Interview with Alexandra Juhasz

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© Alexandra Juhasz and Figure/Ground
Dr. Juhasz was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. February 11th, 2013.

Dr. Alexandra Juhasz is a Professor of Media Studies at Pitzer College, where she teaches media production, history  and theory. She has a Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from NYU and has taught courses at NYU, Swarthmore College, Bryn Mawr College, Claremont Graduate University, and Pitzer College, on YouTube, media archives, activist media, documentary, and feminist film. Dr. Juhasz has written multiple articles on feminist, fake, and AIDS documentary. Her current work is on and about YouTube, and other more radical uses of digital media.  Her first book, AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke University Press, 1996) is about the contributions of low-end video production to political organizing and individual and community growth. Her second book is comprised of transcribed interviews from her documentary about feminist film history, Women of Vision, with accompanying introductions (Minnesota University Press). Her third book, F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited with Jesse Lerner, is recently out from University of MN Press. Dr. Juhasz’s innovative “video-book,” Learning from YouTube (2011), is recently published by the MIT Press. Her earlier digital effort is Media Praxis: A Radical Web-Site Integrating Theory, Practice and Politics. She blogs on this and other projects at www.aljean.wordpress.com.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice to become a scholar?

Both of my parents and many other members of my family are professors. So, even though I always loved school and was good at it, as a college student, I wanted to be anything but! I thought my skills might make me a good lawyer. I engaged in several internships during college with a variety of legal entities—judges, high-powered law firms—and then even took the LSATs. But during my senior year, I really loved working on my undergraduate thesis on Little Women, and I did well at it. Also, even then, I found my academic work to be a conducive home for my many of my sustaining commitments: to social justice (at that time, feminism); expressive and critical culture; and meaningful and principled personal and inter-personal interactions. I also decided that I was morally uncomfortable with the adversarial justice system. So, what else was there to do? I applied to grad programs in Cinema Studies, got in, and even got scholarship support. I thought of grad school as a great opportunity to have focused activity in a cool place (New York City), and then, later, I could re-evaluate my professional path of not becoming a professor.

It was teaching that changed my opinion. Until then, grad school was more of the happy same: being a good student, enjoying school, being affirmed for this skill, enjoying the questions I was pursuing and interacting with others about these questions. However, the actual work of teaching—its deeply human interactions, the belief that my labor mattered to other people and to larger systems, its complex performances and rituals—convinced me that this job, unlike the Law, was ethical, social, and even political in ways that I could live a life by. So, teaching was what induced my late, although very conscious decision to become a scholar.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

I was lucky enough to have feminist, political, and often female mentors as both an undergrad and graduate student. In part, this was related to having parents who were academics, in that I was less shy or awed by professors then my fellow students, and understood that they were approachable human beings. I often consider how much harder it must be to succeed in this profession if you are a first generation scholar, in that many of the social and cultural norms of this workplace go unexplained and are hard to interpret. Of course, a good mentor can function to assuage this.

At Amherst College, I was quite close to several of my professors, one of the benefits of small college education that now defines my work, as teacher and mentor at small college. I was mentored by Laura WexlerAndrew ParkerJohn Cameronand Barry O’Connell, Professors of English and/or American Studies at Amherst, and also Cathy Portuges, a professor of Comp Lit and Film Studies, at UMass. I have stayed close to these professors to this day. In grad school, my mentor was Faye Ginsburg, at NYU’s program in Culture and Media. In all cases, I saw enacted by my mentors ways to live a principled, political, generous and generative life of the mind, that was committed to social justice and change, as well as human compassion both within and outside of academia. In the case of my female professors, I was also lucky enough to have the opportunity to see modelled the possibility for women’s power and experience within the University, as well as being offered honest insight into the ongoing difficulties for women in this profession: from raising families while maintaining professional integrity, to keeping self-confidence and dignity in the face of patriarchal oppression. When my beloved professor, Laura Wexler, did not get tenure at Amherst (she’s since gone on to an inspiring career at Yale), solely, to my mind, as a result of the sexist, patriarchal values of my alma mater, I was radicalized to understand that my political interests in social justice and change—in particular in relation to my nascent commitments to identity politics—had deep and critical applications within academia itself. I’ve never looked back, and like my mentors, attempt to practice the values I hold dear in my own work and institution.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were a student?

