025 – Digital Ethnography with Michael Wesch

025 – Digital Ethnography with Michael Wesch




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[In This Episode][Guest Bio][Additional Notes][Text Transcript]

In This Episode

Michael WeschWhat is digital ethnography? How difficult is it to learn to use a 3D game creation engine? How would Maker Schools change how we do education? Why are initiation rituals a critical right of passage into a society?

Speaking of rituals, today’s guest Michael Wesch advocates the adoption of some curious rituals. Keep your headphones in or your bluetooth synced up, because today’s podcast has enough quotable ideas to really stir your noodles. I won’t give any spoilers, so let’s listen in to the conversation Michael and I had recently at the Bakersfield College Learning Technologies Conference.

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Michael’s Favorite Quote 

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to
suffer an injury to one’s self-esteem. That is why young children,
before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.
Thomas Szasz

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A teacher that inspired you…

Martin Ottenheimer.  He didn’t give me any answers – just really great questions.

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The last thing you made…


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What are you learning about…

How to make video games using Unreal Engine.

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About Michael

Michael Wesch is an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. Wesch’s work also includes media ecology and the emerging field of digital ethnography, where he studies the effect of new media on human interaction.

Wesch is a cultural anthropologist and media ecologist exploring the effects of new media on human interaction. He graduated summa cum laude from the Kansas State University Anthropology Program in 1997 and returned as a faculty member in 2004 after receiving his PhD in Anthropology at the University of Virginia. There he pursued research on social and cultural change in Melanesia, focusing on the introduction of print and print-based practices like mapping and census-taking in the remote Mountain Ok region of Papua New Guinea where he lived for a total of 18 months from 1999-2003. This work inspired Wesch to examine the effects of new media more broadly, especially digital media. Also as a consequence of this trip, Dr. Wesch has gained some command of the Tok Pisin language, a primary lingua franca of Papua New Guinea.

“That’s what all this [maker education] is about: making better people. –.Michael Wesch”

To this end, Wesch launched the Digital Ethnography Working Group, a team of undergraduates exploring human uses of digital technology. Coinciding with the launch of this group, Wesch created a short video, “Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us.” released on YouTube on January 31, 2007. It quickly became the most popular video in the blogosphere and was viewed over 10 million times. Wesch has won several awards for his work with video, including a Wired Magazine Rave Award and the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Media Praxis from the Media Ecology Association.

Wesch’s videos are part of his broader efforts to pursue the possibilities of digital media to extend and transform the way ethnographies are presented. Wesch is also a multiple award-winning teacher, active in the development of innovative teaching techniques. Most notably, Wesch has developed a highly acclaimed “World Simulation” for large introductory classes in cultural anthropology. On 20 November 2008, CASE and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching honored Wesch as Professor of the Year.

Currently he is the coordinator for the Peer Review of Teaching Project at Kansas State University, part of a broader nation-wide consortium of universities pursuing new ways to improve and evaluate student learning. He is also working with the Educause Center for Applied Research on “The Tower and the Cloud” project, examining “the question of how higher education institutions (The Tower) may interoperate with the emerging network-based business and social paradigm (The Cloud).”

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Additional Notes


We have to inspire people to have a sense of WONDER & CURIOSITY ~.@mwesch Click To Tweet

Contact Michael:


YouTube Videos

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Full Text Transcript

Intro: Do you dream of a classroom where learning is natural? Can we inspire students to lifelong learning? What exactly is the purpose of an education? Inspiring students to be curious, independent, creative, innovative, deep-thinking, confident, pro-active, collaborative, determined, educated. Rise to the challenge of changing the world. This is teaching, this is learning, this is who we are. Welcome to the Table Top Inventing podcast.

Steve: What is Digital Ethnography? How difficult is it to learn to use a 3D game creation engine? How would maker schools change how we do education and why our initiation rituals a critical rite of passage into a society? Strap yourself in for the answers in today’s podcast.

