Who is the Audience?


Who is the Audience?

Earlier this semester a friend confided in me that he was having trouble writing, and I callously guffawed, “It’s just a blog post”. How those words haunt me now. I have experienced an inordinate amount of consternation, conflict and ultimately exasperation in my previous three attempts to compose this post. Each time I wrote about a page, and then decided that I couldn’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t publish it on Cacophony. I felt like I was sinking into intellectual quicksand, the more I struggled, the deeper I sunk into a certainty that the writing I had spent an embarrassing amount of time on – literally hours – was for naught. As I sank lower and lower into the mire I began to ponder the thoughts and emotions that I felt were stopping me from blogging. I had set out to write a quick post about my research on blogging and I felt as though the very concepts that inspired me to conduct my research were the same forces that were making it difficult to write about this research. In brief, my work focuses on how the medium in which students compose expressive writing – on a blog as compared to in MS Word – interacts with their cognitive and emotional processes and the ways they write, and I am subsequently exploring how these differences can be measured, and ultimately making an argument for why these differences matter. After discarding the first draft of this post I chuckled at the thought that I couldn’t blog about my dissertation on blogging but hours later – still with nothing to show – I wasn’t laughing anymore.

First I attempted to write about my preliminary results.  stop#1

What I’m noticing is that over time the participants are using more evaluative language – meaning they were investing more meaning and effort into their work. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath poised to compose the next sentence. All of a sudden I was in front of my dissertation committee, a stern silverback professor hand on chin in the thinker pose questioned, “But in that blog post you wrote, you stated that evaluative devices would increase and now it seems that is not the case. Can you explain this?”

you suck porsche

I woke sweat drenched in a dark room, a red streak where my  face had pressed against the keyboard. No, no, I decided I  certainly couldn’t blog about my preliminary results.

Well, I thought, what if I write about my coding schema.stop#2

That seemed like a safe idea. I’d even begun describing it in cursory terms in my never to be published preliminary results. I again began banging away at the keyboard, this time describing the syntagmatic narrative-coding schema. But how could I describe this coding schema in a way that seemed relevant and meaningful to an audience not from my mini-niche discipline? How could I convince readers that the system I had spent hours fine-tuning with my adviser and research assistants was meaningful and worthwhile? Should I cite numerous theoretical and research articles in my blog post? If so, should I use APA, MLA or Chicago style and if Chicago would this be Chicago I or II? Even these questions seemed like they would bore readers to sleep. Furthermore, wouldn’t readers want to know at least what my preliminary results of this schema were? And I was still collecting data – what if some of my participants happened upon this post and then changed the way they were writing? No, oh no, I thought, this post on my coding schema would not do. Let me try something new.

Finally, I thought let me describe my methods.stop#3

Ah yes, I can just use some of what I’ve already written in my proposal and this will come easily. But of course it didn’t. The excerpts from my proposal were too dense and psychology specific. I decided to rewrite the methods with more accessible language. When I was nearly finished I realized what I had written was in fact better than my proposal and therefore could serve well as at least part of the method section for my final dissertation draft. And if I wanted to use it for my dissertation draft or perhaps for future publications than I had best not web-publish it. Why not a reader might wonder? As a psychology PhD candidate I’ve though a lot about whether to digitally publish my dissertation. What’s pushed me towards a traditional paper dissertation is the American Psychological Association guidelines, and subsequently any APA journals, that state a manuscript should not be more than 30% similar to work that is previously published. Without getting too far into the gritty details if I blogged my methods section it would make it difficult to use similar wording for future publications.

I’ve used this post to work through and make sense of my thoughts and emotions.

