Monday, December 4, 2017

International Scholar Comes to SDSU: Thomas Enemark Lundtofte

Visiting PhD Scholar, Thomas Enemark Lundtofte, sat down with Andrea Kade this semester to discuss why he chose to make the leap across the pond for his dissertation research and what the  term "curling" really means in Danish.

Education: Phd Candidate in Media Studies at University of South Denmark, MA in Media Studies and BA in Japan Studies  from Aarhus University (Denmark)
Thesis Topic: Young Children's Play with the DR Ramasjang App on Tablet Computers
Experience: PhD Fellow; University External Lecturer; Co-owned a Danish production company, Moon Dog Film; Author of articles about true crime documentaries
Residence: Odense, Denmark with partner, Johanne and their two daughters, Selma and Sif
Andrea Kade: First, I’d like to welcome you to Southern California and SDSU. Tell us what brought you to this university and what you are working on.

Thomas Enemark Lundtofte: In terms of my project, the main question I am investigating is how young children play with tablet computers. Specifically, I’m looking into how they play with an app provided by the National Danish Broadcasting Company, Danmarks Radio (it’s a historical name, they both television and radio). In 2013, they launched this app for young children, ages 3-7 years old. Virtually every single Danish child knows about it and uses this app. On a weekly basis, the Danmarks Radio app, Ramasjang has an outreach to nearly 50% of the Danish population within that age demographic and they have assessed that about 90% of that group’s population have used it at some point.

AK: Wow, that’s amazing! In America, you wouldn’t see that type of influence within any one particular app or show for any age group.

TL: Yes, and it’s obviously a language thing, when you have population of 5.5 million people, as we do. But having something in Danish, which also has a rich back history in over 50 years of television, allows for these characters to become known to the children. Some of the characters you might be familiar with like, Pippi Longstocking from Sweden—she’s also part of this public service environment oriented by ubiquitous Nordic values.

What I’m trying to understand is how children engage with this environment by looking at how they are playing. But, I’m not trying to impose any type of learning framework. I know it may sound kind of biased when you mention, what I’m not trying to do because it can push it into this “resistant type of research” category. However, I think it’s just important to underline how most research is framed within this particular category. For instance, you are a child researcher in another aspect of this very broad category, and you know children can be viewed as “human ‘becomings’ not human beings,” as I once heard someone term.    

AK: This reminds me of an article I once read about how children interact with human-like robots and how empathic they are towards them, as opposed to how adults treat these machines. It drew on imaginative play and other theories when researching a child’s interaction with this type of technology.

TL: Yes, it is very much like play theory and how children play with objects and in places. Building on that example, I’m also reminded of the familiar saying in film theory, “the willing suspension of disbelief.” You must be willing to play with an idea that someone is presenting to you, if they are presenting in a particular way that you can subscribe to or find convincing within the ethos of a narrative. Many of these concepts are also applicable to transmedia theory, another area I am interested in exploring as a frame of thinking. There’s a lot of scaffolding of knowledge for things you experience.

AK: In our correspondence you spoke about the app Ramasjang which is from a Danish broadcasting program that caters to young children ages 3-10, have you compared it to other US networks and their corresponding apps, like PBS/PBSkids (perhaps similar to your national network) and its apps, or Disney and their apps? Any differences or similarities?

TL: I’ve only engaged a little bit with the PBSkids app, but it is also in line with what I mentioned earlier on. With the PBSkids app, a specific focus leans toward specific learning outcomes for children. They also have this peculiar component for parents. There’s a parent app for PBSkids which allows them to monitor what their children are engaging with and can connect to whichever devices they use. So, if the child is playing with the PBS gaming apps, a parent can access progress bars to see if their children are playing around with science or literacy oriented content. But to me, this practice seems borderline dystopian.

AK: How so? Because we have a term called “helicopter parenting,” have you ever heard of that?

TL: Is it like curling?

AK: Well I know what curling is, but how is it applied in this instance?

TL: Danish parents use this term. Figuratively, it’s the sweeping of a broom in front of their child so they can ensure their child “curls” into the goal field. But curling is not a popular sport in most European cultures. It’s funny because, in a sense, everyone knows curling, but a lot of people don't know that it’s a sporting term until you explain that it’s something Canada plays in the Winter Olympics. 

It’s such a complex discussion because I can’t scientifically assess whether American are more “helicopter” parents than say their Danish counterparts. 