Hey there innovation nation! We got snow on the mountains again. Debby didn’t get snow on her daffodils yet which she says has happened every here here and I’m now still getting to enjoy the opportunity to start a fire early every morning before the sunrise. There’s just something very peaceful and captivating about starting my day off with this little ritual. Speaking of rituals, today’s guest Michael Wesch advocates the adoption of some curious rituals. Keep your headphones in or your Bluetooth synced up because today’s podcast has enough quotable ideas to really stir your noodles.

Before we get started though, I’d like to take a moment to give a great big shout out to Dr. Sonia Christian, the Bakersfield College President and Todd Coston, the Bakersfield College Director for  Information Services for helping us line up today’s interview with Michael Wesch. We also want to give a great big thank you to Dr. Bill Moseley at Bakersfield College for inviting us to give a couple of presentations at the conference. Let’s listen in now to the conversation Michael and I had recently at the 2015 Bakersfield College Conference on Learning Technologies.

So my guest today is Michael Wesch who is a professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and Michael studies Digital Ethnography and we’ll dig into that a little bit. And he’s specifically interested in finding new types of stories with this medium and to use this as a way of inciting or inspiring empathy. Michael, tell us a little bit more about your interest in these topics.

Michael: So, I think anytime a new technology comes along, all kinds of new opportunities emerge and it’s kind of exciting to be right out on the front-end of that to explore what those opportunities might be. So right now, maybe just over the last few months. I discovered how easy it is to create video games. Like I didn’t realize that it was actually pretty easy to create video games. Things like Unity D3D or Unreal engine really make video game editing, you know, a lot more like drag and drop kind of stuff.

It reminds me of when I first learned to edit a video. It was such a mystery to me like how videos are made and then, you know, I opened up Final Cut for the first time and like it was like the late ’90s I think. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh! This is easy!” (Steve laughs) You know you just like drag the stuff and you crop it here. And video games are now to that level, as sophisticated as they are. You know, it really is a lot of drag and drop and you take an element in there and you stretch it. You’d make it look like you wanted to look and then you want to add animations and so on. You just go into this editor and you’re not using code. You’re thinking in terms of code but you don’t actually have to know the code. You just have to, you know, there’s a series of essentially boxes and dropdown menus and you select what you want to have happen. Then you draw the little pipes between different elements and then you have an event, you know, and things happen in your game.

Grandma's VaseSo, that was the thing I just discovered like, “Okay, this is easy.” It’s powerful. The types of imagery we can create are photo realistic. As an anthropologist, this is really exciting because now you can create things, you know, from other cultures or even from the past that can be photo realistic and have people actually walk through them. You can create different types of interactive objects. So, one of the things we’re thinking about is taking oral histories and allowing people to walk through that person’s childhood, you know, so they’re talking about their childhood. Let’s just put the viewer in the person’s childhood with their house and their school. Let them walk around those environments and pick up objects and as they pick up those objects, the story that is about that object could be triggered. So for example, like it might be as simple as like a, you know, a vase or something and this person bought that vase on their honeymoon. So, when you pick up the vase, the story of the honeymoon immediately comes to mind and you hear this elder talking about their past. We just like it be an amazing way to let me talk about building empathy. It just feel that you feel more connected to the person rather than just hearing an oral story. Just you know, just on its own, you get a full experience.

Steve: So, I guess I wish you had been around oh, (laughs) 20 – 30 years ago because my grandma actually grew up in Nebraska.

Michael: Oh really?

Steve: Yeah, and she tells a story about their mule Jack and, you know, how she was the oldest of three girls. Her parents never had any boys and so she was the oldest and so she always got all the hard work, you know, dirty chores and she had lots of stories about working on the farm and it would have been interesting to capture some of that. I heard a lot of the stories but now it’s kind of this faded memory that I can’t really access very clearly.

