Monthly Archives: August 2012

“we’ve got the vision, now lets have some fun”

Classes on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus began on Monday. There were a few snafus on campus. Word is that the power went out in several buildings. I avoided the chaos of the first day by staying at home and taking a nap. My semester began on Tuesday with TA duties and a graduate seminar. On Wednesday my other class met, and I must admit that I’m excited for what lies ahead. The last few weeks were a little frustrating for me. As I’ve written about before, I’ve been trying to pull together my third field and schedule one more class. After today, I can happily report that I have done both.

This morning I met with the director of Purdue’s “Center for Digitalization.” It was a good meeting. Following the meeting I tweeted as much:


Of course, it’s not exactly the same as me. Purdue definitely has the resources and the connections to do a lot more, but they seem to be exploring options. We’re a member of several cool things like HATHiTrust, which allows us to get training from them and have special access to do different types of non-public data searches in their collections. They’re playing around with different technologies and software. We have a digitization lab with all the scanners and stuff. They’re hiring a new GIS person. And lots more cool things I can’t remember.

The problem is that they’re also sort of disorganized, or at least not all that connected. Purdue is mostly a science school, so we do a lot of digital stuff for them. We’re a tech school, so we have all that stuff too. But he mentioned that the humanities folks have been slow to come on board (shocking, I know!). But the humanities folks also use digital tech differently, unlike science, we’re not about data/experiment validation. Instead use it many different ways. We’ve had a few people do some cool stuff. An anthropology professor has mapped out some of his archeological digs and paired them with photographs of his finds. A communications professor developed a method to visualize “mental maps” using GIS and 3D imaging (I don’t even know how, but it seems super cool). Of course,  the library and archives has also worked on digitalizing some collections and creating a few online exhibits, too. So stuff is being done, but its diverse and disconnected. The Digitalization Center provides support, but didn’t seem like it was quite a hub.

For me, this news is mostly good. It means we have what I am looking for, and, after a 30 minute chat, I’ve identified someone who can help me. The tentative plan is for me to do an individual readings in the spring for my prelims (and probably take a New Media class  from the Comp/Rhet folks). After that, I want to stay active and hopefully develop a project so I can build my portfolio. He also mentioned that they sometimes have funding for TA/RAs. While I’m not concerned about that now, most students take longer than the guaranteed 4 years to finish their degree so long range it could be nice. Overall, I came away very excited and much more relaxed about everything.

As for my third class, coming into the semester I hoped to either take a class in DH or in Native American history, but for one reason or another neither is going to happen. Instead, because I’m required to take 3 classes and our course offerings are pretty limited, I’ll be doing an independent study with my major professor. Our readings will focus on college football but we may mix in other stuff depending on how much other stuff he thinks I need for my prelims. I’m excited about the football topic because it will give me a great head start on building a context for my dissertation. He also hinted that he might have me help him a bit on his book, which is about college football.

Every semester my goal is to make longterm progress. Planning out my next semester was a really important to me. My two seminars checking the last of my required classes before prelims. These seminars also directly related to my teaching and research. One of them is over the U.S. and the World. It’ll help me on my exams and broaden my understanding of U.S. history for when I start teaching. The other seminar is on Autobiography and Memoir. While it is framed around European history, it’ll be as much a methods and source criticism as a reading seminar. This will be really useful for me because the professor is giving us leeway to bring in our own work and one of the major source bases for my proposed dissertation topic is autobiographical (ghost written) magazine articles. Learning about the different methods, approaches, and issues involved in using them will greatly enhance my project.

Beyond the day-to-day life of classes and TA work, I’m taking the show on the road and presenting at two professional conferences this fall. In September I have Film & History in Milwaukee, WI. My paper is entitled “Avoiding the Hollywood Indian: Billy Mills and the Creation of Running Brave.” It builds off my MA thesis research and talks about Mills’ role in the creation of the film about his life. My other presentation is a month later at the Midwest Popular Cultural Associationin Columbus, OH. I’ll be testing new ideas based on more recent research there. Im trimming down a paper I did last spring about football coaches Pop Warner, A.A. Stagg, and Knute Rockne and their anxieties about big-time sports. I gave it a rather clumsy title — “1920s Football Coaches, Reluctance, and the Rise of Modern America” — but it’s mostly a work-in-progress at this point anyway. I’d like to eventually turn it into some sort of article.

