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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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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 6:01 PM  
  • At 5:54 AM, Blogger Vic Divecha said…

    Hi Curt, awesome interview and photos! Michael was here in Michigan earlier this year delivering the keynote for the annual learning conference. Thanks for the update on whats up with him personally in his home setting.

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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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