Making Americayana (Part I)

Inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, Song Exploder, I’ve decided to do a series of blog posts about the making of my new album, Americayana.

One of the questions that I’ve gotten a lot over the last few years when it came up in conversation that I was working on a alternative country album about Hindu mythology(no, seriously, it did actually come up in conversation) was: how did you get interested in all this?

The truth is that I’ve been interested in “mythology” – which we’ll define for the sake of expediency as “shared narrative traditions concerning the heroic or divine” – since I was a small child. In first grade, when each of us had to bring a book to read to the class, I chose a child’s adaptation of the story of Demeter and Persephone. From Greek mythology, I moved on to Arthurian legend and Celtic myth, and designed my own major in Comparative Mythology at Oberlin College.

It was at Oberlin that I first found out about the story of Rama and Sita, in a class on Hindu Mythology taught by one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had, Paula Richman. Through her classes and her books (I can’t recommend the edited volumes Many Ramayanas and Questioning Ramayanas highly enough) she made me see not only what great stories were contained in this diverse narrative tradition, but also how compelling they had been – and still are – to millions of people across thousands of years. I learned about not only the historical epic, first written down in Sanskrit between 300 BCE and 300 CE, but about how these tales still provided models for how people could and should live their lives in media as diverse as 1980s state-run Indian television and Indonesian shadow-puppetry. I learned about the ways these stories were still vibrant in everything from art-house LGBT cinema to fundamentalist politics and everything in between.

I was, in short, hooked. One of the subjects of my honors thesis was the relationship of Rama and Sita, and I went on to do a master’s degree and several years toward a Ph.D. in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School, studying (among other things) the way that tellings in different media changed the story of the Sita’s trial by fire and uses of the Rama story in anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist activism. I spent a summer in Jaipur, Rajasthan, studying Hindi. And while I never did finish that Ph.D., I also never lost my love for these characters, or for the storytellers who have brought them to life over and over in so many different forms for so many centuries. Americayana is my own humble contribution to that tradition, and over the rest of the posts in this series I’ll share some of the stories behind the songs.

Of course, if there’s anything specific you’d like to know about, leave a comment and I’ll be sure to address your question. Thanks for listening!

Announcing “Americayana”

I’m very pleased to announce the completion of a project that I’ve been working on for more than five years now, a solo album called “Americayana.” I’ve been describing it as Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger meets the Ramayana: each of the ten songs on the album reimagines part of the ancient South Asian epic in 20th-century America, using the idioms of country, blues, and early rock. I spent years studying the narrative traditions surrounding Rama and Sita, from Sanskrit texts to Bollywood retellings, so I’m excited to add my own humble contribution to this particular sea of stories.

The album is currently available to stream and purchase on Bandcamp.com, with other streaming and download services available soon, and a limited number of physical copies (CDs! How quaint!) will be available on cdbaby.com in the near future.

2016 Mixtape: Elegy for a Dumpsterfire

It’s that time again… time for the end-of-the-year mixtape. While I usually just choose my favorite tracks from the year, it felt like this disaster of a year needed to be reflected in the song choices, so you might notice a little more of a narrative embedded in this year’s selections. Here’s to a better year ahead.

#heweb16: a reflection

I just returned from the annual conference of the Higher Education Web Professionals Association, held this year in Memphis. It was my fifth national conference for this organization in six years, with a handful of smaller regional events in Michigan scattered amongst the same timeframe, and the third conference where I’ve been involved in helping to choose presenters and keep the show running during the week.

In the course of those years, I’ve noticed that there are a few words or phrases that you tend to hear a lot over the course of HighEdWeb, and I’m not talking about acronyms, buzzwords, or terms of art. I’m talking about phrases like “I’ve found my people.” Even LeVar Burton (of Roots/Reading Rainbow and Star Trek fame), who presented a powerfully moving keynote on Wednesday, said it. But what exactly does that mean? Attendees at HighEdWeb tend to be fairly widely distributed in terms of their job functions — they are writers, programmers, videographers, designers, social media managers, marketers, and more (sometimes all at once). What brings us together, I think, are three things:

  • an fascination with and curiosity about this incredibly quickly-evolving meta-medium we call “the web;”
  • a commitment to higher education, despite the fact that most of us could probably be making a lot more money in the private sector;
  • a belief that, if you’re going to be spending eight-plus hours a day doing it, then damn it, work should be fun.

Another word that one hears frequently at HighEdWeb, often half (but only half) jokingly is “therapy.” Many of us work in places where we are one of just a handful (if we’re lucky) of web workers, where the people around us don’t understand the strategy, resources, and sweat that are needed to go into building and maintaining a website that effectively serves the students who are our primary audience. Our work is often thought of as some sort of arcane magic, or, worse, something that pixel-pushing and button-mashing trained monkeys could do. To be surrounded by 800 other people who understand the joys and frustrations of the work we do, and to learn that every school has pretty much the same problems, can be a powerful experience, one that truly makes you feel like you are less alone in the world than you might have thought.

Particularly among the group of people who volunteer many hours of their lives toward putting together this event, those first two concepts—”finding one’s people” and “therapy”—seem to coalesce into another word that I heard a lot this year: family. It’s a family that I’m glad to have been adopted into, and one that I look forward to sharing many memories with in the years to come.

Content Sheep & User Grass

(also posted on Medium)

There is probably an entire introductory economics textbook to be written using negative examples from the higher ed web world (the sunk cost fallacy in relation to content management systems comes immediately to mind). The one that is most evident to me as I fight through my first redesign at the university level, though, is the distributed authorship model and the concept of the tragedy of the commons. I’ve written before about the problems with distributed authorship when it comes to the quality of content produced, but in this case the issue is really sheer quantity.

