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Open to risk: Stock and Davis teach with new media

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New media, trans-media, convergence-culture: By whatever term, the emerging communications landscape represents a dangerous platform from which to teach. It shifts, evolves; it has no canon; outcomes are open-ended. It can leave a professor feeling exposed.

It is a platform that Ann Marie Stock, W&M professor of new media studies, has mounted. Relying on intellectual and technical support from Troy Davis, librarian and director of Swem Media Center, she advanced gingerly at first. With each step, she pulled students with her. They found themselves in an uncharted space that teemed with creativity.

Stock described the journey thus: “In a world where educators are acculturated to believe they have to have all the answers, embracing new media can be frightening. Control has to be given up to explore ideas that are in their infancies.

“I think we do wonderfully with the past, quite well with the present and I’m eager to make sure that we embrace the future and prepare our students to embrace that future that is still unknown.”

For Stock, figuring out how to be both consumers and creators of culture within a new-media environment primarily requires risk-taking—“an awful lot of risk-taking”—on the parts of students and faculty alike.

“We must reach the point of being comfortable with the uncomfortable,” she said.

New media: What it is

For many people, new media conjures up associations with technologies associated with the internet —the ability to disperse digital text, photo and video files from one place to another place almost instantaneously.

Stock and Davis place it in larger context.

Stock defines new media as “a 21st-century term” used by scholars when discussing how “concepts of convergence and connectedness lead to creativity.” Components of new media, including film, photography and broadcast journalism, involve technologies dating back a century. Indeed, a learning objective she holds before her students is to consider how such technologies are being blended in ways that are changing “how we construct ourselves and our relationships to one another.”

For Davis, director of William & Mary’s Swem Media Center, new media involves changes in culture as much as it involves changes in technologies. He talks in terms of “a culture of derivation” in which existing works can be “re-mixed, mashed-up” in creative ways. An exciting aspect is the reliance on “media consumers as content creators,” he said. “Suddenly the amateur is a legitimate contributor to cultural conversations.”

Davis contrasted the new technology-enabled communications opportunities with “old media,” in which teams of “professionals” worked on creative products that were broadcast through commercial ventures. In a sense, the consumer’s options were “to watch or to turn off the TV,” he said. Now, options for receiving content seem virtually endless. Davis said he now spends more time reading blogs he finds interesting than he does reading electronic articles in the New York Times.

At the media center, Davis finds himself surrounded by students who are exploring the ways information is exchanged—“They are not professional media makers but they are learning how to intervene in conversations,” he said. Much of the resulting content includes elements of existing works, he explained, cautioning against “dismissal of new media or remix culture as something that stains or dilutes a notion of originality.”

“Certainly we can argue whether anything is original,” Davis said. “I think this obsessive need to connect creativity and originality can be problematic at times. To say something is derivative to a remix artist would not make sense—everything is derivative in a way.”

Collaborative genius

In many ways, the New Media D.C. Summer Institute represents the genius of studies in new media at William & Mary. Students who are selected travel to the nation’s capitol, where they are given access to a variety of professionals, many of them alumni of the university who work in pioneering communication venues. The connections are facilitated through William & Mary’s Washington Office, Stock said. They include representatives of NBC, the American Film Institute, Newseum and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Stock recounted some highlights from the recent summer session. Alumnus Mark Farkus at C-Span arranged a meeting for William & Mary students with founding partner and Chief Executive Officer Brian Lamb. “We spent three hours with him. He told us about his wild idea to found the network and many insights into how it has shaped our culture,” Stock said.

During the summer, one student was invited to a presidential press conference—third row—dealing with student loan reform, she continued. Following a class trip to the Smithsonian in which students viewed a high-tech Native American exhibition, students entered dialogue with the curators. “The students’ input was so articulate that the curators asked them to serve as a focus group for an upcoming Smithsonian project,” she said.

The students who participate seem to thrive on the experience.

Mary Winebrenner ‘17 recalled shaking with excitement when the first institute visit took her to C-Span. “I never had been inside a TV studio before,” she said. “To meet with people who do what I want to do, I couldn’t imagine a better jumping off point to begin thinking about academics and careers.”

Akela Lacy ’16 said the summer institute, through its series of seminars and one-on-one mentoring, “offered the kind of learning I’ve been wanting to experience. It was not just reading in a book and trying to convey those lessons to real life, it was seeing that things we learn on campus really matter in real life.”

Erin Spencer ’14 said the D.C. program put her “in the real world” and gave her experiences that made her confident when applying for subsequent new-media internships.

“It starts from the bottom up,” she said. “[W&M in Washington Office director] Adam Anthony’s talk about how to set yourself apart really helped. He gave us really tangible things, almost like action item, that will get people to notice you. It helped me make connections and to keep those connections.”

Stock affirms that many students who have passed through the D.C. Summer Institute have landed jobs in the field through mentor-contacts established in Washington.

“We do not stress that fact but the institute has opened professional opportunities for our students,” Stock said. “Although that is not necessarily a goal of the program, it is one of the benefits.”

Focus on learning

Neither Stock nor Davis is predisposed to talk about teaching. They focus on learning. Their goals are realized as students start thinking in a sophisticated way about media.

“It’s not about us; it’s about them, the students,” Stock explained. “It’s not about the what, it’s about the how—how do we formulate the questions? The world can change and our students will be prepared to probe, embrace, identify, discover.”

Part of her excitement about the collaborative commitment involving the D.C. office, the alumni, the media center and others on and off campus to provide meaningful experiences to students is the realization that she, alone, cannot introduce them to all the tools and all the nuances of communications they need to explore.

Exploration is key, suggested Davis. Referring to the D.C. summer semester specifically, he said, “One of the things the new media institute does is to help students explore their curiosity about being creative. New spaces for creativity, that’s what’s new. As educators, we need to cultivate those spaces.”