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Uncanny experiences explained

This week in North Philly Notes, Dennis Waskul, author of Ghostly Encounters,  writes about what prompted him to write about his uncanny experience. 

Whether you are a believer or a skeptic one fact is undeniable: people continue to report uncanny experiences with something that they believe is, or might be, a ghost. Those experiences people have, how they interpret them, and the reasons people believe (or disbelieve) are undeniably real regardless of whether one has faith in the existence of ghosts or, equally, faith in contending that ghosts are a fanciful fiction. In short, ghosts exist as a social and cultural phenomenon, the focus of our research, and the socio-cultural reality of ghosts is entirely independent of the ontology of them. Thus, in Ghostly Encounters, Michele and I have maintained an agnostic perspective on those fundamentally unanswerable questions as we spoke to people who believe they have experienced a ghostly presence and visited places alleged to be haunted. Our focus throughout this book is on the experiences people report, how people arrive at the conclusion that they have encountered a ghostly presence, what those ghosts do to and for people, and the consequences thereof.

Ghostly Encounters_smA wise sociologist, Gary Marx, once taught me to know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist. As Gary phrased it so succinctly, “the scholar starts with questions, not with answers.” Seen in this light, fundamentalists come in many guises, and only some of them are religious. Hence, as scholars, Michele and I sought to start with questions about the ghosts that people allegedly encounter, the unique ways that people interpret them, how those ghosts function in the lives of people, what those ghosts do to and for people. Starting with questions, instead of answers, is always at least a bit risky, and mainly because one does not know where those questions will lead, nor what experiences they might facilitate. Indeed, from beginning to end Ghostly Encounters was an incredible adventure for both Michele and I as it led us to people and places we never expected, in addition to understandings and surprising experiences that we did not anticipate. In the end, we sought to replicate that unforeseen experience for our readers with intimate and accessible forms of ethnographic writing that bring our readers inside of these lived experiences of ghostly encounters, within a highly unique organizational structure that assures unexpected surprises. While we hope our readers find the book both informative and enjoyable, above all we urge anyone interested to equally know the difference between a scholar and a fundamentalist—and to start with questions, not answers.

A Q&A with the authors of American Dunkirk

This week in North Philly Notes, we sat down with American Dunkirk co-authors James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf to talk about their new book on the boat evacuation from Manhattan that took place on 9/11.

Jim, you are a geographer by training, and Tricia, you are a sociologist. But you both also refer to yourselves as “disaster researchers.” What exactly is disaster research?

As social scientists, we are interested in how people, organizations, and communities think about and behave in disaster situations. How do people experience disaster in different ways? What do we perceive as risky, and why? What helps or hinders coordination, be it in preparing, responding, or recovering from disaster? And then it’s often working with other scientists, be it from engineering, atmospheric, or health science, to solve these problems in a more comprehensive way. Disaster research requires that kind of holistic approach. The Disaster Research Center, where we are fortunate to work, is also well known for quick response research. For over 50 years, its researchers have collected information in the immediate aftermath of disasters, information that often is otherwise forgotten or lost. This has led to critical insights that have improved our understanding of disaster events.

American Dunkirk_smThe boat evacuation on 9/11 is a fascinating story. What drew you to looking at this event?  

We had seen the power of improvised activities in our documentation of some other emergency response activities in New York City, such as the re-establishment of the Emergency Operations Center after the original at 7 World Trade Center had been destroyed. During that study, we began to hear about the boat evacuation. The fact that approximately 500,000 people could be evacuated by boat so successfully without any direct plan in place was amazing, but it was also an example – on a larger scale – of the kind of improvisations we had seen and continued to see in other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. And those improvisations extended beyond the boat evacuation, to the bus transport of people once they reached the Jersey shore, to setting up dinner cruise vessels to serve as respite centers for Ground Zero responders, to the retired fireboat John J. Harvey being pulled back into service for fire suppression. We quickly realized there was so much to learn. Plus Jim had been a merchant marine officer, so he was attuned to the aspects of maritime culture: such as the professional obligation to “get the job done” and their capacities for making do with limited equipment. We were grateful for the University of Delaware Research Foundation and National Science Foundation funding to support this extensive work. Over the years there have been a few accounts shared about the boat evacuation, but we still are mostly greeted with surprise when people learn about what transpired along the waterfront that day.

