Sine Qua Nonsense

The Untold Story of the Original Telecom Grad Blog

As the Department of Telecommunications morphs into the Media School’s Communication Science and Media Arts & Production units, the Telecom Grad blog is also changing. Before we move forward, we must look back. Let’s explore the little known origins of the blog you are reading right now.

The Telecom blog was founded in the fall of 2010 by Director of Graduate Studies Harmeet Sawhney and the first bloggers, Nicky Lewis and Katie Birge. Their idea was to revive a tradition from the very first Telecom Department in history. Oxford University established its Telecom Grad Scroll in 1201. Since e-mail was a few centuries away back then, DGS Harrold Seaford, Duke of Texturia, would send Graduate Criers to faculty, staff and graduate students’ castles every Monday morning.

The grad scroll was groundbreaking for focusing on people’s hobbies rather than their research and official duties. It was especially innovative considering the fact that the notions of hobbies and leisure time weren’t even a thing during the medieval era.

“Hear ye, hear ye! Assistant Professor John Whitesmith enjoyeth forging his own swords during his spare time,” read a Crier from one early scroll. “Sayeth he, ‘it sootheth me while I worrieth about my chances of getting tenure. Also, it scareth the faculty members who may think of voting against my promotion.’”

In the 13th Century, stories about Intramural Battleship were very common, though post-game interviews with the players were rare. Let’s just say that college sports were very dangerous back in the day, even more than football.

The Grad Scroll was discontinued in 1228 by decree of the king, a graduate of the rival School of Mass Communication at Cambridge. “My alma matter shall remain the coolest of Comm departments,” he declared. “No more stories about extracurricular pipe organ lessons in Oxford!”

No king can decree to shut down the Telecom Grad Blog, but its fate is still up in the air, at least for ratings purposes, even if those behind the scenes know exactly what’s going to happen. The semester ends with a cliffhanger. Tune in in the fall to discover whether the blog will be permanently assimilated as the Media School Blog, wake up to discover this whole year was just a dream, decide to return to the island with Jack, find out who shot JR and Mr. Burns, or meet an untimely death!


Telecom alumna, Dr. Amanda Lotz, talks TV and her interdisciplinary journey

By: Niki Fritz

According to Dr. Amanda Lotz, the plan wasn’t always academia. She started out as a communications major at DePauw University, interested in management. But after one truly awful internship in the cellular telecom industry, Lotz jokes she “was just horrified by the real world.” She was tossing around the idea of going to law school when a fellow student’s presentation on the impact of medical dramas changed her mind.

“A light bulb went off and I was like ‘Oh, that’s how you talk about TV.’ I applied to grad schools and got into [the Department of Telecommunications at IU],” Lotz says. “The first week of grad school I thought, ‘This is what undergrad would be like if people did the reading.’ I loved it.”

Lotz jokingly referred to her last year as a master’s student at Indiana University as the “year of the divorce.” In 1997, the year Lotz completed her MA, cultural studies faculty left Telecommunications.  But her own studies benefitted from the presence of both social scientific and critical studies faculty in the same department, as she got exposure to both research on industry practices and critical studies. She in particular got interested in gender related questions in course of her studies at IU, which led her to pursue her PhD at the University of Texas in the Department of Radio-Television-Film.

At Texas, Lotz combined feminist critical studies with TV industry practices, a difficult feat considering the constantly changing TV landscape around the turn of the century. While Lotz’s dissertation focused on textual analysis of female characters, right around the time she was finishing her PhD there was an explosion of new female characters such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After receiving her degree, Lotz spent time reframing her first book, which was based on her dissertation, called “Redesigning Women: Television after the Network Era.”

Lotz landed in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, where she took on her next big project, “The Television Will Be Revolutionized,” a book which questions the general notion that TV was dying and contemplates the post-network era.

After tenure, Lotz explains that she was able to put more time and energy into projects she wanted like writing a text book on media critique and having children. Eventually, Lotz returned to explore the other side of “Redesigning Women,” the changing role of men in television.

