Playing a role in an escalating conflict

We are in a workshop called “Training in Advocacy and Reporting Strategies.” The IWPR (Institute for War and Peace Reporting) is implementing the workshop for UN Women as part of an initiative called “Women Connected for Peace—The Voice of Change.” Six participants from Georgia as well as four from the conflict zones of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have traveled to Yerevan, Armenia.

On the morning of the first day, professor Revaz Jorbenadze asks us to participate in a practical exercise in conflict escalation. We must create a conflict scenario and play different roles. Here’s our scenario—a man and his friends are drinking beer while watching a soccer match (during the workshop period, the Euro 2012 championship has been grabbing the attention of millions of soccer fans, including me). The man allows his 14-year-old son to drink beer, and when the wife/mother returns, she is upset. As the family conflict grows louder and louder, neighbors complain. Then someone suggests breaking a neighbor’s window in retaliation. Reva used the exercise to discuss conflict resolving theory and strategies of behavior in conflict situations.

Why did I laugh when I felt sad?

Liana Ayvazyan poses in front of a living sculpture in a Yerevan park; copyright Keith Kenney, 2012.

We were having a very pleasant evening in Yerevan, Armenia, with our hostess Liana Ayvazyan. Susanna and I enjoyed looking at all of the large beautiful sculptures in the downtown area, including sculptures by Rodin and Botero. As we walked along, Liana told us about the children’s gallery, the children’s library, and the children’s puppet theater. She proudly showed us the Opera House, around which young people flew by on rollerblades and older people rested on newly installed park benches. Of course, we were impressed by all of the parks and cafes. So many people were walking about on this comfortably warm Thursday evening. Even as we headed home at midnight, the streets of Yerevan were full.

So why was I sad? Because I had asked Liana what she remembered about Columbia, a city of 400,000 people in South Carolina. As a Muskie Fellow, Liana was able to spend 3 months at USC (University of South Carolina) in 1998. I was the official host for all international visitors to the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, so I helped Liana get settled into an apartment and into life on campus. Liana spent most of her time collecting research materials and reading in Thomas Cooper Library, but she also made a visit to Washington, DC to interview officials and visit friends. When Liana learned that Susanna and I would be in Yerevan, she volunteered to show us around the current capitol of Armenia. So what did Liana remember about Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina? Depression because Columbia’s streets were (and remain) empty of people at night. Compared to Yerevan, there are few cafes. And the windows in her apartment didn’t open, so she lacked fresh air. I think Liana would have been happier in Greenville, where the streets are alive at night. Overall, Liana had a very positive experience, but the lack of people on the streets and the lack of fresh air inside her apartment were depressing.

So why did I laugh? I don’t know. Embarrassment, perhaps?

Journalism education’s future

The news media have published a number of stories recently questioning the value of a college degree. Tuition has increased, and, apparently, learning has decreased. Another point, not obviously related, is grade inflation. I argue, however, that declining value of education and rising grade inflation are related. Potential employers can no longer trust that a college graduate will be prepared to work in his or her field. Something must change.

In journalism, the change could be dramatic. One possible scenario is that fewer students will spend the time and borrow the money for a 4-year degree (which often takes 5 years to complete).

Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at The Poynter Institute, predicts that people may gain a journalism education without earning a journalism degree. They may earn digital badges, which would verify people’s accomplishments and skills. Whereas a degree indicates that students had a certain number of professor-student contact hours and they satisfactorily completed professors’ assignments, a digital badge indicates that a person acquired a specific skill. People could earn badges by winning awards, completing special projects or meeting learning objectives in a traditional course.

Universities are striving to improve assessment of student learning. Administrators increasingly insist that course syllabuses include specific learning objectives and that professors assess students’ ability to meet each objective. These learning objectives resemble digital badges. If students took 40 courses to earn a degree, and each course had one unique learning objective, then upon graduation, a student would have earned 40 digital badges.

Digital badges, however, may face the same problem as college degrees. In order to increase revenues, degree-granting and badge-granting institutions may enroll as many students as possible. They may not care whether these students are prepared or willing to do the necessary work. They may invest a certain amount of resources to teach students. Then a certain percentage of students may withdraw or fail; another percentage may excel; and the majority in between these groups may pressure instructors to provide greater rewards than are deserved. As a result, employers may remain skeptical of graduates’ capabilities.

Of course, badge-granting institutions would probably not emphasize scholarship and research. Nor would they offer football games, beer-drinking companionship and the other pleasures of living away from parents.

But e-learning (distance education via the Internet) also fails to provide social opportunities on campuses. Yet e-learning in combination with face-to-face interaction may be the future of education, at least at the graduate level.

