Tuesday, June 26, 2018

VidCon USA 2018

Went to VidCon this year, which was as fascinating as I expected. I was tempted to sign up for the creator or industry tracks, but ended up in the community track so I could take my youngest daughter, Kasia, with me. (I had been debating surprising her with a VidCon trip when she brought Mary and I a video of MatPat's GoH speech at this year's Vidcon Europe and spoke wistfully about someday going to a VidCon herself, so...that happened.)

Taking Kasia turned out to be helpful because she knew way more of the personalities than I did, For example, I had only a vague idea of who SMOSH Games were, but Kasia was totally pumped to have met them.

Kasia surrounded by SMOSH Games

But I know who MatPat is and was honoured to meet him. I told him I thought he had done more to promote critical thinking than any school curriculum, and he told me that from the beginning, he had always intended GameTheory and FilmTheory to promote critical viewing, and that he was trying to pay forward the lessons he had learned from some of the excellent teachers he had had.

Dr. Robert Runé talking with Matthew Patrick of Game Theory and Film Theory

MatPat really impressed me with how caring he was—taking quite a bit of time to talk to Kasia about her depression, for example, and I observed him being equally nice to everyone else, as well. You should watch the embedded video at the top of this post to get an idea of why MatPat is one of the forces of light among YouTubers.

I also got to meet Anthony Padilla, who was again, extremely approachable and caring in his interactions with his fans. Kasia wasn't with me at the time, and when I told Padilla I was teaching in July and that getting to name drop that I had met him would make me seem way cooler to my students than I actually am, he posed me (i.e., physically moved my arm and head etc to get it right) dabbing with him. I frankly had no clue what dabbing was (I have since looked it up, of course) but his photographer and both security people assured me that dabbing was a thing, and that my students would love me for it. (It's possible they were assuming a younger age group.)

So I got that photo and had started off down the hall when Padilla called me back and asked if I could wait for just a minute to be in a video with him. Well, yes, I could possibly manage that. Padilla finishes up with the last of the other fans lined up to meet him, and then has me and two other adults line up as if we were the entire crowd at his meet and greet. We are told to exhibit a general lack of enthusiasm. I do my best to look like I am lost and standing in the wrong line. Padilla then has himself filmed coming out to greet his fans, and finding just the three of us looking past him, like we are confused over who he is and why he is there. "Is this the right line?" Padilla asks the camera, "Is this it?" And then us waving as if we realize he is probably somebody, even if we're not entirely sure who. It's a nice simple bit of self-deprecating humour that Anthony has orchestrated.

Of course, he may not actually use the footage, but I'll edit in the link here if he does.

Unfortunately, in the excitement of being in an Anthony Padilla video, I managed to lose the original photo. Don't know where or when—I searched everywhere I could think of—but such is life. (Being in the video is better!)

[Edited: hayden @kickthehayden found the photos and posted them on Twitter so here's me dabbing with Anthony Padilla:

While waiting for the above scene to be filmed, I naturally started a conversation with the security guy, who turned out to be a senior manager just helping out on the floor to get a feel for the operation at ground level. The guy was a former coach, so we talked about the role of the coach in educating adolescents, and it was obvious he would have been a great coach, because he had a lot of the right type of charisma and I liked what I was hearing regarding his views on education. I have to say, Vidcon was one of the best organized and most heavily staffed events I've ever attended, so pretty impressed with that end of things too. Not sure how many people were there, but I'm guessing well over 30,000, so something like that takes a bit more organizing than the SF events I've organized over the years. (See, for example, the disastor of TaraCon, a competing convention the same day, a couple of hotels over.)

L to R :John Green, Betty (Articulations), Cory Arnold, Dr. Daniel Bainbridge, Sarah Urist Green, and A.E. Prevost.

In terms of panels, the highlight of Vidcon for me was the "Edutube: Beyond Science" panel. Best thing I've seen at a convention in 30 years: John Green, Dr. Daniel Bainbridge, Betty (Articulations), Cory Arnold, Sarah Urist Green, and A.E. Prevost. Everything the panelists had to say was music to my ears: that the humanities were as important as the sciences; that the barriers between disciplines were artificial and arbitrary; that specializing too early was disastrous for the individual and for society (e.g., having to chose STEM route through school by age 12; STEM graduates having no idea how to write an essay or to express themselves; parents forcing kids into STEM subjects because they believed that's the only realistic route to a career; etc); that the dichotomy that humanities/art=beauty and sciences/engineering= doing was false, and that engineers needed to do beautiful engineering, and mathematicians did high-level math on the basis of how beautiful it was, not by what it could do for you, and so on. The all spoke eloquently for the need for interdisciplinary, cross-boundary education, and that one strength of online edutubers is that they were not restricted by the artificial boundaries imposed by the school system/academia; that there was no one to stop them from drawing on multidisciplinary approaches when they did their programs. John Green, did add the caveat that those educators working through PBSDigital and so on had to at least label their shows as history or art or etc, because otherwise, their potential viewers would not be able to find them. The problem, he said, is that the viewer doesn't know what they want to know until they see it. He gave the example of the Australian vlogger who talked about the evolution of human culture from stone to bronze age, based entirely on the artifacts he had unearthed on his own farm. "I didn't know I needed those videos until I found them, but now I need them very much!" Thus, constrained by the marketing need to do some labelling, Green still spoke to the error of artificial and arbitrary lines drawn between disciplines.