I feel deeply humbled and grateful that I received a first-rate education—even though my parents and I could never have afforded the schools I attended without the help of loans and scholarships—and more so, that I have gone on to have a teaching career in institutions similar to the ones where I was educated. At Pitzer College, where I have taught for eighteen years, an abiding commitment to liberal arts education, and the college’s ongoing 1960s commitment to professorial self-governance, insure that I teach much as my professors did: under the incredibly empowering system of tenure, and within an institution that values thought, education, and the role of the intellectual-activist above other more contemporary neo-liberal aims. I am well aware that since the time of my own education in the 1980s, there has been a radical change in the role of university professors, and that I am lucky enough to be a member of a small and shrinking minority of the profession who works full time, with tenure, teaching and writing about what inspires me, and generally appreciated by my institution, students and colleagues for the results of this intellectual freedom. Most of my colleagues within the professoriate longer work under this model.

What makes a good teacher in your view?

In our ever more corporate, greedy, and inhumane culture, a good teacher models another way of living and being to her students, one organized around the pursuit of ideas and ideals. She works with her students to allow them to see that each one has the capacity, and ability, to enjoy these activities of thinking about, analyzing, discussing, critiquing and creating culture, and that this is a worthy, empowering, and sustaining use of our labor. She produces a collaborative and interactive environment were all participants are stakeholders in a project of world- and self-making, and where each participant learns to appreciate her abilities to contribute. In this environment, different values from our daily culture preside: respect, critique, self-awareness, collaboration, sustained and adaptive thought, conversation, and production.

How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

In some classes and situations, I admit, I do ask my students to turn of their devices. But more critically, a good teacher produces a lively, social, and engaged environment, where the ideas under consideration matter enough that students feel compelled to attend and participate. A good class should feel like a community connected by a shared project. Its focus, shared commitments and vocabularies, and sense of respectful interaction can prove an antidote to the fracturing and overload in our culture. The longer I teach, and the more the society splinters in this way, the more I understand the classroom not only as a respite but as a model for living.

What advice would you give to young graduate students considering a career in the academy and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

I hate to say this, but believe I cannot but advise young graduate students to begin to imagine other career possibilities besides “Professor,” both outside of or within academia, even as they enjoy the pleasures and challenges of a graduate education. The neo-liberalization of academia, and its changing rationales of employment and education, really do mean that a very small percentage of current grad students will engage in the profession in ways similar to their own professors. Thus, I’d say current grad students should read the inspiring body of writing online, a great deal of it by grad students, about alt-ac careers and training, as well as the ongoing research and criticism by activist intellectuals about the changing norms of our profession, as well as the new possibilities for activism, organizing, and opposition that become necessary to respond to these changes.

Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media? 

The university is in crisis in the ways I’ve emphasised already: the labor of professors and students is being restructured to maximize profit, focus upon quantifiable rather than qualitative “outcomes,” and otherwise serve goals, entities, or institutions outside of our individual or collaborative scholarly and political pursuits. This said, as a scholar of media and now digital studies, I see no “crisis” in regards to information or interaction but rather a critical possibility or even mandate to focus our activities, skills, and productions as academics within the university upon the real-time and long-term analysis of these new institutions and machines with the goal of making and sharing clear, critical, informed interpretations, as well as just and empowering applications.

Among your areas of specialization are documentary video production, women’s film and feminist film theory. In fact, you teach a course entitled “Feminist Online Spaces.” What is that titled meant to describe? How would you characterize such spaces?

