Xtranormal in Academia

Xtranormal is a popular video site that allows users to create their own animated shorts in just a few short steps. The company is planning to improve its educational features, but grad students have beat them to it. In the past six months, a rash of academia parody videos have been released through the site.

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Making Movies

Xtranormal is a website that makes it easy for anyone to make short animated movies. Users start by choosing a 'collection,' which contains a set of animated actors and backgrounds. They then select their actors and backgrounds, or 'assets,' and link them together in a storyboard. Finally, users make the movie theirs by creating dialogue that is spoken by the characters through computer animated voices.

As you can imagine, the site leaves a lot of room for silliness. It's a cheap and easy way to create parody, and they've even launched a mash-up program that allows users to splice their own voices with the faces of politicians. The videos get so popular that they often generate real world consequences - last year, a Best Buy employee was suspended after making a video mocking iPhone users.

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Into the Ivory Tower

Now academics are getting into the fun. Last fall, 'So You Want to Go to Law School' was created on Xtranormal and uploaded to YouTube. The video playfully mocks the idealism of aspiring law students, a parody that's particularly stinging in a time when legal jobs are scarce and college debt is on the rise.

Although that may not have been the first academic parody made with Xtranormal, it was the inspiration for a whole flood of follow ups. That same month, Leslie Allison, a an English Ph.D. student at Temple university released 'So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities.' The video portrays a cynical professor mercilessly cutting down an even more idealistic young English student. The video's dead-on parody of the trials and tribulations of academics made it an instant success.

Katherine McDermott, a reference clerk at the Pratt Institute's library, was also inspired by 'So You Want to Go to Law School.' She made 'So You Want to Be an (Academic) Librarian,' in which she sends up the rarified world of academic library professionals. The video portrays a fake job interview, the candidate complaining, 'I don't want to work in a public library. I hate children and poor people. I am very sensitive to foul odors.'

Other popular academic satirical subjects include journalists, historians, English professors, business students and yet more Ph.D. students in subjects like physics and political science.

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Beyond Satire

The education community has seized on Xtranormal for more than just humor. Ms. Allison teaches an undergraduate English class at Temple, and she plans to use the site for an extra credit project. Students will be asked to create a dialogue between two characters in a book they're reading or a philosophical debate between two authors.

And all the way back in 2009 public school educators were using the site to do things like animate Spanish lessons. The company has decided to pursue such uses further, with plans to release education-specific features by the middle of this year. It will also be offering a group subscription rate so that teachers can allow 20 students to access the same collection of actors and sets.

In the meantime, the parody videos continue to be the public face for Xtranormal in academia. And it's true that the bitter humor in the satirical videos can make them seem a little whiny. But speaking to The Chronicle of Higher Education, both Ms. Allison and Ms. McDermott emphasized the fact that their real-world professional experiences have been very positive. The videos are just an opportunity to let off some steam by poking a little fun at themselves and the rarified academic world. In fact, they are quite funny - search for them on Xtranormal.com or YouTube.

Xtranormal isn't the only site helping college students let off steam. College ACB has attracted controversy for its campus life message boards.

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