There was even a Ferris Wheel

I was most impressed with Dr. Bainbridge, who was funny or stirring every time she spoke. (My favorite saying now is her, "I don't think of myself as a nerd, but as a niche enthusiast," which resonated with everyone in the audience.) Bainbridge contrasted the sort of interesting social history video bloggers address, and the "names and dates" boring forget-immediately-after-the-test history taught in schools. Instead of history being the record of great men doing deeds, she was interested in the history of those whose voices had been marginalized or ignored; social history, the life and times of the average person; and the history of everything else. She argued that science cannot be understood separate from history because all science is a social construct: how that idea come to dominate (or not) in this or that discipline. She gave the example of "Why do we know that breakfast is the most important meal of the day?" (I happened to know the answer because Terry O'Reilly had covered it in an episode of Under the Influence, but Bainbridge left that hanging as a teaser for her series.) I loved everything she said about teaching, about what the experience of education should be like for students, about the need for liberal arts for STEM students, and on and on. I could listen to her for days, and will now that I know about her series, Origin of Everything.

The others on the panel were very nearly as fascinating. Betty was a museum guide who, discouraged by how many visitors did not know even basic terms like "Modernism" or "Impressionism", started a YouTube show defining general terms, but quickly got into her true love, design and architecture. "People notice bad design, but they never think of good design" so her show is about the history of Exit signs and building codes and answers all those questions you didn't know you had. Articulation came about because Sarah was an archivist stuck in the basement of a museum who never got to talk to the people for whom she was curating exhibits, and now talks to everyone via video. Cory talked about explaining music theory concepts on his channel being watched by a few hundred students looking up that concept when studying for their music theory exams until he was inspired to approach the topic from the other end: take a famous piece of music and analyze it using music theory, when suddenly his videos went viral. Viewers commented, "I always thought the music was about the lyrics...I never realized you could analyze the how the music contributed to the meaning!" And so on. Fantastic panel!

The avenue of food trucks at Vidcon.

The other panel I particularly enjoyed was "Nerding Out: Creators and Fandom" (Andre Meadows) Ricky Dillion, Wes Johnson (SMOSH Games) and Meredith Levine (Fanthropologist). As a sociologist and long-time contributor to SF fandom, I am always interested in how community forms avocational subcultures around various media and personalities. The panelists mostly spoke to the fandoms they were involved in (some great stories!) but did speak a bit about the YouTube community and their sense of their own followers. I was again most impressed by how these creators were concerned to keep their own fandoms positive and their pay-it-forward attitudes. Wes Johnson, for example, spoke about how the cosplay community welcomed and encouraged him as a newcomer and was a safe space for everyone; and then proceded to encourage Rick Dillion to "go for it" when he said I had wanted to cosplay at ComicCon. Although we are all familiar with the few bad apples who exploit YouTube for personal gain at the expense of society and their followers (e.g., Logan Paul), the vast majority of YouTubers are good people. Even self-confessed "professional children" like Wes Johnson are in fact extremely responsible individuals who are at some pains to keep their material and their online followings constructive.

MatPat discusses 'depression' with Kasia.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Destruction of Planet Zor

Today's launch of Sherry Ramey's mid-grade SF adventure, Planet Fleep, reminds me of my own attempt to launch Planet Zor. Enough time has passed that I can tell that story here without hurting anyone's feelings (and they can't fire me over it at this late date) so here goes:

Back in the 1980s, I was in charge of compiling (which usually meant actually writing most of it myself) the Grade 3 Social Studies provincial exam. The exam had significant issues, chief among them all the research available that said Grade 3 students couldn't write multiple-choice questions and that the concept of a Grade 3 examination was a stunningly stupid idea. I had read all that research, compiled it for my then boss, who agreed with me, but such decisions are not made by the technical experts but by politicians. We were, therefore, going to have a provincial Grade 3 examination one way or another, so up to me to make it the least ghastly possible. (To their credit, the team did come up with a number of innovations that did make things better, and for a while there we were able to resist political pressure to keep the results from affecting the students' grades, but all that is a story for another time...)

One of the key concepts for Grade 3 Social Studies was "culturally distinctive communities" and the understanding of why, in Canada's multicultural society, some people want to preserve the traditions of their homelands while living in Canda. This presented two problems to me.

First, being a province-wide test, I had to be fair to everybody, but the curriculum encouraged each community to take as their case study in the course their own culturally distinctive communities. So students in Southern Alberta studied the Hutterites, because that's where most Hutterite colonies are, but students in Calgary studied Chinatown because Calgary still has a vibrant Chinatown, and kids in Northern Alberta studentied the Old Believer colonies and so on. Which makes it impossible to take a case study on the test that everyone had studied, so I would necessarily be biasing the exam depending on whether I used one case study or another.