There’s lots to keep me busy for the next few months. As MGMT reminds us, “yeah, it’s overwhelming, but what else can we do? Get jobs in offices and wake up for the morning commute?” No thanks.

One final programming note: I promise not to neglect this space. Keep an eye out for a future posts about my vaguely alluded to dissertation topic. I’m also planning on sharing some of my book reviews and doing more pieces similar to the ones I posted before MOOCMOOC invaded my life.

“I have my freedom but I don’t have much time”

Well, MOOCMOOC is over and Brutus is rejoicing. A new semester is on the horizon, too. I’ve spent the last few days in meetings, at welcome events, and (re)connecting with colleagues. And, amidst these meetings, social events, and the excitement/energy for a new (school) year, was last night’s MOOCMOOC Google Hangout. The hangout fit nicely with the energy and the theme of (re)connecting, but it also symbolized the end to a crazy week. It was bittersweet.

If you’ve read the blog this week, you know that, for me, MOOCMOOC was mostly a time of learning and reflection. It was also a time of networking. I feel like my Storify provides a nice overview of the week, but it fails to offer much of a ‘final’ reflection. Pete Rorabaugh, one of our learning leaders, provided a nice prompt for some final thoughts in a tweet on Thursday night:

My first thought, is why do we need to counter this claim? I don’t remember who told me this, I think it was one of my undergraduate advisors, but every good class (at least in history) is based on a thesis statement and argument. Us historians readily admit that there is no ‘truth.’ Everyone has multiple perspectives. And so when you are designing a class, a lecture, an assignment, you’re really taking a position. For example, if I were teaching a class on Sports in American History, I might take the position that sports reflect and offer insights into American life/history. Sure, this is a pretty easy to position for most of us to buy, but its not a cold hard fact. There are many situations where sports does not reflect American life/history.

So with this idea of each class taking a position and having a thesis statement, Pete’s tweet becomes more interesting. In some ways, it seems to be revealing his uncertainty about if the class accomplished what “some” thought it would. This suggests that he, perhaps, felt unsuccessful in keeping the focus on MOOCs and online education. Now I don’t want to read too much into the question or put words in Pete’s mouth, but you get the feeling from this question that he wanted us to ponder if we really missed the whole point of the class (MOOCs) and focused on other things, such as pedagogy and digital tools. Was the class really about MOOCs?

My answer, as I stated above, is I don’t really think it matters, at least not to the students. I do, however, think asking the question is important. It’s like when you write a paper, you have a thesis and sources materials, an outline and plan, but then you get to the end. After you read the paper, you think “did I really argue that?” The information and the tools were there to argue different things, but perhaps your interpretation or perspective shifted. You were all set to argue that Ronald Reagan was the worst President ever, but then you kept hedging yourself (he wasn’t impeached like Andrew Johnson, he capitalized on the Silent Majority, he ended the Cold War), until you realize he actually did some OK stuff and motivated an entire new generation of people (for good or for ill). I feel like MOOCMOOC was like that, for me and probably for Pete, and others.

We started out wanting to talk about MOOCs, but from the get go the conversation was pedagogical. We engaged (lightly) in the debate about cMOOCs and xMOOCs during our first activity. From there, we all tended to embrace a lot of the connectivist stuff. This included collaboration, technology, digital tools, and further engaged thoughts on assessment and teacher-centered versus student-centered instruction. Some might say the MOOC was the hook. By starting out with the MOOC debate those of us for and against them were drawn in. Once we were in we became active and were gently prodded towards experimentation and reflection about what MOOCs (and online education in general). Although for the most part we avoided criticizing online teaching, we did admit that it is flawed and looked for ways to improve it. Because most of us do not teach online, however, it then became as much about improving online courses and MOOCs as our own on-the-ground courses. The hybrid pedagogy piece was fully embraced. Certainly some of this was because of the views/experiences of our “leaders” and the readings/resources they chose to provide.

In the end, MOOCMOOC took a stance and a position. It used MOOCs and technology as a hook, but mostly talked about the lessons and skills that we can learn from MOOCs as well as those we can use to improve them (and our own classes). This was MOOCMOOC’s thesis statement and conclusion, many of us bought it. I did.

It taught me a lot about teaching and technology. I was given the opportunity (and support) to design my own course. I networked with lots of people who seem generally interested in helping me as I look to develop my digital skills and apply them to my own discipline, both in research and teaching. The focus on networking an relationships was really forged throughout the week in our activities, and isa  large part why I think most people bought the MOOCMOOC argument. We made connections, shared insights, and reinforced the ideas through our own experiences and knowledge.

