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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lady Gaga, Literary Criticism, and Why the Internet Really Is Changing the Learning Game

On March 11, 2010, the 9.5-minute-long music video for Lady Gaga's new single "Telephone" was released to much fanfare.

On March 12, this blog post went up on the literary criticism blog "Only Words to Play With." The blog's tags include terms like Nabokov, Nietzsche, Academia, and Freud - and now Lady Gaga. The post itself is an extensive breakdown of the symbolic imagery in the Telephone video, with subsections titled "Prison and Identity (Foucault's Discipline and Punish, Technological Entrapment, etc.)" and "Commodifying and Commercializing Murder," among others. (There is now a second part posted, and the blog had previously posted an essay on Gaga as Mythological Trickster.)

But what is really cool is what happened on March 13.

On March 13, Gaga herself posted the URL for this blog post to both Twitter and Facebook. She had at the time over 3 million Twitter followers and over 5.5 million Facebook fans, and a link to this analytic essay was provided to all of them, and then reposted to Lady Gaga fan sites all over the internet.

In other words: Every 15-year-old girl who danced to Poker Face on her iPod was given a link to this essay, personally endorsed by a young, fashionable pop icon.

That is not something that would or could have happened even ten years ago. It's easy to say (as many have) that the internet is changing things. It's changing how knowledge is created, exchanged, consumed. But sometimes that gets translated in a very superficial way. For instance, there is simply more information available, from more sources, so it's more important that people learn how to evaluate that information and know what is trustworthy and what isn't. I've used that argument myself, but it really is superficial compared to what's really going on. And this is an actual, tangible example of how the internet is (or can) change the meaning of knowledge in our society.

This is a possible thing that people can do.

That's the first thing that kids and teenagers are being told when they click the link to this site: Symbolism exists, metaphor exists, allusion exists, and someone other than the artist can sit down and figure out what it all means without being explicitly told by the artist. Some of them may have been told this in school, some won't be told about that for a few more years. What's more, it can exist in something like a video for a pop song you hear on the radio. Maybe even in the song itself! (In fact, the telephone in the song is a metaphorical one, according to Gaga.) Again, some may have been exposed to this in school - many teachers use pop song lyrics as a way to get students interested in poetry. But some haven't been.

What else can you do? Well, if you read the extensive comments on the blog post, you'll find that you can debate about the meaning of these things. You can have conversations and agree or disagree or posit your own interpretations. You can also claim that because this is a pop song, there's nothing to analyze and people shouldn't try - but somehow, those comments seem insubstantial when compared to the mini-essays they're surrounded by.

School game vs real world game

As I said, some kids have been exposed to these ideas already in school, some haven't. But even for the people who have done this in school - played the Analyze A Text Game or even the Analyze a Pop Song Game - this is something new and different. We all know how hard it is to get people to apply their knowledge learned in school to the real world. Whether it's in science, math, language arts - transfer is a hard, hard problem. So being told in school by a teacher that art is symbolic and metaphorical and open to interpretation is all well and good, but it doesn't at all mean that anyone is going to take that out into the real world and use it the next time they encounter something full of symbolism and metaphor, whether a movie, a novel, or a song.

But here is someone doing it. This is something that some adult, out in the world, decided to do on their own. Probably not even for pay! Of course, it's clearly an academic blog, so there's still a sense that the adult doing it is one of "them" - a teacher, or equivalent. Not me, not a teenager who listens to Lady Gaga. That's where Gaga's own actions come in. By posting this link to her millions of fans, she's telling them that this is of value to her, and that she thinks it should be of value to them.

Suddenly, this has become a real world game, not a school game. This is something that anyone can read, anyone can participate in: in the comments, in one of the Gaga sites where the link was reposted, or on their own blog. They may not even realize that this analysis is connected to the way they discuss poetry in English class - and if they did, they might be less interested in it. But it's now a part of their life.

So what is knowledge?

I spend most of my time thinking about science learning, science knowledge, and science epistemology. So I don't know a whole lot about the epistemology of literary criticism or current research on it. But I do think that this kind of experience, especially if it is a commonplace part of a kid's life, would impact their beliefs about what knowledge is and how it is constructed in this domain. For one thing, it could help them move from an idea of "artist defines the meaning of a piece" to "artist has intentions, but the audience constructs their own meaning."

They might also start to see the criteria that this domain uses to construct knowledge/meaning. For example, if they read and participate in enough online debates about the meaning of a piece like this, they could start to see that while there is no "right and wrong," you're more likely to convince others of your interpretation if you can support it with evidence from the interpreted text and related works. Again, these are things that they might be taught in school. But because it's a school game, they may see it as only applying to school knowledge. When they see real people engaging with popular media in this way, it shows them that it applies to knowledge and meaning everywhere they look.

It's not so much that it changes the nature of knowledge, but it changes people's perceptions of the nature of knowledge. Makes it easier to see knowledge as constructed, to see that different fields have different sets of criteria for constructing and evaluating knowledge, etc.

But who knows

Of course, all of this is possibilities and what ifs. I have no proof that a single teenager read the blog, let alone that it had any impact on their epistemology. But it gives me big ideas for future research. And it serves as an excellent example of the possibilities - of how the internet might change learning if we let it.

Thanks, Gaga! :)


  1. I love this. Not that I love Gaga, but I love the idea of all these kids seeing in a really organic and intuitive way that literary criticism, even if they're not calling it that, is something that THEY can do, that they can have meaningful ideas about art and literature that affect other people. I think that as valuable as learning about meaning and symbolism and metaphor in English class can be, it can give kids a sense that these are things that we do in school, not things that mean something in their own world. Stuff like this gives them means to not even question that it IS part of their world.

    I like to think that the lesson from Lady Gaga would even carry over the other way into an academic setting, and that kids who engage on the internet in debate over their favorite songs might be more confident in making their case and putting forth original viewpoints in a literature class, with the classics.

    One of the most important things I was told in college by a professor, in a theater history class, was (paraphrasing somewhat) "If you can read, you are just as qualified as any 'expert' or Ph.D to have an opinion about the meaning of these plays. It doesn't matter how much longer they've been in school; you're just as capable of reading and just as entitled to have an opinion about what you read."

  2. @chavisory: LOL, I DO love Lady Gaga. :) How do you think I knew about the tweet/FB mention? Although I'd actually already seen the blog post, but then I got super-excited when Gaga herself put her stamp of approval on it - like I said, I think that that's what makes the difference in a situation like this.

    I agree that you'd hope that in- and out-of-school learning would both impact each other, but so far what little research there is isn't super promising. Kids who do things in their spare time that adults might classify as "sciencey" don't necessarily connect that back to their science lessons at school unless the connection is made very explicit.

    I think that it all comes down to School being - not just a place where we learn - but a Special Place where we do Special Things. And you're socialized to view it as separate from the rest of the world, which impacts the flow of knowledge in both directions. But I also think that we CAN make progress at breaking down those walls, and the key (IMO) is bringing the work of school closer to the work of the real world. Generating and using knowledge in school in the ways that knowledge is generated and used in the real world; more similarities and fewer barriers. But then, my job right now revolves around teaching middle schoolers authentic scientific practices, so of course I think that. :P