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kenmorefield

State of the Forum -- Spring 2020

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I am a university professor by vocation, so this time each year I am filling out annual reports -- a task I like a little less than going to the dentist. (My dentist is actually very nice.) But I've come to see some value in periodic nods towards transparency, so I thought i would institute an annual (let's see if it comes back next year) State of the Forum Report. The format is intended to be simple: 1) My overall assessment of forum health; 2) Strengths; 3) Weakness; 4) Invitation for questions or comments.

1) Overall State of Arts & Faith

By most metrics, I think we are in decent shape. I would describe the state of A&F as "stable." No bills are outstanding, and most (hosting, domain registration) are paid through the end of the year. The one exception is software licensing from Invision, which I often find more convenient to renew in 6 month increments rather than annually. 

A&F is currently hosted on a Virtual Public Server (I don't really know what that means, which I'll get to in "weaknesses") which also hosts my personal blog, 1More Film Blog, and the website for tne North Carolina Film Critics Association. The upside of such an arrangement is that we can share hosting cots (right now I pay a third, NCFCA pays a third, and a third is paid for via voluntary donations by A&F members). The downside is that it would be harder (and more expensive) to hand over the A&F part of it so some other/different administrator. I've made sure at least one person -- Joel -- has the necessary administrative and account passwords with the webhost to ensure the lights stay on if anything happens to me.

Forum use is trending up but is inconsistent/seasonal, with the most traffic being generated far and away at the Film Forum with Television a distant second and some scattered updates in the About You threads. Some of the the forums (The Good Life, Science, Theater, The Arts in General) may not have had posts in years or may get less than 1/2 a dozen posts in a year. This reflects the evolution of our membership, although the film forum has always been the most busy.

2) Current Strengths

Members appear to practice a high degree of respect and civility to one another, with inevitable flare ups tending to flame out quickly rather than persist. I've wondered over the past two years if this is a "honeymoon" period as members probe the limits of what is acceptable and what isn't, but I tend to think by now it is mostly a reflection of being smaller and that many of the most frequent posters have known each other for a long time and are somewhat aware of which buttons not to push. Also, a core group of A&Fers have aged. With that can come some mellowing and, in most cases, attention being given to jobs, families, projects, etc. 

Content, especially in the film forum, seems to centered less on discussions of mainstream, commercial film and a bit more on personal favorites, world cinema, indies, etc. Some of this is unquestionably the consequence of COVID-19, since there are fewer "new releases," but even before social distancing this appeared to be a trend. 

3) Current Weaknesses

While the size of membership and participation is not an existential threat in the short (or even medium) term, it is cause for concern. I do not wish to be evangelical on the forum's behalf, and I've always viewed my role as an administrator as being to enable the forum rather than promote it. I also recognize and affirm that it is natural and right that the forum, like any community or group, should wax and wane. There will be people who want specific things out of a community, and as we grow, age, and change, those things may become less important or the the community's ability to provide them less vital. Nevertheless, given that all communities have churn, and Internet groups especially, even small attrition rates can bring us to the threshold of the critical mass needed to be vital. People check the threads, make comments, etc., largely out of habit or routine, and once traffic slows to a certain point, it is very difficult to start it again. 

I am not sure if it is proper to call "diversity" or lack of it, a "weakness," but it is an issue that affects how attractive we are to new participants. Joel has sowed some seeds in that area by being more intentional than I was about seeking diversity in the Ecumenical Jury, and we've at least broached the topic in the Top 100 voting. The question of why A&F is so male-centric has been around as long as the forum has. I have noticed (and practiced) attempts to have more threads about films that deal with race, gender, or sexual orientation issues, and I am pleased that discussions in these areas, when they happen, are substantive and respectful, even if parties involved don't always share political, social, or religious assumptions. That said, I wonder if we can (or should) do more to promote diversity. 

Another hidden weakness comes in leadership's (mostly me, but I think I can include Joel and Andrew) relative ignorance of Internet technology. There are still parts of this forum that I don't understand how they work, because I am not an IT guy. We/I have been blessed to have inherited a good one. RAW (his screen name) is very responsive, reasonable in his prices, and has enabled me to invest minimal time and effort into learning how the forum works (and why, on occasion, it doesn't.) But as with administration, if there is no fall-back, plan B, then we'd be in a bad way if anything were to happen to him. I keep telling myself that I should invest more time into learning and teaching myself things like FTP, web coding, etc, but I should also exercise more, study more, write more, etc. 

