her course and her own skepticism that the site represented either a form of media activism or a DIY/punk ethos worth emulating:
I am a professor of media studies whose work has focused upon the activist media of nonconformists. In the fall of 2007, I decided to look more closely at YouTube. The banal videos I regularly saw there did not align with the ethics underpinning the revolutionary discourses I study, nor those heralding the new powers of online social networking. So, I taught a course, “Learning from YouTube,” about and also on the site: all class sessions and course work were posted as videos or comments and were open to the public. One press release later, and we actually became the media relay we were attempting to understand (“Learning the Five . . .”).
To put forward coherent arguments about course materials to her students, Juhasz used the YouTube “playlist” feature to curate sequences of videos that she wanted her students to study with a critical eye.
At around the same time, Siva Vaidhyanathan was assigning group projects to his “Introduction to Digital Media” students that involved creating online videos about topics of immediate concern to college students such as the policing of bandwidth by campus authorities or the social surveillance and image vandalism made possible by Facebook. Students were encouraged to use Creative Commons licensed music to accompany the final products. Videos like “Restricted Knowledge?” and “Facebook World” were posted on his popular Sivacracy blog along with praise from him as a teacher.
Juhasz describes her version of a sustained experiment with YouTube pedagogy as a risk-taking venture in which students both competed to create videos that might garner a million views and provided critical reflection about the depiction of race, gender, class and sexuality in the “postmodern television” of their computer screens. Juhasz had to defend herself when she found herself mocked on news broadcasts for offering a “laugher” course sarcastically described as “tough” by one local news anchor who compared it to a “leisure skills development” class from his own college career (“Learning from YouTube on TV”). Juhasz later explained to Fox Television that she was concerned with improving the “quality of conversation” and “asking serious questions” as students explored six different research areas in her course (“Fox and Friends . . .”).
Information-sharing about these YouTube pedagogies wasn’t fostered by formal knowledge work supported by professional associations, philanthropic organizations, or scholarly journals devoted to teaching with and about technology. Instead, ideas for teaching with YouTube generally circulated through informal collegial contacts in which faculty teaching with YouTube shared their teaching experiences and pedagogical experiments. These networks of generally like-minded people were also sustained by conversations and collaborations between academic blogs. Classroom stories from Juhasz’s MediaPraxis, Vaidhyanathan’s now defunct Sivacracy, Michael Wesch’s Digital Ethnography, and my own blog Virtualpolitik informed our collective thinking about YouTube pedagogy. I later became a blogger for the Digital Media and Learning Hub with experimenters like Howard Rheingold of the Social Media Classroom and Cathy Davidson of HASTAC, but this collective blog site with longer editorial production periods lacked the cross-classroom synchronous contact that I had found earlier with Juhasz, Vaidhyanathan, and Wesch.
Teaching Digital Rhetoric
I had tested out many of these principles of student direction, self-reflection, and attention to the interpellation performed by the Social Web in my own digital rhetoric class, which was offered at the University of California, Irvine in 2007 and 2008. As we instructors brought YouTube into the classroom, with sometimes unpredictable results, we could also comment on each other’s experiments by using the comment features of the blogging form. I initially tried to use YouTube’s own tool for playlists, as Juhasz did, with subjects like “Vaudeville,” “Parodies of Traditional Media,” “Online Communities,” and “Virtual Worlds” to organize and assign videos for class discussion, but I soon found myself dissatisfied with the playlist method of curation. Students often found themselves lost in the playlist; the crowded screens of YouTube constantly suggested other avenues of distraction and delight to pursue, other threads of association unrelated to course content. By that time, I had begun saving YouTube videos for my own scholarship with Zotero, which proved to be a much better tool for preserving a video’s metadata and documenting what I had seen before it was taken down because of copyright violations or creator embarrassment. I was interested in trying to find tools that better matched the purpose for which a given video was being annotated, shared and archived. As I searched for a good pedagogical solution, I also discussed the virtues of so-called “widget-based” teaching with Mark Marino of Writer Response Theory. Marino was fond of services like Pageflakes that could update content for courses automatically with material pulled from RSS feeds, and he liked that YouTube could easily be embedded in the Pageflakes matrix.
