A “course” is not enough. Each semester, I build an obstacle course to help students question their word choices, explore the growing forms of online publication, and foster unique interactive voices. I want students to struggle and stumble across their individual answers and decisions. It is the only way to arrive at a distinct message and meaningful communication in the new media landscape.
Here is a growing list of #506iv student pseudonyms that became solid first drafts of voices through trial and error. Each voice is not the whole student by far, but a part of them, crafted with focus, determination, and improvisation:
A local newspaper reporter who took her time with every assignment, Sylvie did not just publish her Wikipedia assignment, she did it by completely erasing and rewriting the standing article. The editors didn’t touch a thing once she did. It was a subject close to her heart and she sourced every line to journalistic standards.
Most of Sylvie’s semester work was about this historical subject, a natural catastrophe in Connecticut. At one point, she questioned committing something as important as her capstone, as well as a year or more of her life, to such a specific subject. She considered a more broad interest – infographics – instead. But she ultimately realized that a voice can only be something specific, and close to your heart. She was already spending all of her time on this story. What if she created a series of infographics telling the story of this great catastrophe? It would be one hell of a mashup.
Mr. Second Screen
Mr. Second Screen started out as Where Food Grows. His evolution over the semester involved completely tossing this first voice, a blog exploring local and organic versus mass-produced food. He found interesting angles. He introduced me to “pink slime” a year before it hit the national consciousness. But his enthusiasm for his subject waned by midterm. Students should never avoid these setbacks. They are uniquely instructive for the individual.
A young producer/editor in Los Angeles, California, Mr. Second Screen created another blog before my course on the complicated world of video codecs. This was his life out there in television land. His rebirth took a phrase floating around the production offices where he worked and made it more concrete. How do you create content for an audience that is watching television while holding smartphones and tablets and second screens? How can you reach that audience? It is a great question and worth a semester’s work and an interactive voice.
Jen was a published author on financial topics by day. Superior to the course in many ways, I had one thought as her assignments progressed. There are financial blogs everywhere these days. What is special about yours?
She quickly got more specific, focusing on the lack of personal finance education in the country. It was the height of the recession. Here was a pertinent problem that needed a good algorithm. Here was a reason to go all the way to Capitol Hill. She studied infographics and other forms of interactive media teaching finance in simple ways. Then she focused her audience further on high school students. Instead of a ho-hum financial blog, she started talking video games.
This class is an arc from what matters to the student toward applicable ideas and action. Are there people already focusing on financial video games? Probably. Does that mean Jen should not give it a try? Hardly. Zuckerberg did not create the first social network, he created the best design. Does Jen have to move forward with this idea? Not at all. But this is what it takes to publish a national op-ed, successful blog, bestselling book, or raise money for a documentary or startup. This is what it takes to reach an audience, whether you are doing it for you, a client, or as part of a team or company. To communicate, you need passionate focus and freshness.
Video games versus the financial crisis: now there is a draft.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS
The ghost of the second greatest Briton of all time (voted by Britons behind Churchill, but ahead of Darwin, Diana, Shakespeare, and Isaac Newton) arrived in class blogging and tweeting with the voice of Charles Dickens and Victorian England. His goal was steampunk in nature: to bridge our age of innovation with his own era of iron steamships and locomotives.
His theses were short, sweet and self-aware: If Content is King; Organization is the Queen. Progress leaves ruin in its wake. Iron is a draft. His proposal was a simple Foursquare tour and pub crawl of Brunel landmarks in England sponsored by a line of Brunel inspired ales. His consistent mashup of tangible research and eccentric history with our modern marvels is another example of the personal preoccupation made universally engaging.
A twenty-year veteran of Hollywood’s practical special effects industry, CoolVFX was yet another type of media professional navigating the consequences of digital and interactive media on his career. Cool introduced the class to the visual effects industry’s picket line protest of Hollywood and its green screen profile pic solidarity campaign during our first multi-section live-tweet of the Oscars broadcast.
Cool poignantly started and ended the semester writing obituaries for Yoda creator Stuart Freeborn and vfx legend Ray Harryhausen. He taught us how to build a space ship from scratch just like the original film wizards did for the 1979 film Alien. His course blog discussed and then became the first draft of a one-man effort to archive his suddenly endangered industry’s history. His second draft was the Visual Effects Archive Facebook Page. Like it.
