New project: The Placing Culture podcast

I’ve started a podcast, “Placing culture,” which focuses on cultural geography, and particularly on conversations with individuals doing work at the intersections of geography, the arts, sciences, and humanities. You can follow the podcast via tumblr, Twitter and SoundCloud. The first episode, with Stephen Daniels and Lucy Veale of the University of Nottingham School of Geography, is embedded below.

PopMatters round-up for the end of 2014

Here are my recent publications on PopMatters since my last update:

In Worlds in Panels:

  • From October, a critical examination of Warren Ellis’ and Jason Howard’s Trees (Image).
  • From November, a reflection on GeekGirlCon 2014.
  • And from this month, a look at how digital comics has affected my relationship to print.

In October, I also had a feature on narrative themes in Buffy, Angel and Grimm.

August “Worlds in Panels”: comiXology’s “My Backups” and DRM

In my most recent column for PopMatters, I look at what downloads of comics from your comiXology library means for the future of DRM:

When I buy a print copy of a comic, there are a number of things I can do with that copy beyond simply reading it myself. I can, as noted, loan it to someone else. I can give it away or even sell it. I may not have to buy the comic in the first place; in many cases I could check the book out from the library to do my reading. With print there’s a clear distinction between owning a copy of a work and owning the work itself. I can do what I want with an individual copy that I come to possess by legal means, but what I can’t do is start making copies of my own for sale or to give away; that right adheres to the owner of the underlying work.

Read the column

Latest “Worlds in Panels”: comics and speculative fiction

At the end of last month, my newest column posted at PopMatters. I take a critical look at what comics mean for building fictional worlds. I focus on three series, Shutter, Saga and The Private Eye:

As in Shutter the narrative context in these books is being built out and filled in through the art more than through dialogue and exposition. The masks in The Private Eye aren’t just cool and fun to look at; they are material to the story, signifying Vaughan and Martin’s speculation on the value of privacy for the future. Difference is at the core of the story in Saga. Every new way of visually distinguishing characters devised by Vaughan and Staples is a reminder of this theme.

Read the column

Latest column on continuity between the MCU and the comics

My latest “Worlds in Panels” posted earlier this month. I reflect on what reads like a radical narrative break between Marvel comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU):

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), which includes TV and film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been formally disbanded and many of its agents have been forced underground (sometimes literally) and Maria Hill has taken a a job with Tony Stark. Until opening up Uncanny X-Men, it had not occurred to me that these events also represented the first major disjuncture between the comics and the company’s growing film and television franchise.

Read the column

Why I quit Foursquare

Over the weekend, I deleted the Foursquare app from my phone. I joined the service in 2011 and used it pretty consistently up until Saturday when I quit the app. It was actually my last check-in, to the Corvallis Farmers Market, that prompted me to give up.

My geographer’s curiosity prompted me to try the service. I wanted to experience this way of relating to place (and, in fact, became aware of Foursquare by seeing check-ins from other geographers in my Twitter feed). I was also interested in the potential of the app for discovering new places, particularly when visiting new cities.

Over time, what kept me using Foursquare was habit, sharing with Anne-Marie when one of us would be traveling, and the game aspects of the app.

When I first started with the service, I didn’t really give the gaming function much thought, but as a base of users in Corvallis and the mid-Willamette Valley began to develop, I found myself getting caught up in competitions for mayorships of my most frequently visited places. That was, as it turned out, kind of fun. The Corvallis Farmers Market was one of the locations where I competed for mayor, and the lack of mayoral updates for that place is what made me decide to let go of this habit.

Of course, starting a few months ago when Foursquare announced “Swarm”, competition for mayorships ended. The folks at Foursquare have reconfigured mayorships and badges for the new app. I haven’t adopted Swarm for a number of reasons, but the main one is that the new app, and the way that mayorships work, looks effective for larger urban areas where you will have a critical mass of both general participants and friends using the app in your immediate vicinity. Mayorships are allocated within circles of friends instead of from the entire user base. On Foursquare, most of the other people I traded mayorships with weren’t “friends”; we were all just local participants on the service. Swarm does not appear as it if offers much fun or incentive for people like me who live in a smaller city and where other users are going to be dispersed and probably not “friends”, in whatever sense.

I don’t fully understand the thinking behind splitting the service into a Yelp-like app, still called Foursquare, and the more social, Swarm, or why the functionality of the latter is so geared for users in larger metropolitan areas, but maybe I am a case in point for these changes.

Even before the gaming parts of Foursquare were shut down, I had reduced my use. I had stopped regularly cross-posting my check-ins on Twitter, and based on my Twitter timeline, I clearly was not alone in that. I was gradually making less of a point about checking in and right before I quit, had reduced my use of the service to a few places where I regularly had comments or photos to share. In some cases, I stopped doing even that (turns out that shooting pictures of dinosaurs trying to drink your beer at Laughing Planet will, in fact, stop being fun past a certain point).