Numa Numa VideoMichael: Yeah. I have some of the same regrets and so one of the things I’m doing is going back to pictures of the land that we homesteaded as a family, you know 120 years ago. And I’m trying to recreate that in the game and then I’ll at least be able to bring… you know, all the elders have passed but their kids are still here so maybe some stories will come back if I will be able to walk into those things. You mentioned the mule, I just want to mention in this so for example that sounds hard, right. Oh, gosh! And the mule in there, how are you going to make that? You have to like go in the 3DS Max and create this really complicated thing. Actually, don’t! You can go online and look for, you know, the file. Like somebody else has probably already created a mule or they created something a lot like a mule (Steve laughs). And you can download it for free and you can load it into your editor and just tweak it just a little bit if you want.

So, I think we’re at this moment where games are like kind of where we were with video about, oh, I’d say about 10 years ago, maybe 11 years ago. I would take it back to like what I call the “Gary Brolsma moment”. The “Gary Brolsma moment” is a moment where this, Gary Brolsma was kind of the nerdy guy in New Jersey and he’s dancing to this Numa Numa video and he uploads it to Newgrounds, which is like this geeky forum. And it was kind of hard to do, to upload video and it was hard to watch it. It didn’t always work, you know, because like formats and all that. And a few months later YouTube was launched and Gary Brolsma’s video was going viral and thousands of people joined in on YouTube because it was so easy and they started the Gary Brolsma dance.

I think that’s where we are with video games right now. I mean the floodgates are about to open. It’s for everybody’s going to start to realize like, “Oh, this is easy.” You’re going to start to see things like… there’s already a few YouTube-like gaming things where you can go online and you just click it and you play it. And a lot of these games are actually created by ordinary Joes, you know. And I think Super Mario Doomwe’re really close to like something that’s clean and always works the way YouTube is clean and always works and you’re going to have all these remixing possibilities. I don’t know how far that’ll go but I don’t think it’s impossible to imagine a scenario where you could actually take popular games and people will find ways to essentially take characters out of popular games or recreate them, put them out online for free. People could then bring those characters into their games and create remixes of like various games, you know, so you could have like a mashup (both laughs) of like Super Mario’s and Doom combined. You know, like this fest of nostalgic–

Steve: I haven’t thought of that for a long time (both laughs). Lots of friends, and I have the images going (laughs), the hallways all going through my brain.

Michael: Yeah. Now people are going to do that stuff and it’s going to be– and I think they’ll also be a huge crossover here because it’s not just going to be things we think of these games like game engines are so good at simulating things. The architectural world is really getting into this right now because you can throw in your architectural plans and then take your client like on a walking tour of the place you haven’t built yet. You know, you essentially build the first person shooter, take out the gun, you don’t use a gun and you let them walk through the house you’re about to build for them. It’s so easy. I did it just last week. I have an architect and he’s working on a piece of our house I say, he just sent me the file. I just threw it in Unreal and I could walk around this edition that we haven’t built yet. So, like it’s amazing.

Steve: You could paint the walls first or…

Michael: I can paint them in Unreal.

Steve: Your wife would appreciate that (both laugh).

Michael: And there are a lot of things. That’s just one more example. I mean, think about the line between movies and games is gonna grow very thin. You already have people at Microsoft who are looking at using the Kinect and the Xbox and they’re doing things as subtle as… I mean, there’s a lot going on there. They’re trying to measure like heartbeat and all kinds of stuff like your overall reaction. Even just with the Kinect, which is just a visual device, they’re working on a thing now where if they see the viewer lean in like this, it could be a simple gesture to say like, “I want in on this” like “I want to control the little piece” and they would actually like multiple versions of a single movie. And the moment you moved in you could actually like start to change things around or perhaps, you know, 360 cameras are becoming more common. You might see a lot of things filmed in 360 and you’d be able to lean in and look around essentially, right.

And as you turn your head, you know, you’d actually get this sort of… you know, of course all of that will be created for the Oculus Rift that’s coming out, Google cardboard. There’s a lot happening right now in the world of storytelling that’s very exciting in those ways.

