Follow-up to “Growing up free in PDX”

After posting my reflection on growing up in Portland and the freedom public transit gave me, I saw this report from The Oregonian about Mayor Sam Adams pushing back on TriMet’s plan to end the free youth pass. In short, Adams is proposing to raise the fees charged to TriMet for use of city property for shelters and benches. The money raised would then be used to cover the costs of maintaining the pass program.

Youth passes weren’t free when I was a kid, but I seem to recall a special rate, if not for youth specifically, then for the monthly pass. I did not mention the monthly pass specifically in the prior post, but I did use one in high school, at least when classes were in session. Regardless of cost, a pass makes using transit even easier than having to find and count out fare for each trip, and while it made Fareless Square less useful to me personally, my friends who did not have passes could ride around the downtown area with me as freely as I could with my pass.

At BlueOregon, Kari Chisholm comments:

For years, I’ve believed that TriMet should just allow any young person under age 18 free access to buses and light rail. After all, what better way is there to produce the next generation of transit riders? Riding the bus can be confusing for newbie riders – so adolescence is exactly the right time to get folks accustomed to it.

That certainly resonates with my experience, even without having enjoyed something like the current youth pass program. In fact, when we visit Portland, or for just about any city, our practice is to park the car (if we have one) and, as much as possible, use foot and transit to get around while we’re there. There’s no better way to get to know or get around a city. I find it much less stressful to take the time to orient myself to a transit system than to drive around, especially, in an unfamiliar city, and even where I do know a place well, I am happy to avoid negotiating parking. Where transit is a viable option, I find that it affords more freedom of action and movement than being shackled to a car (thus the theme of my original post on this topic).

I hope that Adams is successful in his bid to forestall or offset the effect of this particular service cut by TriMet.

Teaching introductory cultural geography with film analysis

For the past two or three years (I change my syllabi too frequently) I’ve been teaching my introductory cultural geography course so as to emphasize how cultural geography is done over surveying content. I use Jon Anderson’s Understanding Cultural Geography (Routledge, 2009) as the primary text.

What I appreciate about this text is that it gives students a simple, but still sophisticated, theoretical framework for thinking about the world in cultural geographic terms. The key concepts are “places” and “traces”, where “places” are broadly defined as the contexts for culture, defined as “what people do”, and “traces” are “cultural remnants” that are left in place by people doing what they do (whatever that is; obviously varies by context). Places simultaneous frame what people do, the traces they make, and are the outcomes of those practices. In making traces, people also make places.

The primary nuances within this framework come from the book’s discussion of power, and how different forms of power shapes what people do, the traces that they make on a daily basis and how those practices do, or do not, accommodate difference or variations in what people do in different places. Similarly, Anderson argues that traces can be “material” or “non-material”, and can come from both human and non-human agents, in the sense that what plants, animals, objects, and natural/physical forces do are necessarily incorporated into culture.

After establishing this framework, the text goes onto to explore a variety of topical areas, such as capitalism and anti-capitalism, nature, and the body, and, in the next to last chapter, introduces students to the primary formal research methods used by cultural geographers: interviewing, textual analysis, and ethnography.

During the course of the term, I have students perform a variety of exercises, some in-class, some out-of-class, some for credit, some just as part of being in class, wherein students do work that plays at or approximates cultural geographic research. So, for example, in one exercise I ask students to choose a place to observe in order to draw conclusions about what people are expected to do in that place, how to comport themselves, what kinds of activities are appropriate or inappropriate, what kinds of identities are welcome or unwelcome (Anderson writes about places being “ordered” and “bordered” so as to specify what is “natural, normal, or novel” for people to do in a given location).

For the last three to four weeks of the quarter I move students from doing short exercises around specific questions to a broader and more formal attempt at practicing textual analysis. For this, I assign an additional text, and have used Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (Spectra, 1993), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Pantheon, 2007), and Brian Wood’s and Ryan Kelly’s Local (Oni Press, 2008). Anderson’s discussion of methodology gives students a starting point for reading critically, and I construct an assignment that poses a number of prompts for seeing the assigned text as a creative exploration of “places and traces”. I use Anderson’s methodological discussion as a starting point for thinking about form as well as content when doing textual analysis.

