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A New Kind of Literacy

USC College and the School of Cinematic Arts join together to put multimedia tools into the hands of more undergraduates.

A New Kind of Literacy

Louis de Berniéres wrote that love is a temporary madness.

Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts and executive director of the IML, recalled her conversation with filmmaker George Lucas, who emphasized the importance of literacy in multiple forms of media. She credits Lucas — who said that given today’s multimedia environment, college students unversed in the language of the screen were not truly literate — as the inspiration behind creating the IML in 1998.

Lucas, a USC alumnus, shied away from taking too much credit.

“That’s a bit like saying the Beatles invented the music of the '60s,” said Lucas, who in September donated $175 million to the School of Cinematic Arts — the largest single gift in USC’s history. “They were part of a huge cultural groundswell, or as John Lennon phrased it, ‘We were flags on top of a ship that was moving.’ ”

Daley had envisioned that the teaching of multimedia literacy would eventually reach the entire undergraduate community.

“I’ve always felt that in order to institutionalize this and accept multimedia literacy as a 21st century vernacular, we would have to incorporate and disseminate it within the university,” Daley said. “I’m just glad that the College has been courageous enough to jump in the water with us.”

USC College Dean Peter Starr was first to take the plunge. As dean of undergraduate programs last year, Starr worked closely with faculty, the Provost’s office and other schools to establish the new program. Starr dismissed fears that a multimedia approach would somehow replace text. He elaborated on McCann’s comment.

“Go way back to Plato and the fears that writing would replace memory, that writing was dangerous because people would no longer remember,” Starr began. “Or a related fear, that writing would replace oral persuasion and dialogue. Well, it didn’t happen that way. Writing came along and it became a technical tool that complements oral persuasion.”

Starr said that the College remains “absolutely committed to affirming the importance of being able to communicate well in writing.

“These new technologies,” he said, “are only going to enrich the traditional form of communication.”

The courses, in fact, require considerable writing. Creativity is coupled with an equally rigorous interpretive component.

In addition to computer narratives, McCann’s students analyze the images in written essays: What makes the image work? What attitudes does it convey? Do you accept the attitudes or question them? What is the historical, cultural and social context of the image?

McCann wants his students to understand the power of the language of the screen, a language that most have been speaking since childhood.

“There is a misconception that students brought up in a multimedia-saturated world somehow are more sophisticated about it than older generations,” McCann said. “But what’s true is that they have never really stepped back and analyzed what they’ve been viewing all these years.”

Daley stressed the importance for students to analyze and deconstruct their projects. In the 21st century, the truly literate read, write and understand the language of the screen, she said, echoing Lucas.

“Multimedia literacy is not revolutionary,” Daley said. “It’s fundamentally evolutionary. It’s the way in which communication is moving.”

Lucas hoped that the teaching of multimedia would evolve “to a point when we talk about the literacy rate, it’s understood that means literacy in all forms of expression, not just text.”

Since its inception, the institute has trained more than 50 professors and 2,500 students to integrate multimedia into their teaching, learning and research. But until now, only honors students and those in select programs benefited.

The new program reaches out to all undergraduates. Enrolled students receive four credits for the core course and two more for the lab portion. In the lab course, two teaching assistants are on hand, from the College and the IML. In addition to teaching the philosophy behind multimedia, they train students to use tools such as PowerPoint, Flash Animation and wiki software.

Getting the academy to accept the language of multimedia as an equal to text has not been easy, Daley said.

“You are asking people to make some pretty radical changes,” she said. “There has been suspicion in the academic community. The academy has embraced the visual. But we’ve been very slow to accept the fact that text, picture and sound constitute the current vernacular.”

Multimedia course instructor Charles Sammis, professor of earth sciences, was initially skeptical.

“I did have reservations,” said Sammis, who has taught geology and earthquake courses at the College for 30 years.

“Learning math and science isn’t easy,” said Sammis, emphasizing the value of working out equations on paper. “It’s hard to have a rigorous science course that’s project oriented. Students miss the experience of quantitative problem solving and the intuition that comes from working with numbers.”

In the end, Sammis realized that multimedia could enhance his course without diluting quantitative content.