AK: Well, what is the PBSkids app saying about needing controls like that? Obviously, they believe parents want this feature on their app.

TL: I think handing these kinds of affordances to parents is very problematic, because what are they supposed to do with this data? Does it actually show how their children are progressing with the feature? If you align yourself with the basic assumption that children playing with tablet computers should be about learning, this device only measures interactions. The children could be engaging in other side play, like building blocks or making drawings, not what the child is thinking about at all.  Many of these games are structured around coercive behavior, therefore children are coerced into making the right decision. This also connects to the whole concept of transgressive play, and we need to think more about how we define the term “learning.”

AK: Because children are naturally curious? They like to figure things out themselves.

TL: Well, we all are.  Some psychologists talk about how children have a leading activity in the infancy stage until they progress to a more formal learning stage in preschool or kindergarten. They transition from “play” to “learning” as a leading activity.

AK: Would you consider your work to be in the area of ethnography? And can you describe why it interests you?

I should probably clarify that I’m not ethnographer, in the traditional sense. My partner is anthropologist and, if I were to say I was ethnographer, she would probably be bewildered, because you need to be immersed in a cultural setting for a period of time. Back in 2012, my partner did field work in Hawaii, and I was lucky enough to be there for some of the time, but what she was doing would be considered a type of ethnographic work.

What I’m doing is visiting seven different children from seven different families in their homes. One is a single mother household, but the other families have completely heteronormative configurations. I visit each household a couple of times, take video recordings, and prepare a few questions. But I try to take an organic approach, at least context related. For the first visit, we usually sit at the family dining table and the child will show me what he/she likes to do with the app and sometimes they will enter into a “play mood,” where I can’t even ask them “why did you that?” because they are so immersed—which in itself is kind of interesting. So, this work is ethnographically inspired because I am looking for certain “practices.”

At the round table discussion this semester, I was thinking how interesting it would be to apply the theories and research interests discussed by the faculty of SDSU children’s literature program and bring this knowledge into this type of practiced setting. It would be so interesting to see how a children’s literature scholar would approach researching this area.

AK: Did anyone, in particular, say something that stood out in your mind during the round table discussion?

TL: Yes, Dr. Mary Galbraith discussed a basic, epistemological problem with studying children. Of course, you can’t enter into someone’s thinking, but that goes without saying, but it’s a good disclaimer when you are trying to make any assumptions or statements about how people might engage with texts, products or content. In media studies, we use the word “text”, “concepts” or “media texts” when studying the content. It becomes an umbrella term for video game, movie or television show, because you consume it or approach it in similar ways.

Many researchers are engaged in this discussion about new media literacy or digital literacy, which naturally creates a convergence between the two areas. In Denmark, the way research and scholarly work has been conducted within media studies, partially stems from an amalgamation of Nordic literary studies and the social sciences. Textual interpretations are being paired with investigating perception within a larger set of statistical data. This mixed approach helps answer some of these questions that we like to ask.

AK: What can you tell us about American children and how they interact with their tablet or media devices? Can you pinpoint any cultural differences between American and Danish consumption of these technologies?

TL: Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to answer that type of question since I haven’t studied American families, like I do in Denmark. But, you bring up an important point. When you are observing someone from afar, especially a child interacting with a piece of technology, you don’t necessarily know what they are specifically doing or which app they are using. There is, however, this ongoing debate surrounding the concept of screen time and length of time spent using such a device.

AK: Do you see many children engage with smartphones and tablets in Danish restaurants like they do here in America? What are your thoughts on this?

TL: In the broad sense of children using these technologies, I’m sure there are vast similarities. Some researchers posit this particular phenomenon as a type of escapism for children from what might be termed as an oppressive environment due to its adult orientation. But this can be construed as a global consumption issue, mainly limited to the global north because of the access to this type of technology. But that’s a separate, but very important discussion that I’m not qualified to engage in concerning the uneven distribution of technology of the global north vs the global south.

AK: Is the tablet interchangeable with a regular computer?

TL: Specifically, I am only focused on tablets and the specific apps that create a basis for assessing common practices surrounding what’s technologically specific and content specific. Tablets and touchscreens, in particular, have allowed children to be able to operate these complex multimodal digital technologies from an earlier stage, as opposed to personal computers. In a sense, exploring how young children interact with these devices is ground breaking territory. But I don’t want to fully engage this popular notion that everything has been turned upside down due to the introduction of this technology and the childhood experience in itself.

