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.

Reading & Comics: Journal digests for July

You can now read all of the July journal digests for my Reading & Comics project:

Read more about the project on tumblr or via this post on this blog.

New project: Reading & Comics: An autoethnography

I’ve started an autoethnographic study of reading comics and am using tumblr as a means to make this work accessible while in progress. I am not sure where the research will go or what it will show. This work is exploratory and experimental and I am sharing data to invite participation and comment from readers.

I think that one step towards understanding how comics are read is to understand better how one reads as an academic in the sense of “academic” as an identity and not just a profession. I think most scholars understand that they way they read texts for expressly professional purposes is different from how they read more casually. What I think most of us understand less well is how our more casual reading is informed by our academic reading (and vice versa). I think most of us are probably aware that this happens, but I also think that this understanding is relegated to the background of our work and other daily activities. Developing a more critical and systematic understanding of these different forms of reading, and how they are intertwined, is where autoethnography may be useful.

February Worlds in Panels: comics and senses of place

I use my latest column to look at comics art and the exploration of senses of place:

Places never look and feel one way all the time to everyone. The manifest subjectivity of comics makes it a medium almost perfectly suited to exploring varying senses of place, from the city block you might live on to the most fantastic world you can imagine apprehending with your senses.

Read the column

Finding an audience

I’ve written previously about Comic Book City being rejected by film festivals and, taking off from a post at the Raindance blog, I’ve also written about working in an academic mode and how that may put my film in a different frame than those used by festivals when evaluating of submissions.

In thinking about the last several months of trying to secure formal review and screening opportunities for my film, I should thank Elliot Grove for his Raindance piece. That blog entry, followed by a couple of rejections from festivals that I had had some hope for, prompted me to think more critically about who the potential audience for Comic Book City might be.

While I had already given thought to submitting the film to conferences and journals in film and media studies, and that, at some point, I would try to negotiate opportunities to screen the documentary at a geography venue, it was not until the aforementioned retrenchment that I started looking closely at comics studies events.

I initially focused on festivals for the simple reason that film festivals are set up to exhibit films. Most academic conferences, let alone journals, are not. In addition, acceptance into a film festival struck me as a kind of peer review that would be readily understood by colleagues and administrators on my campus, which will have value to me when I finally decide to apply for promotion to full professor.

However, if that route is a dead end, obviously I need alternatives, and as recently announced, I seem to have discovered that a significant part of the potential audience for the film is with comics studies scholars.

As I’ve suggested before (see my response to Grove above) I can understand why festival programmers/selectors are not finding Comic Book City to be appropriate for their events. My mom, (yes, my mom) remarked after watching the film that she could see how if someone were not already interested in comics (or Portland) that the documentary would lack appeal. The film doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure (in fact, I think of it more as creative non-fiction than as a documentary, but the latter is better shorthand for most purposes). It doesn’t address a critical social or political issue. It doesn’t tell any stories about the triumph of the human spirit (at least not in a significant or highlighted way). It has an experimental visual design. The themes that it explores – place, creative process, the spatiality of different media – are fairly abstract. Which is all a way of saying that the academic roots of the project show. If I were a festival programmer, I don’t think I would see the film as something that would sell tickets or passes, or that would contribute to my event’s reputation in ‘the industry’.

While most academic conferences are not organized for film screenings, what they do have are specialized audiences, and I suspect that with Comic Book City, I need to find those audiences, that is, the people for whom the film has intrinsic interest. I am grateful for the interest shown so far by my colleagues in comics studies and only wish that I did not have to wait until May for the first conference.

I am showing the film, and have shown related works, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Ultimately, I want to release it, and significant parts, into the wild and let the larger audience find it in their own time and own ways. Refereed screenings, like the ones I have coming this spring and summer are important to me, though, not just for the base professional reasons I’ve already noted, but also for the opportunity to watch and discuss the film with an interested audience, which, I imagine, is what any filmmaker wants for their work.

Call for participation: film project on the work of J.B. Jackson

I am starting a new film project, one focused on interpreting the writings of landscape scholar J.B. Jackson. I am interested in using and incorporating audio commentaries from others who work in landscape studies. You can see a more detailed call for participation here. You can also contact me for more information.

Struggling to launch a qualitative methods course

For the past few years, I have been alternating a course in qualitative research methods (even years) with one in making digital video for the social sciences (odd years). The latter has started well in terms of enrollment, and, I think, is steadily improving. Significantly, I think that the good enrollment is related to the improvement in that having an adequate number of students gives me a clearer, and more reliable, way to see what’s working and what’s not, what’s an individual problem and what’s more systemic, and where I need to find more resources or better patches for what the university lacks in capacity to support the course.