And now, MOOCMOOC is over. We’re all free, but with school and other commitments racheting up, we don’t have much time. There has been lots of talk about what’s next. Will there be a post-MOOCMOOC hashtag to continue the conversation on Twitter? In the Google Hangout, Jesse Stommel mentioned the initial idea was to kill off  (deactivate) the MOOCMOOC account. If that’s the case, I suggest we hearken the words of Mick Jagger; “Let’s do some living after we die.” I know I hope to stay in touch and continue to learn from, and with, as many of you as I can, because “You know I can’t let you slide through my hands, Wild horses, couldn’t drag me away.”

Digital Humanities is like Herding Cats

What is/are the Digital Humanities? What are you interests in them? What skills do you need to do them? What is the best way to acquire those skills?

I’ve been wrestling with the questions at the top of this post a lot lately. Some background: I’m a doctoral student in history at Purdue trying to develop a minor field in DH. I’ve got experience in public history working in archives and doing some related activities. I also studied it a bit too (I did one of my field exams in public history for my MA). Along the way I’ve been introduced to some DH stuff. I had grand ambitions for a Sports History Sourcebook website (which has sat fairly stagnant for the past 2 years) and I did some hybrid DH-GIS work as an undergrad.

Now that I am at Purdue, I am looking to explore it more and try to learn skills and concepts that will help me do DH projects as well as teach students about it. My approach to DH has to applications: 1. I see it as an extension of my public history work (and I see my PH work as an extension of my teaching) 2. I see DH as a way to give students new, real-world, marketable skills that compliment and extend the more traditional critical thinking, research, and writing skills develop in my discipline.

Public history and DH really build off of my philosophy of history and teaching, which engages students in critical thinking of the people and places around them. History is a disciple of curiosity. My goal is to relate complex ideas to personal and sometimes local things to best engage students. I often describe my research as using familiar characters to tell unfamiliar stories. I see sports history as one way, but also local and micro history too. Thus, for me, public history is both a teaching tool and a presentation venue. I view DH, in many ways, as just a subsect of that.

DH offers new ways to present things to a variety of audiences. Many would argue it does much more than that, too. It also offers new ways to organize information and think about things (often simultaneously). There are new ways to collect data as well. So what is digital humanities? It is a bunch of tools that brings new media and technology together with traditional disciplines such as history and English? Further, what are digital humanities? Do we include everything from text mining, 3D imaging, and huge databases to online museum exhibits and archives, videos and podcasts? Where does online teaching fit in (both MOOCs and the smaller, more traditional for credit classes)? Surely the spatial humanities and GIS belong, but so do tools like Zotero and Omeka.

After we think about what they are (note: I framed my definitions as questions), it’s intimidating to think about all the skills you need to do/use them. I’ve heard some people say it just depends on what you are doing and what your goals are. Some of my colleagues question the needs to do a minor field in it suggesting that its something I could just “pick up” and develop on my own once I’m done with my Ph.D. To some extent, I understand their points. I also tend to think they are short sighted. I believe a field is necessary to, as my grad. director says, “legitimizes” what I am doing (don’t get my started on ‘credentialization’ and the need for ‘legitimacy’). I also think doing it now, not later, will help position me for the future, both in terms of jobs and in thinking of new ways to teach and apply history. I’m not interested in it solely for marketing myself, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this aspect does provide some motivation.

So what skills do I need and where do I get them? I’ve been wrestling with this for the past year. At Purdue I am basically trying to pave the way for myself, and future students in my department. Our grad director likes the idea of me inventorying the institutional resources out there. At the same time, I need/want to take prelim exams at the end of this year and I’m still searching for mentors and coursework. Time is of the essence. At this point, I may be too focused on the where than the what, so lets go back to the skills.

I’m a historian first and foremost. I do research, I write, I present, and I teach. Most historians know how to use computers (although I’ve had some luddite advisers). Critical thinking, research, synthesis, and communication are the basic skills of doing history. But what digital skills do I need to complement them for DH? Should DH-ers also be programmers? I’ve seen this debate in several different places. I’m not convinced that we do, but I think eventually I’ll want to learn more about it and maybe pick up a programing language like HTML or XML.  I just don’t necessarily think that it is an overarching requirement. I do think there may be specific programs and applications that are essential to doing DH work, but I don’t know what they are. I imagine this includes things like Flash, Dreamweaver, ArcMap, InDesign, and Omeka, but again, I’m not really sure.