4) Invitation for Questions or Comments?
Do you agree or disagree with anything I said above? Are there other issues I haven't mentioned that you'd like to raise? Here is the time and place to make comments, suggestions, express appreciation for the things that you like or frustration at something you'd like to see changed.

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3 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

1) Overall State of Arts & Faith

Forum use is trending up but is inconsistent/seasonal, with the most traffic being generated far and away at the Film Forum with Television a distant second and some scattered updates in the About You threads. Some of the the forums (The Good Life, Science, Theater, The Arts in General) may not have had posts in years or may get less than 1/2 a dozen posts in a year. This reflects the evolution of our membership, although the film forum has always been the most busy.

4) Invitation for Questions or Comments?
Do you agree or disagree with anything I said above? Are there other issues I haven't mentioned that you'd like to raise? Here is the time and place to make comments, suggestions, express appreciation for the things that you like or frustration at something you'd like to see changed.

This isn't constructive criticism or a cry of outrage - more a lament: I miss the activity we used to have in the Music forum. For a time, it seemed that area of the site might overtake, or had overtaken, the Film section. And even then, about 90% of the time the posts didn't excite me or get me to listen to new music. But that's OK; I never expected full engagement on every post. It's that 10% of Music posts that I miss.

A lot of this has to do with the disappearance from the board of Andy Whitman and Josh Hurst (and Jeffrey Overstreet, who wasn't quite as active in the Music area as he was in the Film forums), who frequently fed the Music forum. I always appreciated what they wrote - and how they wrote about it - even if I didn't share their passion for Arcade Fire, the Roots or Over the Rhine. I also enjoyed putting out the occasional feeler in the Music area about jazz albums, particularly new releases I might need to hear. Not having access to the music was a concern for many years - I've never been flush with disposable income to spend on CDs, although I certainly tended to spend more on entertainment than most of my friends - but in an age of Spotify, that's less of a problem.

Does anyone else miss the activity in the Music forum? I suppose a lot of this has to do with where/how we learn about new music. I've struggled to keep up with noteworthy new music for a long time now, but at least I tried, even as my go-to sources dwindled to only NPR and A&F. Now? I still check out NPR Music, but its "First Listen" area has withered on the vine. I mostly wait for year-end Best of Jazz lists to feed me titles I can explore throughout the next year - even though I haven't been all that interested in the titles that have appeared on those lists the last couple of years. My tastes change, sure, but even on the cusp of age 50, I still long for good music - new or old. I just wish this place was a key source of information from believers who appreciate musical excellence. It used to be. I wonder why it no longer is, or if it'll ever be again. I'd recruit people to post in that area - if only I knew people who were engaged in keeping up with new music and letting others know what's noteworthy in that area.


"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Christian, I'm with you -- I only ever frequented the Music forum on A&F and it was hugely formative for me for years. Having interchanges with people like (I'll not use last names here, but they should know who they are) Jeff, Andy, Josh, Thom (who left earlier than others and whose perspective I perhaps miss most), the Jasons, Kevin, you, and many others who have come and gone helped me enormously expand my musical palette, develop my confidence as a music writer, and develop ideas that later became articles and even my first book. It's almost the only place I've felt fully free to nerd out about music with a faith angle. I don't know what could be done to revive it or whether those conversations have migrated elsewhere -- I don't use Facebook to keep in touch with people I don't know in real life so maybe it's happening there? -- but having that specific space meant a lot to me and I do lament its withering.

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Thanks for the update and assessment. 

A thought: one of the reasons I think the board began to wane in the mid-2010s was that many of our social interactions with the groups of what I call "A&F people" moved to other forums, specifically social media like Facebook and Twitter. I'm noting a trend of people moving away from Facebook, as I have (still have the account and Messenger, don't post or read it) and Joel has noted he has deactivated for now, while others have abandoned Twitter. I wonder if the slow exodus of folks from those platforms will return people here? It might be worth reaching out to some folks on those platforms who have abandoned one or the other to let them know there's been an uptick in participation, even if a small one, on A&F during the pandemic.