After testing several possibilities in 2007, I decided to set up two kinds of YouTube “galleries” on Tumblr in 2008:
1) videos created by YouTube users with particular rhetorical conventions representing what Juhasz has called “NicheTube” or the parts of the site run by outsider communities with a strong sense of activism and group identity in practices of cultural resistance
2) YouTube videos essays that are critical of Social Web ideologies, which are created by interest groups, academics, activists and students.
To spur in-class discussion about online ethos and rhetorical conventions in NicheTube, I urged students to view galleries of “Coming Out Videos” and “Disability Videos.” The former category offered an opportunity for the group to talk about speech acts and online performance, and the latter encouraged discussion about how people with autism, schizophrenia and other personality-altering disorders solve obstacles to their public presentations by expert shooting, editing and deploying other online image management techniques. In connection with these videos, students read Alan Turing’s “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Joshua Berman and Amy Bruckman’s “The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment,” material about queer youth online by danah boyd and Jonathan Alexander, and a section from Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason. The seminal readings about artificial intelligence from Turing and Weizenbaum were intended to encourage critical thinking about computation, gender, sexuality and rationality that could also be applied to the students’ criticism of the YouTube videos.
Students were also eager to see model work for their final video essay projects, so there was considerable interest throughout the quarter in the video gallery that featured video essays about online privacy, network neutrality, software monopolies and information literacy and the video gallery with video essays about copyright. In recent years, composition theorists have interrogated ideologies of originality that were once central to student instruction, as rhetoricians return to value imitation as one of the building blocks of learning the conventions and organizational strategies of a given genre. Imitation is also important in so-called “memes” on YouTube, and videos in the gallery often copied the techniques of other YouTube creators.
At first, the model work galleries focused exclusively on video essays created by Juhasz, Wesch and other academics. It later expanded to include compositions that deployed clever uses of animated text, information graphics and digital compositing to criticize companies like Google or Facebook or policies that constrain digital rights. Soon, the gallery included videos by Juhasz’s Pitzer students, Vaidhyanathan’s University of Virginia students, Wesch’s Kansas State students, and my own students from previous years. In “I.D./self:: the new ‘real,’” one of my students, an art major, created an original animated film that explored three online personae, who were defined by Facebook, online messaging and the massive, multiplayer, online role-playing game World of Warcraft. He used these scenarios to argue that online identities were as “real” as “real” identities because they reveal “interests,” “fantasies” and “ideals.” Another student, a prolific blogger and former Endgadget intern, created “Web 2.0 is about them, not you,” which used carefully edited sequences of screen capture to assemble the online clues to show that top-rated seemingly independent blogs devoted to individual expression or artisanal opinion-making are actually likely to be part of gigantic media conglomerates that also control print and broadcast media.
Of course, using YouTube as a venue for pedagogical experimentation subjects students to its brute force mechanisms for policing content. For example, one of my students did a final video essay about the potential political power of the online fans of Stephen Colbert. This student soon found the entire audio track of his YouTube video erased because copyright-owner WMG had enforced their takedown privileges after a sound-matching algorithm apparently found incriminating audio signatures on the video. Even though the small snippet from the television show that the student had included should have fallen under fair use, because of its clearly critical context, neither student nor instructor could argue with an automated system. In another case, a video about the depiction of African-Americans on YouTube by one of Juhasz’s groups was flagged by users for objectionable content, even though it critiqued offensive content that was unflagged elsewhere on the site and pointed out how some keywords were much more likely to be associated with blackness than others.
Abusive comments, community member harassment, and lawyers eager to defend the reputations of their corporate clients have made YouTube a hostile environment for many students. On the other hand, students appreciate the seeming freedom of having their own accounts and feeling like they can remove juvenilia once coursework has been graded. Uploading, viewing and commenting on YouTube videos provides marketing data for the company and potentially compromises student privacy; in other words, this freedom comes with a number of constraints. In looking at whether students continued to add content to their blogs and YouTube channels after the end of the grading period, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: many students chose to continue content-creation activities with accounts that they had set up for the class, sometimes years later, but many students also chose to delete their accounts entirely. I would argue that both groups of students learned the lessons about digital rhetoric that I was trying to teach, although they responded to their newfound knowledge about digital media very differently.
Problems for Instruction
YouTube poses a number of problems as an instructional tool, but it also offers a number of ways to combine media theory with media practice and to link criticism to production in the twenty-first-century classroom. To make these efforts successful, students need to know the risks of composing academic work for YouTube, and instructors need not only to disclose the costs of overconfidence in the liberatory potential of the Social Web but also to reach out to others trying out this technology in their courses.