This is where I am. I feel like I know a lot about what is out there and some of the debates, but I’m failing to find/connect with people at Purdue who can help me navigate. The few I have found are usually excited about it, but can’t offer much advice or instruction on how to proceed. So far, I haven’t been able to nail down any coursework or people willing to offer an independent study. Instead, I’m still searching and rethinking my interests and how to best articulate them because that’s the first question people ask.

This has caused me to do a lot of reflecting about myself as a historian and teacher. Thinking about my interests and uses of technology as well as my goals for the future. It’s healthy reflection. I believe that grad school is a good time to set a foundation and shape that future. Asking questions and finding answers (and then talk about and analyzing those answers) is our grind. We learn about theories that shape our approach, we’re drilled on historiography that lays the foundation for our teaching, and, in the end, we’re basically taught how to write a book. But we also collect and acquire tools too, however, they’re usually decided for us. DH seems to lack the same structure and rigidity of traditional disciplines. This is probably a good thing as it allows for creativity and variety, but it sure makes it hard to nail down.

MOOCMOOC Reflection Photo Assignment

ImageThis is my reflection photo about my experience in MOOCMOOC so far for Valerie’s Partipant Pedagogy lesson. 

My items are: binoculars, a key, a harddrive, and the book, The Travels of Marco Polo. I chose these items to represent my travels and discoveries related to technology and information, teaching and learning, and the keys to being a better educator.

Participant Pedagogy: Rethinking My Courses

The easiest way for me to think about some of the issues in participant pedagogy and how they might work in my classroom, is to first actually think about my classroom. For the past year I have TAed an upper-level, 200 person lecture course on the Second World War. In this course my adviser delivers lectures twice a week and the students read three books (one per test). Attendance is not required, but strongly encouraged  Note: we do not use a textbook, instead the books are either novels or monographs, so you’ll miss essential content if you miss class. It’s pretty much your standard old school approach to teaching. My job generally entails clicking through his powerpoint shows (which I think a for TA made for him) and grading tests. The tests are generally based of of ID terms. We usually have identify 5-7 terms and then write an essay (that blends ID terms and the books). My adviser delivers 90% of the content in his lectures — which are really good and very engaging. Our class does have a Blackboard companion, but it mostly just a forum for announcements.

Since I’ve been aboard as his go-to TA, we’ve added ID lists to the course. The first semester we just posted them in class on the doc-cam. If I student missed class, they had to get them from a peer. We set up a peer-to-peer exchange forum on Blackboard, but never gave the terms to anyone ourselves. Poor classroom technology intervened the second semester, forcing us to post them on Blackboard a day or two after class. My adviser was reluctant at first, but caved. As you might imagine, the grade dramatically improved.

So in my class, participant pedagogy is essentially nonexistent. Because it is fairly comparable to some MOOCs (massive size class, no attendance policy, blackboard component), I think it is valuable to think about how to mix in some participant pedagogies while working within my limitations.* Before I begin, I’ll try to note what I think those limits are: 1. lecture style must stay (b/c of the TA-adviser setting) 2. scheduling and TA workload prevent discussion sections 3. the course is a part of a grades-credit-degree system.

*I’m sure there may be some debate about these limitations, and I welcome them. Right now, however, my approach is thinking about making adaptation that I could potentially use this semester.

So what to do? My first few thoughts were about the ID terms and class notes. I feel like we could open up more dialogue and let students take their learning/evaluation more into their hands if, instead of giving them the terms, they wrote their own lists and posted them to Blackboard a day or two after class. Then once online, as part of the notes exchange, they can narrow them down and present to us a complete list a week prior to the test. Thus, the students are still required to come to class and learn, but instead of being passive receivers they are reflecting on the material as they actively decide and participate in the process of choosing what they’ll be evaluated on. A relationship is established.

Seems pretty simple. And I know my focus is more on the test than the actual ‘learning’ but I think it’s a good beginning place for experimentation. By having student tell us what they think is important about the class, we can shape the class in new ways and perhaps spend more/less time on certain topics. Because of the setting and the culturel of my department and disciple (history), it’s still hard for me to get out of the traditional knowledge-deliverer mindset. Historians pride themselves in being experts. Denying this, in some ways, seems to undermine our critical-training. Yet, no one likes to be told what matters and why. People like to form their own interpretations and opinions. At the end of the day, I think it’s our role as teachers to help put them in setting and given them the information for this process to happen. I hope my proposed tweaks begin to approach this goal.