In the term just ended, for the first time, I chose a film instead of a book to cap the course. The film I used is Run Lola Run (1998). I made this choice for a number of reasons:

  • The running time, 80 minutes, is close to perfect for a 110 minute period in terms of having time for set up, viewing, and discussion in one class session.
  • The narrative structure of the film is easy to break down and reconsider on additional viewing in subsequent sessions.
  • The style of the film makes it easy to talk about form; the use of slow motion, split screens, alternate versions of the story, an evolving soundtrack, are all devices that draw attention to how the film is made.
  • The movie also has clearly announced philosophical intentions that relate directly to the kinds of questions we talk about during the term, and specifically questions about what people do, how that is affected by context, and how people exercise power in relation to others on a daily basis.
  • I also anticipated that the film’s strangeness, in being in German, in being so obviously of its era, and in its style, would facilitate critical engagement more readily than a more conventional or familiar choice.

I took time in a couple of class sessions to prepare students for viewing. I used excerpts from Timothy Corrigan’s A Short Guide to Writing about Film (Longman, 2006), notably the chapter on getting ready to write and the chapter on film language, to provide students with background and a reference for doing textual analysis on a film. I spent an entire period introducing key concepts in film study, miss-en-scene, the frame, the shot, editing, and compiled online resources for additional guidance. I used a single frame grab from Lola to open up discussion of the concepts (I pulled additional frames for further discussion after viewing the film in class).

After watching the film once through, we devoted class meetings to re-watching each ‘run’, and also for revisiting the prologue, the credits, and the background scene. I used fan art and paratexts like tag lines to demonstrate different ways of framing, thinking about, and relating to the movie.

Based on the final assignments, and course assessments, I got from students, this experiment worked pretty well. Many students were strongly engaged by film study, particularly in the formal aspect, much more so than with the novel or the comics. Indeed, one lesson I took from this experience is to devote more time to preparing students for thinking about the form of texts, whatever I choose to use. The film also seemed to work in the way that I had hoped in prompting reflection on Anderson’s framework at its most basic assumptions.

For the final paper, students were asked to write about Lola and philosophy of place, that is, whether students are persuaded by the film’s suggestion that being in place with others can have profound consequences even where what we do seems trivial on the surface, such as, for example, when Lola brushes, runs into, or avoids, “Doris”, the woman with baby carriage who Lola encounters shortly after leaving her apartment building, or to write about the film and Anderson’s way of defining places as “ongoing compositions of traces”, that is, in each version of the story different locations are shown to take on different meanings depending on what people do.

I was gratified to see that students were provoked both to think about these questions in a universalistic, “what it means to be human”, kind of way and also in ways that were more sensitive to difference, considering, for example, the ways in which Lola appears out of place, as in her father’s bank or at the casino. More students than I expected were able to make interesting connections to the form of the text and their discussions of cultural geographic themes.

One of the reasons I chose Anderson’s text to ground this course is that I think it gives students a more contemporary and clearly disciplinary view on cultural geography than do most survey-level books. Having different options for students to practice at becoming cultural geographers helps to further this goal of learning in a discipline and doing so in way that is actually relevant to what I do as a professional in the field. Intro courses, at least in geography, can often seem pretty far removed from faculty research and disciplinary practice, which is why these classes can often be a drag to teach. I think I am finding ways for that not to be the case, and it is making me a better teacher.

Growing up free in PDX: the power of public transit

Last week, when I read this report from Joseph Rose at OregonLive about the recent – heavily attended and raucous – TriMet board meeting, I was prompted to reflect on my own growing up in Portland and on the significance of public transit to my mobility, independence and sense of place in the city. The decision to eliminate the Free Rail Zone, in particular, got me thinking about my reliance on TriMet buses, and later Max, for getting around the city as a teen, and how less accessible the system is becoming with each round of service cuts and fare changes.

For me, learning to navigate the bus system was an important coming of age moment. The first time I went downtown on the bus without adult supervision stands out in my memory more vividly than getting my driver’s license.

I began using TriMet in middle school, but it was in high school that using the bus became an everyday part of my life. I lived in north Portland, on the east side of the Willamette River, but attended school downtown, on the west side, and the city bus is how I got to school each day.

