A shift in method

Some years ago, at lunch with an esteemed senior colleague from the English Department, I complained that blogging had split me into two kinds of writer, like the good and evil Captain Kirk (above) created by transporter malfunction in TOS Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within.” The bad writer summoned into existence by the blog was awesomely verbose and driven by the craven need to flaunt his cleverness; the good writer was more modest in his claims and diligent in his methods of researching and composing projects. But he was also, like good Kirk, something of a weakling, his lack of confidence inversely proportional to the excessive force of personality his diabolical twin radiated. During the first several years of this blog I found it easy to sit down and compose brief, grand essays and pronouncements; but I couldn’t get a major research project or a publishing venture off the ground.

I’ve learned a few things about writing, and about myself, since then. I return to this blog with the need for a thought-space somewhere between the ephemeral public bursts of tweets and status updates and the glacial excavation and terraforming of printed academic publishing: the fast and slow time of the mediascapes at whose intersection I find my home. I return to this blog with a renewed sense of its potential for experimentation and evolution, and a new concept of myself as not needing to prove my intellect at every turn. I want, in short, to blog like a normal person — to speak honestly and without needless ostentation about this world and this life.

Where I’ve Been

Although I frequently share with students my airy notions about online communities being organic things like bonsai trees, growing in unexpected directions but shaped by our collective attentions, I’ve never felt the aptness of the metaphor quite as pointedly as I do today, coming back to Graphic Engine after a long — make that extremely long — absence. It feels rather like unlocking the door to a musty-smelling office that I haven’t visited for months, only to find some poor dead shrub, abandoned and dessicated in its pot.

Fortunately, I’ve always had a green thumb (lie: I’ve always just poured a bunch of water on the zombie plant and hoped it would spasm back to life like Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character in the single most grating scene of The Abyss), so I’m hoping my handful of loyal readers will forgive the lengthy silence. Such things are acceptable, I know, in the fitful, idiosyncratic world of blogging, but only when the blogger takes the time to communicate up front that he or she will be taking a few weeks (or in my case, months) off. I didn’t do that, preferring the guilt-free but rather callous path of Lee Iacocca’s “never complain, never explain.” In any case, no disrespect or disregard intended toward those lovely souls who have read and commented on this blog in the past. I hope I haven’t lost you forever.

So what was up? Well, I meant to take a breather after my string of posts counting down the series finale of Battlestar Galactica. (You can follow the archive link, or simply look below.) But then Star Trek happened. I found it hard — indeed, impossible — to write about the J. J. Abrams reboot, for reasons that I’m still sorting through. (I plan to be done with the sorting, and actually post something, by the time the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Motion Picture rolls around on December 7 — or maybe as soon as November 17, when the Blu-Ray hits.) Not that I didn’t like the movie; it would take a truly puppy-stomping disposition to dislike it. But its release unexpectedly marked the death of some part of me, and in monitoring the shift in my heart of Star Trek from a living, vital pleasure to a glass-encased museum piece, I got a bit lost in myself. It led to a summer’s worth of soul-searching about certain things, among them my publishing priorities, and while I worked on myriad other projects, nothing quite made it to the blog stage.

But never mind: it’s September 1, the start of a new month and of a new school term, and my goal for today — before I run off to the first screening of my Animation and Cinema class — is to put in at least a token appearance and assure the world that I’m not dead, abducted, or overtaken by Luddism. In between the work-cracks of the summer, I got in a lot of reading and viewing, and there are lots of things I plan to write about in future posts (chief among them, District 9 and the Avatar trailer). I promise to get to them soon, and I apologize for having stretched your patience. Here’s hoping the bonsai tree still has some green in it.