Steve: I can’t help thinking about this and now I have an anthropologist here to ask my question who has experience. Because I’ve been watching YouTube and website, you know, creation, and other things. You know, I mean we have a WordPress site so we understand how that runs. And as I look at this, it’s becoming easier and easier to tell a story plus becoming harder and harder for anyone to know whether anyone’s hearing it. I don’t know any better way to say this, I mean, two things sort of what does that mean which may be harder to answer and as these things proliferate, what does that kind of do to the society?

“Our higher education is literally broken, and it’s breaking people… It’s all about the head. Everything is happening in the mindspace… and it becomes highly intellectual and highly abstract. Very few get the opportunity to take all that stuff and make it into something tangible.” –Michael Wesch

Michael: Oh, there’s some– I mean you’re hitting on some pretty dark sort of edges of this thing, right. It’s like you will get some of this, “Oh, this is so exciting. You could do all of these things” but, you know, I mean this is old idea of the attention of the economy which is that’s old hat now but it’s very much a real thing and everybody is competing for attention. And now you’re getting where people are just getting better at it and there’s a whole professionalization of viral marketing and so on. You know for example, like Upworthy and some of these other places have essentially pioneered new ways of drawing attention mostly like through headline generations. So like Upworthy will create 25 headlines for a single video and then they’ll put that up on the web and different regions will get different headlines. And they’d just see which one is doing the best and then that’s the one that survives. It’s like a survival the fittest algorithm that essentially launches the best headline to the top and of course the best one is often deceiving. It’s not actually, you’re clicking on it because you’re expecting one thing.

Really common things that are now used to draw people in are like red circles and arrows in ambiguous clips, right? So you’ll go on Facebook and be like some ambiguous clip of a nature scene and it’ll have a big red circle and an arrow to it. You know, like “You’ll never guess what happened here.” and you’re like “Oh, now I have to click.” (Both laughs) then you click it and it’s some crap. You know, you don’t want to see it. And that’s kind of what’s happening like it’s like you know, there’s a real violation of our attention and they do it because they want eyeballs in.

You know, sometimes we’ve made videos where this has happened. We created a video recently and we thought it was a great video. We really thought it was going to go viral and we got like 5000 views which is not bad but not the kind of viral hit we thought it would be. And then somebody else, you know, one of these viral engines saw it and picked it up and they retitled it. And it was one of these things that we had done at the retirement community. And their title that got us an extra 40,000 hits or something like that basically insinuated that our students were sleeping with elders (both laughs), you know, because this is how you get the views, right? Like this is crazy.

So there is some of this like dark cloud of like, I think it’s harder for the small producer to break through readers like, you know, it’s kind of saturated. At the same time, there are these huge niche markets now where if you have a specific niche that nobody has created for yet, like if you create stories and content for that niche like you can definitely dominate a niche and sometimes those niches are a lot bigger than you think and people can build a whole career off that.

Steve: Because we’re a small company, I think about those things and I hadn’t ever thought of it as violation of someone’s attention (Michael laughs). That’s a little disturbing because you see a lot of that. You read this stuff and like “Okay, I want people to read my stuff.”

Michael: Right, and if somebody else is doing it, it’s like this basic principle like somebody else is doing it, you have to do it because otherwise you’re totally losing out.

Steve: Yeah. Now, that is kind of dark. Maybe we’ll change the subject (both laughs). So, one of the other things we have talked before we started the interview was this idea you have of a maker school. Now, I have a particular interest in that because I’m a maker and a lot of what we do is around the idea of making. But you’re coming at it with a much different viewpoint than I would come at it. I mean I would like to start a maker school because I love working with my hands. I love making things. I can’t imagine why anyone else would not want to do that. But you have a different perspective. Tell me about that.