After writing about these fits and starts my audiences seem much less intimidating than when they were bottled up in my mind. In truth, unless I send them the link I don’t think my professors nor my participants will read this piece – and even then… Nor is it likely that whatever I wrote about my coding schema or methods would be identical to what I will write for future journal articles. One question is – does it matter that in “real life” these scenarios were unrealistic? In real life, I was wrestling with these thoughts and they were enough stop me from being able to or at least made me feel as though I couldn’t blog – which is sort of the same thing in the end. The power of these imagined audiences was literally paralyzing. Perhaps too, I was struggling to write about my dissertation because this work is so important to me, and I have yet to figure out how to distill the main points into a concise and accessible blog post. The struggle described in this post has likely moved me closer to being able to do just that.

There is also something very real about imagined audiences. And the commonality between my three false starts was my struggles with these audiences and the very real – though perhaps difficult to exactly define – audience of Cacophony readers. I was struggling to imagine Cacophony’s audience and therefore I was having trouble framing my argument in concise and accessible language. And what do those words really mean? Concise and accessible to whom? Business faculty, communications specialists (I’m not even sure what that means), psychologists, educators, linguists? I should admit I’m new to Cacophony this semester and though I did browse through some previous posts – it was by no means an exhaustive search – so maybe this has been answered. And maybe I’m feeling a bit of what Sarah Ruth Jacobs described on this blog in 2011 as The Academic Crisis of Audience. But enough caveats here’s my question to you reader: who is the audience for this blog?

Think! Think and wonder. Wonder and think.

Think! Think and wonder.
Wonder and think.

Applying Writing Across the Curriculum Principles in Management 3800 Courses

Riffing off Josh’s thoughts about Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY, I want to consider whether WAC can be meaningfully implemented even though fellows have, as Josh puts it, “wildly different experiences.” His characterization of the WAC programs at CUNY is spot-on. Over drinks this past weekend, I discussed assignments with some friends who are also beginning their fellowships and we discovered just how much they diverge across the colleges (I know, that’s some riveting bar talk). While the divergence speaks to the unique program needs at the different colleges, this inconsistency is at odds with the monolithic way WAC was presented during this summer’s orientation for new fellows. So I thought I would use this space to work through how standard WAC principles might apply to my particularly non-traditional assignment coaching Management 3800 students on the delivery of their in-class debates.

Initially, it was a bit bewildering to me to be a Writing Fellow whose work doesn’t directly relate to writing. Dare I say that I failed to see how my role coaching oral presentations could possibly have anything to do with the approaches to assignment design that I spent two days evaluating and preparing to put into action during the WAC orientation. However, having met with the professor whose courses I am supporting and gotten a sense of his thoughts about debating and what he is looking for, I now see how implementing WAC practices could help his students meet these expectations. To this end, I generated the following ideas that integrate WAC principles into aspects of the debate assignment:

WAC Principle: Scaffolding

Debating well requires various skills related to effective communication, like “the ability to subordinate ideas,” “the ability to think and speak in outline terms” and “the ability to adapt” (I am borrowing this language from a document the professor distributes to the students at the beginning of the semester). Because students must develop these related but different skills, it makes sense to scaffold, or break the larger, high-stakes assignment into a number of lower-stakes, skill-specific activities. Last week I visited the classes to introduce myself and there was a palpable fear among many of the students about the prospect of debating in front of their peers. For these students, the stakes, indeed, are high. Scaffolding the assignment to enable progressive mastery of the skills needed to debate well would likely help alleviate their anxiety and build their confidence. In coaching sessions, I then could ask students struggling with a particular aspect of communication to recall the skill-building activity from class.

WAC Principle: Reflective Exercises

Related to the above, assigning metacognitive activities that ask students to reflect upon their own reasoning process could support the development of communication skills. For instance, exercises might prompt students to ask themselves why they thought it made sense to present their points in this order versus any other, or why they thought this was the most convincing evidence to present here to support an assertion versus evidence that might be held in reserve. This kind of reflective strategy can help students internalize—rather than memorize—their debates, enabling them to adapt more readily in the moment. Metacognitive reflection also emphasizes that a successful debate is “a process not just a product”—a WAC slogan that was repeatedly thrown around during those two days of orientation.

