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The “Explainer” Explains His Creative Process: A Close-Up Discussion with Michael Wesch
Saturday, October 15, 2011
Visit to Kansas State and Interview of Michael Wesch:

I wrote about Michael Wesch from Kansas State University in my World is Open book. He became known for several YouTube videos on the digital generation that went viral during the past few years. And that has brought a ton of attention to the anthropology program at Kansas State as well as to Michael who is now an associate professor of Cultural Anthropology. Michael’s Digital Enthography blog is also high read and referenced and his channel in YouTube is watched by millions.

Several of his more popular videos are listed below.

1. Web 2.0…The Machine is Us/ing Us; 11,477,707 views, posted January 31, 2007.

2. A Vision of Students Today, 4,424,863 views, posted October 12, 2007.

3. The Visions of Students Today 2011 Remix One (Trailer), 19,713 views, posted January 26, 2011.

4. An anthropological introduction to YouTube, 1,715,085 views, posted July 26, 2008, the Library of Congress, recorded June 23rd, 2008.

5. Rethinking Education, 33,145 views, posted January 24, 2011 (Note: this is the one I perhaps like the most since there are many Web 2.0 stars in this one. Watch it and see who you recognize.).

Now Back to My Story...
Michael and I had a chance to sit down and reflect when I was at K-State back on October 4th to 6th. I was in town to keynote the 6th annual Axio Learning Community Conference at the K-State University Alumni Center. It was a lovely place in which to present. I had a great time at the conference as well as dinner afterward with David Young (my host) and several others.

As you can see from the pics below, K-State is a lovely place.

I was honored to have Michael Wesch attend my talks; especially since he is on sabbatical this year. Michael is a fantastic person. As a result, seems everyone in Manhattan knows him, from 4 year old kids we walk by on the streets to emeritous faculty members on campus.

After my talks were over on the 5th, Michael and I walked to the house he just purchased and is in the process of remodeling as well as building bike trails in the back. It certainly is a lovely place to live...both his house and Manhattan. Michael has some wonderful plans for that house and yard.

Shortly after I got back from Kansas, questions starting pouring into my head that I wanted to ask Michael. It was impossible to get back on a plane and pop over to Manhattan and ask him, so I sent him a few questions about living in Manhattan, Kansas State, but more importantly, I wanted to know about his creative process. Amazingly, Michael found a few spare moments of time as he was headed out the door for perhaps his top invited talk ever, the Future of State Universities Conference in Dallas. Other speakers included Tony Blair, Clayton Christenson, John Howard (the former prime minister of Australia), Salman Khan, Arne Duncan, Martha Kanter, etc., and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was a moderator. Wow.

Nevertheless, he found some time. Thanks Michael! You are one excellent human being. As you will see, Michael Wesch's answers to my six interview questions provide a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of a perpetually innovative scholar and highly engaging and thoughtful individual. Read on.

The “Explainer” Explains His Creative Process: A Close-Up Discussion with Michael Wesch

Curt Question #1. Hey Mike. You are known for your unique videos that explain new media in education and how education might better address the youth culture. Seems every time I turn around you are producing something fascinating for me to watch, read, or listen to. Can you describe your creative process? What might be some takeaway principles, environmental conditions, or environment components of becoming such a highly creative person?

Michael responds: My creative process begins by trying to quiet all the "should" voices rattling through my head. We all have people (and perhaps more importantly, large and menacing social, bureaucratic, and economic structures) telling us that we Should do this or that, that this is the way things Should be done, that real professors Should do X, Y, and Z, etc. It is an ongoing battle to silence those Shoulds. The Shoulds hold most of the keys to traditional tenure & promotion. They put food on the table. And they have ways to make us feel good when we do as we Should.