Michael: Well for one, like a lot of people are terrified of using their hands and that’s actually exactly why it has to happen. I mean, I feel like our higher education is kind of literally broken and it’s breaking people in the sense that it’s become this thing where it’s all about the head and everything is happening in the mind space up here. And it’s becomes an highly intellectual and highly abstract and very few get that opportunity to take all that stuff and make it into something tangible. And because we have this tremendous dropout rates, you know, something like only 56% actually make it through who start college. I wonder, you know, what percentage of that others who are leaving might have been turned on if they had actually been able to build something with their hands earlier on. And perhaps some of those people are the type of people who might have a passion and the skill for that thing and we’re losing them. I think that’s a shame.

“[Speaking of Maker Education] Let’s get the people who are really good at analyzing Plato to get their hands dirty, and let’s get the people who are good with their hands to contemplate these higher ideas. I think when you start doing both of these things at once, and if you can find ways to connect them… I think you’re going to make better people. That’s what all this [maker education] is about: making better people.” –Michael Wesch

I think there’s a really wonderful possibility to meld what you might call the Liberal Arts, like this traditional Liberal Arts, with the Practical Arts education. And, you know, let’s get the people who are really good at analyzing Plato to get their hands dirty, and let’s get the folks who are good with their hands to contemplate these higher ideas. And I think when you start doing both of those things at once and if you can find ways to connect them, you’re going to see some really great things. I think you’re going to make better people, (laughs) you know. That’s not really what all is about, it’s about making better people.

Steve: That’s interesting because you’re sort of talking about me. I mean I barely squeaked through with the PhD, you know, in Physics, not because I didn’t have the ability necessarily but because I think at some level I was having trouble feeling like it mattered. And I took all these classes and it was, it was all up here. It was all in the head. It was, you know, analyzing equations and that was supposed to be connected to meaning somewhere. I mean about the third page of trying to analyze something or writing down some Hamiltonian and then squeezing out the equations of motion out of this, I mean, you kind of lose what’s happening. You lose the perspective of why you should care about this anymore and I was fortunate because of my very first year, I started in the lab. I didn’t take the typical path. I knew the professor I wanted to work with and I just started the first year working in his lab and I love working in the lab so much. It kind of kept me engaged enough to not to bail on the system because I really thought about it you know. Around two and a half – three years I was ready to jump ship because I didn’t see me going anywhere with this and I was really stuck and I had a moment where I decided “You know what, I’m just going to figure out how to finish this” and then when I did that, it was within a year or maybe a year and a half I realized I was a researcher but it was because I was working in the lab with my hands. It’s the only place I felt like I was actually doing something meaningful and where I felt competent. I actually didn’t feel very competent, you know, putting a hand up because so many of my classmates were really good. They came from Europe or India or you know, some from China and they just had such a full preparation coming in and I came straight from an undergraduate degree in the US, and we do so-so, it depends. But the competition of other nations as you are seeing, their best and brightest here to get their PhD. I just didn’t feel able to attack that so the idea of having a space where I could learn with my hands next to someone, that same person because I did learn a lot from these other guys but it was working side by side with them when I did. It wasn’t because we were in these classes, you know, facing frontwards towards the board.

“I think the really beautiful thing about the maker movement itself is the sort of attitude it creates in people who become makers… They take on this attitude that THERE WILL BE NO BLACK BOXES… I think there are so many black boxes in our society. We are in danger of having some very powerful black boxes that if we don’t understand them can lead us astray.” –Michael Wesch

Michael: And I think the really beautiful thing about the Maker Movement itself is a sort of attitude it creates in people who become makers. I mean they sort of take on this attitude that there will be no black boxes, “I will understand everything. I will pull it apart and I will understand it and I will make it again in a different way. You know, and I think there are so many black boxes in our society and we really are in a place now where we’re in danger of having some very powerful black boxes that if we don’t understand them, could lead us astray. I mean, we’re living in an algorithmic world where algorithms are starting to be a part of our everyday life. They’re shaping what we see on the Internet, you know, through search engine algorithm or the Facebook algorithm that filters what comes to the top, to everything in on Wall Street and everything else is run on algorithms now. And I just think there has to be some sort of public understanding of how this works and the Maker Movement in many ways kind of forces you into understanding at least some basics of that.