I’m living in Tbilisi, Georgia, and teaching a doctoral student, Matt Haught, who lives in Columbia, SC. Last night we had a 1.5-hour video Skype call to discuss his reading assignment, his writing and his career plans. Throughout a course, we talk once a week. E-learning for an independent study course has worked well for both of us.

If I had not interacted with Matt in Columbia for a year, however, I don’t believe that our e-learning experience would be as successful. I need some face-to-face time to build trust and to connect with a student.

I would be excited about participating in a visual communication doctoral program with students and faculty scattered throughout the world. It would enable me to work with the best scholars and best students. And what would be the downside (other than time zone problems)? How much difference would there be between my current independent study with Matt and an online course with 5 doctoral students on 5 different continents? Again, I’d just like a certain about of face-to-face time in the beginning.

So why isn’t there a true “international” doctoral program in visual communication? I guess the answer is money and bookkeeping. Imagine that University XX offered the degree and each student paid tuition for 48 credit hours to University XX. Of the 48 credit hours, only 9 were taught by faculty members “working for” University XX (i.e. living nearby). How much money would University XX keep for “overhead?” How much would it pay its faculty members? How much would it pay faculty members working for other universities? I don’t know, but I wish University XX would take a chance and experiment with an e-learning doctoral program in visual communication.



Introducing my chapter about John Dewey

I’m almost ready to submit a book proposal to Purdue University Press. Here is a 140-word abstract: Philosophy for a Multimedia World analyzes 13 philosophers’ ideas concerning multimedia communication. It shows how their ideas can help scholars develop new theories and how media workers can improve multimedia messages. Most important theories explaining communication and mass media were created before people were using the Internet daily. We need new theories and we can develop these theories by studying philosophy. My book differs in three ways from other books: a) it considers more modes of messages, including photographs, films, paintings, and music; b) it emphasizes aesthetics and ethics; and c) it looks forward to the future of multimedia communication as much as it looks back to past philosophers’ writings. The philosophers include: John Dewey, Martin Buber, Suzanne Langer, Gregory Bateson, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Marshall McLuhan, Gilles Deleuze, Nelson Goodman, Jean Baudrillard, Vilem Flusser, Mark Johnson, Richard Shusterman, and Colin McGinn.

Here is the first part of the chapter about John Dewey: How do we discover the truth? Before John Dewey (1859-1952), philosophers answered this question in two ways: rationalism and empiricism and rationalism. Rationalists, such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650), believed that it was philosophers’ responsibility to discover genuine knowledge—which was unchanging, self-evident, and beyond doubt. For philosophers, acquiring such genuine knowledge was an end in itself not tied to any practical purpose. Philosophers discovered such knowledge by examining their minds, which were immaterial entities with a capacity to reason and think. Minds were innate and independent of their temporary housing, the physical body.

Empiricists, such as John Locke (1632-1704), argued that if science was to advance, it needed to divorce itself from speculation about unchanging self-evident knowledge and innate minds. Locke insisted that inherent qualities of the material world impinged themselves upon our sensory apparatus. Then this sensory information “was written” onto our passive minds. Our minds started out as receptive but blank slates, and over time, ideally, enough sensory information would pervade our minds that our minds would become a mirror of nature.

Both rationalists and empiricists agreed that our minds were fundamentally different and separate from the material world. Descartes defined mind as something nonmaterial and that does not follow the rules of nature. He contrasted mind with the body, which he believed worked as a machine and had material properties. The material world was “out there” and the nonmaterial mind was “in here.” Rationalists tried to directly discover the truth in their minds. Empiricists relied on perception and an aggregation of discrete perceptions in their minds in order to learn the truth about the material world “out there.”

Dewey turned the world of philosophy upside down. He said that we don’t need the concept of mind. Minds are not separate from the material world. There is only the material world.

Dewey replaced empiricism and rationalism with pragmatism. Pragmatism integrates the basic insights of empirical (experience-based) and rational (concept-based) thinking. We use concepts/theories and then conduct inquiries in order to test how well our concepts/theories predict or explain phenomena. Our concepts/theories are true if they have practical results.

Dewey defined truth by using an analogy; he wrote that “truth” is like the fit between a key and a lock (Hickman, 2009: 14). There is no absolute truth (key) that fits all locks. Nor will any arbitrary truth open a particular lock. We must either make or find a particular truth to fit a particular lock. In other words, truth is a label characterizing what inquiry has come up with—in that situation, for those purposes. Since new problems (locks) appear all of the time, we should not be confident about the certainty of any belief.

Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy is based upon his belief that we interact with a dynamic material world and then we talk with other people in order to make sense of our experiences. Meaning, knowledge, and truth, therefore, are based upon experience and communication.