To be sure, if I were to have my own classe, I’d be more open to other styles of peeragogy. For example, I like the idea of collaborative research for a research methods course. Something built on the idea gathering data and information that the group combines and analyzes. Whether it be in-class or online discussions, a forum of dialogue would allow students to select a topic and begin research. Once they’v begun, then they can continuously ask each other about what each document says (and not say), are there different interpretations, how does it fit in and contribute to an argument. Students can also bring in their varying secondary readings (historiographies) to the table and help situate the small scale project within a variety of current scholarly discussions. In this way, history is done as a group, but the ultimate final product (whether done individually or in groups) may still vary. It’s primary source research meets the graduate seminar.

A few final thoughts: I hope I’ve engaged enough with the topic of hybrid or participant pedagogy. Most of my discussion here has focused on more traditional courses and interests of mine, but I think the value in all of this, for me, is to see how I can adapt and shape my present situation with all the new information. It seems like most of the people in the articles gradually implemented their participant pedagogies. While technology does seem to be lacking in some of my thoughts, it doesn’t have to be absent. Tools of collaboration and sharing abound.

Video: In Search of Learning at Purdue University

This video is for Day 2 of MOOC MOOC (which I talked about in yesterday’s post). It’s my first time really doing something like this. I don’t think I really answered the question “Where does Learning Happen” but I at least tried to throw out ideas and possibilities.

As you can tell, I filmed my video while walking around Purdue. I went to new places and inside new buildings that I hadn’t visited before. I took a lot of video and pictures, and  couldn’t fit it all into the 3 minute time limit. Purdue is a big place with a lot of things happening. Learning takes places in every corner of campus. And, I guess you could say that today I learned in all of those corners myself.

The filming and editing was all done using my point-and-shoot digital camera and iMovie, so its not the best quality. This was my first time doing a project like this, so I also learned on the computer and online. Feel free to leave your feedback and ideas in the comments below.

Collaborative Learning/Writing and What is a MOOC?

Today I serendipitously stumbled upon this website.  It is for a MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — about MOOCs. MOOCs are a part of of a new, and some what controversial, trend in higher education. There are lot of debates about its purpose, technology, pedagogy, etc. Part of the UVA kerfuffle over the President’s dismissal and then reinstatement had to deal with MOOCs. I find it to be really fascinating stuff.

At the same time, besides what I wrote in the opening paragraph, I know very little about them. I am, however, interested in them. They’re a significant development in higher education, the industry where I hope to someday have a long career. The debates surrounding them has many to question the nature of an education — both pedagogically and in-terms of public-access to education. While I’m more interested in the philosophical debates surrounding MOOCs and their implications for the future of higher education, the former education major in me also likes the idea of learning about the pedagogy of online instruction. I took some online classes for my MLA and have continued to have some interesting discussions about the format with one of my old mentors. I also have strong ideas about higher education, what its mission should be, and my own teaching philosophy.

Anyways, I signed up for the MOOC MOOC course. Our assignment today was to write a collaborative 1000 word essay using Google Docs with our fellow classmates. These classmates, of course, were complete strangers and all came to the course with varying levels of interest, skill, and background about the subject. We were required to cite 3 articles, include one image, all by 6 p.m. eastern defining “What is a MOOC” and explaining “what it does and does not do.” It was a thrilling and fun task. Because I joined the course late, I was in the newly registered group which, at times, had over 20 collaborators.

The pace of writing challenged me to both read the articles critically, but also think through my stance and how to relate it (and at times defended it) to my fellow writers. Undoubtedly, many of us gravitated toward our interests and specialities to produce some really interesting and solid essays. The forced collaboration accelerated my pace of learning and filtering of information. It brought me up to speed on the debates and points of view not always clear in the articles. At times I just sat back in awe, watching the essay evolve before my eyes. Within minutes the blank page filled with words, pictures, and comments. We debated issues both of interpretation/preference (xMOOCs versus connectivist MOOCs), style (such as how to cite our sources), and conclusions in sort of a meta-reflective way. Headings allowed us to all work on our own pieces and then move sections around to provide a clear, coherent, and organized piece (I’m sure at second glance, it might not be so clear & coherent as I am imagining).