But I really like the idea of cutting through and eliminating a lot of the black boxes and some of these black boxes are you know, there’s a computer world but there are also things like “How is this chair made?” (Steve laughs) you know, like “and why don’t I know how it was made?” like there’s all these things in my life that I’m disconnected from and they just become invisible to me and they’re not interesting to me because they’re just there. But the moment you start to understand how something is made, you can actually look at this chair and you’re like “Oh, that’s interesting how they decided to do this instead of that and that’s kind of cool” and you know, even something as simple as learning to weld or anything like that, just demystifies a lot of things. You know, like “how did they make this things out of metal?”.  Like the moment you just start to weld then you’re like “Oh, wait. I’m starting to see how this works and it’s not impossible, like people can do this.”

Steve: It’s interesting that you used that word demystified because I use that all the time while I’m talking about the technology. And I will actually will bring that up this afternoon in my talk because I feel like Arduino, 3D printing, and a few other things are these interesting bridges between a world which is very misunderstood by the society, and the society. And to understand that they’re not as far apart as people think and the path there doesn’t start by going to a class and getting all this knowledge in your head. It actually starts by sitting in front of a computer, flipping it up, plugging the Arduino into the computer and sticking an LED in it and then fighting with the IDE to see if you can make it blink. And honestly, I mean, I can get 4th graders through 40 year olds doing this within a few minutes and I can get them pass that first “Okay, that wasn’t as hard as I thought”. We actually had this happen yesterday in my wife’s class because she teaches community college. We just happen to do this just yesterday and did I mention the celery?

Michael: Yeah, not in the podcast.

I think it’s a different type of learning that you engage in which is real. It’s tangible. It’s deep learning, right. It’s like it’s if you don’t actually learn it, your thing’s not going to work, it’s not going to look right. So there’s something really awesome about that, the immediate, it’s like the immediate feedback mechanism there. You know, either it works or it doesn’t and you have to try again. – Michael Wesch

Steve: Not in the podcast but we’ll put a link to that so you can see that. I’m trying to connect the two worlds and I’m mashing them up in ways that people might not expect. And I can’t take a lot of credit for that, I just still my best ideas from other people (Michael laughs). And to give them, you know, this view of behind the curtain. So, we pull the curtain to absolutely mystify this and they can look across and they may decide. You know what, it looks interesting but I have this other life, this other world. But you know what, there’s a 10% or 15% of those people that look across and like “Wow! I did not know that was over there and I didn’t know I could get across” and it’s like suddenly you opened up the secret passage way of learning for people. You’ve heard of Codecademy? My wife introduced that in one of her classes and there’s a student that since 2 days ago has done like 50 or 70 lessons on the Codecademy because he just suddenly got very interested. I think she just changed his life just by opening up a secret passage across.

Michael: There’s a lot of things like that and the reality is the students are going to be successful, are going to be those who stop playing this game of, you know, let’s get the grades and like fill all the requirements. And they find some little passion that they’re willing to grind the way on and do 70 lessons in 2 days (Steve laughs). Like I just interviewed a student couple of days ago and he said, you know, what he realized he didn’t know ten years ago when he was a student of mine was that there was this thing that he was doing back then that kept him from his deadlines, that kept him from getting that paper in. And what he’s realized now is like if every person could just find what that thing is that they can’t help but keep doing even though they’re missing their deadlines (both laughs) like that’s the thing they should be doing or at least integrated into their career.

And you know he said that and I started thinking about all my students over the last 10 years and those who have been successful and they all had something that seemed like a distraction that they’re very passionate about and in some way have been incorporated and made them who they are today. It made them unique and different and built their career. You know, that’s what the Maker Movement can do is it can show you… I think it’s a different type of learning that you engage in which is real. It’s tangible. It’s deep learning, right. It’s like it’s if you don’t actually learn it, your thing’s not going to work, it’s not going to look right. So there’s something really awesome about that, the immediate, it’s like the immediate feedback mechanism there. You know, either it works or it doesn’t and you have to try again.