Dewey turned the world upside down not only because he denied the existence of minds, but also because he reversed the cause-effect relationship between ideas and communication. Instead of believing that we have minds with ideas, which we then communicate to others, Dewey believed that we communicate with others, and based upon those conversations we have ideas. For hundreds of years, the concept of “mind” or “consciousness” had been extremely important; now the concept of “communication” became the key to understanding everything else. R. W. Sleeper summed up the point of Dewey’s book, Experience and Nature when he wrote: “For it is communication that makes all things possible that are possible of human achievement. It is not merely the central problem in the subject-matter of philosophy, but its means and method as well. If anything is foundational about philosophy, it is communication, since everything else depends on it” (Sleeper, 1986: 117).

Dewey also had a lot to say about multimedia communications even though his key articles and books appeared in the 1890s, 1920s and 1930s, before the mass media took the forms and ubiquitous presence they have today. In Art as Experience (LW10), Dewey argues that art is a form of communication; moreover, he believed that art is the best way to share our experiences with others. When he wrote about art, he was referring to non-discursive symbol systems, such as music and painting, but his ideas also apply to photographs and films.

This chapter begins with a brief explanation of pragmatism, a branch of philosophy that Dewey helped create and that provides the context for understanding all of his other ideas. The next three sections explain Dewey’s concept of experience. Section 2 discusses experience at a physical level; it explains how “live creatures” interacted with their physical environment and with each other, which led to the development of gestures with meaning. Section 3 discusses experience at a social level; it explains how we talk about our physical experiences, and this talk enables us to jointly make sense of our experiences. We create a common understanding, and as commonalities increase within larger and larger groups of people, society constructs a meaningful reality. Section 4 discusses experience at an aesthetic level. We have an aesthetic experience when a series of events congeal into a deeply meaningful unity or whole, one whose character is so unique and self-sufficient that we can clearly recognize it as separate and special. In other words, we are “in the zone.” Art, or non-discursive symbols, is particularly useful for sharing aesthetic experiences. This chapter ends with an explanation of Dewey’s concepts of journalism and participatory democracy. Dewey believed that journalists should stimulate discussion amongst citizens; then journalists should help citizens use the methods of scientists to test various hypotheses in order to find solutions to society’s problems; finally journalists should use artistic means to motivate citizens both to become involved and to enact the results of their social inquiries. The results of such efforts would be true participatory democracy.


If you’re a professor, your blog should count as scholarship

I’m serious! And I’m not writing this simply because I have a blog and I’ll be seeking promotion to Professor soon.

Read what Martin Weller wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education: “I have been an active blogger since 2006, and I often say that becoming one was the best decision I have ever made in my academic life. In terms of intellectual fulfillment, creativity, networking, impact, productivity, and overall benefit to my scholarly life, blogging wins hands down. I have written books, produced online courses, led research efforts, and directed a number of university projects. While these have all been fulfilling, blogging tops the list because of its room for experimentation and potential to connect to timely intelligent debate. That keeps blogging at the top of the heap.” Weller continued: “Increasingly we find that our academic identities are distributed. There was a time when you could have pointed to a list of publications as a neat proxy for your academic life, but now you might want to reference not only your publications, but also a set of videos, presentations, blog posts, curated collections, and maybe even your social network. All of these combine to represent the modern academic.”

I love blogging. It provides an incentive to attend various events, meet new people, ask questions, take pictures, gain background information for context, organize my thoughts, and so on. Plus I get lots of photo credits. In other words, I like blogging for the same reasons that I liked working as a photojournalist. But now I only pick “the best” assignments, and if I’m tired, I take the day off. I can’t say that my blogging has benefitted my traditional scholarship—yet—but it might. I may be invited to participate at a conference in Armenia in June because of my blogging. Someone may see progress on my documentary video in Adishi and ask me to show the finished film. I’ll be writing soon about my John Dewey chapter, which may improve my writing style—less academic. I hope that my blog posts from Georgia will benefit my USC colleagues who will later work at CSJMM. Similarly I hope that my blog posts from Columbia, SC, will benefit my CSJMM colleagues in Tbilisi. At least, that’s the argument I’ll use when seeking promotion.

Would a dissertation committee approve a multimedia dissertation?


At least it is possible at Harvard University.