The subject matter was MOOCs but so was the instruction. While we did have 7 collaboration groups, we were in an anonymous online environment populated by a large number of students and given information to digest and tasks to complete. My Day 1 MOOC MOOC experience was awesome. After the 6 p.m. deadline we engaged in an active and open twitter chat. The chat reinforced many of my own thoughts about the collaborative process, but sparked questions about activity rules, organization of labor and content, time commitment (and constraints) as well as how to define authorship.

While I’m still not sure I know all the difference and complexities of MOOCs, I do think I have a better grasp of the views and debates surrounding them. I also have better idea of their history. In the end, it was a very worthwhile and educational experience, both in the collaborative process and the ultimate message of our essay. If you want to learn more, you can follow this link to the collaborative essay I worked on.

Lolo Jones, Billy Mills, and Human-Interest Journalism

With the Olympics drawing to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about their connection to human-interest journalism and the role it plays in the lives of the profiled athletes. Historian Charles Ponce de Leon suggests that human-interest and celebrity journalism plays two roles. First, features pieces and profiles work to reinforce and model certain character traits and values championed by the middle class. These pieces offer instruction and inspiration for future success promoting certain behaviors, such as hard work, determination, and self-discipline. At the same time, human-interest pieces also provide an inside portrait of celebrity lives that show their complexities and realities. Reporting on scandals, failures, and flaws of the famous keeps them relatable and real.

During the Olympics most of these pieces fall into the first category. The 2012 London Olympics had its share of inspiring and uplifting stories. Athletes like Gabby Douglas, Missy FranklinDavid Rudisha, and Kirani James became champions and introduced themselves to the world. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt continued their narrative of dominance boosting their legacies as all-time greats. Oscar Pistorius and Manteo Mitchell also endeared themselves with inspiring tales of perseverance. There was, however, one story about Lolo Jones that fit more into the second category.

Human-interest pieces are powerful and any one of these stories is worthy of close analysis. The critical New York Times story about Lolo Jones, however, helps us expose the ambiguous and problematic nature of celebrity journalism. Despite their pandering, writers are often “eager to appear responsible and connect their work to the serious business that engaged other journalists — and made the press look good to civic leader and big advertisers” (272). The Times piece is undoubtedly an example of this.

But the Times pieces is also more than that. As Ponce de Leon reminds us, “while the press offered celebrities a vehicle for realizing their ambition, the ride was not free, and it sometimes involved detours that made the life of celebrities more difficult” (105). Many have derided the Times piece as overly critical and even harsh — sentiments that I tend to agree with — but the article also exposes some real truths. The writer is critical of Jones’ self-promotion and marketing despite her limited success, especially given the limited spotlight give to her sport. Yet, a closer look at both the nature of human-interest journalism and the careers of successful Olympics examples reveals that this is quite normal and has become the industry standard.

In my scholarship I argue that sports provide a middle ground for the negotiation of complex power dynamics and representation. While my research focuses on Native American athletes, the same is true for women and other minorities. Athletes will often participate in self-deprecating behavior that capitalizes on their ‘difference’ and ‘appeal’ whether is be cultural, racial, or sexual. I’ve argued that by over-emphasizing these traits and playing them up, athletes often benefit and are elevated to new heights (both economically and publicly) that allows them to alter and challenge previous representations and advocate for change. To be sure, there is a delicate balance because power is unequal and the press often serves as a gatekeeper.

Jones falls into this middle ground and some argue that harsh criticism goes with the territory. They point out that there are scores of athletes who have not posed semi-nude nor proclaimed their virginity. These athletes, they submit, have gone on to be just as, if not more, successful than Jones, because they were not subject to the media’s gaze. While these are all valid points, they ignore the complexities and realities of Olympics sports and dismiss the larger work Jones is trying to do. Likewise, they judge her by a flawed double standard(s).

Like it or not, journalists are a part of the marketing system of athletes. This is particularly true for Olympians. This excellent study illustrates the limited income of track and field athletes:

Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.) and approximately 20% of our athletes in top 10 in the USA in their event make more than $50,000 annually.

Jones is the American record holder for the indoor 60m hurdles and won three NCAA and two World Championships in the event (note: the 60m hurdles is not an outdoor event contested at the Olympics. The 100m hurdles, which she ran at the Olympics,  is not her primary event.). This success has likely propelled her into the higher income levels, but so has the media attention. It has made her a valuable spokesperson for companies.

