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.
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.