As I throttle down for Thanksgiving week and a much-anticipated break from this busy semester (which I regret has allowed so little time for blogging), viruses are much on my mind: I await with some nervousness the onset of one of those academic-calendar colds that conveniently hold off until I’m done teaching. But other kinds of replicative infection are creeping into my life, today in the form of the Alphabet Meme, passed on to me by Chris Cagle of Category D, who caught it from Thom at Film of the Year. (I never realized how similar blogging and sex are: evidently when you link to someone, you link to everyone he or she has linked to.) Anyway, the goal of the exercise is a 26-item list of “Best Films,” corresponding to the letters of the alphabet. I’ll be forthright in acknowledging that my list has nothing to do with “bestness” and everything to do with love — simply put, the movies that mean the most to me. I’m a little too conscious of and skeptical about canonicity to nominate best-ofs; what is canon, anyway, but a kind of ubervirus, replicating within our taste hierarchies and the IPOs of cultural capital? The primary difference between irrational, irreducible favoritism and the stolid edifice of “the best that has been thought and said” (or in this case, filmed) is, it seems to me, one of authorship: the former is idiosyncratic, individual, owned, while the latter circulates unmoored in a kind of terrible immanence, its promiscuous power deriving precisely from its anonymity.

Or maybe I’m just feeling defensive. The list below, larded with science fiction and pop pleasures, nakedly exposes me as a cinematic philistine, a clear case of arrested development. How I reconcile this with my own day job of reproducing the canon (teaching Citizen Kane and Il Conformista semester after semester), I don’t know. But with turkey and stuffing on the horizon, I choose to leave the soul-searching to another day.

Before sharing my list, I believe I’m supposed to spread the meme to five other victims, er, friends. Let’s see: how about valued contributors Michael Duffy and MDR; Dan North at Spectacular Attractions; Nina Busse of Ephemeral Traces; and Tim Burke of Easily Distracted?


Battle Beyond the Stars
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Die Hard
The Exorcist
Forbidden Planet
Groundhog Day
Harold and Maude
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Jacob’s Ladder
King Kong (1933)
Logan’s Run
Miracle Mile
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Parallax View
The Quiet Earth
Run Lola Run
Superman (1978)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Ugetsu Monogatari
The Vanishing
The Wizard of Oz
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Young Frankenstein

Graphic Anniversary

I don’t often use this forum to comment on the act of blogging itself, but it seems worth noting that today marks the one-year anniversary of Graphic Engine — my very first post, on the 3D Imax screening of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, went up on July 26, 2007. Overall I’ve very much enjoyed the experience of keeping a blog, and have no plans to quit. That said, the commitment has turned out to be more stressful than I imagined; something about the constantly beckoning space of my WordPress dashboard converts every hour into a guilty idea-search, a constant quest for good stuff to write about.

My original goal was to put up new content at least twice a week, but — considering that this is only my 58th post — the actual rate has worked out to just over half that (1.1 posts/week). And for all the pleasure I draw from the sound of my own voice (as transcribed into screentext), the real joy has been the site’s visitors, a group of friends, colleagues, students, and strangers who have been generous enough to read and leave feedback for me in the comments section. I value you all, and hope you’ll continue to share your reactions in weeks and months to come.

Since no post would be complete without some item of graphical interest, I share with you a serendipitous discovery from this very afternoon. My wife and I were cleaning out a back room, getting it ready to house some guests who arrive tomorrow night. Moving an old wooden chest of drawers, we found a beautiful accident of a stain on the floor, so direct in its signification that something — an eldritch power from beyond the edge of time, perhaps, or the equally profound chaotic chemistry of trickling fluid and uneven tilage — must have authored it. Even better than the face of the Virgin Mary tattooed on a taco shell, what we found was the graven image of a dog: Katie says a chihuahua, but I maintain it’s a dachsund. In any case, the canine apparition appears below, by itself and in a two-shot with our good-hearted mutt Quincy [click to enlarge].

Thanks again for making Graphic Engine a stop on your itineraries through cyberspace!

Spring Break

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t been posting as frequently in recent weeks. It’s not for lack of desire or interesting things to talk about; I’ve just found my to-do lists growing lengthier rather than shorter, and the accumulation of projects and obligations is taking its toll.

Hence, Graphic Engine will be going on temporary hiatus as I turn my attention to several areas of work that need attention before the end of spring semester. I plan to be back soon, however, so watch this space! And in the meantime, take care.

Local celebrity and the dangers of TMI

Last week I had the honor of being featured in an article for Swarthmore’s student newspaper, the Phoenix, entitled “Swat Professors Log In.” Along with my colleague Tim Burke, whose Easily Distracted is one of the cooler blogs out there (and a key inspiration to me in starting Graphic Engine), the article focuses on professors who maintain academic but personal blogs, how they view their online publishing, and what issues arise when students encounter a professor in the blogosophere.

