Dr. Jason Luther joined our Writing Arts Department in 2017. He earned a masters degree in English from the University of Nevada-Reno and a PhD in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric at Syracuse University prior to joining our faculty, and he’s already making quite a splash in our department. An expert and scholar of DIY culture, publishing, and sound writing, Dr. Luther’s work has been taking our students into the uncharted territories of writing’s future in this increasingly digital age. Recently, Dr. Luther received a grant to help him kick-start what he’s calling a “pop culture publishing initiative,” which will create a new course--Writing About Media—and will launch a student-led digital publication focusing on pop culture writing. I sat down with him a couple of weeks ago to talk to him about this initiative, and let the rest of us know more about what kinds of exciting new opportunities this will open up for students.
Matt: What would the Writing in Media course cover and what do you think that the digital Pop Culture Publication would look like as the project grew?
Luther: Originally, I was doing some kind of writing about music curriculum in Intro to Writing Arts in my module, which is “Technologies and the Future of Writing”. A part of that module is students have to blog about different kinds of music to get them writing about a different modality of sound. Students seem to enjoy that and the project they worked on was a historical perspective that took a 78 RPM record from anywhere from like, the 1900s to 1950s to research and write out a ninety-second podcast. But in the curriculum I found that students really liked blogging about music! So it inspired me to think, “How can we do more of that kind of writing in Writing Arts, and where is the space for that?” So that led me to want to develop a course called Writing About Music and for a long time I was thinking about that course.
Flash forward to last Spring and there comes up an opportunity to pitch an idea to the Rowan Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (RCIE). They offered a grant for faculty at Rowan to develop some kind of entrepreneurial idea, and so I pitched an idea that was both curricular and extracurricular, the curricular aspect being a course that was—well, originally it was going to be called Writing About Music but I wanted to zoom out so that other faculty would be able to teach it. And that way they could focus on TV or film or video games or other elements of digital media culture that would teach students how to do things like reviews, interviews, feature stories, or critical essays for pop culture, where they can zoom out and look for what the meaning is. And so, I thought that this idea sounded great, but that’s still very curricular and not very entrepreneurial. I also thought about how we have a great legacy in Writing Arts of offering up these award-winning publications, but most of these publications are print, and most are focused on creating writing. So there’s no real outlet for our students for non-fiction based writing—broadly defined—and so I wanted to get into, or offer a way for students to be able to do that. I thought things might complement each other. The idea is that the extracurricular is put into students’ hands by the end of the year, so my job will be to put students in a position to do that successfully. Meanwhile, I’ll be meeting with faculty from across the curriculum to try to get support for this course, and to make sure we aren’t repeating content in other areas of the University.
Matt: What made you realize that there was a growing interest in this department to pursue work in digital media?
Luther: Well, I feel like when I’ve taught blogging in Writing, Research, and Technology or Intro to Writing Arts, students have interesting things to say about our culture and me things about like YouTubers or video games that I have a distant interest in but don’t really invest a lot of my own time in, whereas music is something I clearly am invested in. And so I thought again, “What is the outlet for these thoughts?” Last year, the specific moment was I was pitching two ideas for this grant: one was a self publishing colloquium that would bring speakers to campus (which I still like and I still want to do!) but the other was a little bit more student-centered it would have them create and produce something which I think is more in line with Rowan’s mission right now, and rightly so. And then we were at the Spring Showcase for the CCCA college and I was having conversations with students like you and Connor and Nati Morrison—some of the other students who are doing some really interesting creative work, and handling that public facing element of their work really well. So I thought, “We need to have more opportunities to show off here!”
Matt: As a scholar of DIY media and publishing—also as a professor of our Self-Publishing course—could you see this project as a way to highlight local DIY artists?
Luther: If that’s something that students want to do that to me seems totally great. At our meeting we are kind of thinking about how local we want to be and how local we might even have to be in order to start building support. I thought that was one of the more interesting outcomes of our meeting last week. Because you need to build an audience but building an audience from scratch is really hard. You do have to think of a long-term strategy and I think one of the things we’re kicking around is going local first and then rippling outward. I mean one of the things that motivated this idea is that we live so close to a major US city that our students should be exploiting that perhaps more than we already are. We should be consider ourselves a Philadelphia suburb University, but I don't think we do, and there's so much great music and so much great culture coming through Philadelphia that our students should be more engaged with it. If the magazine can get the kind of visibility that we’re aiming for, then there will be all sorts of benefits to our students for not only being exposed to that culture, but being invited into it as well.
Matt: What publications are you planning on using as a model to base your publication off of?