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

Twitter.
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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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1 hour ago, Anders said:

 It might be worth reaching out to some folks on those platforms who have abandoned one or the other to let them know there's been an uptick in participation, even if a small one, on A&F during the pandemic.

I think that's a sound suggestion - not in any concerted, structured fashion, but organically and personally.  I reached out to one person who happily has popped back around.  I'll message Andy Whitman on Facebook; I really miss his distinctive voice, his encyclopedic erudition regarding music, and his well-articulated views on movies and literature.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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11 hours ago, Joel said:

I only ever frequented the Music forum on A&F and it was hugely formative for me for years. Having interchanges with people like (I'll not use last names here, but they should know who they are) Jeff, Andy, Josh, Thom (who left earlier than others and whose perspective I perhaps miss most), the Jasons, Kevin, you, and many others who have come and gone helped me enormously expand my musical palette, develop my confidence as a music writer, and develop ideas that later became articles and even my first book.

Joel, I actually thought of you too when I read Christian's post about the music forum. I appreciate the music perspectives of everyone you listed, and learn from them all, even when my own musical tastes differed.

Regarding the other points Ken raised above, I don't see too many I would strongly disagree with or even have a strong opinion on. I think it's a fair assessment of where we're at. I do wonder if inviting some folks who haven't been around here as much in recent years would be beneficial. I do think social media changed how people interacted with one another—folks ended up migrating more to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to discuss the arts, and sometimes to different platforms without being present on others (i.e. only Twitter, only FB, etc.). I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing...it's just a thing—social media has changed and continues to change how we interact with one another. A&F is an alternative to those other means of connecting.

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While I'm new to the forum, I too would love to see more activity in the music forum. I was a music junkie long before I was a cinephile, and I still try to listen to as much new music as I can, although this has diminished in recent years because of other responsibilities and less free time. My tastes are relatively wide-ranging, but I'd say most of my attention (and money!) goes to classical music; I enjoy following the careers of musicians (as opposed to thinking only in terms of composers and specific works, although that's part of the process too) and do my best to stay on top of new releases. Perhaps in this regard I could contribute something to the music forum (I don't know how many forum members are classical music lovers, but it'd be interesting to find out ... or just have discussions with people who love music in general).

Christian, I've had long phases in the past when I listened to a lot of jazz, everyone from Art Blakey and Chet Baker to Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Miles is my favorite musician, and I still listen to his music even if I'm not in one of those jazz "phases." Was listening just last night to some of the Fillmore recordings that Columbia released as part of their, um, "official" bootleg series. I don't really keep up with new releases in jazz, but perhaps we could talk jazz from time to time in the forum.

Ken, a technical question for you: whenever I start a thread or reply in one, I always make sure that "Notify me of replies" is on, and yet I don't get notifications about replies. I'm not sure if there's something else I need to do on my end. I did check an option for email notifications in my account settings, and I do get an email about once a day if someone posts a reply. But I don't get any notifications when I log in to the forum, but I do remember getting them when I first joined. Somehow that feature is not working now. Any thoughts?

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1 hour ago, Michael S said:

 

Ken, a technical question for you: whenever I start a thread or reply in one, I always make sure that "Notify me of replies" is on, and yet I don't get notifications about replies. I'm not sure if there's something else I need to do on my end. I did check an option for email notifications in my account settings, and I do get an email about once a day if someone posts a reply. But I don't get any notifications when I log in to the forum, but I do remember getting them when I first joined. Somehow that feature is not working now. Any thoughts?

I will look into this and ask my IT guy, but it may take a few days. I suppose you checked your spam folder? I usually get mind, but every now and then when I clean out spam I see that gmail doesn't always like computer generated subscription notificaitons.

 

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12 hours ago, Michael S said:

While I'm new to the forum, I too would love to see more activity in the music forum. I was a music junkie long before I was a cinephile, and I still try to listen to as much new music as I can, although this has diminished in recent years because of other responsibilities and less free time. My tastes are relatively wide-ranging, but I'd say most of my attention (and money!) goes to classical music; I enjoy following the careers of musicians (as opposed to thinking only in terms of composers and specific works, although that's part of the process too) and do my best to stay on top of new releases. Perhaps in this regard I could contribute something to the music forum (I don't know how many forum members are classical music lovers, but it'd be interesting to find out ... or just have discussions with people who love music in general).