The latter topic surprised me a little; it hadn’t previously dawned on me that it might be a little, well, weird to come across a blog written by one of your teachers, just as it might feel odd to cross their path in some real-life situation well outside the familiar forum of the classroom. (In the immortal words of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, catching your teacher shopping at the mall is “like seeing a dog walk on its hind legs.”) Although I value easygoing spontaneity in my teaching and consider myself fairly approachable as an authority figure, the truth is that instructional interactions are of necessity highly structured and scripted. There’s comfort for all of us in knowing what roles to expect in the classroom — I stand here, behind the lectern, you sit there, taking notes — and blogs, by their very in-between nature, complicate those expectations.

The tension between private, public, and professional spheres for the educator is particularly heightened in Web 2.0 environments, where the desire to take part in social networking (especially if you presume to teach about such phenomena, or use them as pedagogical tools) must be weighed against the risk of revealing too much information about yourself. When I first set up a Facebook account, I listed my political preference; now I simply leave that line blank. I’d rather err on the side of neutrality than risk students feeling awkward about expressing a viewpoint which they worry will conflict with my own. On the other hand, that concern didn’t stop me from posting a caustic comparison of George W. Bush and Britney Spears some months back, and I imagine the coming year’s presidential campaign will offer similar temptations toward TMI.

In any case, since the Phoenix chose not to use all of my answers — and with good reason; as readers of this blog are aware, I’m sort of long-winded — I thought I’d post the full text of my email interview (with reporter Liana Katz) here. It goes into more detail on the points I’ve touched on, as well as giving credit where credit is due to folks like Temple’s Chris Cagle, who provided the great phrase “diaristic sketchpad” to describe the function of blogs for academics who like to think out loud.

> 1. When did you start blogging?

My first post was on July 26, 2007, so I’ve been doing this for about six
months now.

> 2. What motivated you to start a blog? What literary/vocal platform did a
> blog offer that you did not have before?

I held off on blogging for a long time, though a few friends encouraged me
to try my hand at it. I was posting long-winded mini-essays to the various
discussion groups and email lists I frequent (mostly academic stuff
involving videogame research), and once in a while someone would
essentially say, “Dude, seems like you want your own soapbox to stand on

More seriously, I began reading a number of academic and media-oriented
blogs after taking part in the Media In Transition conference at MIT in
April 2007. Along with my Swarthmore colleague Tim Burke’s excellent blog
Easily Distracted, these inspired me to throw my hat in the ring.

In terms of the platform that blogging offers, I’m still figuring that
out; I believe everyone responds differently to the opportunities and
challenges such a space presents. My friend Chris Cagle, a professor at
Temple, describes his blog (Category D) as a “diaristic sketchpad,” which
I think is perfect. Graphic Engine is certainly personal in tone, and I
feel free to indulge there my likes and dislikes, fannish excitement and
grouchy kvetching. But it’s also a sketchpad for roughing out ideas and
arguments — about media, culture, and technology — any of which I might
later develop into full-fledged essays. Finally, the ability to get
feedback in the form of comments from interested and intelligent readers
is invaluable!

> 3. After reading some of your entries, it seemed to me like you maintain a
> serious but personal tone. Are your writing and teaching styles comparable
> or does having a blog allow you to address subjects in a different way
> than
> you would in the classroom?

I always keep in mind that, as a professional whose work involves public
performance (in teaching) and the building of strong collegial
relationships, I need to observe a certain decorum in my tone and
sensibility in my choice of topics. While I love and celebrate the freedom
of expression that blogging allows, it would be foolhardy of me to
intentionally say things that might offend or upset friends, colleagues,
or students. To some extent, these same codes govern the way I teach and
interact in “real life.” At the same time, however, the blog allows me to
argue (and sometimes rant) to a degree that I wouldn’t in RL. I guess my
operating assumption is that people can choose — or not — to read what I
write at Graphic Engine, while in the classroom, students are sort of
trapped with me. So I try not to abuse the privilege of their patience and

> 4. Who reads your blog and has this readership changed over time? In
> particular, have more students started to read it?