“I view it as a skill students can use,” said Sammis, who is among the seasoned faculty participating in the pilot program. “They can become more familiar with ways to present information. It’s motivational, certainly. It’s a way to develop enthusiasm for the sciences.”

Anne Balsamo, director of academic programs at the IML, said technology can be used as a launching base.

“We see technologies as a platform that students will use to explore their own ideas and explore their own voices,” said Balsamo, professor in interactive media in the School of Cinematic Arts and gender studies in the College.

James Dolan, associate professor of earth sciences who is also teaching a course in earthquakes as part of the pilot program, agreed.

“I see multimedia as a powerful research tool for the sciences,” he said.

Moreover, Dolan called earthquake sciences at USC “the poster child” of multimedia student involvement. He pointed to the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), based at the College, which each summer unites undergraduates from USC and throughout the nation in an interdisciplinary effort to develop cutting-edge software used in earthquake research.

Dubbed SCEC-VDO (Virtual Display of Objects), the software allows for three-dimensional viewing of earthquakes, faults and other seismic activities around the globe.

As more and more earth scientists use the free software, they request additional capabilities from the next summer’s team.

“Our interns have conceptualized and developed a state-of-the-art visualization system that’s proving to be incredibly useful in earthquake science,” SCEC Director Tom Jordan said.

Inside a computer lab on campus, College student Kristy Akulliam showed a visitor some of the SCEC-VDO program’s features. When a 3-D digital model of a globe began rotating on her computer screen, Akulliam clicked on California. Red dots appeared at recently active fault lines. She clicked on a dot for details about magnitude, time, location, depth and waveforms.

“It’s similar to a MapQuest for earthquakes,” said Akulliam, a 21-year-old senior majoring in economics and English. “Except more sophisticated.”

Holly Willis, IML’s associate director of academic programs, said the SCEC-VDO software tool is being used in the earthquake class. A program goal is for students to develop projects that ultimately will be viewed or utilized by others.

“We’re dealing with a different type of student now,” said Willis, who is coordinating the program with the College. “Students now can adapt to so many areas of media. It’s a different mindset. Students come in wanting to make an impact in the world. They’re already doing it in [Web sites such as] MySpace. They’re sharing music, sharing movies. They’re collaborating on content like Wikipedia. They want to do the same thing in their course work.”

Sonia Seetharaman, 19, a biophysics major in her junior year, could relate.

“Your project might be put out on a Web site for everyone else to see,” said Seetharaman, an IML honors student. “It’s really nice to be able to broadcast what I’m learning and take all the new information that I’m excited about, and get other people excited about it outside school.”

Her experiences with multimedia will help her get a job, she said.

“If you can tell somebody, ‘I learned how to convey information visually,’ that is really important in the job market today,” she said. “And it’s really important in school today.”

Steve Anderson, associate director of the IML honors program, put it this way: “We want our students to become technically empowered citizens. To be critical consumers and active producers of media.”

Judith Jackson Fossett, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, said shaping an argument using images creates a different kind of history.

“It creates a counter-history that one wouldn’t normally see,” said Jackson Fossett who next year will teach “African-American Popular Culture,” a multimedia class she has taught in a smaller pilot. From a previous class, a project called “Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz” illustrated the history of blackface comedy. The images and sounds chronicled racial stereotypes from the Amos ‘n’ Andy minstrel shows to Looney Tunes cartoons to more current shows such as “Good Times” and “The PJs.”

Images and sounds can effectively incite visceral reactions.

“These projects are providing a kind of historical, theoretical and ideological context to actually force the viewer to interrogate their own position,” Jackson Fossett said.

Balsamo said that multimedia literacy is reshaping the way people think.

“Students apply their knowledge, their skills, their creativities, their enthusiasms to questions that are going to vex us in the future and provoke all of us to ask more interesting and nuanced questions about the world and about our culture,” she said. “Questions we can’t even imagine to ask now.”

Lucas said the program “creates an environment where true collaboration can emerge.

“The program is a prime example of that process,” he said, “with USC building on the unique strengths of the College and the cinema school.”

He added that students in the pilot program are developing skills that will have “immediate as well as life-long applications.