WAC Principle: Develop a Voice

Students who have a strong voice for their opinions are better able to communicate with confidence and thus convincingly engage in a debate. Using VOCAT as a tool for students to orally engage with current issues related to their coursework would help them develop a voice. Or, setting up a course blog where students express their ideas and respond to their classmates can give them a chance to exercise their voices in a lower-stakes setting which simulates the exchange of opinions in a debate.

Currently, in the Management 3800 classes with which I am working, the debate assignment is not scaffolded in the ways I describe here. While I discussed these ideas (rather gingerly) with the professor, I do not feel particularly empowered as a WAC fellow to encourage him to adapt his assignment design. My role is to support the students in meeting the oral challenges of the assignment as it stands (it seems this is the institutional precedent for how fellows are to work with Management 3800 courses). There are obvious obstacles to accommodating scaffolding in the course, including a.) the way the debates are spread out over the semester (with the first debate occurring only a month in) and b.) the likely reluctance professors would feel toward revamping their course structure.

The size of the class is also something to consider. During a past semester, the professor I am working with had a particularly small class so that students gave two debates rather than one. I asked him to reflect upon whether he saw a difference in the performance when students were debating twice and he gave a resounding yes. His exact words were, “the learning process from the first to the second debate was incredible.” But with twenty-eight regularly enrolled in the course, he can only fit each student into one debate a semester. In this light, the case for scaffolding in Management 3800 becomes even stronger.

When the heart wants art

“What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie,” asks Dylan Farrow in her open letter printed in Kristof’s blog on February 1st. Annie Hall! The part where they’re on her roof. . . ha! . . . with the  subtitles! . . . oh my gosh, and how much would I kill to be able to pull a Marshall McLuhan from behind a movie poster when I need him?! . . . wouldn’t Zizek love to be fished out in those circumstances?. . . the best! . . . and I looooove Duane: “I tell you this as an artist because I think you’ll understand. . .” ha! Ha!


In the days after Ms. Farrow’s letter I read every blog post: the response; the response to the response; the Vanity Fair articles; posts of those in the know, in one inside circle or the other; the posts of those who authorized the posts; and tried to fathom the details made public to us.  Like you, I engaged in debate over those tenuous details. Woody Allen’s guilt or innocence suddenly was at the silent center of taste. Do I love the films of a child molester?  It was the question behind Dylan Farrow’s initial question: what’s your favorite Woody Allen film?  And therefore, something came to be at stake in Allen’s guilt or innocence in the way that the art that we love becomes a part of us, no simple affiliation.  People declared their outright disgust, rejecting his body of work, condemning everything he’s ever made and maybe even claiming it testament to the crime. Others claimed his innocence, displaying encyclopedic knowledge of the original 1993 allegations and the proceedings of the investigation.  And then others still went for a plea bargain, allowing that his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn was socially unpalatable but that didn’t make him a criminal.  This would perhaps be followed up by a reference to Charlie Chaplin’s marriage to a rather young lady, which lasted the rest of his life.

Important discussions about sexual violence, abuse, divorce, and the power of Hollywood erupted around the recent articles. And another longstanding problem in regard to art reminded itself to us as well.  What do ethics and art have to do with one another?  The image of the good artist who is also a “good person” is less familiar to us than that of the suffering artist type.  Take a few from Allen’s own films: the growling and miserable Max in Hannah and Her Sisters or the members of the lost generation drinking their way through Midnight in Paris, for example.  What we call selfishness or self-destruction in others often gets the rap of romantic in the artist.  We mind so little that our artists often end up with a shotgun in their mouths that we might even come to expect it.

But again, how do we resolve the problem of art and ethics, or what do they owe to one another?  Charles McGrath, in his June 21, 2012 article in the Times, “Good Art, Bad People,” asks the uncomfortable question of the relation of good art to the bad person, creating a regular rap sheet of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

Probably the most frequently cited example is Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was such that he once wrote that Jews were by definition incapable of art. Degas, a painter often praised for his warmth and humanity, was also an anti-Semite and a staunch defender of the French court that falsely convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Ezra Pound was both anti-Semitic and proto-fascist, and if you want to let him off the hook because he was probably crazy as well, the same excuse cannot be made for his friend and protégé T. S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism, it now seems pretty clear, was more than just casual or what passed for commonplace in those days.