Classical music lover here as well; more of a composer than artist guy, but not consistently.  Shostakovich is far and away my favorite composer, having done a survey of his major works in chronological order last year.  All that to say, I'd love to see more activity in the Music forums as well, and will do my best to contribute there in the coming months.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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20 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

I will look into this and ask my IT guy, but it may take a few days. I suppose you checked your spam folder? I usually get mind, but every now and then when I clean out spam I see that gmail doesn't always like computer generated subscription notificaitons.

 

Thanks, Ken. Funny enough, the notifications are working again, and I should probably clarify that these are the ones that show up in the top right of the screen, with the bell icon. I was getting email notifications, but only as a summary of all replies (as opposed to one email for each reply). I'll check to see if there's a way to "subscribe" to specific threads -- a feature that some forums have. That would work too for making sure I see any new replies to discussions I'm involved in. 

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9 hours ago, Andrew said:

Classical music lover here as well; more of a composer than artist guy, but not consistently.  Shostakovich is far and away my favorite composer, having done a survey of his major works in chronological order last year.  All that to say, I'd love to see more activity in the Music forums as well, and will do my best to contribute there in the coming months.

Andrew, it's great to know you love classical music too. It took me a long time to get to Shostakovich, but, when I finally did, he became my favorite symphonic composer along with Mahler and Beethoven. I love his seventh symphony the most (with the tenth just behind it). And I place his string quartets, along with those by Bartok and Beethoven, as favorites in chamber music. 

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40 minutes ago, Michael S said:

Thanks, Ken. Funny enough, the notifications are working again, and I should probably clarify that these are the ones that show up in the top right of the screen, with the bell icon. I was getting email notifications, but only as a summary of all replies (as opposed to one email for each reply). I'll check to see if there's a way to "subscribe" to specific threads -- a feature that some forums have. That would work too for making sure I see any new replies to discussions I'm involved in. 

It is my understanding that "notifications" (the bell) are for when someone quotes you, specifically. They can be affected if you have visited Arts & Faith on different devices (such as a phone or laptop). 

The emails are generated by the "follow" box in the upper right hand corner and notify you if you want to receive notifications that new content has been added to a thread, even if it is not specifically addressed to you.

Also helpful, and automatically generated (no need to turn it on or off) is the "Activity" tab in the upper left of the header. "All Activity" will show you, in reverse chronological order, all content generated at the forum. "My Activity Stream" allows you to limit this to activity in threads that you "follow" (the box in the upper right of the thread) or in threads that you started.

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Ken, thanks very much for this. I had overlooked both the follow box in the top right and the Activity tab on the left. This is very helpful. I'll use those functions to follow threads but will let you know if any technical issues arise.

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In a discussion about the 2020 Voting Process, Anders posted a couple of messages about Cousins's a story film that both resonated with me and touched on something I thought more germane to this thread rather than that one. Here's a quote from the second of two posts there:

Quote

I still think that we need to be careful in the framing of our counter-histories and critical attempts at broadening our scope. As Doan says, perhaps more specific to my critiques, coming from the academy: "An ungenerous soul might suggest that such a reading means its author hasn't set foot in a film studies classroom in the last forty years, since so many of Cousins' formal, historical and theoretical goals were long ago advanced by the academy. A more generous reading is that such a statement indicates the unfortunate lack of dialogue between academic and popular film criticism: what A.O. Scott admiringly calls "an invigorated compendium of conventional wisdom" might more accurately be called a manifesto of the already-written, a set of supposed rhetorical bombshells that exploded decades ago in other cinephilic spaces."

What does this have to do with "the state of the forum" (a thread I'm just now starting to realize is one of those periodic spaces to allow for communal self-reflection that are probably a little scary but also necessary)?

One of the biggest historic weaknesses of this community/forum has been an inability/unwillingness to examine/question/understand its members varying attitudes towards expertise in various fields. Some of the worst, most damaging effects of that blindspot has been manifested in things like: obsessions with post counts (says the guy who has deleted hundreds of posts), weighting votes in some lists by post count (as though having 150x more posts than Michael above makes me 150x more qualified to talk about classical music), old school blog rolls or ads in footers that created the perception of an A&F "elite" or inner-circle, the various uses of external links and what I've called "debate by proxy," etc. 