More than that, the bus was freedom. Freedom from having to rely on my parents to get places. Freedom from feeling like I needed a car of my own. Freedom to explore downtown after school (and sometimes during). Fareless Square (later the Free Rail Zone) was an important adjunct to that freedom because I, and my friends, could traverse the free ride area together before heading off to our respective homes. I have no doubt that this sense of freedom is one reason why I delayed getting my driver’s license. I was already mobile and I am sure now that my years using TriMet are why I can still navigate the city with ease even though it has been almost ten years since I last lived in Portland.

It is tempting to see the current retrenchment by the transit agency as an artifact of the recession, but the roots go deeper than that.

High school was not only when I was getting around the city by foot, bus, and train, but also when anti-tax activism was coming to be expressed in property tax limitation measures modeled after California’s Prop 13. I graduated high school in 1987, and the first state property tax limitation, Measure 5, did not pass until 1990, but my high school years were marked by earlier, unsuccessful, attempts to pass such legislation by referendum.

One effect of 1990s-era tax limitation in Oregon was to shift the burden of funding local services from cities and counties to the state general fund, which is dependent on income tax. Even leaving aside irrationalities in that system, like the kicker, Oregon’s economy just isn’t that big. There is no way that an income-tax fueled state general fund was or is going to make up for shortfalls at the city and county scale. As a result, local services have been degraded over the course of the last couple of decades, and would have been with or without the current financial crisis and recession.

I also think that there has been an important cultural effect to property tax limitation, and resulting increase in demands on state revenues: many voting adults have come to believe that even basic services are too costly, never mind that many of those services, like, say, accessible and reliable public transit, are things that many could, and did, take for granted as kids and young adults. The fact that we can’t pay for them now is, yes, partly the result of a declining economy, but more significantly is the result of setting arbitrary limits on the ability to pay for services.

Oregon in the 1980s, when I was an adolescent and teen, was a place of moderate population growth, particularly as compared to the next two decades. So, to the extent that I enjoyed the benefits of services like a robust transit system, and extracurricular activities like drama, Model U.N. and speech and debate without having to pay substantial costs above and beyond what my parents were already paying in taxes, was not due to some quirky prosperity, but to a tax system that allowed services to be paid for as deemed necessary by voters and their representatives.

The paradox here is that property tax limitation finally succeeded at the ballot box during a period of relatively high prosperity for the state, and for the Portland metro area in particular. Arguably, that prosperity worked to mask what was happening at the local level because gaps could be filled through a combination of state money and institutional efforts (e.g., teachers bringing in their own supplies). Today, of course, the state money part of that equation has been in decline. More critically, public scarcity is seen as a natural condition.

But public scarcity isn’t a natural condition.  In Oregon, specifically, it stems from political choices made in the 90s, choices that previously had been resisted by voters.

When I see reports like the one I started with, about TriMet, I think of how different the political culture is in Oregon now as compared to when I was a teen and how life at the same age for me today would be materially different than it actually was as a consequence.

Maybe I would have biked more. Or maybe I would have felt a stronger push to have a car. In any case, my sense of independence and my relationship to the city would not have been what it was without TriMet. And while the current round of cuts and hikes are hardly tantamount to eliminating transit in Portland, these changes do make the service less effective and less accessible. And I can’t help but think that the place is a little less free than it used to be.

An (outsider) academic’s perspective on submission to, and rejection from, film festivals

On Monday I received my first rejection from a film festival for Comic Book City. This wasn’t particularly surprising. Not only is this my first long form film, it is also only the second time I’ve taken one of my works and submitted it to festivals.

Of course, this time around, the stakes are higher. The first film I submitted to festivals is “5 Cups of Coffee“, a scripted short that I directed, edited, and co-produced with Maren Anderson, who wrote the script. With “5 Cups” I targeted a small, local event, the Mid-Valley Video Festival, and after being accepted there, made a couple of additional submissions before stopping. What I wanted out of MVVF was a sense of the festival experience and a chance to screen a work with a group of strangers. “5 Cups” was also a project I undertook primarily for the doing of it, and not as a “publication” (that being said, a few years later, I did submit the film and an accompanying essay to Aether – still waiting on publication – and am generally pretty happy with the work).