You talked to 100 people involved with various aspects of the boat evacuation and response. What were some of the key lessons you drew from your study?

The boat evacuation is one of many heartening moments throughout an otherwise tragic day, and much of that is grounded in the idea of community. In this case, it was the extended harbor community who were able to envision a role for themselves, who were able to draw on their extensive network within that community, who were open to new ideas that seemed to be working in the moment, and who were able to galvanize the latent resources on their boats, along the shoreline, and across the metropolitan area. But it’s not only the harbor community that can do that. As we’ve said elsewhere, successful disaster response involves ordinary people achieving the extraordinary, solving one problem at a time. What an important insight! Any one of us might not be able to do everything, and there are a lot of things we might not do well, but we can usually do something quite well.

Notable was the number of maritime workers who started out without a plan. They said, “We didn’t know what we were going to do.” But the mariners had a strong ethos of rescue they applied, even if it was a land-based emergency. They had technical and environmental knowledge, and experience working on the fly. But we also learned of a bartender who handed out chips and talked with people queuing up for boats on one of the piers. He saw a need: providing comfort in the form of food and conversation, and it was in his wheelhouse as a bartender to notice the need. We all have something in our wheelhouse.911_CGboard

Before 9/11, and to a much greater degree afterward, public officials and policymakers were emphasizing the need for “command and control.” But large-scale disasters are always characterized by emerging and unplanned activities that are better coordinated than controlled. It’s OK to strive to get a sense of the big picture, but we also have to recognize that no one will have that in the midst of an unfolding disaster. Responses that work involve people starting to put together their part of the picture, alongside other formal and informal responders. It’s a community effort, at its heart.

James Kendra is a Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration and Tricia Wachtendorf is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. They are the Directors of the Disaster Research Center.  Visit them online at americandunkirk.com.

 

Generational, Relational, and Transformational Explorations of Digital and Media Literacy

This week in North Philly Notes, Renee Hobbs, editor of Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative writes about how she and her contributors interpreted the significance and meaning of earlier authors who examined the relationship between communications media, technology, culture and education.   

As a young scholar, back in the early 1990s, I had the chance to visit the offices of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, where Elizabeth Thoman was publishing Media&Values, a media literacy magazine. Working on a lean budget, Liz’s non-profit organization was a busy place: there were always a couple of grad school interns from USC or UCLA and always a couple of very talented professional staff. Over its 15-year history, the magazine reached upwards of 10,000 readers each month and introduced people to key topics in media literacy, exploring issues including the changing role of journalism in society, television and film violence, gender stereotyping in media, and other topics.

What I remember most about my visit to Los Angeles was the Center for Media Literacy’s library: it was a treasure trove of media literacy books, VHS video tapes, sound cassettes, curriculum kits, photography and film production resources, everything a teacher might want if the aim was teaching about journalism, advertising, Hollywood film and popular culture. Simply put, it was a room full of media literacy “stuff” from all across the U.S. and Australia, England, Scotland and even Brazil. In that pre-Internet age, access to media literacy materials this diverse was mind-blowing: perusing the shelves, for the first time, I began to understand that media literacy was a global movement.

Exploring the Roots_smIt was also obvious to me that media literacy was, even then, an unwieldy, difficult concept that meant a lot of different things to different people depending on their disciplinary backgrounds and professional identities, their political and social commitments, their attitudes towards media, and their life experiences. That’s partly what made the concept of media literacy so fascinating to me.

Twenty years later, when Elizabeth Thoman was packing up the contents of the Center for Media Literacy archive, I was lucky enough to acquire the collection and even more thrilled to be able to share it with my doctoral students at Temple University and the University of Rhode Island.