“When I finished writing ‘Redesigning Women,’ I knew I wanted to eventually write a book about men although I didn’t know what it would be about … ‘Cable Guys’ was a trudge. I would reinvent the book every summer when I would think about it,” Lotz explains of the writing process. “Finally I got ‘Cable Guys’ published and then it was time to redo ‘The Television Will Be Revolutionized.’”

Lotz also contributes to the popular press, writing for and

“You have to jump through enough hurdles to [write opinion pieces],” Lotz says. “For me part of it is the conversations in the field are a little navel gazing. Writing for popular press forced me to think about why this matters. In trying to translate these things to a broader audience, I am trying to participate in the cultural conversation.”

Lotz says for her it always comes back to the questions. She told me of the first time she met Dr. Annie Lang.  It was at the orientation for her incoming class, where Annie asked her “What questions do you want to ask?” Lotz admits that she was a bit intimidated and unsure of her answer.

“I answered something I’m sure but it has taken some time to figure out the answer. I’ve realize it is all about questions,” Lotz explains. “The method and the theory comes later, but the core of it is the questions. That is most fun part of this job.”

Signing Off

By Mona Malacane

To quote Abraham Lincoln (the subject of one my favorite blog interviews) it was four score and seven years ago that the blog began, with Nicky Lewis and Katie Birge at the helm. Actually, instead of 87 years, it’s been about 5, so I’m exaggerating a little.

In these five years, you have read stories ranging from the art of tea and beer to lucky purple socks to words of advice from the department guru Tamera. We have featured the achievements of grad students and faculty, introduced new faculty and staff, and pondered the ebb and flow of the building buzz. If someone were to visit the grad blog to learn more about our program they would see that we are a group of hard-working, creative, entrepreneurial, fun, eclectic, inquisitive, and close-knit group of people. To borrow Harmeet’s favorite words, we try to capture the texture and uniqueness of the people in our department to bring you the human side of things.

Why all the nostalgia? Following the tradition of past writers, I am writing my (second to) last post as a reflection on the past, a look forward to the future, and a thank you to the faithful blog readers. In my two year tenure as a blog writer, I have written quite a few posts that I hope you all have enjoyed. A lot of energy, work, and planning goes into these posts – writing them can be a struggle to balance the right amount of content and intrigue while still keeping things light. I can usually tell whether I’ve achieved this level of equilibrium or completely missed the mark from the email Harmeet sends on Sunday evenings after he has read and edited the posts.

Sometimes he loves them!

Sometimes he loves them!

Other times, I can tell he was underwhelmed.

Other times, I can tell he was underwhelmed.

Whether my post was on point or not, for me, the most rewarding aspect of writing for the blog has been the opportunity to talk to and learn from people that I may not otherwise have had the common ground to interact with*. In academia, it is far too easy to gradually entrench yourself in a specific topic area and collaborate with the same/similar people. Yes, you interact with others in classes, when socializing, gathering data, and in the grad lab, but the bulk of our work is often done in isolation. Sometimes we just don’t have the time to make the effort to meet new people. Even if I haven’t kept in contact with everyone I have interviewed over the past four semesters, I am grateful for weekly assignment that required me to step outside of my box and into someone else’s for 30 minutes to an hour for an interview. Thank you for sharing your stories with me and all of our readers.

Every blog writer has a different taste and style, and adds something unique to the blog. Nicky and Katie are the OG’s, the ground breakers who worked extremely hard and paved the way for the rest of us; Mike and Ken wrote beautiful, almost artful posts; Teresa and Edo kept you on your toes with really unique stories (and kept things afloat while Harmeet was on sabbatical). I’d like to think that Niki and I have added a touch of humor, although Edo has definitely cornered the market on puns and satire.

Stylistic eras notwithstanding, we have all served as kind of de facto historians for the department and the blog has become our chronicle. My chapter is closing but a new one will open next year. New beginnings are on the horizon and the blog will be there to document them.

*The Monday morning croissants and French press coffee are a close second though.