Media has changed radically over the twenty-plus years that I’ve been an academic, but my concerns and questions about it have remained consistent. The course “Feminist Online Spaces,” as well as my many other feminist, queer, or activist media classes, pursues thinking, talking, reading, and making focused upon the use of media for self and community empowerment and growth. Feminist Online Spaces presents students with the mandate to ask internet culture to be as giving, generative, moral, and inspiring as the best places we make and inhabit as humans. I call such a place “feminist,” but others could as easily apply to Online Spaces the principled, political, creative and communal systems that most move them. As I’ve said, I often think of the classroom in this way. In the course, we look at mainstream sites to see how they do and do not uphold the standards that each one of us names as “feminist,” and we also evaluate more overtly political spaces. My students are also asked to build and improve upon existing spaces. You can see our work here.

Another course you teach is “Learning from YouYube.” What is the value and promise of YouTube as a pedagogical tool?

YouTube is a terrible pedagogic tool, and a marvellous one. The course, and the free, born-digital “video-book” about it (MIT Press, 2010), ask (among other things) what the world would be like if people learned on YouTube, rather than through more traditional venues. Thus, the course asks students to think critically about the role of online media in our contemporary lives and education. We findthat this corporate-owned entertainment platform—even worse than is true for the neo-liberal university—has aims, protocols, and structures that are decidedly opposed to the values of complex, interactive, critical expression that has been the hallmark of education. But, given that we learn this and so much more after a semester inside it, how can we not find that YouTube is a valuable and promising pedagogic tool?

What learning strategies would you recommend teachers adopt to exploit the potentiality of the YouTube medium?

The class, as well as my Online Feminist Spaces class, simply allows students the time, permission and vocabulary to be critical and more aware of the many online spaces we’ve been given for free; and to apply the same tools and focus they’ve learned to critically approach texts, institutions, and histories from across their education to these new places that shape our contemporary existence. Teaching strategies that allow students to see new media as sites of cultural production (that have been made by others towards particular ends; and that we, everyday citizens and scholars can also make and improve) are most apt towards the goal of producing digital-media literate students and citizens committed to critiquing and changing the Internet culture in which we live.

Is YouTube more effective for teaching and studying certain subjects more than others?

Following upon my answer above, the class is less a place where we learn about “subjects” like American History or Gay Marriage, then it is a framework whereby I ask students to become more aware of the institutions, structures, forms, vernaculars, and ideologies through which we learn and participate in culture.

Another of your areas of scholarly inquiry is Media & Sexuality. What are some of the problems that characterize this field of inquiry?

Beginning with my political and doctoral work on activist AIDS video, I have been interested in the ways that people, in particular politicized people and communities, use the media to represent their own experience, build solidarity through such representations, and critique dominant culture and representation though their own media making. The “problems” raised by considering media and sexuality in this way are both how to see and analyze dominant culture’s representation of sex, gender, and sexuality (and how race, class, and place are linked), and how to find, make and use alternative forms to improve upon, complicate, and make more just representations of those aspects of our shared human existence that are structured through difference and desire.

What are you currently working on?

I am collaborating with Anne Balsamo, at the New School, and hundreds of feminist scholars and artists from around the world, on a collaborative experimental teaching project that challenges the MOOC from a feminist point of view. You can learn more about our project, and join us in this collaborative endeavour, here.

This project, like most of my scholarly work, is based upon first critiquing, and then trying to improve our culture and its institutions and practices, in collaboration with others, and with impassioned, critical traditions of intellectual, artistic and political discourse and production as our guide and inspiration. I do believe that the academy is one of the few places left in our ever more corporate world where such goals, activities, and engagements can be supported. Thus, I truly appreciate this opportunity to pay attention to my often unself-aware endeavours as a professor and scholar, and applaud you for asking us to attend to this aspect of our work. 

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Alexandra Juhasz and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2013). “Interview with Alexandra Juhasz,” Figure/Ground. February 11th.
<  http://figureground.org/interview-with-alexandra-juhasz/  >


Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com