This post is not intended to be a line-by-line defense of Lolo Jones. My larger point is that income is important to Jones, and other Olympic athletes, and human-interest journalism is an essential element of creating opportunities to earn that income. Once that income is earned, it is up to the athletes if and how they use it. While advocacy has become common, it is not always the chosen path (for a variety of reasons that I wont get into here). Threats and challenges to an athlete’s image, warranted or not, threaten their livelihood. Unlike professional athletes in major sports, the window for Olympic athletes to establish themselves and harness their own economic power is remarkably small.

Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic 10,000m champion, is a good example of this. He only competed in one Olympics. Prior to the Games he was largely unknown. His memorable race launched him into the media spotlight. In the days and months following his achievement, Mills story captivated and inspired the country. He understood the fleeting nature of his fame and the opportunity it presented. Explaining his approach to creating Running Brave, a film about his life, Mills said:

I couldn’t allow myself to be taken advantage of economically. So I also pursued it as a business venture. The way I would benefit would not be in profits from the movie, but in ways I could market myself the rest of my life.

It is apparent from the New York Times article on Lolo Jones, journalists and fans alike are still not comfortable with these economic realities. Within USATF and the IAAF, the governing bodies of track and field, debates have been raging about the role of corporate sponsorship. Unlike cyclists and NASCAR drivers whose apparel are checkered with logos and sponsors, track and field athletes are expressly prohibited from sponsorship on their uniforms. USATF and the Olympics continue an antiquated obsession with amateurism that reeks of late-nineteenth century Victorianism. While amateurism has mostly evaporated from the Olympics, nostalgia remains. Amateurism embodies the alleged purity and nobility of pursuing sports for their own sake. In reality, it is a classist and greedy system that benefits governing bodies and meet organizers over athletes and inhibits the development of talented athletes.

Amateurism is implicit in most of the Olympic human-interest pieces. Athletes, we are told, sacrifice to pursue their dreams and love of sport. That they often come from impoverished background and struggle to maintain an adequate standard of living is a part of their charm and makes their success all the sweeter. They justify the mega endorsement deals that athletes sign as the reward for their years of toil. Unless, like Jones, they fail to achieve, then they are sell-outs and opportunists.

Mills found balance in his life. He managed his identity and transformed himself into a national brand. While he continues to rely on human-interest pieces to remind new generations of his story and extend his resonance, it is done on his terms. Or is it? Because Mills uses his wealth and fame for what the media decrees as “good” — raising money for Native American causes and inspiring youth — in a non-threatening way, perhaps they are willing complicit in helping him. It’s difficult to truly ever know, but that’s the nature of the sporting middle ground, and hegemony.

What is Pop Culture?

I follow the H-PCAACA list on H-net, and recently someone posed the question, “what is popular culture?” He asked that we keep our responses to 2 sentences. It seems like a simple enough question, but it’s one I’ve never given much thought to. I curiously followed the responses as they trickled in over the next few days, but I never replied with my own answer. I tend to be the type to observe, ask other people questions, and read a bit, before coming to diving in and my own conclusions.

Only one of my Facebook friends indulged me with a reply. She wrote:

i see it as “what is hot right now” people pick and choose what they pay attention to, but when everyone happens to pay attention to the same thing (charlie bit me, olympics hair styles, super bowl beer fetching dog) THATS pop culture.

No arguments from me. She brought up some interesting points too: mass appeal, its link to a specific moment in time, and the sort of underlying assumption that it can be anything regardless of content. In other words, for her it was more about audience and context than it was about content.

The list didn’t really disagree. One scholar wrote:

Any form of expression that a lot of people like.” Keys words are “expression” and “like.”

Although there was some disagreement about the role that aesthetic value plays in labeling something “pop culture.” A few suggested and many wondered if popular culture was more “low culture” than “high culture,” referring to Lawrence Levine’s book Highbrow/Lowbrow. I’m not entirely familiar with the book (but I’m adding it to my list), so I can’t offer much comment.  Based on my readings of cultural history, however, I tend to think the high/low delineation was mostly the product of Victorian and Progressive ideals/judgement. For me, contemporary popular culture encompasses both. For example, people often consider artwork by Picasso and others to be of high aesthetic value but its also quite popular.

