Web Exclusive Essay
YouTube and Archives in Educational Environments
Students in a film studies class settle back and watch a clip of the iconic scene from the ending of Casablanca when Rick and Ilsa part at the airport. The clip that follows shows Rick sitting in his darkened bar, bitterly reminiscing about his past . . . when a balloon suddenly floats into the frame. Rick appears to knock it away as he pounds his fist on the table. A third clip begins with the animated Warner Brothers logo, followed by the eight-minute cartoon “Carrotblanca,” which, as the student presenting these clips points out, provides an ending to the film (Rick/Bugs and Ilsa/Kitty uniting rather than parting) that many viewers would prefer.
The sort of modified “mash-up” of Casablanca created by this student is hardly something new to fan communities and others who take images from one context and reshape or repackage them in an entirely new way. But the media studies classroom creates a context that encourages both students and educators to productively analyze the nature of the vast (though limited) archives of media images and the active recirculation of them for particular purposes. The classroom setting provides a laboratory that allows us to isolate and study the means by which media is spread. In the classroom, trends will be not only identified or predicted but actively shaped as students/fans (as well as the aca/fans who mentor them) grapple with the practical, ethical, and intellectual parameters of taking media into their own hands and reshaping its content.
The concept of exchange that runs throughout this chapter takes on yet another dimension in an educational setting. On the one hand, a very simple market exchange takes place in higher education: students pay tuition and fees for the service of being educated. Furthermore, the service (traditionally) is provided by an instructor who then, as in Paulo Freire’s (1970) famous “banking” model of education, transmits information and skills to be absorbed by the student. However, the specific value of that service tends to be abstract and symbolic (Western Kentucky University’s mission statement, for instance, promises to make students “productive, engaged leaders of a global society”—hardly a measurable outcome), and the results are also deferred to some point in the future, after the diploma and credentials have been secured.
The shift to a more “student-centered” classroom has led to the possibility of reversing this traditional exchange, much as new interactive media technology has transformed passive viewers into active content producers and circulators. As noted earlier in the chapter, though, when a form of media is “transplanted” from one system to another, problems as well as opportunities arise. For some time now, students have been able to access, interact with, and reassemble texts frequently studied in media history without having to rely on “hard copy” provided by the institution (e.g., a film or media library on campus) and without having to rent or buy a DVD. This does create some troubling limitations, as students have less control over the content they are working with—instead of choosing their own clips from a DVD, they are restricted to what has been posted by others online. But, as students search for and assemble these clips, they create an entirely new context and, thus, an entirely new meaning for even the most “classic” of texts. A YouTube search often leads to an intriguing package of “extras” surrounding the text under consideration, such as obscure interviews with the people involved or parodies and homages. While the student presenting on Casablanca had planned in advance to show “Carrotblanca,” the second clip (from a series of doctored film clips called “Famous Balloon Movies”) just happened to appear during her search for video clips of the film on YouTube and was too good to pass up. In her presentation, the cultural power of Casablanca was illustrated more strikingly through the way in which it has been reimagined than through its original content. No longer a static—or dead—work, Casablanca is a living text open for new use and new understanding.
Pushing beyond the familiar complaints that academic discourse “reads too much” into a popular text (heard after assigning students to read, say, an extended Marxian analysis of a popular TV show or product), students now can actively participate in reshaping texts through ancillary material that generates new meanings. The role of the instructor, then, comes in helping students find appropriate criteria by which to appraise these alternative materials.
In another presentation, this on the career of Alfred Hitchcock, a student showed Key to Reserva, a supposedly lost three-page Hitchcock script that Martin Scorsese sets out to direct. This student, not aware that this was a mockumentary filmed as part of a campaign for a Spanish champagne, presented the clip with the excited demeanor of an archivist who has discovered a lost gem. Other students in the class knew the context of this clip, and, though there was a moment of awkwardness when it was revealed as “fake,” the class ended up having a wide-ranging discussion of the use of iconic figures in parody or advertising, the cleverness of the clip in picking up on our expectations of both Hitchcock and Scorsese, and the potential pitfalls of relying on Internet clips that lack a link to the original source material. When we revisited the clip later in the semester and discovered that the audio had been removed from YouTube due to a lack of “permission,” yet another series of issues was raised regarding the legal and ethical limits of online archives.
The most exciting development of presentations such as these is that they show that the classroom is no longer isolated from the material it studies but instead becomes an active site of creation itself. The media history classroom is transformed by student users of new media, who construct their own histories and assemble a distinct context for the topic under consideration. At the same time, though, the classroom should transform these students by encouraging them to construct an analysis and argument around the texts they use. The classroom is not designed to ask students to stop (temporarily) being fans or users—quite the opposite: it should allow them a focused forum in which to present their expertise. However, it should also encourage them to organize their expertise in a systematic way and to use it to gain a deeper understanding of both media texts and the contexts in which they are used or spread. For instance, students might articulate their criteria for the importance or excellence of a particular text, analyze the context in which particular content circulates online and in fan communities, and discern patterns of rules (formal and informal) governing its online presence. Students in media studies classrooms, many of whom will go on to careers in arenas that produce media texts, will surely play a key role in articulating principles for the future of media archives and their ongoing repackaging and reimagining by users.
As with any archive, the archive of media history available to students benefits from a particular kind of “training” in its use that can be provided in an academic setting; reciprocally, my classroom is constantly transformed by the “training” I receive in the use of these media archives by students. Far from the distant “ivory tower,” the media studies classroom plays a crucial role in not only understanding but shaping the spread of media.
Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman. New York: Continuum.