Third Half with Amanda Lotz – April 24, 2015

Being Wired: How U.S. Television was Revolutionized

Amanda Lotz, Department of Communication Studies, University of Michigan

Lotz_Third HalfHow is it that “cable,” an industry that spent 30 years as the dark horse of US television, found itself, by 2010, as both the home of content and industrial practices that resurrected television, and as the gatekeeper to the Internet for 80 percent of American homes? Amanda Lotz presents the first chapter of this story — spanning 1996-2002 — as she introduces her new book that charts the unexpected story of how cable revolutionized television and its owners became the barons of the information age.

Water, Water … Not Really Everywhere

By Mona Malacane

About how many times do you think you wash your hands per day? Flush the toilet? Fill a cup of water or pot to cook? Ever wonder where that water comes from, or where it goes when you pour it down the drain? It’s a simple luxury that we enjoy every day (many times per day) but probably not something that many people stop to think about.

If your interest was piqued by these questions, you will soon be able to learn more about water systems through a user-friendly, interactive game created by one of our faculty. In collaboration with Dr. Shahzeen Attari from SPEA, Professor of Practice Mike Sellers is currently designing a game to educate people on how water systems work.

It’s a common misconception that when water systems have problems they are related to the quality of the water. The bigger problem actually is water quantity. Supply of water to an area that is being developed for residential, commercial, or manufacturing use must be balanced with the water that is needed by the existing population. This doesn’t sound very complicated but there is a lot more that goes into water system planning.  Mike and Shahzeen aim to explain this via a game.

“You start off with a very small well and a couple of houses, sort of Sim City-ish,” Mike explained. “As you have enough water and you’re drawing from a stream or ground water, your little community grows. But you don’t control that growth, it just grows because more people are attracted there, which means you have to increase the water supply. So maybe now you go to water tanks, or digging deeper wells, or you build a reservoir.” As the city continues to grow you have to make choices about where to build water supplying systems and how much these decisions cost. Do you dig a new well? A new water tower? Where should these systems be placed? Should you pull water from a nearby lake instead? How will this affect the surrounding areas?”

Dr. Attari was interviewed by Indiana Green Living magazine (2013) about her research on energy and water consumption.

Dr. Attari was interviewed by Indiana Green Living magazine (2013) about her research on energy and water consumption.

The game will also include challenges/issues that municipal systems deal with every day, like how to handle waste water from an upstream community. Another issue that you learn about is aging water systems and their maintenance. For instance, how to balance the budget of a growing community that needs to tap an additional water source (e.g. a new well) and also also maintain its existing underground pipes.

“The players come to understand, ‘ok here’s how I build a water system, here’s how I keep one running so I can keep my community growing,’ and also to some degree how the people who are creating and running these water systems have no control over how many people they serve.” In other words, the game gives people a look at the tangible and real issues that city planners and municipal water suppliers work through every day.

The goal of this project is first and foremost to educate and inform the general public about water systems. But Mike also hopes that through learning about these systems, people will pay more attention to water issues when they arise in their local communities and perhaps stimulate conversations during local government elections.

Shahzeen and Mike have been working together on this first version of the game since January with a grant from the Ostrom Workshop. Their plan is to continue working on it through the summer with a few of Shahzeen’s graduate students and an undergrad who is working on the art for the game. When the game is ready for release, it will be available on the web and friendly and accessible enough for people of all ages.

Jess and Cosplay: The Journey from Fan Conventions to Academic Conferences

By: Niki Fritz

Before I sat down with Jess Tompkins to talk about her former life as a cosplayer, I had seen pictures of Jess dressed up in amazingly intricate and realistic costumes on Facebook. I had assumed she was just a Halloween enthusiast when these costumes were actually part of a larger and more complex world of media fandom.

Jess started out by explaining that cosplay is not larping; to which I had to ask what larping was.

“As you can probably guess, [cosplay] is an amalgamation of costume and play. It is different from larping (an acronym for ‘live action role playing’). Larping is about being part of a narrative, taking on the role of a character in a story and it often involves physically acting out battles or fights,” Jess explains.

When I continue to look a bit baffled she explained: “[Cosplay] involves making a costume to portray a media character.  Anyone can purchase a costume but most passionate cosplayers want to complete their own costumes, including props, with their own hands. Some cosplayers even make their own costumes with others in a group setting and the costumes are usually worn at a convention. At the fan conventions, it is perfectly acceptable to just walk around in your costume, to pose with other fans and to pose with other characters for pictures.”