I don’t know how many other people are also quitting Foursquare and taking a pass on Swarm, and I am sure that the new app will attract its own user base independent of original Foursquare adopters, but I think that it’s notable that the service is being reconfigured in a way that loses value for most of us who live outside of a small number of major metropolitan areas, and is likely now mostly appealing for (some) young adults (honestly, I don’t think even when I was a twenty-something living in Portland that I would have been too thrilled by the locational tracking aspects of Swarm).

At the end, this episode is a small reminder that our digital networks are neither spaceless nor placeless.

On (not) accounting for “intensities” in student learning

Like most liberal arts and sciences faculty at most American colleges and universities right now, I am asked, seemingly constantly, to justify and account for what I do in languages and metrics acceptable to administrators and, indirectly, to external constituencies like state legislators and members of governing boards. Typically, the preferred measurements are quantitative and extensive: number of students enrolled at the university, number of students enrolled in course sections, number of students enrolled in a major. Assessment of student learning is sometimes more nuanced than that, but still revolves around collective measurements and on drawing out generalizations regarding what is happening in the classroom (not to mention keyed to pre-determined priorities which may or may not have been articulated by teaching faculty).

As someone who works in the qualitative and interpretive areas of the social sciences, I am troubled by the biases in how my “success” or “failure”, or my field’s worth to the university, is most commonly measured. In one sense I am frustrated because by these measures, I often end up lacking, and this, of course, fosters anxiety about my position at the university. Most terms I have at least one upper division course that falls short of enrollment targets and I then have to spend time and energy justifying the offering. Similarly, while, historically, the geography faculty teach a significant number of students as part of the general education curriculum and play an important service function for a number of other programs, we tend not to attract a large number of majors, and there are very few students who would report that they decide to attend Western specifically for the geography department. So, yes, on one level, I have a material interest in how and what the university defines what matters and what doesn’t.

On the other hand, I am troubled by the nature of these choices because I think that there are crucial aspects of the college experience for students, in particular, that are missed by the focus on numbers and generalization.

To provide on example, I have a student this term from my introductory cultural geography course who clearly found our discussion of the body, sex, and gender to be revelatory, maybe even life-changing. I base this judgment on what I’ve seen from this individual in their writing and in their responses to routine learning assessments in class.

Maybe this student will take this experience to mean that they should major in geography or, at least, that they should take more geography courses. As much as I would love for either of these eventualities to come true, my experience tells me that the former is highly unlikely and the latter, while more likely, will largely depend on what the student’s program of study ends up being rather than on what they find natively interesting. The salient point here is that this student’s experience is unlikely to be captured by two of the most commonly referenced measures of success or worth at my university, namely, number of majors and course enrollments.

Furthermore, this student’s experience in my class may, from an institutional perspective, actually benefit programs other than my own. Maybe they become a gender studies minor or choose to focus their studies in their major on the body. Maybe they connect what they learned in my class to a class in some other department and for whatever reason choose that field as their major. Maybe this student defines their future education, job and career paths around these kinds of topics. Or maybe this experience simply enriches their understanding of who they are what they do in the world. I’d be happy with any of these outcomes, but the way success and worth are counted at my university, faculty are actually given an interest to compete with each other over students like this rather than encouraging the student to pursue their interests and passions in ways that make the most sense or appeal to them.

There is a chance that some part of this student’s experience could be captured by assessment of departmental learning outcomes, but as chance would have it, we were looking at an outcome this year that prompted me to pick a different area of the course for my contribution. In any case, even if that had not been the case, what I am writing about here is not whether or what students learn, but what’s meaningful about that learning. This student doesn’t stand out for how well they learned what I intended, but for the intensity of their response to the material.

Students are affected in different ways by what they do in their classes. Because so many enroll in my courses without really understanding what they are going to be learning, I frequently have students who report some kind of transformative experience as a result of having taken a course. Sometimes this stops at, “Wow, I had no idea that this is what geographers do,” but in other cases, more rare, but still notable, the response is more profound. I also often have students leave my courses having discovered a love of comics or a new appreciation of film. Needless to say, our departmental learning outcomes aren’t designed to anticipate these kinds of individual responses to material.

More to the point, no one in university administration is asking me or my colleagues to try to gauge these kinds of intensities, or to “count” these qualitative aspects of student learning when demonstrating what we do and why we matter. Fill slots. Acquire majors. Demonstrate what students, in aggregate, are learning. These, and especially the first two, are what drives decisions about faculty lines and non-tenure track hires. I’m not going to suggest that this will be true for everyone, but I would not be surprised if, for many students at schools like mine (smaller state schools with an undergraduate teaching focus and, nominally at least, a liberal arts mission), the most significant course or courses they take, over the course of their lifetimes, are just as likely to be from the general education offerings they took as from the more specialized coursework in their majors. Service like that to the university is seemingly discounted by every measure that matters in terms of material resource allocation.

Fundamentally, students are no longer being treated as students, but as tuition checks, and higher education has been reduced to a product. Departmental faculty are valued according to how much product they produce in the form of degrees conferred. Any other reason or value for what a university does is treated as frippery by just about anyone with immediate power to shape the institution.