Steve: I love that about it actually. So, I want to ask one of the questions we normally get to in a podcast and you’re uniquely positioned to answer this and you’ve touched on it in several points in our conversation. But in the digital world we live in, with YouTube and with now gaming engines becoming this thing where we can start contributing more to this conversation, what does it mean in that environment to be what we consider educated?

Michael: Well, I would never want somebody to assume they are educated (laughs).

Steve: I like that!

“I would never want someone to assume they are ‘educated’. I would rather them realize that there’s a lot of mystery out there, and I think that’s what being ‘educated’ is. It’s… like Socrates who knows that he doesn’t know.” –Michael Wesch

Michael: I would rather them realize that there’s a lot of mystery out there and I think that maybe that’s what being educated is. It’s sort of like the Socrates who like knows but he doesn’t know, right, and you can’t just know that you don’t know. You also have to like have a passion and curiosity and wonder and all those types of things that will like leave you out in that world. I mean, it is amazing what you can learn on YouTube if you care. I mean, it’s like… I mean I feel like I am almost unnecessary as a professor except who inspire students to get to the point where they can use the internet to learn on their own (both laughs). You know, like my main job seems to be like to tell them I’m not necessary and convince them that I’m not. I mean I’m still like I can be a mentor or whatever but there’s still some role there I suppose, but gosh, if you could just get all the students to realize that they can learn on their own, you know, it sets them off on a different path.

Steve: Your lineup there on the presentation, “What do I have to do to pass the test?” my wife has a video she shows every semester about that. That’s such a distraction from, you know, “Why am I actually here?” and so many students missed the “Learning is fun.” They missed the “Well, I’m learning because… fill in the blank” that’s a very personal reason, you know, and I’d like to see that and you have some experience doing that. How do we do that? How do we start pulling them back up of students?

…how do you create the right project that gets them deeply engaged or create an environment in which they can create their own project that gets them deeply engaged and that is very challenging.

Michael: It’s very different for each student but, I mean, it comes back to my passion for, you know, a Maker Colleges. I find that project-based learning works really well, you know, sort of forcing students into doing… let’s back up. And so, you don’t force them into it, that’s the trick (laughs). It’s like how do you create the right project that gets them deeply engaged or create an environment in which they can create their own project that gets them deeply engaged and that is very challenging. I have like a set of, kind of, I don’t know, a test that I give myself whenever I design a project for students. One test is that it has to be real and the test for realness is like do I know the solution to this problem or do I know the best way to make this thing. If we’re doing a documentary, do I have a solid vision of what it’s going to look like in the end? And if the answer is yes then that’s not actually a real problem (both laughs) because I’ve already got it. And now it’s a game of like “Guess what the professor is thinking and see if you can do what the professor wants.” That’s not authentic.

So, a real question or problem or project is one where I don’t have the final vision. I don’t know the answer. That’s a real one. The second test is the relevance and the relevance test is “Would they do it if no grade was attached? Will they do it beyond the semester if the semester ends and they’re not done?” That’s a tall order but that’s the standard. I don’t know that I’ve ever reached, no, I think I have. I think some of the projects we’ve done where we do like documentaries in this retirement community, the students get deeply engaged and involved in. They actually have worked in the summer on occasion for that. So I think I’ve achieved it on that one but usually you fall short on that one. That’s really hard and it’s also, you know, students have a lot of competing commitments, you know, so they’re kind of trusting you that whatever you’re doing is only going to take 16 weeks (laughs).

Steve: But in a Maker College maybe the rules are different?