Web presence is not the presence of one web site. A successful interactive voice speaks across multiple applications and pages. I want students to think of ways to manipulate or game popular formats like LinkedIn and Facebook because making software your own is the first step toward making your own software. CoolVFX’s Facebook page will survive beyond the course because he used Facebook for his goals.
I spotted the poster for the local PechaKucha night two semesters before I went to the inspiring event. PechaKucha is a slideshow presentation format started in Tokyo where the speaker is restricted to 20 images displayed for 20 seconds apiece. The 6 minute, 40 second speeches are held in informal, entertaining sessions in bars and clubs. Students need to stand in front of a real crowd with their ideas to fully understand the audience they engage daily on the Web.
It took me another semester to find the student who would break this barrier and move from virtual classroom to physical arena. Cue is a successful stage actress and performer with a day job who believes that all artists should have day jobs and backup plans. From day one, her course blog was a draft of a business proposal for her Green Room Initiative. She knew she had an uphill battle – performers chasing dreams believe just having a plan B is an admission of failure. But Cue understood that introducing a good idea often means pointing out a persistent bad one.
But don’t take my word for it. Hear CueFollowSpot in her own words.
Zero & Dvosara
Zero was a cat. Dvosara was an alien. In the same class, they were my first students to use fictional pseudonyms to explore their selves and ideas.
A volunteer at a local humane society created Zero in a series of charming diary entries. The stray told her tale of moving house to house until she was taken to an animal shelter. Zero was an awareness tool. Zero’s creator also fashioned an app that would keep prospective pet owners connected to local shelters and an algorithm that instructed, not how to build, but how to be the better mousetrap, for cats of course. She also wrote a detailed analysis of how an online anti-legislation campaign failed against big agriculture’s effort to criminalize undercover videotaping of animal cruelty.
Dvosara Ten was a lifeform from a far off galaxy that could only understood and communicate with humanity through the Internet. The Web was her archeological find. The creator of Dvosara gave her a voice similar to someone learning English as a second language. While suitable for an alien, it complicated the audience’s ability to connect with the character. But what a character, and what an interesting way to explore the Web for the semester. Dvosara’s narrative was suspenseful, featured a genuinely witty android sidekick, and challenged our limited point of view here on Earth.
A fundamental belief of my course is that all writing comes from its authors and basic writing lessons apply to all authors and all forms of communication. The feline and the extraterrestrial speak for themselves.
This aspiring game show host wrote one of my favorite bylines of the course: I was so excited about [hosting my first game show] that I gave away my own money. Monty gamed the course with an analysis of Bob Barker versus Drew Carey, a video countdown of the top five British game shows, and an app that turned smartphones into buzzers and any get-together into a competition. His algorithm and pitch assignments were designs on new ways to play. They were also drafts for a game show capstone you can download on iTunes.
Yankee Chicken was my first student to pitch legislation. I loved her pseudonym. It stressed the DIY nature (and crossover potential) within her passion for raising chickens and building their coops in suburbia. Her tag line beautifully encapsulated her semester long obsession: Much love to the backyard flock. From a resume built around her chicken-raising history and experience with different breeds, to a devil’s advocate argument about chicken runs, to facing both damned weasels and town board meetings, this is specificity in all its broadness and reach.
Maid of Stihl
Maid of Stihl (pronounced steel) began with the pseudonym Julia Carson. She introduced the class to home improvement landscaping, the world’s leading manufacturer of chainsaws, and a woman who remembered her beloved, late father by working in the backyard. Julia’s blog and YouTube channel focused on making a female audience more comfortable with power tools and caught the eye of her favorite brand. An authority on every model of Stihl chainsaw, trimmer, and blower, she was recruited as a spokeswoman, her blog was reborn, and her best class assignment, about her dad, was featured on the company website.
One of my earliest students, Chuck had a vision he wanted to realize from the beginning. A print newspaper turned online reporter, he wanted to define his new technology beat and refine his use of interactive media. I am generally skeptical that media students can find an individual voice discussing the obvious and omnipresent subject of technology, but Chuck did a great job. His initial 506 course blog became the template for his capstone Digital New Digest, a sharp exploration of newspapers and journalism’s digital transformation.
Of course, we don’t just create blogs in this class. Elise was another veteran journalist looking to make the leap from legacy to new media. A local television news reporter, she wanted to develop a new voice online that she could then show her station bosses and hopefully bring to broadcast. Her voice was a Twitter update of the old consumer watchdog beat.