We started to flip through her old Facebook photos so I could get a better sense of what these costumes looked like. As we clicked farther and farther back on Jess’s timeline, I began to get curious about how she got involved in this less-than-mainstream world of fandom. Was she drawn to the media or to all the cool convention stuff first?

“I was into the media first. My brother and I were really close when we were teens. I used to watch him play video games and eventually I started to play, too,” Jess says. “We would play a lot of cooperative games together and then I started to venture into what I liked.”

Their hobbies and interests led her and her best friend to the Animazement Convention in Raleigh, NC. It is traditionally an anime convention but has branched out to include video games and comic books as well. It was the summer of 2008 and Jess hadn’t learned to sew yet, so her best friend’s grandma helped her make her first costume for a character from Dynasty Warriors 6 – Yue Ying.

“That was the catalyst moment,” Jess says. “I had a great time [at the Animazement Convention]; I met other people that had the same passion. After that I knew I wanted to do more cosplay and I wanted to make the costumes myself.”

Later that summer, Jess’s aunt bought her a sewing machine and she spent holidays learning to sew, and each year she made progressively more challenging costumes.  At Animazement she was also introduced to another part of the cosplay world: costuming clubs. These organizations usually focus on a particular media franchise.  Members of costuming clubs get together and help each other make costumes, often swapping skills such as sewing and metalworking. Jess was particularly drawn to Star Wars costumes, a franchise she and her brother had been interested in since childhood.

Jess wore her costume to the University of South Carolina for her class on the day she lectured about fan cultures, Fall 2013.

Jess wore her costume to the University of South Carolina on the day she lectured about fan cultures, Fall 2013.

“When I was a teen I spent a lot of time online, usually searching more about Star Wars. When I was about 13 I learned that there is more than the movies. There are more stories about the characters told in video games, comics, and novels. I consumed a lot of the Star Wars ‘expanded universe’,” Jess says. “I really enjoyed those narratives because there was so much more to learn about the characters.”

One character who stood out to her was a little-know bounty hunter named Boba Fett. Although Boba’s role in the official movies is small, he has a deeper narrative in the expanded universe.

“I loved Boba Fett because he was the morally ambiguous bounty hunter,” Jess says. “Like a lot of fans I was drawn to the armor. There was an aura of mystery about him. When I read the books I discovered that there is more to him than just being a bounty hunter.”

Luckily Jess found a group of Mandalorian (the type of armor worn by Boba Fett) enthusiasts in a costume club in North Carolina known as the Mandalorian Mercs, who met once a month for costume parties. The founder, who lived just an hour from Jess, helped her complete some of the complicated metalwork on her custom set of Mandalorian armor.

After completing her costume, Jess was welcomed as an official member of the Mandalorian Mercs costume club. The club often does charity events by dressing up in costumes and requesting donations for pictures. During her undergraduate years, Jess went to about 10 conventions including one of the biggest, Dragon Con in Atlanta. However, as she geared up for grad school in 2012, she realized her life in fandom was about to change.

“The main constraint now is time and money, the two magic ingredients. That was something I realized when I started grad school that I would have to make some sacrifices. Now, instead of a fan convention I am preparing for my first academic conference in May!” Jess says. “It has been an interesting, but exciting, transition. My dream is to be invited as an academic guest-speaker at a fan convention. I look up to scholars who are able to bridge the academy and speak to the fan audiences about their research. I would love to do something similar.”

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Seventh Brown Bag of the Semester – April 17, 2015


Lori Kido Lopez, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Mediating Hmong America: Participatory Cultures Beyond the Digital Divide

In this talk, Dr. Lori Kido Lopez will discuss the way that Hmong American media practices reflect a new understanding of how immigrant communities are developing and utilizing culturally specific media technologies in the digital era. Hmong Americans may be on the “wrong side of the digital divide,” but they are nonetheless exploding our definition of traditional communication technologies like “radio” and opening up new spaces of participatory culture for women and other disenfranchised communities.


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