Michael: Absolutely! I think they should be. I think the fun thing about thinking about a Maker College and the thing that I enjoy is getting people together and say like “Let’s wipe all the rules out” and like “how does this look without all the rules?” And one of the big things that come up is like all the semester system like why are we doing semesters. It doesn’t make sense. Why not just have, you know, competency based kind of system where you can kind of level up or a lot of different ideas. Some people may go through fast or they go through slower. See then you run into a problem of a couple things. One is there’s something valuable about everybody going through something together and when you start to individualize, people start to get separated out a bit. That’s a bit of a problem. It can be solved by creating problems where more advanced people in one area and connect with more advanced people in other area and so on.

But there’s also a developmental issue like especially when you get in the Liberal Art side of this. In the Practical Arts, you know, there can be a competency in the skill and you just get it and you got it and you can move on and let them go as fast as they can go. In the Liberal Arts, there’s always going to be, you know, a 16 year old is just going to look at the history of thought differently than a 21 year old. And they’re going to ask different questions or, you know, approach in different ways. And I think there’s something very valuable to engaging, say a 19 year old with the history of thought or a 20 year old with a clock course on global thoughts and religions and so on, that is going to strike them very differently than it would have when they were younger.

So, I would hesitate to say like “Oh yeah, you can master a World Religions class at age 16. You can test out of it in age 16. Check the box.” No, I want student to wrestle with that when they’re 20 and they’re really thinking about whom they are and who they’re going to become. When they’re 16, they might really just see it as like a bunch of stuff to memorize. That’s a very different way of approaching a class like that so, those are challenging questions, you know.

Steve: Well, the tinkerer in me says that we just have to go and make a college (Michael laughs). Put some students in it and teachers and find out what happens.

Michael: Yeah, I agree.

Steve: Well, I’d like to wrap this up. But the last question I always like to ask is what is the purpose of an education? You have kind of a unique perspective on that as an anthropologist. So looking across the globe, looking across time, what do you see is the purpose of an education?

“[The purpose of an education] has always been an initiation ritual into the society. Cultures from around the world have done this for as long as we know, and initiations are serious business. They are not just memorizin a bunch of stuff and learning a few skills. They are a total transformation of the being. It’s so profound that in most cultures you have to follow all these taboos… We don’t do any of that or anything like it, and it’s kind of embarrassing. It just really sets everybody [in our American society] up for failure… In our society, what that has to mean is taking them from people who see the world in black and white to people who see all the complexity, they embrace it, they want to learn more, and they want to MAKE something. They want to be world makers. You want to transform them from people who are in the world to people who MAKE the world. That’s transformational. That’s not just skills or a bunch of knowledge. That’s a change of being.” –Michael Wesch

Michael: To me it’s obvious and I think people miss it all the time. I mean around the world if you look at what education is and has been, it’s always been an initiation ritual into the society. I mean that’s, cultures around the world have done these initiations for as long as we know and initiations are serious business. They’re not just memorizing a bunch of stuff and learning a few skills. They are a total transformation of the being, you know, and it’s so profound that in most cultures, you know, you have to follow all these taboos. Like you have to disappear from society, you might have to fast and not drink any water for several days. You might have to go into the forest and take a hallucinogen and like have a transformational experience.

And we don’t do any of that (both laugh) or anything like it and it’s kind of embarrassing and, you know, just really sets everybody up for failure. I think we need something really transformational so I think of education now as a transformational experience. And in our society. as we talked about, what that has to mean is taking them from people who see the world in black and white to people who see all the complexity. They embrace it. They want to learn more and they want to make something. They want to be world makers. You want to transfer them from being like just people who are kind of like in the world to people who makes the world and that is transformational. That’s not just a bunch of skills or you know a bunch of knowledge. That’s a change of being.

Steve: It is and I don’t think we could end it any better than that. So, I think we’re going to stop it here. Thank you so much for taking some time to interview for our audience. And what is the best way for our audience to get in touch with you?

Michael: Twitter @mwesch or email mwesch@kstate.edu. Those are probably the best ways.

Steve: Alright, we’ll link that up in the show notes. Thank you so much Michael for taking some time to interview with us.

Michael: Okay, thank you!

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