But in an environment of constant change, the Shoulds are almost always wrong. This is where you might expect me to rehash that old cliche that we have to silence the Shoulds, listen to our own hearts, get in touch with our core and lead from within - but that's not how I work. I do almost completely the opposite. The only voice that is more distracting than the Shoulds is my Self - so it has to be silenced too. And so I'm left just trying to listen to the world as it is, and listen for what it needs. This is a long process that is really more like a life practice. I just spend hour after hour gathering information, thinking about it, processing it, thinking about it again, questioning my earlier ideas, looking for my taken-for-granted assumptions and trying to challenge those, and on and on for years until there is a breakthrough moment.

People often ask me how long it took me to create “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” which is probably my best-known work. It's hard to answer that question. The actual labor of putting the video together took about 3 days and no more than15 hours of actual work time, but the idea itself came to me even faster - in an immeasurable micro-second.

The entire vision was just there for me one morning and I immediately set out to turn that vision into a reality. But another way of answering that is to say it took over one year (actually, close to 2 years), because that's how long I had been thinking about (and desperately struggling to write about) the core ideas that are expressed in that video. My mom overheard me answering this question to somebody once and she interrupted saying, "Mike, you were working on that your whole life" - which is really more true than any answer I ever had. It is the culmination of decades of work. Things I was doing over 20 years ago when I was 12 are directly relevant to the work.

We're all that way, and that's the real beauty of the creative process. Whatever you create, will in some way, be the culmination of a lifetime of creativity and exploration, and therefore unique and something only you could say in the way in which you have said it.

Curt Question #2. How do you know when an idea might work or when one of your video ideas might go viral? Are there any key steps or aspects to a project that others can learn from?

Michael responds: A great academic video starts with a keen observation. From there it is a matter of relaying that observation by using a pacing that underlines the central emotion and feel you are trying to create, moving the story along with "economy," which is to say you must never tell too much or too little to tell the story. You have to master the subtle art of rhythm, in which every clip and transition matches the emotional & musical rhythm of the piece. The pacing and rhythm help to create a rich texture, and all of this must resonate with profound authenticity - as something more real than real because it reconnects us with the real that we are constantly letting slip right past us in our everyday lives. In this way, video does not really have to make a logical "point" in the manner of an academic paper. Instead it allows us to show the world to others in a new way. My most successful works go on to be used by others to make very different, often contradictory points, which is fine with me. My purpose is to create an artifact that focuses or refocuses important conversations.

Curt Question #3. Perhaps there is a link between exercise and creativity. Apparently, you love riding your bike. Do you jump on a bike to purposely reflect on a new idea or is it your chance to get away and veg out? Have any of your video ideas been designed in your head while riding your bike? By the way, how many bikes do you have? How long are your routes?

Michael responds: I love biking, but it is really just a small part of my larger interest in livable, engaged, participatory communities. The energy I apply in my classrooms trying to create inspiring authentic connections I carry over into my everyday life, and part of that is using a bike to get around town. The beauty of biking is not just that you get exercise, it is that you feel more connected to the world and people around you. You are not encapsulated in your car, so you save and say "hi" to people around you. You stop for more conversations. Ride your bike enough and you no longer just feel more connected, you *are* more connected. I live more-or-less car-free in my day-to-day life. I have a wide range of bikes to help me achieve this, including a snow bike, a basic commuter, and my favorite - a Dutch "long john" cargo bike. The cargo bike is a true car-replacement, with tons of storage space to carry 2 kids, groceries, and more. Our town is no more than 5 miles across at its widest point, and most destinations are within 2 miles, so there is really no reason to drive a car under most circumstances.

Curt Question #4. Your Library of Congress talk is a must see for those interested in new media and the potential impact of shared online video and other participatory learning technologies in higher education and other educational sectors. I find the data in it phenomenal and your presentation style highly engaging. How long did it take you to create that talk? Do such talks evolve or fade away after so much time?

Michael responds: There is about 2 years of research behind that talk, most of which took place in an upper-level Digital Ethnography class at K-State. We worked closely together as a class, and in the end each of the fifteen students submitted a 5 minute clip summarizing their piece of the overall research. I then took those 15 clips and edited them into the videos you see during that talk. Some of it is my own original material, and some of it is taken directly from student projects.