I was proud when Temple University’s Michael RobbGrieco applied his intellectual curiosity and generous heart into an examination of the archives, looking closely at the content, patterns and ideas of Media&Values magazine. He wondered: How did the magazine represent the voices and perspectives of the various stakeholders in the formative years of the U.S. media literacy movement?

Mike’s dissertation got me thinking about the generational, relational, and transformational spread of ideas about media literacy. Over the course of three generations, Liz, Mike and I, each of us in our own time, had wrestled with a unique, particular set of intellectual forces and flow of ideas. We each had attempted to understand media literacy in relation to the ever-changing state of media and technology, cultural politics, and education. In exploring how best to teach and learn about media, we used and built upon the ideas of scholars and thinkers from a variety of fields, including philosophy, education, communication and media studies, psychology, sociology and the arts and humanities.

But each of us had encountered these ideas through the prism of our own lives. Our personal life stories uniquely shaped the way we interpreted the significance and meaning of earlier authors who examined the relationship between communications media, technology, culture, and education.

To explore how life narratives may shape people’s understanding, I wanted to push even further back in time. What were the deep roots of digital and media literacy? How could I find creative ways to help undergraduate and graduate students to understand the historical legacy of media literacy’s interdisciplinary position at the intersection of media studies and education?

That’s why I invited 16 distinguished authors to respond to the question: “Who is your metaphorical grandparent? What writer has most influenced your thinking about digital and media literacy? I was delighted when distinguished authors including Henry Jenkins, Douglas Kellner, Dana Polan, David Weinberger, Lance Strate, Donna Alvermann and others agreed to contribute essays to this volume.

In Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative, these authors introduce readers to a particular scholar who influenced their thinking. Through their own personal narratives recounting their exposure to ideas, readers are introduced to some of the great minds of the 20th century, including John Dewey, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Marshall McLuhan, John Fiske, Roland Barthes and others.

Each chapter describes an individual whom the author considers to be a type of “grand­parent.” By weaving together two sets of personal stories—that of the contributing au­thor and that of the key ideas and life history of the historical figure under their scrutiny—major concepts of digital media and learning emerge.

The book shows how the theories and concepts that drive digital and media literacy educators have been shaped by people’s exposure to early 20th century scholars and thinkers who:

  • explored awareness of form, content and context in the meaning-making process;
  • examined the social nature of representation and interpretation;
  • unpacked the dialectic of empowerment and protection in relation to media influence;
  • considered the role of art as a means of social transformation; and
  • reflected on media’s contribution to personal and social identity.

For many readers, the book will recreate the experience I had when visiting the offices and library of the Center for Media Literacy so many years ago: a chance to marvel at and explore the writing and scholarship at the turn of the 20th century that continues to offer insights to contemporary scholars trying to understand the practices involved in accessing, analyzing, and reflecting on mass media, popular culture and digital media.

Today, with the rise of Internet and social media continuing to reshape our complex love-hate relationship with media and technology, it is my hope that by connecting the best ideas of the past to the challenges of the present and future, the next generation will be well-poised to carry on the important work of digital and media literacy education.

 

Why Another Book about Muhammad Ali?

This week, in North Philly Notes,  Michael Ezra, author of  Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Iconwrites:

Many people sent me their condolences about the passing of Muhammad Ali, but I told them all that they should be happy for him. For the past thirty years, almost every act Ali has done has been with getting into heaven in mind. Nobody I’ve ever known was more prepared for death than he was; I honestly believe he was looking forward to it. He suffers no longer, and his legacy will live on for many years. The introduction to my book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon explains what the book is about and why I wrote it.

For almost thirty years, Muhammad Ali has held the Guinness World Record as the most written-about person in history. Although John Lennon once claimed that the Beatles had become bigger than Jesus, Ali is the one who really deserves such distinction, at least in a literary sense. Why, then, would anybody have the temerity to think that he could add something to this already overflowing mix? What makes this book worth reading? Though library shelves may buckle under the weight of the Muhammad Ali literature, there is surprisingly little written about key aspects of his life, such as his pre-championship boxing matches, the management of his career, and his current legacy. I concentrate on these three important themes.