In “Scholarship Beyond Words,” Cordon Ireland writes, “Text-heavy dissertations . . .  are artifacts of a medieval university culture that gave the printed word scholastic pre-eminence. .  . But Harvard anticipates scholarship that goes beyond the written word. It welcomes film, photo, audio, and other means of cultural expression, without abandoning the traditional rigor of academic investigation. . . For the first time, doctoral students can now incorporate video, film, photography, exhibition, hypermedia, the Internet, and other sources of nontextual information into their academic work. In a few years, Harvard will graduate its first Ph.D.s who create these scholarly hybrids. The article ends with this quote: “Print is no longer the exclusive or the normative medium in which knowledge is produced. Knowledge assumes multiple forms.”

I could say, “Amen,” or “Duhhhhh,” or “I told you so,” but what matters most is “Why isn’t everyone thinking this way?”

Of course, some universities are. The University of York, for example, offers a PhD in “Theatre, Film, and Television by Creative Practice” that requires three products: an academic dissertation; a professional portfolio or reflective journal, and a portfolio of creative work. In addition, the Media and Communications Department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, offers an “AVPhD.” Doctoral candidates “submit as part of their thesis a portfolio of practical work (such as photographs, video, film or other audio-visual material) alongside a reduced textual component.” A key criteria states: “The practical component should also not be merely illustrative of the theory, but must make an original contribution in its own right, which relates back, in an integral fashion, to the theoretical component of the thesis.”

And I say, “Of course,” and “Would you hire me?”

I invite you to consider three questions: “Do universities need professors who can both conduct traditional AND produce original multimedia products?” “If universities need such professors, why aren’t they creating PhD programs that produce such professors?” “If (more) such programs existed, would students enroll?”

To me the answers are obvious. Universities need multimedia scholars because they are offering more and more multimedia courses and because so much research is needed into all aspects of multimedia communications. Universities are not creating such programs because a) they seldom embrace innovation; and b) they are scared to invest in new faculty positions without a guarantee of both enrollment and research funding. Answering the third question is trickier only because I’d be predicting the future, but, I am sure that many people about to enroll in a PhD program would recognize the value of an AVPhD (or something similar) AND they would enjoy working in such a program.

E-mail me if you have an opening or are considering beginning a hybrid PhD program.

Bad weather = good photographs

Copyright Chris Austin, 2012

This is one of the best photos of any city skyline. It shows Charlotte, North Carolina, during a recent hailstorm. To shoot spectacular photographs such as this one, you need to be aware of the possibilities of taking images during bad weather. Heavy fog—grab your camera. Heavy snowfall—take pictures. Severe thunderstorm—look for that rainbow. Hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis—other people’s misfortunes could be your picture-taking opportunity, but be careful. You also need to know where to go if bad weather arrives so you can get there quickly. Lucky photos rarely occur; good planning leads to those “lucky” photos.

Chris Austin’s photo was post processed using HDR (High Dynamic Range), a technique that brings out more contrast in photos. If you have Adobe Photoshop or a similar photo-editing software program, you can also use HDR. Step one is to take the same photo at different exposure levels. Step two is to use software to merge the two photos. Recent iPhones include an HDR feature with their cameras. If you click here, you’ll find a 7.5-minute video tutorial. Below are a couple of my “bad weather” photographs.

London Tower bridge right after a rainstorm; copyright Keith Kenney, 2011

San Marino in heavy fog/low cloud cover; copyright Keith Kenney, 2005.

Rainbow in Verona, Italy; copyright Keith Kenney, 2005


Philosophy for a Multimedia World

In terms of scholarship, most of my time and energy for 2011-2012 will be devoted to the “Journalism School Partnership” program, which builds bonds between USC and CSJMM and attempts to strengthen both schools.

But I have an additional project. I’m beginning to write a book with the tentative title of Philosophy for a Multimedia World. In this book, I explain and analyze 16 philosophers’ ideas concerning communication and multimedia. Then I show how these philosophers’ ideas can help scholars develop new theories and how media workers can improve the creation and reception of multimedia messages.

Scholars and media workers need this book because most important theories explaining communication and mass media were created before the Web became popular. Professors are teaching theories that were created before people kept a mobile phone nearby day and night, 24/7, and before Facebook had 850 million active users. These “old media” theories may not apply to today’s new media. I suggest that we need new theories and we can develop these theories by studying philosophy.

My book differs in three ways from other books about the philosophy of communication: a) it considers more modes of messages, including photographs, films, paintings, and music, rather than being restricted to oral and written language; b) it emphasizes aesthetics and ethics of multimedia communication; and c) it looks forward to the future of multimedia communication as much as it looks back to past philosophers’ writings. The philosophers include, in rough chronological order, John Dewey, Martin Buber, Mikhail Bakhtin, Suzanne Langer, Gregory Bateson, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Marshall McLuhan, Nelson Goodman, Jurgen Habermas, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Vilem Flusser, Richard Shusterman, and Jaron Lanier.