Teaching Urban Digital Literacy Outside School, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series highlighting different programs that teach digital literacy outside of school.

Doctoral candidate Eunsong Kim has become an expert on Twitter ethics involving communities of color who writes collaboratively for a wide range of audiences.  For example, in 2014 she had her work recognized among the “most important art essays of the year” and she’s weighed in in the opinion pages of TIME magazine. Kim’s work on digital literacy in urban communities and “finding spaces in between” also is foundational for her identity as a scholar. She has been involved withUrban Gateways for nearly six years, five of those years as a teacher.

In an interview with DML Central, Kim described how the Urban Gateways Summer Options Film program was launched by artist Chelsea Knight, and theater artist Adil Mansoor. The two of them worked with Barbara DeGenevieve at SAIC to find underutilized institutional spaces that might be available during the summer.

Since Knight’s initial start, the program has been run by Kim, Oli Rodriguez, and Jill Potter.

The founders of the Summer Options program soon found that just having room and equipment for summer activity wouldn’t be enough to ensure access to creative but underserved digital youth. To address transportation, bus passes were needed for the students, and many of them needed to find summer jobs. As Kim explained, “offering a program for free isn’t free if someone has to work.”

Thus, the program needed to include an apprenticeship stipend, as well as a space. At first, the program was intended to last two weeks, but expanded to three weeks.

“The school was more than happy to have us be in the space in the month of July, and UG found a healthy stipend for all of the students . . . DeGenevieve even found funding for a teaching assistant, and UG found the resources to display the finished projects and find a venue for screening them,” Kim noted.

Now, Urban Gateways has become a four-week program, and students are always asking for it to last longer.

The curriculum offers short video prompts throughout the week, including found material to be edited, and emphasizes bursts of activity in the span of 24 or 48 hours.  By the time students produce their final video, which generally can’t be longer than five minutes, they are fairly comfortable with storyboarding, filming, editing, motion graphics, and post production software. To supplement the series of peer reviews in class, Kim and Rodriguez ask local Chicago artists to visit and provide feedback. Because students can revise before the film is exported into its final format, there is “an intense level of care” in which students assist each other in response to a time constraint, Kim said. “The films look really good because we have space for them, and they know that the space is theirs from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. every day, although during the last two weeks of class they generally start coming in at 8 and leaving at 6 or 7. Usually, the question is, ‘why can’t we come earlier?’ ”

As a teacher of digital literacy, Kim described a “tangential approach” in which instruction in “blogging and editing online” offered “a way to think about the editing process for videos and the process of workshopping each other’s work visually and online.”

Kim is devoted to letting students have opportunities for “touching or interacting with professional software” that includes “A) the future of an internship that involves partaking in professional space for digital production and B) learning relevant software,” which includes “big shiny expensive equipment” for solving problems in which “solutions can be applicable.”

Activities have included tours of Chicago’s post-production companies. This type of interaction “demystifies software and demystifies equipment,” Kim said. As she put it, “universities are great because so often the equipment has not been used, but it’s the most up to date.”

The students are using resources designed for developing designers and architects. “I don’t even think of them as students!” Kim enthused.  “All of them produced fascinating different life missions and were able to talk about representation and the use of representation during this specialized time outside of school.”

“I think the conversations around the digital divide often happen as though they are unfixable,” she said, but many aspects of problems with technological inclusion “can be rectified fairly quickly, when working with students in an environment in which evaluations are not given in the form of grades” and where the disciplinary structure doesn’t exist.

At Urban Gateways, Kim observed there is “a constant exchange between peers,” in which participants were “giving each other feedback online before I even get to the storyboard with them. Everyone has to constantly produce materials so you can not not participate; participation is the baseline of the project.” Unfortunately, the budding artists at Urban Gateways are often “coming from schools where the Internet is a mythology. The Chicago public school network is so slow and so uneven that it takes a significant amount of time just getting students to save” and instructors and students are often frustrated by “the labor required to of save work and portfolios online.”

Although Kim doesn’t consider herself “optimistic or utopic,” she said she was generally gratified by the care with which students treated the project and the equipment. Starting with her “please don’t punch them or kick them” user interface instructions, she found that students are patient and fault tolerant, particularly when they come to understand that “you can command-z pretty much anything, and you can save drafts of things. Failure is not absolute; its part of how you participate and flourish.”

“The students care about every aspect of the work. The ideas, the writing, the software, the hardware. We’ve never had a student miss a project. We’ve never had a student not obsess about their final film. We never have had a student break a camera or lose anything. We’ve never had a student not learn final cut pro or premiere. They come in with a mission and blow us away.”

Once students grasped what was possible within the software, Kim soon noticed a “deep level hacking that I did not teach them” emerging from the process.

losh-part-2-300“We occupy space within an art school that works with students on the cutting edge of software and hardware and expect them to produce high quality work,” she said. The sophisticated skills of students, such as young filmmaker Michael Coleman, show how digital urban youth can create work that responds to the moods, current events, and violent eruptionsthat emerge from specific communities.

“Michael is so phenomenal!” Kim exclaimed. “He understands cinematography and his subjects with such care and originality.”

The program also encourages students to think critically in seeking meaningful forms of empowerment. “I think that representation is such a great way to think about everything in your life, which is a point that bell hooks makes,” Kim said. She recounted how she incorporated insights from Laura Mulvey about the male gaze into an assignment about watching a favorite action film or romantic comedy and imagining watching it through an oppositional gaze. For example, students could approach the scene by “looking at it from the character who never speaks or who dies off, a character whose loves are not fulfilled and whose dreams are not realized.” One would assume that students would be resistant to this exercise, because “TV and movies are for pleasure,” but when Kim chooses to “make it about something else” students are surprisingly ready to embrace “critical thinking is a pleasure in itself.”

Students also looked specifically at how women were depicted and applied the Bechdel test as a way to understand “why film schools are systematically teaching their graduates to fail that test,” she added.

According to Kim, “these kinds of conversations for high school students can be really generative and applicable to their own lives.  High school has been a great foundation for many conversations, but they can’t say certain things after a certain point.”

For more about Kim and Urban Gateways, check out this Q&A.

Images from videos by Michael Coleman