The qualitative methods course has been a different story.

The first year I voluntarily pulled it from the schedule, early, when it failed to attract any students during initial registration. The next time I offered the course, I netted three students. So far this year I am looking at four (progress!).

In the earlier cases, I was working in a context where university administrators were at least playing at waging war on “low enrollment” sections. I volunteered to pull the course the first time in part to earn some credit to use later, and in part because the only person affected would be me. I imagine that this choice paid off the next time when I only had three students, but wanted the course to go (I don’t pretend to understand the economics of closing “low enrolling” sections, particularly in the case of my department where all of our courses are taught by full-time, tenure track faculty; the only adjuncts we’ve used in the last ten years have been to cover sabbaticals and course releases).

I’m not being pre-emptive this year because administrative discourse has shifted from being concerned primarily with individual sections to being concerned with numbers of majors. This isn’t “better”, especially from the perspective of the geography faculty where we typically graduate between nine and twelve majors each year. But it does mean that there is less pressure to account for every section.

Both the digital video course and qualitative methods course were added to the catalog as part of a revision to the geography major that instituted a capstone requirement and reorganized the elective part of the program into different streams or concentrations, e..g, “Cultural & Political”, “Physical Environment”. All majors are required to take a certain number of credits in “geographic thought and practice”, ideally from courses that make sense from the perspective of their chosen concentration and capstone plans. The changes to the geography major prefigured similar changes to the social science major at Western Oregon, which now requires students to complete a “theory and methods” requirement as well as take at least half of their credits in one field.

And yet while the DV course has met or exceeded the cap each time I’ve taught it, the qualitative methods course does not seem to be getting any traction with students.

While frustrating, this isn’t too difficult to understand. It isn’t the kind of course that presents as an exciting elective for non-majors. Furthermore, not only is the geography major relatively small, but the majority of those students concentrate in areas other than cultural and political geography, for which this course is primarily designed and most appropriate. In fact, I suspect that the students I currently have will turn out to be social science, and not geography, majors (one reason I know this is that none of the students on my list are currently my advisees).

Being able to understand why my numbers are so low is one thing. Trying to build a course while teaching such small numbers is another. I did get some good feedback from the last (small) group I taught, but all of those students were novices when it came to social science research methods, and none were especially sophisticated or grounded in social theory before starting the course. Based on my experience with other courses, including the DV course, if I had had at least nine to twelve students instead of three I would have had a wider range of individuals to work with in terms of experience and aptitude and would have ended with a more refined picture of how the course works for students.

As it is, assuming I end up teaching small numbers every time, it may take years to get a better idea of how to run the course. Right now I feel like I am stabbing in the dark and having to rely on my own impressions, which I do anyway, but I prefer to have more input from students in assessing my own thoughts than I have for this course so far.

Courses that involve scientific practice are challenging to teach in any case, particularly, I think, in a quarters system where you only get ten weeks to work with students.

I made the case for the class to go last time with three students because it seems obvious that in order to develop the course I need to teach it. I tried to split the difference between reading and field/project work. That worked ok, but the students, all three of them, told me that the one thing they wanted was more time in the field. So, this year I’m going to experiment with making individual projects the focus of student work, including what reading different students do. In effect, I decided, if the class is going to be this small, I might as well leverage that smallness into highly individualized instruction. There will be a few common readings, but mostly I will be working with students on different methods according to their interests and what they want to, or should, be practicing.

What I need, what I hope, is that somehow, in this group of four, I have at least one student who is fully invested and engaged by the material. There’s a risk of overvaluing what you observe or hear from those students, but I also think that there is value in a perspective that is above the common denominator. When I proposed the course I certainly envisioned, ultimately, having students who are prepared to dig deep into the doing of geography, both during the term and into their capstone work.

Interesting, and interested, students make for interesting teaching, and, on the whole, I think that the less engaged students benefit from the ways in which the more engaged push me to think more seriously about the material. This is one thing I think I’m missing with the methods course. On the other hand, I also don’t think I have a good sense even of “the students I have” as opposed to the “students I want”. Maybe that will become more clear this term. And maybe I’ll just keep adding one student each time I offer the course. At that rate, I can look forward to having the course take shape around the time I begin thinking about retirement.