[. . .] Norman Mailer in a rage once tried to kill one of his wives. The painter Caravaggio and the poet and playwright Ben Jonson both killed men in duels or brawls. Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys.

The article begs the question of who really suffers for art:

A more extreme example is Hemingway, whose domestic record is less inspiring than his artistic one: four marriages and at least two screwed-up sons. In November 1952, just after his 21st birthday, Gregory, the youngest (and arguably most talented) of Hemingway’s three children, wrote to his father: “When it’s all added up, papa, it will be: he wrote a few good stories, had a novel and fresh approach to reality and he destroyed five persons — Hadley, Pauline, Marty [Martha Gelhorn, Hemingway’s third wife], Patrick and possibly myself. Which do you think is the most important, your self-centered shit, the stories or the people?”

Tim Parks approaches it from another angle in “Writers Into Saints,” from February 11 in the New York Review of Books:

Over the last ten years or so I have read literary biographies of Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Hardy, Leopardi, Verga, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, Moravia, Morante, Malaparte, Pavese, Borges, Beckett, Bernhard, Christina Stead, Henry Green, and probably others too. With only the rarest of exceptions, and even then only for a page or two, each author is presented as simply the most gifted and well-meaning of writers, while their behavior, however problematic and possibly outrageous—Dickens’s treatment of his children, Lawrence’s fisticuffs with Frieda—is invariably described in a flattering light. We’re not quite talking hagiography, but special pleading is everywhere evident, as if biographers were afraid that the work might be diminished by a life that was less than noble or not essentially directed toward a lofty cause.

However, Parks’ resistance, immune to the halo effect produced by art he loves, no more solves the question than McGrath’s condemnation does.

Beyond the editorial verdicts, France graduated this moral judgment to the fully social scale when the Ministry of Culture was forced to cancel the official celebration of French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline after a public backlash around his anti-semitic writings.  The government responded by quietly removing his name from the list of figures to be honored that year.

What will the Oscars look like this year?  As questions post to blogs about whether or not Cate Blanchett’s Oscar hopes will be dashed by the recent scandal and MGM tries to assuage my fears by embedding quotes from Annie Hall on my Facebook account, the question is still misguided.  The chasm between aesthetics and ethics remains one we are troubled by.

What role should art play?  Should it be purely mimetic, recording what we live as we understand our living it with all the questions we struggle under ourselves?  Or do we want an art that gives us answers?  Should it be responsible? Do we feel like it fails us when it’s still just a human being creating the condensed version of our feeling, providing us with so much humanity only to learn we can’t admire their failures in the real version of what they create better by illusion?  We want much better truths. Isn’t it the myth and not the mythologist that we love anyways?

As though we don’t want anyone to know we didn’t know it was a myth.  We still believe in stories maybe especially because we’re disappointed by life.

Like Alvy Singer says, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”.

McGrath ends his piece with a real shrug of the shoulders, a note of disappointment that the figures he names have failed to live up to the humanity that they create.

“It reminds me of that old joke- you know, a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs.”

Don’t Read Your Presentation… Unless You’re a Professional Scholar in the Humanities

Last week I paid a visit to the sections of the management courses I’m supporting this semester to introduce myself and explain the logistics of how I would help students prepare to deliver polished in-class presentations. The gimmick I came up with for this exercise was to parody an example of terrible public speaking: I stuck my nose up to the sheet I was holding and proceeded to read my one-paragraph introduction word for word from the script without ever looking up, and did so while speaking at a barely audible volume and nervously hurried pace. Every word I said was also projected upon the screen behind me, which I faced during most of the time I was talking—with my free hand shoved in my pocket. After confirming the students’ suspicions that I—a representative of the communication institute—was indeed pulling their leg, I asked them to dissect my poor presentation style and tell me what I did wrong. Unsurprisingly, they identified all of the obvious flaws in my performance (though I didn’t appreciate them ripping in to my attire), beginning with the fact that I was reading my speech. I, of course, reaffirmed that while it is fine to talk from notes, they should not read their entire presentations. As in other moments of my work at the BLSCI this year, though, my thoughts in the post-presentation reflection centered around the discrepancies between what I tell students to do and what I actually do in my own academic life. And this time the cause of my hypocrisy is… drum roll please… the read conference paper.