What then do we make of these notions of audience and context. Is popular culture a phenomena of a specific time/place? Does it have to have mass appeal and popularity? I tend to think that time and place do matter. As scholars trying to analyze a work of popular culture context gives us a lot of clues. To properly understand it we ask questions like: who created? why did they created it? who consumed it? why did they consume it? and so on.

Jefferson Cowie’s recent book Stayin’ Alive provides a nice example of the complexity of studying popular culture and why digging deep is is important. His discussion of music from the 1970s shows the frequent disconnect between the artist and the audience. Using the example of Merle Haggard’s song “Okie from Muskogee,” Cowie explains how working class, conservative Americans identified with the song so much that Richard Nixon enlisted him to perform as some of his events. Republicans loved the song because it contrasted the values of “livin’ right and being free” by obeying and respecting the law with the marijuana smoking hippies of the 1970s. Yet, Haggard admitted he originally wrote the song as “a series of satirical riffs on what else they did not do in small town America besides dope”(172) revealing that the popular reception and interpretation of the song was the opposite of its intention. He was mocking small towns. This example shows that context is important to understand popular culture but the audience often appropriates its own meaning. Time and place both matter and don’t matter.

George Lipsitz important book Times Passages really gets at the complexity of popular culture, and argues that it is precisely its complexity that makes it worth studying.

The complicated relationship between historical memory and commercial culture, between the texts of popular culture and their contexts of creation and reception, resist conventional froms of cultural criticism. The coded, indirect, and allegorical aspect of popular culture, its inversions of speech and ideology, and its refusal to isolate art from lived experience (a source of corruption as well as social connection) baffle and frustrate critics trained in traditional western aesthetics and criticism (17).

Lipsitz suggests that veiled within popular culture we can discover oppositional politics and the struggles to reshape “the prevailing power relaties” within our collective memories. Popular culture offers evidence of our struggle to keep our memories as they are being reshaped for new means. According to Lipsitz, this is done by people bringing their cultural memory into the mainstream by embedding it in newer and different cultural creation. For example, rock-n-roll musicians often brought in elements from gospel and jazz to create something new and culturally distinct. The fact that many were white but influenced by and were now appropriating variations of black music gets at the issue of audience, power, and oppositional politics. And it relies on the issue of time and context.

Finally, what about audience and popularity? I think the reliance on mass appeal is a misnomer in popular culture. Lipsitz hints at this and I tend to agree. Popular culture can be specific to a certain group identity. My friend’s notion that the “charlie bit me” Youtube video is an example of popular culture is correct only if it is limited to specific groups. The “charlie bit me” video has no resonance for those who live in a world without a computer or the internet. I do agree that popular culture is somewhat based on mass appeal and wide audience, but those audience are never all encompassing. There can be overlapping popular cultures.

So what is popular culture? Here is my best attempt at an answer: Popular culture is an expression(s) of various mediums that meet a mass appeal, and perhaps, embody a certain moment within a significant segment or group of the population.

“kick on the starter give it all you got”

Stadium music is usually terrible, but every team has one song they always play at kick off to get the fans ready. Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones is the choice of my hometown Kansas City Chiefs and it will suffice for this blog. I’ll do my best to live up to Mick Jagger’s promise to “never, never, never stop,” nor “make a grown man cry.” Now that you’re pumped-up and the ball is in the air, you might wondering what to expect from the “game” ahead.

I’m a doctoral student at Purdue University with eclectic interests. While I specialize in modern American history with a research focus on sports history, I dabble in a variety of fields. I’ve researched and studied Native American athletes, public history, race and ethnicity, politics, and popular culture. I’m interested in issues of power and structure, representation and mediation, as well as competing notions of place and space. My latest curiosity is familiarizing myself with new methodologies and trends in the digital humanities.  You can expect to see hints of these interest in my posts.

I’m also a sports fan and everyday guy. As a Kansas City native, I am loyal to the Chiefs and Royals. I’m a (very) active member of the Kansas City Royals twitter community (where I often fail at being witty). College sports are a big part of my research and as I fan I try to maintain my critical eye. I grew up cheering for Kansas and Kansas State in the Big XII, but hold degrees from the University of Nevada and Baker University. I’m also former runner and coach.

This blog will be a bit of a catch-all, but I’ll try to keep my posts related to sports, history, and higher education. I hope to post book reviews, reflections on my research and writing, discussion about new articles and conferences, as well as general updates on life in graduate school. I’m defining these categories loosely, so post about music, current events, and politics may creep in. Welcome aboard and thanks for cheering me along.