I’ve had one student post a comment (which made me very happy), and a few
others have mentioned they read it. For the most part, though, the people
who post are either friends or other academics (or both). This doesn’t
seem to have changed much over time. I lack hard numbers on who’s visiting
and reading, but it does gratify me when someone links to one of my posts,
or reviews the blog overall, as Henry Jenkins at MIT did back in August.

> 5. Have you told your students about your blog or have they stumbled
> across
> it on their own?

There’s a link to Graphic Engine on my faculty profile, and of course it
comes up in a Google search for Bob Rehak (yes, I confess to being a
self-Googler). Other than that, I don’t trumpet the blog’s existence to
students; it’s not mentioned on my syllabi or in my email sig file.

> 6. Have you ever had a discussion with a student (in or outside of the
> classroom) about something that you wrote on your blog?

No specific memories here, though I’m sure it’s come up in casual
conversation (e.g. “You play Halo 3? I just wrote about that game on my
blog!”). More often, I think, I’ll mention something I read on someone
else’s blog. As I said earlier, I have had one student post, taking me
quite knowledgably to task on one of my assertions, which I really enjoyed
— college, perhaps Swarthmore in particular, is a place to develop your
voice and hone critical thinking skills, so I’m always happy when I can
exchange ideas with someone.

> 7. In your opinion, what purpose do blogs serve for students and
> professor?

We haven’t addressed the use of blogs as a component of coursework,
something I’ve experimented with (and will do so again this term in Fan
Culture, FMST 85). In that forum, blogs are a great way of encouraging
collective conversation on course topics outside the classroom, as well as
in getting students to pool knowledge and share resources. The ability to
post links to YouTube videos and news stories, for example, turned out to
be a great bonus in last spring’s course on TV and New Media (FMST 84).

> Do they help build a closer relationship or should professors’ blogs be
> considered outside the world of college academics?

I’m not quite sure what you mean, but I’d say that what’s interesting
about academic blogs is that they aren’t completely in one place or
another. They’re tools for sharing thoughts, sharing resources, and
disseminating information, but they’re also interlocutory and
conversational. Profession by profession, their uses differ greatly, even
if their underlying dynamics are consistent. I see Graphic Engine as an
academically-informed blog, but not only, or primarily, academic in
“function.” For this reason, it’s still up for grabs to what degree
blogging should be considered part of one’s professional development or
publications; those rules are still being hammered out. But I’m really
glad to be part of the adventure!


A Ping from the Blogosphere

I don’t know how wise it is to shout out to one’s own shout-out; all the cross-blogging and interlinking might prove too much for the ephemeral fabric of the cybertextual continuum, opening a raw singularity out of which droning fleets of gramophones, films, and typewriters will fly like the repressed of our lost predigital literacies. Still, that won’t stop me from thanking Henry Jenkins for the kind mention of Graphic Engine on his blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan. His take on my postings here, in particular those regarding the Harry Potter series [1], [2], [3], is very generous (and a reminder that I have another post or two in the pipeline on this subject). I’m especially happy to be showcased on Confessions of an Aca-Fan because Henry’s blog, along with Jason Mittell’s and Tim Burke’s, were what inspired me to dive into blogging this summer.

For the last several months, Henry’s been hosting an ongoing conversation/debate about gender and fandom, pairing male and female “aca-fen” for public dialogues (here’s the inaugural entry). My turn is coming up in a few weeks, when I’ll be discussing fandom and gender in light of new media industries with Suzanne Scott, a doctoral student at USC. My initial conversations with Suzanne have been fun and enlightening, and I look forward to sharing our discourse when the spotlight falls on us later in September.

As for Henry Jenkins, well, he’s an up-and-coming scholar with a very bright future. I’d keep my eye on him.

Technical Difficulties

A blanket apology to anyone who had trouble accessing Graphic Engine this week. The blog was migrated to a new server, creating temporary chaos with URLs, comments, and my own ability to administrate the site. I’ve been warned that, because of the server change, readers may have to resubscribe via RSS; I pass this warning along to you.

Thanks for your patience!