If you’re unfamiliar with the tragedy of the commons, it’s the idea that, given a shared resource, rational actors are incentivized to consume as much of that resource as possible, before the other actors can do so. This leads to the eventual, often permanent, depletion of the resource. So for example, farmers grazing their sheep on public land have every incentive to have their sheep consume as much grass as possible, despite the fact that this may ruin the land and eventually make it unsuitable for any grazing at all.

At first glance, the problems with the distributed authorship model may seem like exactly the opposite problem: in the distributed authorship model, our content creators are incentivized to overproduce, rather than overconsume. Our tendency on the web has long been, “when it doubt, put it up.” After all, webspace is nearly infinite, and the (perceived) cost is basically zero. As a result, we rarely think to ourselves, “Why am I putting this online? Does it serve an actual purpose for actual users?” So when faced with the question of whether or not to put something on their website, each content creator, in charge of a small territory of, say, a dozen or two pages, may rationally think, “I’m not positive that anyone actually wants, needs, or is looking for this information. But someone might need it someday, so why not?” Now multiply that decision across dozens or even hundreds of content creators — none of whom is aware of what the others are doing — contributing to an institutional web presence, and we wind up with hundreds, even thousands of pages of content that no one (including their creators) really cares about. This useless content chokes search results pages, leads users down rabbit holes of irrelevant or outdated content, and drains staff efficiency by forcing them to both maintain more and more web content *and* to deal with phone calls from confused and frustrated users who can’t complete the tasks they’ve come to the website to do.

How is this like the tragedy of the commons? If we think about it, in the distributed authorship model, content is not the finite resource — our users’ attention span is. Our users’ attention is the grass, and our content is the flock of hungry sheep. That content devours our users’ attention to the point where they throw up their hands in frustration and simply pick up the phone, or worse, give up entirely and move on. If we want to sustain this finite resource, some measure of governance must be put in place. Requiring our editors to work with a centralized strategist in the creation of any new content, rather than giving them free reign to create pages as they see fit, would be an excellent start.

Press Play: Resources

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a couple of presentations at the CASE Multimedia Workshop. One will be a reprise of last year’s “Serial Effect” presentation, while the other will be a new one entitled “Press Play: Engaging Constituents Through Games.” Below are a few resources mentioned in the presentation that may help if you’re interested in adding some gamification tactics into your communications tool box.

Evaluating Web Content

At my day job, we are in the early stages of a massive redesign and reorganization of the primary website at Roosevelt University. With nearly 100 content editors spread across two campuses, you can imagine that the amount of content on our site is pretty intimidating. If a website is a garden, ours has, in parts, gone back to prairie. A key component to taming this beast is going to have to be the institution of more clear and concrete content governance rules. One of the tools I’ve been toying around with for this purpose is a set of questions to ask stakeholders every time a new piece of content is requested, and whenever an old piece of content is reviewed. The questions are heavily influenced by Eileen Webb’s A List Apart article, “Evaluating Ideas,” which is a very quick, very worthwhile read.

Here is the set of questions so far:

  1. Who is the primary audience for this content?
  2. What task does this content help that audience complete?
  3. What business objectives of the University does this content fulfill, and how?
  4. How will audiences find or be driven to this content?
  5. Are there other/better channels through which this content can be communicated to the audience rather than through a webpage?
  6. Who owns this content?
  7. Who will maintain this content?
  8. How often and when will it be reviewed for accuracy, etc.?
  9. What would  constitute “success” for this content, and can we measure it?
  10. Under what circumstances would this content no longer be required and need to be removed from the website?

If you use a similar set of questions for ensuring your organization’s web content retains a high level of quality, I’d love to hear how you use them, and how they might differ from the ones listed above.

My 2015 Mixtape

I started making yearly mixtapes back in high school, when a family friend offered to trade me a subscription to Rolling Stone each Christmas in exchange for keeping her up to date on what the kids were listening to in those days. While I now have not the slightest idea what the kids are listening to today, the wonders of the internet allow me to share that annual mixtape with many more friends, plus a few random strangers. I hope you enjoy, and have great 2016.

Recording: Church Service in Fiji

Back in October, my wife and I were fortunate to be able to take a trip to Fiji, and during the part of our stay when we were in the Yasawa chain of islands, were able to attend a church service in the village of Soso on the island of Naviti.

Music is everywhere in Fiji, and churches are no exception. I recorded some of the songs (and a bit of the preaching) before and during the service. A big vinaka to the church members for allowing us to attend, and for welcoming us so whole-heartedly to their village.

#heweb15 or bust

This coming week, I’ll be attending the Annual Conference of the Higher Education Web Professionals’ Association (aka HighEdWeb) in Milwaukee. This is the fourth national HighEdWeb I’ve attended, and the second year I’ve co-chaired the Management and Professional Development track. I thought I was getting off easy this year, as it was supposed to be my first not putting on some sort of presentation (assuming you count the Johnny Cash cover band in Austin back in 2011), but as it turns out I’m also a late addition to a discussion panel during the Leadership Academy on Sunday.

If you’ll be there, please come up and say hi; if you’ve never been, but think three days of web nerdery, karaoke, Cards Against Humanity, and finding your tribe sounds like fun, start saving up those professional development dollars. You won’t find a more welcoming bunch of introverts in the Western hemisphere.