Luther: We struggled with that question at the meeting a little bit, I mean I have my ideas but it seemed like from the feedback from students they were more into basing it off of social media accounts, and so this might be a struggle moving forward in terms of our peers. But I have a publication for Writing, research, technology students one of the first semesters that I taught and it didn't quite work out but we looked at a lot of different models there so those models might be something that I might have to go back to revisit. But in terms of pop culture (publication models): Pop Matters, Pitchfork, even The Verge and Vox have, well, they're obviously professionals and they have a huge team but those are the sorts of publications I think we might look to —both for their reviews of gadgets and technologies, but also records and films and video games. So hopefully we'll be able to use those as models for, if not the whole business plan for the magazine than at least when it comes to the class they can teach us how different genres work.
Matt: More and more, we’re seeing many of these publications that you mentioned rely on social media to create and distribute their content, so do you see social media becoming an integral aspect of this project?
Luther: When we start coming up with a name—and a sort of brand—part of the realistic restraint will be are those domains available, are those handles available? Or how do we, if we have a good idea, how do we sort of pivot into a handle that works? So I bought “The Future of Writing” as a domain and sort of captured all their handles on Twitter and Instagram because they were available. And that was basically how I came up with it! I mean it was basically already in the module name for Intro to Writing Arts so that's what I got to work with and so that's become sort of my brand as a teacher. All of the courses have a prefix that's related to the course and then it's futureofwriting.com. If you go to that site you can look at the initial sketches of the publication we started to do.
Matt: Although this initiative is at a very early stage right now, what goals or thoughts do you have about how this is going to become an entrepreneurial venture for any major or college across campus?
Luther: It's essential—I mean a part of the grant means that it needs to be interdisciplinary and that makes sense because we're going to need people who know how to maximize search engine optimization, and know how to layout with really strong graphic design principles, and people who know how PR machines. In writing studies we can struggle sometimes with the so-called "Content-List" discipline. We right about stuff but as a discipline we struggle with defining who we are. Part of that also means partnering with and cooperating with other kinds of expertise learning happens when you ask these different students and faculty voice expertise. It's exciting to me because that's where I think real exchange in learning happens and you ask these different students and faculty, and also if you lean on their expertise, I think cool things can come together.
Matt: Because of the initiative’s collaborative focus, what would you say to prospective students who would be interested in this, but they’re not a Writing Arts major, or their major isn’t in the CCCA? What would you say to them to pull in their interest for this project?
Luther: That it's exciting to be able to work in media it's the kind of thing that I think young people want to be a part of because it allows participating have a voice in culture and ways that are often. So I think that's part of being a team player and being able to leverage your expertise and knowledge in a way that would lend to something bigger. And that to me is the biggest attraction with something like this—that we are trying to create a platform for public voice, in ways that give us a sense of control and agency that we don't tend to have day-to-day. So, even social media: it's fun to have an Instagram account, but it's just you, and an x-amount of followers and this idea is to build something a little bigger than that.
Matt: You bring up a good point about social media. I feel like we live in an age where most of us dip our toes into all of these different platforms but that’s about it. We tend to forget that we can use these things in a sort of cross-disciplinary way as well.
Luther: Yeah I do think there’s a fine line between like participating in pop culture and consuming pop culture. I think we often think that we're like sort of in an age of user-generated content means that everyone is producing their own work, but I don't think that's true. I think that there's a spectrum and I think that there are ways you can participate more and have a little more control. Sometimes that's at the level of buying a domain rather than just signing up for an account. Or, it’s learning how to use all the affordances of WordPress or even coding a website rather than using social media sites like Facebook where you enter things into fields and they do the arrangements for you. So I think a part of this is really introducing students to higher levels of engagement (with digital media). The course will be a little different, because it won't be so much situated in building the site as much as it is writing in the genres. But certainly part of the process, the writing process, will be figuring out how to get to a space to interview somebody, how to act professional, which records to review, how do you assess gameplay when you're already a fan. I think these are really interesting questions to explore; in the curricular field as well as the publication itself.
Matt: Of this whole initiative, what is the one aspect of it that you’re the most excited for, or passionate about?
Luther: I would respond by saying that I grew up in print media—participatory print media—and that got me a lot of access to culture. I sort of moved on and lost touch with that world. And it's kind of exciting to me to re-enter that world in a digital age where I'm not quite sure I understand how DIY writers and producers gain access to a world dominated by metrics, by SCO, by digital advertising; this is a learning experience for me too. I'm always drawn to those kinds of authentic experiences. One of the joys of teaching in Writing Arts has been learning with my students, and the students in my classes have been really generous and patient and even adjusted their flexibility with what they expect from an instructor, like going into an experimental curriculum headlong with me. It's something I really appreciate about being here so, for me, I think that's what's exciting part about it. Yeah, I put the scran out there but the co-exploration with students to me is the most important.