I know that criticism of the humanities conference presentation format in which scholars read their papers aloud to one another—maybe glancing up every few sentences to show “engagement” with their audience—is nothing new. This cheeky play-by-play account of the experience of being in the audience for such a paper surely resonates with many of us. But I’ve had to develop my personal disillusionment with conference presentation style on my own terms, and it has been brought into greater relief through the presentation coaching I’ve been doing. The first thing I ask students during a session is to tell me what their main arguments are. Well-prepared students usually proceed to convey their points enthusiastically and articulately without consulting their notes much; they’ve researched their topic thoroughly and have unconsciously internalized the pertinent information. Then, when I ask them to do a practice run of their presentation, in many cases these same students start reading a prepared script; the delivery is usually halting, stiff, and, quite frankly, boring. Now, I know that texts can be crafted and recited in ways that make them sound interesting and, conversely, that presentations that don’t rely primarily on reading are not automatically mind-blowing. Defenders of the read conference paper often point these things out. Obviously, any good presentation takes plenty of preparation and practice. But I’m going to go ahead and argue that, all other things being equal, reading a paper is an inherently less effective method of sharing knowledge orally than other approaches.

Look, ma, I can read!

Don’t get me wrong: I too have perpetuated the read format in my conference talks. It’s hard to depart from deeply ingrained disciplinary practice, and the risks involved with breaking from the manuscript are high for graduate students looking to impress their scholarly seniors. Moreover, as Julia has written in this forum, preparing extemporaneous presentations is just plain harder. So here’s a challenge to myself first, and my colleagues secondly, for us to be more consistent with the standards we impose on our students. If we give lower grades to undergraduates who read through their presentations in class, why would we tolerate it from each other in professional contexts? I propose that conference applications should include, in addition to written abstracts, an evaluation of oral delivery. Indeed, this could be an interesting application of the BLSCI’s Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool (VOCAT). Preparing non-read presentations that are well-organized, compelling, and adhere to time limits will likely take more time than simply writing and reading. Maybe this would reduce the number of academic conference papers presented every year; those of us who have witnessed or participated in numerous panels at large conferences at which the panelists outnumber listeners would likely welcome this development. And for me, at least, the prospect of raised standards for oral presentation at academic conferences would make me more likely to spend my time and money to attend them.

The Complexities of Creative Projects

Honing my teaching philosophy statement last year, I measured the lofty ideals I express there against my actual teaching practice.  I assert that “theatre classes provide an opportunity for an insistent merging of theory and practice, and for a blending of the creative and the critical,” and I write that “I always ask students to engage artistically as well as intellectually with the course material.”  It is true that, over the past few years, I developed a scaffolded writing assignment with my theatre history students called the “dramaturgical notebook,” a semester-long, multi-part project that asks students to imagine a contemporary production of a play, and requires a number of different modes of analysis, types of research, and styles of writing.  But the assignment is, in essence, a series of papers.  If I really believe that “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” then why do I hesitate to ask students in my advanced theatre courses to do creative projects (but feel fine about it in my intro classes)?  When I do assign creative projects, why do I fail to give them the same weight as critical analyses?

