The countdown is on, the ball is dropping—I am almost ready to holler “Happy New (School) Year!” and head into the classroom. I am teaching a Reading Popular Culture course this semester, and, so between rounds of rubric and syllabus design have been wracking my brains to figure out how to get my students engaged not only with new media, but also with old media.

Alan’s most recent post got me wondering how to get my students to engage with Victorian and twentieth-century media in a way that helps them see a medium as new, cutting edge, the Google glasses of its time (or indeed, perhaps more exciting than Google glasses. The glasses seem, by and large, to be met with a world weariness: “Another gadget? They look so terribly uncool”). Alan, quite rightly, warns against being sucked in by nineteenth-century newspapers’ celebratory accounts of then-new media. That said, while I would like my students to be critical of their primary sources, I would like to re-inject them with wonder at just how amazing Victorian new media was, and indeed, is. And so, I am left puzzling out how to increase students’ wonder without delivering them into the hands of hyperbolic demonstrators of nineteenth-century gadgets and gizmos.

Me and a pair of mutoscopes at San Francisco's fabulous Musee Mechanique
Me and a pair of mutoscopes at San Francisco’s fabulous Musee Mechanique
Wonder, I hope, will inoculate students against what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls our failure to “be thrilled and amazed” when confronted by new technology (51). He points the moral and offers a solution: aside from the pressure of markets, the culprit is “a widespread lack of historical perspective on technological change [and] the black box of technological design. Although consumers and citizens are invited to be dazzled by the interface, the results, and the convenience of a technology, they are rarely invited in to view how it works” (52). So, here is the grand experiment folks—I can’t quite host a Then-New Media Petting Zoo (although students are welcome to borrow my phenakistoscope, pictured above, and I think I may have a little extra credit available to anyone who can source a magic lantern), but I can hold a poster session. This year I will have each of my Reading Popular Culture students sign up to create a poster for a particular then-new medium, and explain how it works, which cultural moment produced it, how it was received, and how contemporary scholars are engaging it. A poster is no replacement for a final essay, but will, I hope shepherd my students over the mid-term hump. Ideally there will be “some assembly required,” but even if the students can’t get their hands on an old medium, I’ll be glad if they can offer up an account of how it worked. All we we need is a little analysis, a few primary and secondary sources, and an allotment of wonder.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva. The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry). Berkeley: U of California P, 2011. Print.


4 thoughts on “Wondering at Then-New Media

  1. Great post!! I’m thinking about the very same things right now because I’m teaching a seminar this semester on Victorian fiction and “new” media. I’m asking students to think about what it meant to be “new” when the media we now consider “old” were fresh and exciting. I’m not a poster person because I have never felt that sense of satisfaction many people get from building something. This is the same reason why I’m more of a distant-persistent observer of digital humanities. For now, I’m going to ask my students to challenge themselves this semester to think “non-representationally” in their reading of fiction and thinking/perusing of media from the past. As for assignments, I’m thinking of leaving them up to students to propose, implement, and develop. Essays, blogs, archival research, demonstrations, remediations. Anything will be fair game, as long as my students avoid all arguments that focus on representation as a foundation for thinking.

  2. I am curious to find out what types of knowledge building old media will give us. I don’t know that many of students will have a chance to make a zoetrope or tinker with a selectric typewriter head, but I am interested in thinking through tinkering with students’ help in the future. Jentery Sayers is starting some interesting work along these lines at UVic: he is preparing a series of maker kits as tools for engaging material history

    I suspect that I will have to tread carefully when it comes to the question of working with a then-new media object vs a reproduction, digital or otherwise. I look forward to hearing how your students experiments in non-representational arguments turn out!

  3. Your poster assignment sounds terrific, Connie! I hope you’ll report back about how it turns out this term.

  4. Thanks Jen! I will pop back in with an update or two once we are underway (I’ve been fortunate so far–the UBCO students have been game to try new things).

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