That process took me about 6 weeks to complete. I have been asked to give that same talk a few times since then, so I have kept it updated with new materials and a few new insights.

Curt Question #5. You mentioned to me earlier this week that you have always found computer programming interesting and fairly easy for you. When did you first begin to dabble with computers? How has this evolved?

Michael responds: My first computer was a Tandy PC-8 that I received for Christmas when I was 11 years old. It was really just a fancy calculator, but it understood BASIC. I started hacking away immediately. Like any programmer will tell you, there is a magical moment when you setup a list of commands for a machine and it miraculously performs those commands for you. I was hooked, but I was pretty limited by the little16 digit display. I eventually managed to create a little pixilated superman character that could fly across the screen and crash into a wall on the other side. That was enough to inspire my parents to buy me a much larger Tandy with a keyboard and 4-color screen the next year, and I was off and running. In graduate school I started playing around with HTML, JavaScript, and other web-authoring languages, always looking for new ways that we could present and share our ideas.

When I started the work and research on The Machine is Us/ing Us, I had in mind a simple paper explaining to other scholars why Web 2.0 matters. Writing about Web 2.0 was frustrating though. I knew I would have to *show* them, and the idea for that video was born.

Curt Question #6. In what ways does Kansas State support someone like you (i.e., an associate professor of cultural anthropology and digital ethnography) to get to this national stage related to teaching and learning with technology and the creation of active learning environments or "anti-teaching" as you call it?

Michael responds: While Kansas State has provided plenty of support for my work, I think it is more important to note what they have *not done,* which is get in the way. Nobody has ever said "you can't do that" to me, which has really surprised me considering some of the things I have done. For example, when I published "A Vision of Students Today," which shows some of the worst of K-State (large out-of-date classrooms and disengaged students trudging through an Intro class), I expected some reprimanding. But even after the Chronicle of Higher Education ran it with the headline, "K-State Students report reading less than half of what they are assigned," I still received nothing but praise and encouragement. I imagine some schools would have asked me to pull it off YouTube after that, but it stayed, and went viral. The video garnered over 4 million views, was featured on, and we became the center of a national debate on college education. We benefited greatly throughout all of this, and have been able to generate some exciting positive momentum towards reforms that are already in place just a few years later.

[Note: here are some pics I took 2 weeks ago when visiting K-State and the classroom Michael taught in and used for his video]

[Note also that there are also new classroom spaces being built at K-State like this one.]

Michael Continues...Kansas State has a long record of big successes, with more national Professor of the Year award winners than any other research university in the US, and our students have received more of the big-name scholarships in the past 25 years (Rhodes, Marshall, Truman, etc.) than any other state university. Overall, we rank 6th, amidst the Ivy League schools. It is a remarkable accomplishment for an "out of the way" place like this, but I think it may be precisely because we are out of the way, we stay out of each others' way, and yet also provide a sense of community where people feel inspired to find their way.

Curt Question #7. (Note: All creative people need nurturance and support for their ideas. Having just visited Michael at Kansas State, I could see that K-State is a highly supportive environment and one that would be easy to settle into and work. KSU and Manhattan are a lot like IU and Bloomington here in Indiana. I heard Manhattan is expecting huge growth during the coming decade. I wanted to know what it was like to work there.)

So I asked him, “You have become an international celebrity in what previously might have been considered a remote part of the world. Why might someone getting their Ph.D. today place the Manhattan's and Bloomington's of the world high on their list instead of San Francisco and Boston?”

Michael responds: I like living in a smallish town because it gives me a constant sense of connection and significance. By "significance" I don't mean that I feel like "a big fish in a little pond." Rather, I feel like everybody's a big fish here. We all matter. I think of Manhattan, Kansas as a "heads up" town, a town where you walk with your head up and greet everybody you meet. You do this because there is a good chance you know the people you see, and if you don't, there's a good chance somebody you know knows them, and that you will meet them later. In contrast, there is that other Manhattan in New York, which tends to be a "head down" town - a place where people tend to keep their head down and dart off to their next appointment. I have some good friends in that other Manhattan, like Daniel Latorre, that are trying to change this through better public spaces, but there is nothing like the feel of a town like Manhattan, Kansas, where everybody matters.