My ambivalence stems in part from the long-standing divide that exists in many college theatre departments between the “practical” and the “academic” classes.[1]  Creative projects are often reserved for acting and directing classes, while the “real” critical work is done in the theatre history or the dramatic literature courses.  My first semester teaching at CUNY, I was advised against assigning a creative group project in a theatre history course.  I was told that the students in the course should focus on writing rather than performance, and that creative projects of that sort were for the intro classes. Afraid of making waves, I abandoned the idea and hewed to the syllabi used in previous years, teaching the same plays, using the same textbooks, and giving similar assignments.

I am now in my fourth year there, and, armed with experience and a record of good observations and student evaluations, I felt comfortable taking some calculated pedagogical risks. Assigned to teach an upper-level writing intensive required course for theatre majors, I set up a number challenges for myself this semester: to put the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) strategies I studied last year into practice, to use technology to improve student writing, and to merge theatre theory and performance practice in a real way in the classroom.  I was fortunate enough to have a remarkable group of students—smart, engaged, and hardworking—who were up for helping me to accomplish this.

Meeting the first of my two challenges, I had students set up and maintain their own WordPress blogs, posting responses to prompts that I provided for each of the plays we studied during the semester. The blog posts were practice for the semester’s major writing assignment: a 2,000 – 2,500 word critical analysis of a play, chosen from a list of five. I used the blog prompts to encourage both critical and creative thought.  For example, to prime students for the creative project, I asked them to describe and justify a set design for Chekhov’s The Seagull, to write about how they would direct the bear scene in The Winter’s Tale, and to analyze a character from The Glass Menagerie as if they were cast in a production of the play.  For the creative project then, I asked students to respond creatively to the play they were analyzing in their critical essays and to present this response to the class.  I suggested that they might, for instance, create and present a set, lighting, projection, or costume design, perform a monologue or scene, describe a directorial vision, or compose and perform music for their play.  An “A” project, I told them, will demonstrate a clear connection between the critical analysis and the creative project, provide a compelling creative interpretation of the play, and be well-planned and rehearsed.  The critical analysis and the creative project would count as the same percentage of their final grade.

During the three days of presentations, there were some truly stand out projects, but watching my students read monologues, show drawings, and present video clips and audio tracks, I had moments of doubt: Were these projects really worth the same weight as the paper?  Would my colleagues deem them silly, the results of an inappropriate assignment for an upper-level class?  Did the students learn anything from them or were they a waste of valuable class time?

But when I asked my students how they felt about the experience of doing the projects, they unanimously expressed that they were valuable.  One student pointed out that she has difficulty with the linear thought and argumentation required in papers; she found it liberating to be able to express her ideas creatively instead. I realized that my feelings of doubt were rooted in a lingering bias about what constitutes academic rigor.  I thought about one of my mentors and a model of exemplary teaching, Omi Osun Olomo, whom I had the pleasure and privilege of assisting during my Master’s program at the University of Texas.  She writes in a piece about her performance “Sista Docta,”

“Performance is a form of embodied knowledge and theorizing that challenges the academy’s print bias. While intellectual rigor has long been measured in terms of linguistic acuity and print productivity that reinforces the dominant culture’s deep meanings, performance is suspect because of its ephemeral, emotional, and physical nature.”[2]

And later, “Performance is theory.  It need not be written about in order for its theory to be present.”[3]  Her words remind me that creative engagement is deceptively demanding, inherently theoretical, and always instructive.

Of course, there were some very thoughtful projects and some less thoughtful—just as there would be with any assignment, creative or critical.  But the fact is that each and every creative project demonstrated a level of engagement with the play text that rivals that presented in the papers. A student, whose paper compared Sam Shepard’s Buried Child to classical Greek tragedy, wrote an eloquent and illuminating monologue for one of the play’s main characters in the style of Sophocles and presented it to the class.  One student did a projection design of an imagined production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, creating a series of abstract paintings that express the title character’s confinement in her class and gender roles.  An aspiring makeup artist presented detailed face charts for all the characters in Maria Irene Fornes’s Mud.  She presented three different designs that moved from realistic to very distorted and expressionist. (Her paper discusses the expressionist techniques used in the play.) An actor/director filmed a trailer for Buried Child, carefully selecting the moments from the play that best show his paper’s argument that the characters are haunted by their past. The students who performed monologues in essence performed close readings of passages from their plays, embodying for the class the evidence that supports their theses, rather than writing about it.  Those who designed costumes engaged deeply with the play’s characters—analyzing them in terms of both their literal and symbolic functions within the play—but the work manifested itself in images rather than text.