“In four years, this group will go out into the world and become the next generation of teachers, writers, politicians, artists, businessmen and [business]women,” Lucas said. “As they put their knowledge to use, they’ll inspire others.”

St. Augustine said that love is the beauty of the soul. Still, Lope de Vega said harmony is pure love, for love is a concerto.

But what if you had to explain love in a picture? The assignment for the multimedia lab class had been to bring in a powerful image representing love.

“We’re going to ask you to think visually in a way that you’ve never done before,” Allison de Fren told her class last semester at Taper Hall.

Each student sat at a large computer screen depicting images such as an iPod, the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album, a mother breastfeeding her baby and primates snuggling.

De Fren was a teaching assistant in a pilot program launched this fall, dubbed Multimedia in the Core. The program extends USC’s multimedia pedagogy from a select group of students to the undergraduate community at large.

This academic year, as many as 420 students will take seven general education (G.E.) courses that offer hands-on experience in multimedia authorship. The program will expand next year.

The enterprise is a joint effort between USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences and the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML). A leader in undergraduate education, USC is the first university to incorporate multimedia curriculum in a wide variety of courses — from earthquakes to early American Indian history. Only a few universities offer a spattering of G.E. courses involving multimedia projects.

“USC’s emphasis in multimedia literacy is very much a pacesetter within academia,” said USC Provost C.L. Max Nikias, who launched the program. “The very nature of literacy has evolved dramatically in a short period of time. I’m proud that we’ve placed USC’s intellectual community at the forefront of efforts to understand and guide these monumental changes.”

Nikias called the program “a model for cross-disciplinary collaboration on the part of our cinema school and the College.”

To support the effort, the College built two multimedia labs where students can work and check out equipment such as digital cameras, video cameras and sound-recording gear.

Inside the lab, the image covering 23-year-old senior Kirk Sullivan’s computer screen depicted Britney Spears and Madonna during the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. To Sullivan, that image represented love.

“It’s the moment before they embrace in a warm, passionate and loving kiss,” Sullivan said.

“Is that love, or just a result of public relations people wanting to make money?” asked de Fren, a doctoral candidate who teaches the lab class with Jonathan Weil, a College graduate student in philosophy.

“Never underestimate the amount of respect that these two esteemed artists deserve,” Sullivan replied.

“Either you’re being sarcastic or you’re very idealistic,” de Fren said. “I’m not quite sure which.”

“You have all semester to figure it out,” Sullivan said, grinning.

The lab was part of Ed McCann’s philosophy class. McCann is among the six College professors participating in the pilot. He requires multimedia presentations for his course, “Love and Its Representations in Literature, Philosophy and Film.” McCann’s course explores key works — Homer’s Iliad and Dante’s Comedy and the like — that have shaped the European and American notion of love.

Olivia Everett, a 19-year-old junior majoring in cinema-television and history, took McCann’s class last year as part of a smaller pilot. She said intertwining video, audio, graphics, animation and text makes a project multilayered.

“It’s a whole new ballpark when using visual and sound representations,” Everett said. “Images speak differently than words.”

While more laborious than term papers, the broader medium, she said, enables a student to develop a rational argument that also engages emotional and aesthetic sensibilities.

“You have to switch your brain from what you’re used to doing, using words,” Everett said. “It really does make you think in a different way.”

Other courses this academic year include: “The Changing Pacific: Culture, History and Politics in the New South Seas,” “Earthquakes,” “Russian Thought and Civilization,” and “The Ancient Near East.” Most professors were chosen because they have long used multimedia in their classes; McCann was among a small group of professors that the IML first trained.

Under the auspices of the IML’s early classes, students created non-linear projects. Most notably, a few years ago, a collaborative project on ancient Troy — an interactive 3-D model of the city made famous by Homer’s account of the Trojan War — earned awards for the College undergraduate students and was featured in a New York Times article. Those early classes eventually became the model for the IML Honors Program.

The multimedia language of the screen is the current vernacular, so weaving it into general education was a natural progression, McCann said.

The visual, he said, can be just as important in communicating ideas and information as text. Pondering an argument by skeptics that multimedia may replace text, he was, well, philosophical.

“Poets, rhetoricians and philosophers have argued about the true way to communicate since the days of Plato and Aristotle,” McCann said.