Understanding Ali’s transformation from a controversial to a revered figure takes knowledge of his entire life in the public spotlight. To comprehend this phenomenon, one must look at Ali’s career holistically, from his appearance as an Olympic champion in 1960 to his present incarnation as an iconic international hero. The problem for readers is that so much is already written about Ali, and so much information is at hand, that one must wade through everything to find events and trends that have enough representative clout to get at key meanings without drowning in detail. Although this book spans nearly fifty years, from 1960 to the present, it is hardly a comprehensive account of Ali’s life. Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon is a distillation of crucial paradigm shifts in how Ali has been perceived by various segments of the public.

EzraAt the heart of this book is a study of the relationships between Muhammad Ali’s cultural image and its commercial manifestations. The central concept that I use to get at these meanings is what I call moral authority, a term I use throughout this book. My thesis has two parts. First, the most significant way people have made meaning of Muhammad Ali over the years has been through their understanding of him as a moral force, both positive and negative. Second, the crucial way many Americans have arrived at their moral understanding of Ali—his cultural image—has come from their perception of who is making money by associating with him—the commercial manifestations. This book traces the relationships between public perceptions of Ali, the economic entanglements  surrounding his career, and the cultural meanings that have emerged from such connections.

The idea that Ali’s moral authority is intimately bound to the economic consequences of his public life and career is a new one. The dominant interpretations of Ali usually tie his moral authority to his political or racial symbolism. The generic Ali Story explains his transformation from an oppositional to a mainstream figure as a product, among other things, of his stand against the Vietnam War or his being a member of the Nation of Islam. As these versions go, Ali’s moral authority and cultural image crumbled as he took an unpopular political stand in challenging the Vietnam War and turned toward black nationalism by joining the racially separatist Nation of Islam. But over time, the public began to reject the war, Ali renounced the Nation’s core tenets, and he became a morally authoritative cultural hero. There is much more to the process, however; namely, the economic aspects of these seemingly racial, political, and moral changes. My argument is that Ali’s relationships to the Vietnam War and the Nation of Islam, as barometers of his public moral authority, were important not primarily because of their political and racial content, but because they represented who had economic ownership of him. What brought Ali infamy during the 1960s was not necessarily that he was a politically oppositional force, but that he threatened to generate wealth for the wrong people. The public’s sense of Ali’s moral authority has always been a function of its perception of who has economic ownership of him.

I have divided this book into three parts, each of them a response to the ever-evolving question “Who owns Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali?” Part I, “Louisville Sponsoring Group,” details Clay’s rise as pugilism’s biggest box-office draw under the management of the millionaire boys’ club known as the Louisville Sponsoring Group. Part II, “Nation of Islam,” explores the difficulties he encountered as his cultural image and commercial viability plummeted when the black nationalist religious sect took control of his career. Part III, “Good People,” is a study of the fighter’s rebirth as an admired cultural icon representing corporate interests.

Before I begin the narrative, I want to make four points that will help readers understand my perspective and goals. First, you may have noticed that I treat the words Ali Story as a proper noun. The reason for the capitalization is that I consider history to be primarily art rather than science. The Ali Story, although certainly based upon fact, is a construct: part fact, part myth, part interpretation. Like all history, my version of the Ali Story leaves out far more than it includes. This book is neither definitive nor comprehensive. Instead, Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon is a plausible interpretation of how people have made meaning of Muhammad Ali’s life and times. The book is truthful but is not the truth. Second, this study bucks the trend of most Ali literature that insists upon making moral judgments about him. I view Ali as neither great nor wicked, but rather a person with both strengths and weaknesses. This book is neither a sentimental celebration of Ali nor an iconoclastic attempt to knock him off his pedestal. What I have tried to do instead is explain how people have come to invest or divest moral authority in the rich and multifaceted cultural symbol known as Muhammad Ali. I will leave the fool’s errand of identifying his true and essential nature to others. Third, my protagonist changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali shortly after winning the championship from Sonny Liston in February 1964. When I discuss the pre-championship man I refer to him as Cassius Clay. When I discuss the post-championship man I call him Muhammad Ali. Fourth, this book explores the economics behind the boxing matches of Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. It is often difficult to figure out exactly how much money had been made and by whom. I relied on newspaper reports for the most part to do this work, but such reports are often conflicting and inconsistent. Whenever faced with contradictory information, I have done my best to honestly and accurately follow the money.

Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and the Limits of Urban Tourism Development

This week in North Philly Notes, Aaron Cowan, author of A Nice Place to Visitpremieres his new promotional video for the book and explains the shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy in the wake of police violence.

Nice Place to Visit

In A Nice Place to Visit, I examine the attempts of four cities – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis – to remake themselves into tourist destinations in the second half of the twentieth century. Though each location had its own unique characteristics and variety, these cities – and many others like them – followed a similar pattern of substantial public investment in an “infrastructure” of tourism: massive downtown convention centers, fancy new chain hotels with impressive atriums, and recreational facilities like sports stadiums and festival marketplaces. These were accompanied by aggressive marketing campaigns from professional convention and tourist bureaus, often supported by tax dollars.

All of this public subsidy was justified, said political leaders and business executives who supported them, because tourism provided the best route out of the “urban crisis” of the postwar period, and would bring prosperity by generating new tax revenue, and especially new jobs for urban residents hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the early 1970s, as the city of St. Louis debated a bond issue to finance a new $25-million convention center for the city, promoters promised the new convention business drawn by the structure would bring “a resurgence of the city’s heritage, a return to the halcyon era of easy-going good living, good dining and good entertainment.”

The transformation from gritty industrial city to sparkling tourist destination was not an easy one, however, and in nearly every case tourist development failed to provide the panacea it seemed to promise. Service jobs in new hotels or restaurants could not offer the wages or benefits that union-backed industrial labor had provided. Furthermore, the substantial public debt incurred by cities to build tourist facilities meant diverting scarce funds from core functions like education, infrastructure maintenance, and emergency services. Finally, while new convention centers and entertainment districts drew visitors to downtowns, they did little to stem the exodus of middle-class (mostly white) residents out of cities and into suburbs.

The shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy have been thrown into sharp relief in recent years by the widely-publicized protests over police violence. In the late summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. The death of Brown catalyzed a protest movement demanding an end to racially-biased policing practices. Protestors and heavily-militarized police clashed throughout the fall of 2014 along the town’s main thoroughfare of West Florissant Avenue, a short 15-minute drive from the St. Louis convention center, now dubbed the “America’s Center Convention Complex.”  The following April, Baltimore erupted in a series of protests after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, due to injuries sustained at the hands of police. While most protests were nonviolent, a small group of rioters destroyed police cruisers and storefronts.  Maryland National Guard troops occupied the central city,  standing guard over the city’s Inner Harbor, the central location of its tourist facilities including the city’s convention center, hotels, National Aquarium, and Harborplace waterfront marketplace.  Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have faced similar challenges in achieving racial justice and overcoming the economic and social legacies of postwar urban segregation.

The historical narratives of these cities should, then, give us pause regarding the role of tourism in contemporary cities.  Just as past urban leaders pursued downtown hotels and convention centers, today casinos increasingly flourish in the Rustbelt urban landscape, and cities are grappling with the challenges of tourist-oriented “sharing economy” businesses like Airbnb and Uber, which threaten to diminish hospitality tax revenues or disrupt established parts of the economic sector. While tourism is indisputably an important element of urban economies, A Nice Place to Visit suggests that cities would do well to temper the belief that tourism-driven economic development is a cure-all, and, furthermore, to remember that the benefits of such development are rarely equitably distributed. Truly successful cities are those that are not only “nice places to visit” but also communities that provide economic opportunity and social justice that make them good places to live.

Follow Aaron Cowan on twitter @aaronbcowan.

 

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