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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author

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Digital Pedagogy + The Fifth Estate

Critical theorist Gregory Ulmer promotes the rise of a "Fifth Estate," a collaborative networked "(de)consulting agency" organized via the classroom space, to influence matters of public interest in a civic sphere that is increasingly virtual and global. Entertainment is a necessary component of the Fifth Estate's constituency, while education and electracy (rather than orality or literacy) are endemic to its functions. In the electrate world, the opportunities for the expression of information come from different source material: image, text, audio and interactive elements. 

Perhaps more destabilizing, once all information is digitized, its mobility, accessibility, and potential for reassembly lends itself to a certain democratization of content. With born-digital texts, communication and expression moves away from exclusively word-based materials into multimedia forms, and the diversity of information expands the discursive space of those who might participate. In turn, born-digital work increases the opportunity for collaboration as well as distributed authorship, a shared process which aids in creating and shaping a collective identity. As many progressive scholars argue, writing remains the gold standard of academic scholarship, and the notion that sophisticated and nuanced argument can only take place via words is rampant (cf  Kress, Ulmer, Welch). It is no surprise then, that digital texts threaten the status quo. Indeed, I employ the conceptual framework of the Fifth Estate to envision a stance that is subversive but also generative.

While the Fourth Estate (journalism) is required to simply report the news, the Fifth Estate takes the scholarly argument into the activist domain with the goal of social justice. Adding this advocacy component then, the classroom born of the Fifth Estate can intervene in matters beyond the university. It is with this notion in mind, the belief that in a highly mediated world, impacting the field of representation is, in itself, an intervention, that we proceeded through the course. After working through issues of power and privilege and the ethics of representation, students were asked to identify a moment in Iraqi Doctors that spoke to them in some way. Using this 'sting,' the Barthian notion of the punctum, students began researching the issue in greater depth while they gained skill in 'writing' with word, sound and image.

A grant from the USC Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching not only allowed the filmmaker to participate, it paid for a research assistant who prepared materials in advance of the class, and helped out during the first term it was offered. We piloted a new video indexing platform, ReelSurfer, a Silicon Valley start up whose creators honed the system to meet our needs. We also interviewed students extensively and used their experiences, struggles and input to enhance the course. Therefore, the class was an ongoing site of research into which the students added their own research and analysis; their project foci often sparked some new area worth pursuing further. 

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