Comic Book City, by contrast, is a film that I made with the intent of it being (fully) counted as part of my scholarship. Film festival review and acceptance needs to work here in the same vein as peer review and publication works for more traditional publications in my fields.

One of the challenges for an effective novice to the festival circuit, like me, is how to decide where to submit. One starting point is AJ Schnack’s listing of the top twenty-five festivals for documentaries, but there are, potentially, thousands of festivals to consider, and at this point in my filmmaking career path, I have only so many resources available to apply towards submitting my work for consideration.

Unlike journals, conferences, or book publishers, film festivals typically charge a fee for submission of work. And one additional cost I had not considered until recently is the cost of media for submission. Where possible, I have relied on my Withoutabox online screener, but in some cases organizers want DVD copies for review. Whereas I can count on access to paper, when needed, as part of the supplies and services provided by the division office, I have to buy DVDs myself.

In any case, submitting a film to a festival, more often than not, costs money, and, on average, I think I have been paying about $50/submission. Whatever the risks associated with, say, journal submission, paying $50 for the pleasure of rejection is not one of them. Being appropriately selective about venues for one’s work is always important, but adding a financial cost to these decisions attaches a new significance to making the best choices.

One way in which submitting to festivals is like submitting to journals, conferences or book publishers is that there is a clear top tier of places to get your work seen and recognized, but equally true is that not all of your work will be suitable to those outlets. In both forms of “publishing”, beneath the top tier is a thicket of choices that is more difficult to navigate in terms of appropriateness, quality and reputation than is the consensus “best” places.

For example, the festival from which I just received a rejection is one of a myriad of self-named “underground” events. That word, “underground”, is used in different ways by different festivals, sometimes clearly defined, as when identified with certain genres, and sometimes not, as when it is being used as an “edgier” expression of “independent”. Depending on the event, “underground” maybe promising for my work or it may be a waste of effort and resources.

There is also the question of reputation. Fortunately for me, one of the advantages of working at a smaller public university, with a focus on undergraduate education, is not having to worry about this matter as much as someone at an R1, for example. I can afford to think about appropriateness or how interesting a venue is more than I need to  think about the “right” places.

For Comic Book City, I have trained my attention on Pacific Northwest-based festivals and events dedicated to documentary and non-fiction film, and on calls for entries that show an openness to works that may or may not have mainstream appeal or that have an academic intent. So far, I have made a few exceptions for fests that seem cool or interesting or that would raise the profile of my film were it to be selected (the aforementioned rejection came from one of these outliers).

I expect that this recent rejection will be the first of a number to come, I would be surprised by any other outcome, but I also know that I have other notifications coming up this month that represent more of a test for the film’s (external) viability. Not sure how I’ll feel if those come up “not accepted”.

CFP: Mix 2012 Comics Symposium at CCAD

Robert Loss recently sent me a Call for Proposals for the Mix 2012: Comics Symposium at Columbus College of Art and Desgin (Ohio) where Robert teaches.  The symposium theme is “Epic Narratives” and the organizers are looking for proposals for papers, roundtables, and workshops. The conference is intended as a setting for bringing together academics, creators, and students.

Get details and the CFP.

Updates: comics doc, Whedonesque, Vimeo

Some updates about my online work elsewhere:

  • I started an album of production stills from my comics documentary. You can link to that album from here.
  • In addition, Charles Heying, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU and a featured subject in the film, has kindly noted the completion of the documentary on the Artisan Economy Initiative blog that he co-authors with a group doing research on Portland’s “artisan economy”.
  • I recently took an opportunity to join the community at Whedonesque, a collectively authored blog dedicated to gathering discussion and references to work by and about Joss Whedon and his collaborators. It’s an unique space where academics, critics, and fans mingle and intersect. Content ranges from pointers to films and TV episodes featuring actors from Whedon shows to links to articles about the Jossverse. I blog there as “sph“.
  • A few months ago I started building a video page at Vimeo, where I plan to have my new video home. I had been using bliptv for that purpose, but in the past year or so that service made a strong turn towards looking and feeling like a TV network and that does not seem like the right context for my work, where content is provided on an irregular basis and without much commercial aspiration. My Vimeo page now has a variety of content on it, including previews for the comics documentary and films from the International Documentary Challenge and 48 Hour Film Project.