Being a little bit off the map is also liberating. I feel a bit more free to do my own thing and explore the world in my own way.

= = = = = = = = = = = = =
I hope you enjoyed the interview with Michael Wesch. During my brief stay in Manhattan, I saw many of the things Michael mentioned. I visited the classroom “A Vision of Students Today.” I also saw everyone in town greet Michael as a personal friend. He is fun, creative, unique, and inspiring. Now perhaps we know a bit more about the Explainer!

I hope to see some of you at E-Learn in Hawaii during the coming week.

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Interview with Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona: A bit of history of "History for Music Lovers"
Wednesday, October 12, 2011
An Interview with Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona (History for Music Lovers):

Last month, Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona were announced as invited speakers at the E-Learn 2011 conference in Hawaii next week. I was excited since I had read about them in the Washington Post and many other places. Yesterday I got even more excited when they agreed to keynote the conference next Wednesday morning (as a late replacement for someone else).

Who are Amy Burvall and Herb Mahelona you ask? They are some of the most innovative people I have ever encountered. And I will get to meet them in 6 days. Among his many skills, Herb is choir director choir at the Kamehameha Schools Hawaii Campus. Amy is known as a leader in educational technology professional development programs at both St. Andrew's Priory (where she taught for 8 years) and Le Jardin Academy International Baccalaureate School. Amy also teachers Theory of Knowledge and World History at Le Jardin Academy. There conference talk is titled "TechnoTroubadours and Teacherpreneurs" (see their bios). Their talk is very impressive as I got a glimpse and so can you. See their prezi presentation with embedded videos. It will be great to have K-12 teachers keynote E-Learn 2011. Fortunately, they are located in Hawaii, though Herb must fly in from the big island.

Amy and Herb are known from their musical creativity with their History for Music Lovers channel in YouTube. Superfantastic stuff. I am amazed by their historical song parodies. I really like their version of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" as a way to remember the Trojan War. Another one I sing along with at least once a week is Mansa Musa (i.e., "I'll Tumble 4 Ya" by Culture Club). When you land on the History for Music Lovers homepage, you see highly creative song about the history of India, "The Mahabharata" (i.e., "Abracadabra" by the Steve Miller Band). Nearly 600,000 people have seen Amy sing about The French Revolution to "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga. I find it hard not to cry when listening to some of their oldie songs such as the Battle of Agincourt ("As Tears Go By" by Marianne Faithful).

Check their channel out; there are dozens of songs to listen to and learn world history. If someone ever asks you were e-learning can make an impact, well, this is a prime example--mashing up history and music and making it open source for kids all over the planet to listen to and learn from. How cool is that? Very cool! If only my high school such teachers. Perhaps we soon will be turning kids on to not only history but geography, biology, etc., with music.

The lyrics are highly inventive and catchy. I read somewhere that Amy has songs pop into her head when driving home from school and just has to write them down. I understand that since I sometimes experience that when on a plane or a train. Unfortunately, I cannot play music like they can. If Amy and Herb ever go on tour, I think I could listen to them all afternoon and evening at a summerfest stage in Milwaukee. They are highly talented and fun. I think we are going to get spoiled next week and want them at every e-learning conference.

Ok, I need to introduce them next week at the conference so I decided to interview them via email. With permission, below are their responses to this interview. I list Amy first since she was the one I corresponded with.

Curt Question #1. Do you see yourself in the e-learning field when you create a video?

Amy (and Herb): I think at first, not particularly. But certainly after we started posting to You-Tube and responding to fans (mostly teachers, students, and history buffs) and doing various interviews in the field, we did. There is definitely more pressure now as we work on new projects, but we still try to keep it fun and light-hearted, drawing from our own passions instead of catering to others. We’ve certainly learned a LOT about e-learning on our journey!