Alexander, Jonathan. “In Their Own Words: LGBT Youth Writing the World Wide Web.” GLAAD Center for the Study of Media & Society. February 2004. Web. 29 December 2010. <http://archive.glaad.org/documents/csms/queer_youth.pdf>.
Berman, Joshua and Amy S. Bruckman. “The Turing Game: Exploring Identity in an Online Environment.” Convergence 7.3 (2001): 83-102.
“Blacks On YouTube Final.” YouTube. 18 October 2007. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6rd5MscyPI>.
boyd, danah. “Viewing American Class Divisions through Facebook and MySpace.” 24 June 2007. Web. 28 December 2010. <http://www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html>.
Davidson, Cathy, Howard Rheingold, John Jones, Raquel Racuero, danah boyd, Liz Losh, Barry Joseph, et al. DML Central Digital Media and Learning. 29 December 2010. <http://dmlcentral.net/>.
“FinalProject.” YouTube. 8 December 2008. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xU_mAk5bkks>.
“’Fox and Friends’ Interviews Professor Alexandra Juhasz.” YouTube. 8 October 2007. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSMf4Hf0IMs>.
HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. 29 December 2010. <http://www.hastac.org/>.
“I.D. / self :: the new ‘real.’” YouTube. 7 December 2008. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BhEj-tI66E>.
Juhasz, Alexandra. “Learning the Five Lessons of YouTube: After Trying to Teach There, I Don’t Believe the Hype.” Cinema Journal 48.2 (2008): 145-150.
Juhasz, Alexandra. “Learning from YouTube: An Interview with Alex Juhasz (Part Two).” MIT Center for Future Civic Media. 22 February 2008. Web. 28 December 2010. <http://civic.mit.edu/blog/henry/learning-from-youtube-an-interview-with-alex-juhasz-part-two>.
Juhasz, Alexandra. “TOUR #3: POPULARITY! Who doesn’t want to be prom queen?” YouTube. 21 February 2008. Web. 28 December 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-XuCRO1Ecw>.
“Learning from YouTube on TV.” YouTube. 14 September 2007. Web. 3 Oct. 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JR4g342sEyI>.
Losh, Elizabeth. Virtualpolitik. 29 December 2010. <http://www.virtualpolitik.blogspot.com/>.
Marino, Mark. “Widget-Based Education.” WRT: Writer Response Theory. 23 August 2008. Web. 29 December 2010. <http://www.pageflakes.com>.
Turing, Alan. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” The New Media Reader. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. 49-64.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Another Cool Video From My Students.” Sivacracy. 7 April 2008. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.sivacracy.net/2008/04/another_cool_video_from_my_stu.html>.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “The Classroom as a Sacred Space – Siva Vaidhyanathan.” YouTube. 14 May 2010. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttNAWVXDMdc>.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. “Very Cool Video From Some of My Students.” Sivacracy. 7 April 2008. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.sivacracy.net/2008/04/very_cool_video_from_some_of_m.html>.
Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Sivacracy. 29 December 2010. <http://www.sivacracy.net/>.
“Web 2.0 is about them, not you.” 8 December 2008. Web. 3 October 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uchg3TxfmE>.
Weizenbaum, Joseph. “From Computer Power and Human Reason.” The New Media Reader. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000. 367-76.
Wesch, Michael et al. Digital Ethnography @ Kansas State. 29 December 2010. <http://mediatedcultures.net/>.
 See <http://www.sivacracy.net/2008/04/another_cool_video_from_my_stu.html>.
 Wesch was generally less critical of using YouTube as a platform than the other participants, and argued that training his students in ethnography and participant-observation required that students not impose the kinds of value judgments that were central to the pedagogy of Juhasz and Vaidhyanathan.
 A new variant of this upper-division writing course will be offered at the University of California, San Diego in Winter of 2011, as part of the Culture, Art, and Technology program that I now direct. The syllabus is here: <http://losh.ucsd.edu/courses/publicrhetoric.html>.
 See <http://www.zotero.org/>.
 See <http://www.pageflakes.com/>.
 See the forthcoming book by Henry Jenkins about Spreadable Media for more about the imitation ethos of YouTube.