There’s a really interesting, exciting project here at Swarthmore that I’ve been tangentially involved with (mostly I’ve been passive-aggressively shirking my responsibilities to the group, a skill I have honed to a fine polish).
The basic founding idea, from one of our coolest alums, was to get students to try and do a repeating podcasted radio program on the Iraq conflict and the war on terror, to have them look for all the stories and angles and information that are going unreported, at least the ones that could be reported on from here. You can find the podcasts to date here. I recommend listening to the June 10th and June 16th shows, which have some good material from earlier in the year as well as more recently. (The most recent, July 1st’s, was a bit weaker than the norm, in my opinion.)
I liked the core concept enough to suicidally express interest in it during my sabbatical year. I think some of my reasons for liking it are a bit different from some of the other people involved, though not in tension or contradiction with anyone else. Even before we get to the actual result, I think it’s simply important to have liberal arts students interacting with professionals who are not professors, as well as trying to carry on conversations with people outside of the academy. I just feel that we’re not doing very well by our students in this respect: too much of what they come to know comes back to us and is validated by us in our own terms. So students at selective colleges often end up overly adapted to a narrow ecological niche in their thinking and knowledge: essentially very, very good at thinking academically but not so good at thinking or communicating outside of the academy. I feel a strong need to push students (and professors) outside of that comfort zone as much as possible.
So in a way I’d like to see this program less as a media product and more as a pilot project aimed at bringing professionals with a liberal arts sensibility here to teach our students in an applied, experiential or project-oriented context.
But the actual show itself is also appealing to me. One thing I think the people in the project have learned is that the mainstream media isn’t doing justice to the Iraq story–not because of the usual accusations about bias or hegemony or whatever ideological boilerplate you care to offer, but because of material and temporal constraints, that it’s just hard for them to find the space to cover the “second layer down” of stories, or in Iraq itself, too dangerous to do more than report on standard events like bombings or briefings. If you think back to what hypertext or the Web were originally conceived to be, this project is a really interesting attempt to capitalize on that, to be a “deeper layer” that you’d go to if you wanted to know more.
For that reason, it’s been important to try as hard as possible to resist conventional politicized takes on the war. For all of my strong convictions on the subject, I also think there are a great many ambiguous, messy or complicated human stories connected to the conflict that aren’t either anti-war or pro-war in any simple sense. That there is good news and bad news out of Iraq which fits into no one’s preconceived framework. So hopefully the students can find a lot of those kind of stories.
This fall the project is moving (we hope) into high gear. It’s really hard work for the students, and I’ve been amazed at the skills and commitment that a lot of them have demonstrated. I’ve also had some uncomfortable revelations: quite a few of them find it really difficult to telephone strangers and ask them for information, which really reminds me of how difficult I have found and still find ethnographic research. But that’s a good reason for them (and me) to be involved.