Q&A with Cultural Anthropologist Michael Wesch

September 21, 2009

Roberto Armengol, a graduate student working with the University of Virginia's Teaching Resource Center, spoke with Michael Wesch, a professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University who earned his doctorate in anthropology from U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences. Wesch is widely recognized for teaching about new media and using new technologies as learning tools in the classroom. He won a 2008 Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year Award for Doctoral and Research Universities. Wired magazine has called him "the explainer."

Q. You did your doctoral research in Papua New Guinea, studying the effects of written language on people living in a remote area of the rain forest. Could you tell us a little about your fieldwork and what you learned from it?

A. The surprising thing is that I really fell into that. It's not exactly what I had planned on studying. The area was remote, but it was about 40 miles from a gold and copper mine, and most of the people I worked with had become Baptists in their lifetime. Many of them, the older ones, could remember a time when there was no European influence. Just in the span of their lifetimes, they saw the beginning of European influence – writing was one of the many ways in which that happened, and it had a profound effect. What I came to realize was how state structures were incredibly dependent on writing. Where I worked, many of the people were not literate, but the introduction of writing still affected them.

Census and mapping was a big way in which that happened. It had a traumatic influence. If you were not on a map, you were invisible to the state. Suddenly, receiving state support meant being "on the map," and people who were used to moving frequently from place to place had to set up stable villages of 200 people or more to get attention. Among those who could read and write, there was an effort to convince others of the importance of going along with that. It taught me, so to speak, about the violence of freezing everyday life. The whole experience made me think about the printed word in our own culture and what it means that we're seeing a huge shift toward digital technologies and record-keeping. So when I came back from the field, I did the classic anthropological thing – I immediately began looking around at our own culture, trying to understand the changes in the way we communicate.

Q. Is there a corollary to what you saw in Papua New Guinea in our own society? There has been a lot of talk, for example, about the "digital divide" – between those who have easy access to information technology and those who don't.

A. Oh, yeah. You see it at public libraries, to give you a simple example. Librarians are reporting that many people are coming in to get online and find forms, or that people have to go online just to apply for a job. Many people end up at public computing sites because they don't have access otherwise. More important, I think, is what Henry Jenkins has called the "participation gap," which is somewhat different than talking about the digital divide. What he says is that even if you have 100 percent of people connected, you'll still have a situation where a lot of people don't know how to use the technology. That's where I think our job as educators becomes very important. Literacy is a lot more than reading and writing texts.

Q. You've had students produce YouTube videos as class projects. What kind of projects did students come up with, and what did they get out of it?

A. Well, for the first two years we studied the YouTube community itself. I wanted students to think about what they were seeing from an anthropological perspective, to see these videos as forms of communication that can be studied ethnographically. Right now, I'm having them do more and more studies of themselves – not as individuals, but members of a social system.

One project, for example, looked at the effect of anonymity online. The basic, common-sense notion is that "anonymity is bad," in part because it can unleash the naked hatred on the Internet that you often hear about. But anonymity also provides a space for confessions. One of my students found two or three confession outlets, where people can reveal deep secrets about themselves and talk through them with others. In one of these communities, you can send confession "postcards." People get really artistic with them. And in the responses you can see that visitors connect with these postcards. It resonates with them, and there's a feedback loop.

The other important thing I think students get out of these projects has to do with the way they're produced. There's a mix individual and collaborative work. The videos they make are actually part of a larger, ongoing documentary that all of them are helping put together.

Q. How do Web 2.0 applications take on a life of their own?

A. They become social phenomena, and it's not just about the technology, it's this whole cultural thing that happens around the technology and, you know, nobody really gets the full story of that. It's as complex as any culture, and as anthropologists we know just how hard it is – and impossible it is – to "get" a whole culture, but maybe we can get a piece of it.

Q. Are all new media necessarily useful? I have my doubts, for example, about Twitter.

A. Well, they're useful to somebody for something, apparently. Otherwise they wouldn't take off. I think it's important to have a sense of what they do – not just what they were meant for, but what they actually do, because then you can get really creative. You can make them do something different, something that you wanted to do, that maybe it wasn't meant for. So one of the things that Twitter can be, for example, is a personal RSS feed of anything. There's a lot of buzz about using it in the classroom for conversational purposes, but you can also use it to create a single feed of every link that you think your students should check out, and they can access it from anywhere. I think the flexibility of Twitter is its strength. It only does one tiny little thing, in a sense, but there are all these add-ons that make it do so much more. And that's true, I think, with all these new technologies. If somehow we could just see what they do – not necessarily what they were meant to do, but what they can do – then you can pick the ones that work for you and do something with them.

Q. Some professors are wary of new media, and sometimes even downright opposed to bringing them into the classroom. What's the concern there? Is it legitimate?

A. I think for some classes it is legitimate. To the extent that it becomes about the technology, but if your class really needs to be focusing elsewhere, then that can be a downside. I'm wary of asking students to do a lot of tedious learning about a specific brand, so to speak. In the bigger scheme of things, what we can do is put a number of very basic functions in the hands of students. Take, for example, the function of publishing to huge audiences from a desktop or laptop – that's a really important learning tool that can be used in classrooms. And the great thing is you don't have to get hung up on the technology in the way that you used to, because it's so easy. I mean, you can create a blog in about 19 seconds or something. It's push-button publishing to the extreme.

Just as a comparison, when I first started college in '93, we had to take a class on learning WordPerfect, and it was based in DOS at that time. This was just before Windows was becoming established. Just think of all the time we wasted learning DOS so we could write in WordPerfect. On the other hand, there was a revolution going on in how we write, emerging at that time. Suddenly you could cut and paste like never before, and that changed the way that we wrote. That's interesting and worth thinking about. I try to stay away from that kind of tedious learning.

Take using a wiki, for example – what I want students to focus on when I ask them use wikis is how to work well with others in a digital environment. That is the real skill that I hope they will learn, and it's not a very easy thing to teach. So I think it's these bigger issues we should focus on, rather than the mindless stuff of technology.

Q. You earned your doctorate at the University of Virginia, and you'll be coming back this fall to lead a workshop for instructors on the "The Art of Learning in New Media Environments." Could you give us a little preview of what you'll be doing?

A. I'm trying out some new things in my classes right now, and I think by then I'll have enough of a sense of what's working and what's not to decide whether I'll be introducing those things. The larger message will be that, underneath the technology, I'm trying to establish a different kind of relationship with my students. It's a classic shift that people talk about all the time now, moving from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. One of the ways I like to think about it is moving from a focus on making students knowledgeable to making students more "knowledge-able." And that means a shift away from content as primary – not that content isn't important, it still is – but content is for me the fourth question that I ask myself when I start a class.

The first question I ask is, "Who are my students?" I want to know everything I can about them. Who are they? Where are they going? As a second element to that question, we as professors have to ask who we are. What are our strengths? How do we need to grow? When we're engaged in our own growth and learning, then our excitement carries over to the students and it makes us more human. It shows we're all part of an exciting process.

Second, I ask, "Why?" If I'm going to be teaching this class, then why am I teaching it in the way that I'm teaching it? If I'm not answering that adequately, then my students aren't going to buy into it. I need to buy into the relevance of what I'm teaching if I'm going to sell my students on it.

The third question is how. How am I going to do this?

And finally the last question is what – and that's where the content comes in. I'll be trying to make that case during the workshop.