Of course, some of those practices have changed, but I'm not sure if that has been addressing the surface manifestations or some deeper roots. According to Deborah Tannen's and Brene Brown's research, guys are more likely to care about and try to be perceived as being more knowledgeable. In one famous example from Tannen's research, mixed gender groups were given topics to discuss and men were more likely to claim authoritative knowledge both in the control group and in the experiment group where a female plant had been made who was supplied with the topic and research about it in advance.

I do not want to imply or suggest that these dynamics are in play in specific posts/threads, but as the example that Anders posted above notes, there are difficulties as well as blessings that come with this group's mix of enthused amateurs and professionals at various stages of development. 

I have a Ph.D. in English. In the bottom right corner of my desk drawer, I keep an in-class essay I wrote in Freshman English (I got an A-) and a rejection letter from a journal for an article I submitted in graduate school which the editor compared to Jell-O I had thrown against the wall. One would think that being an expert among amateurs makes one more tolerant of criticism or challenge -- what do they know? Sometimes that actually happens. But I got into an argument with my wife of 30 years not long ago, catalyzed by my irritation that she would not defer to my opinion on some point of interpretation regarding Jane Austen. I knew she knew that I know more about the novel than she did. She knew that I genuinely wanted to hear her perspectives and not just be married to a sycophant, but...we are all human.

When I joined this forum nearly two decades ago, I didn't know who Robert Bresson was. I had never seen a Dreyer movie. One of the things that attracted me to the forum and made me stay is that the first person who held out the hand of friendship to me from the forum was also the one who, in my estimation, knew the most about film. (Had the widest breadth of film knowledge and critical reading.) He was also the most patient with me when I said/did something stupid. Conversely, I was often turned off by posts or people who sounded to me like people I knew in graduate school -- more concerned with sounding smart than learning. 

As my own breadth of film knowledge has increased, I've had mixed success in passing along that patience to others at a different stage in their film journey. (I was probably particularly uncharitable to Justin who possibly unfairly struck me as seeking career counseling rather than friendship -- I offered neither.) The politics forum, which I had little part in, seemed to me to also exaggerate that tendency (as it does everywhere on social media) of people having either a bias against expertise or refusal to acknowledge their own areas of ignorance. 

Speaking of politics, I think in America we are seeing some of the devastating consequences of cultivating rather than confronting our personal anti-expert biases. Maybe that's not a fair analogy. Nobody's going to die from listening to some half-baked film opinion. But to paraphrase Rob in High Fidelity (which is, alas, not in our Top 100), failure to cherish the people who know more than us about some things (even if we know more about other things) is relational suicide "in little tiny increments." 

Since I have joined this forum, a lot of people towards whom I have felt a wide spectrum of personal emotions, have worked hard to increase their knowledge in various areas. (Apologies if I miss anyone.) I have edited four anthologies (three on film) and published essays on Dreyer, Tykwer, and de Sica. I've been promoted from Assistant Professor to Full Professor (with Tenure). Steven has taken extensive training and been ordained a deacon in the Catholic church. (I'm pretty sure they don't just let anyone do that--you probably have to know stuff.) Leary and Overstreet have both begun and finished degree programs. I don't think it is an exaggeration to call Beth one of the foremost authorities in the world on matters pertaining to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and/or the Whedonverse. Darren doesn't just like Claire Denis's films, he has talked wither her about them. Joel just completed a dissertation on the Dardennes. Anders has completed a Films Studies degree and begun that weird and wonderful transition from student to teacher. Spitznas is a licensed psychotherapist -- he can prescribe mind-altering drugs people! (Also pretty sure they don't let just anyone do that, either.) I used to think I knew more about Antonioni than anyone here, just because I liked his films more than others, and within two posts, MIchael kinda blew that idea out of the water (in a good way). I found out, just this week, that because Christian identifies as Reformed, he has not only heard of my favorite theologian/preacher but can probably understand parts of his writing that are lost on me because of my ignorance of Reformed tradition and church history. I still don't like Sondheim much, but the fact that Evan does -- and has advanced study and practice in music -- makes me like him more and resolve to understand what I'm missing. 

I guess in sum, what I am saying, is that anti-expertise bias and what Tannen calls "the argument culture" has long been a weakness of this forum, but I think that is changing...and that makes me glad.

 

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