Curt Question #2. Did you expect to be celebrities in the e-learning space? What is this like?

Amy (and Herb): Haha no way! It’s surreal. I heard from a friend, for example, who was in a coffee shop in Oregon and heard some college kids singing our “Renaissance Man” song [i.e., "Blister in the Sun" by the Violent Femmes]. One fan wrote he was in a museum in Washington and they were playing some of our tunes in the gift shop! And when my students travel they always tell me they meet other kids who know about us. So bizarre. But what is most boggling is that it’s very rare that someone lets you know when they’ve written a blog post or article about you. We sort of have to google ourselves sometimes. And even more crazy was when I discovered one of our lyrics (fleas on rats) was an actual Twitter hashtag!

Curt Question #3. Which 2 music history videos that you created are your favorites and why?

Amy (and Herb): I really love the look and sound of “Elizabeth I”, to the Zombies’ “She’s not There”. And musically, my favorite is “Canterbury Tales”- plus nothing beats that Middle English rap segment. The way I envision “Guernica”, which is in production, might turn out to be my ultimate favorite. For Herb, I know he is most proud of “Joan of Arc”, because we also tried to parody the original White Stripes video…it took quite a lot of time and effort on his part to edit. As far as lyrics go, I think Herb’s lyrics were genius in “Chinese Dynasties” [i.e., "Mambo #5" by Lou Bega] and “Viva Roma #5” [i.e., "Vogue" by Madonna]…I prefer sticking to really specific topics, but he has a gift for synthesizing the broad topics.

Curt Question #4. What is the process like in creating a new video? Any interesting technology challenge that comes to mind?

Amy (and Herb): The biggest challenge for us is time…and now, geography, since we live on different islands. When either of us is inspired to pen lyrics, we do so, because that surge of creativity doesn’t happen all the time. I can go for months without writing a single line and then spew out 6 songs in weekend. Herb then creates the music, and we schedule a time to record. To me, recording is the most fun, and it really doesn’t take that long (maybe a half an hour for 1 song). He mixes/produces the tracks when he gets the time and then we brainstorm what the video should look like. I can never praise storyboarding enough! When we are ready to film I gather all the costume and make-up pieces and props and we head for a green screen. Herb uses a high def. camera and Adobe Premiere and After FX software. When my students make videos, they use Garageband and iMovie. The editing is the most time-consuming, but the more Herb uses the programs the better he gets. I always want to do crazy things that we probably need a Hollywood studio for, but Herb seems to make them happen. He is also a master at Flash animation, an some of our favorites (Henry VIII, Crete, Renaissance Man) are done completely in Flash.

Curt Question #5. What are your hobbies and interests?

Amy (and Herb): Herb is a classical musician at heart and plays for the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra, the University of Hawaii symphony, and the Kona Music Society. He teaches cello and piano privately, and is an experienced arranger and composer, who has even written 3 operas performed by the Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus. He enjoys hiking and has been involved in Boy Scout leadership.

Amy is obsessed with anything relating to design – graphic design, interior design, fashion design, etc. – and typically is involved in some related project. Her creative outlets are singing, writing, and photography, but more recently her attention has been on the use and implications of online curation, personal branding, and social media in education. She is often called to train peers in tech integration, and enjoys presenting on the topic. More recently, her interests have drawn her to the “Gutenberg Parenthesis” theory and the work of media philosophers Marshall McLuhan, Thomas Pettitt, and Alejandro Piscitelli, as well as the “EduPunk” movement.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Hope you enjoyed the interview. I also hope to see many of you at the conference next week. If you see me, tap me on the shoulder and say hi. See also the blog post below for the E-learn Preconference Summit at the University of Hawaii next Monday afternoon. The program was just announced and it will be worth it.

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About Me

Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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Click here for information about my recent book, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

Visit the Indiana University Home Page of E-Learning Expert Curtis J. Bonk.

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