AK: Can you tell me what type of children and young adult literature you encounter in Denmark? In general, what’s popular in your country?

TL: It’s a complex scene like it is in America, because there’s a lot of literature that tackles important questions inspiring critical thinking. There’s a pretty popular author, who has transitioned into television recently, Jakob Martin Strid. One of his books we’ve read to our daughter is Lille Frø (translated as Little Frog). This frog child lands in this frog family’s television and turns every situation into chaos

AK: Like Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat or Dennis the Menace?

TL: Yes, in a way. The frog family goes to this school psychologist or counselor for help, but Little Frog messes up that situation by lighting the psychologist’s’ hair on fire. The parents get upset and end up telling off Little Frog, empathically. He runs off into the wild and meets an old man in the mountain, which plays on a lot of stereotypes. We would expect this old, wise hermit type man to teach him how to be a good person, but Little Frog draws all over his face and ends up pissing him off too! The parents suddenly show up in a helicopter—there’s the helicopter reference!—and there’s this emotional reaction. Suddenly, the book fast forwards into the future where the family is visiting a museum that exhibits all the transgressive behaviors of Little Frog.

The illustrations are really excellent too! Before Strid did children’s books, he was drawing comics for newspapers.

AK: Kind of like Shel Silverstein and some other children’s author/illustrators.

There’s a lot of logic to the transitioning. His books are very popular in Denmark. But there are some cutesy books, which are very popular too. Some of these popular characters are also demonstrated in the TV content that parents access via Ramasjang.

AK: Have you spoken to Dr. Joseph Thomas (SDSU Children's Literature professor and visiting scholar sponsor)?

TL: Yes, but prior to my meeting him, I was told to read one of his books, Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry. I found out when I came here that it was actually translated into Danish, which I guess says something about its impact on the literary community. I’m affiliated with this research group at a different university in Denmark, called The Center for Children’s Literature and Media. One of the heads of this group, Nina Christensen, mentioned Dr. Thomas as a possible researcher that I could visit aboard. There were a lot of people in the Southern California area that I was interested in talking to. But, I also knew they wouldn’t be able to take me on as this visiting scholar, like Prof. Thomas and SDSU have done. This was a really good “in” and Dr. Thomas was the person who could facilitate a visit. It was motivated by these specific interests he’s presented in the transgressive play and the avant-garde, and I think it’s really interesting to talk to someone on the literary side of this.

AK: What insights did Dr. Thomas bring concerning the areas of frivolous or carnivalesque play?

TL: What I find interesting about Dr. Thomas’ work is, as you suggest, this carnivalesque or frivolous play aspect. I like to use the term transgressive, despite it being a loaded term, like carnivalesque and frivolous. But I think its specific in the way that it is “loaded”, because it pinpoints how this is something we can discuss as adults about something that children (and adults) do.

AK: Probably more so than ever with adults, in regards to frivolous play.

TL: Yeah. And I’m interested in Dr. Thomas' research areas because he’s very knowledgeable about how this relates to texts. In his book, he is talking about a lot of interesting aspects of poetry – some things I have a hard time fully understanding since I’m not in the literary field. One thing I find particularly interesting is the notion of children turning language into a plaything (Thomas 2007, p. 50). This process of taking things from the (adult) world and treating them as playthings is interesting because it tells us something about meaning-making. Play is worthy in and of itself – autotelic, so to speak – and therefore this notion of ‘meaning-making’ shouldn’t be taken at face value. Rather, it is culturally interesting to understand interactions that happen between human beings and material objects, texts included. As adults and people living everyday lives, we are concerned with things such as jobs and education. Matters like these are naturally very important, but the importance of these matters sometimes overshadows the cultural importance of play in the autotelic sense. Instead of focusing on the ABCs and the morals of stories in children’s literature, I think we stand to gain a lot of cultural insight and value from looking at play affordances and play practices in these works and the social situations they are emplaced in.

You can follow Thomas Enemark Lundtofte on Twitter @onlyfield

Many thanks to Mr. Lundtofte for granting us this exclusive interview! The NCSCL team would like to wish him great success on his academic endeavors and hope he enjoys his remaining time in San Diego with his family.  

No comments:

Post a Comment