The second problem was, when I got teams of Grade 3 teachers together to write questions on "culturally distinctive communities" it quickly became painfully obvious that these white English middle-class ladies had absolutely no idea why anyone would want to retain their culturally distinctive community. They all tried valiantly to understand what was to them a mistaken desire of these communities to hold onto a dead past, but um, I couldn't use anything they wrote. It was terrifying that the teachers did not get the curriculum objective here themselves, let alone teach it to children. (I like to think the situation is better today as all the work on addressing First Nations content over the last couple of decades might have given the general population, including Grade 3 teachers, at least a glimmer of why multiculturalism is a better idea than assimilation. But then, I'm a hopeless optimist.)


As much as I tried to come up with generalizable questions on "culturally distinctive communities" that would apply to all cultures everywhere--that can't be done. Being an SF reader, however, I hit upon the idea of writing the test about human emigration to the Planet Zor and why some humans might wish to retain their human culture, even when living among the friendly Zorians. So my artist and I worked together on mocking up a unit on the Planet Zor and why some humans preferred to stick with their own holidays rather than celebrate Ko Day, and so on. Problem solved. I wasn't biasing the test by which case study the class happened to take in their community because Zor would be new to all of them; and putting the kids in the position of a human among Zorians was a pretty good way of getting them to think about why people want to retain their "culturally diverse" community.

The artist and I presented the mock-up to my boss. Who immediately got it, but said NO in no uncertain terms. "I can't put science fiction on a provincial exam! What were you thinking! Zor is not part of the curriculum, and I did not authorize this!"

I may have argued back a bit. Like a lot. Because it was the only possible solution to my problem, and the artist's illustrations were brilliant, and the two of us had already talked about doing the book that would be used in every grade 3 classroom in the province, because this was gold, right?

But my boss was adamant--in spite of conceding the logic of my argument--because he was convinced science fiction was simply a nonstarter with the public. When I argued that it was no longer a nonstarter in the age of Star Trek and Star Wars and so on, he retreated to his ultimate defense which was, "You could never get it past the Committee."

The Committee was actually one of several that oversaw our work, and had absolute veto power, as it should, since it consisted of representatives of all the relevant stakeholders (except parents and students, of course--another one of my suggestions that went nowhere) and the Committee was inclined to err on the side of caution.

So having had Zor shot down by my boss in anticipation of a 'no' from the committee, he set us to chose the culturally distinctive community of Old Believers because that represented the smallest population in the province, so probably new to most students. *sigh* All work on Zor stopped, and we struggled to put together a test on the Old Believers about which none of us knew very much, and very little of which would fit into the Grade 3 curriculum.

And my boss explicitly ordered my colleagues and I NOT to mention Zor to the Committee because we were a team, and the team had to present a common front to the Committee, so whatever arguments we were free to have among ourselves, we must toe the line when facing those outside the office, etc.

So his was the exam we wrote and took to the Committee which said, "you can't just take one community at random; that's not fair to everybody who studied a different one. And what are you going to do next year, and the year after that? If you always use Old Believers, then everybody will end up studying them to do well on the exam. And if you rotate communities through the test, then some students will be advantaged over others." And so on. Round and round we went with the impossibility of making any of this work. My frustration at not being allowed to even suggest the possibility of the obvious solution of Zor grew steadily throughout the day of the meeting, but my hands were tied, as were my colleagues' who knew about and thought the artist's illustrations for Zor were pretty awesome.

Near the end of the day, one of the Senior members of the committee looked up from the draft exam and said, "I don't know...why don't you have something like a Canadian going to an alien planet? Kids today love SciFi, and that way, it would put them in the shoes of someone trying to hang onto their own culture." And then he stopped talking because I and my colleagues were glaring at my boss.

"Did I say something wrong?" the Committee member asked, confused by our reaction.

There was a long pause as I continued to glare at my boss with the "I was right, you were wrong, and I'm probably going to find a way to kill you" look.

And then my boss turned to the Committee member and reassured him, "No, no, you said nothing wrong. It's just...that's a bit of a Zor point with my staff."

To the eternal confusion of the Committee members, I exploded into laughter, and my closest colleague fled the room to keep from doing the same. She returned, grinning, and announced, "I just needed a refill" holding up her coffee and trying not to weep with laughter. Because, of course, my boss' terrible pun was both acknowledgment and apology. After the meeting my boss shrugged and said, well it's too late to go back to Zor, so we'll have to move forward with this version for this year, but, we'll see for next time. But the Grade 3 Social Studies exam only happened every three years, so by next time both the artist and I had left for other careers, and Zor never happened.

I still wished we had written that textbook, though.

[I'm out of town at the moment, but will add some of the illustrations from Zor when I return home. I wanted to post this today, while the opening line was still true.]