I remain committed to giving creative projects and critical analyses equal weight in my theatre classes, but I see now that still have a way to go to overcome my own prejudices, before I can assert that  “embodiment is epistemology,” that “creativity is a form of knowledge,” and really mean it.  I realize in retrospect that, despite my best efforts, I still privileged the critical analysis over the creative project.  I conceived of the creative projects as coming out of the students’ papers when, in fact, it might be useful to imagine it the other way around; perhaps a creative response to a particular play could lead to a strong thesis about its content or form.  In the future I will adjust the assignment, asking students to start generating ideas for the project earlier in the semester, to work on them alongside their papers, rather than as an afterthought.  As I grade my students’ final papers this week, I will be thinking about what the experience of assessing the creative projects might have to teach me about assessing critical writing.  Through the process of developing and implementing the creative project, I learned that, while students have an easy time moving between critical and creative analysis, bridging the gap between my pedagogical theories and practice is not always so easy.

[1] See Shannon Jackson’s book Professing Performance for a history of Theatre Studies in the academy.

[2] Joni L. Jones. “’Sista Docta’: Performance as Critique of the Academy.” TDR, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), pp. 51-67. 53.

[3] Ibid., 55.

It’s a pity that kids these days are all getting involved with ____.

Sexting? Catapults? That thing that electrocutes your abs? All-you-can-eat shrimp for $4.99? Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II? (Come on, guys, clearly a throw-away.) The miracle of childbirth? Hmmm.

Some people seem to be natural joke tellers. They have mastered the genre. They know how to draw attention from a crowded room. They know how to set up expectations and develop a story. And, most importantly, they know how to surprise expectations with an unexpected punchline. They can tell when to go silly or ironic or vulgar; they can read an audience. They are, in fact, they’re expert rhetoricians, who can use these varied sensitivities to touch their audience’s funny bone. For the rest of us, there’s Cards Against Humanity.

Image shows a raucous gathering between White house including then-president Ronald Reagan and veep George HW Bush. Caption reads “. . . and then we announced trickle down economics and they swallowed it without any questions”. Credit for this meme goes to blogger charlesfrith.blogspot.com

Cards Against Humanity is a party game modeled after the award winning Apples to Apples. It works on the same basic principle. Every round one person plays judge, drawing a card with a prompt that the other players will respond to. In Apples to Apples, prompts are an adjective, like “melodramatic” or “spiritual,” while in Cards Against Humanity they are fill-in-the-blank sentences. All players have a hand with random nouns, potential answers to the prompt the judge exposes each round. (The full starter pack of Cards Against Humanitiy is available for free download at http://cardsagainsthumanity.com/ )

Image shows two Cards Against Humanity cards: the black “prompt” card reads “In his newest and most difficult stunt, David Blaine must escape from __.” The white “punchline” card reads “My inner demons.”

These games remove most of the tricky bits of joke telling and reduce it down to pure, specific rhetorical savvy: know what will make a specific audience laugh. No more worries about delivery, pacing, set-up–just deliver the perfect punch line to suite one audience-member’s taste: no need to worry about pleasing the whole room, either–you just need to size up one person’s taste and craft the perfect joke. Does this judge like irony? Is he cued in to pop culture enough to get this celebrity reference? Is she old enough to remember Shaquille O’Neal’s acting career, or is it safer to go with a sex joke? Does he like his punchlines silly, vulgar, dark, sly, clever? The only “right” answer is the one that wins over the judge, that earns the point. All other answers, no matter how thoughtful or clever, are wrong. The more rounds you play, the better you get to know each judge’s taste. And if you pay close attention, soon you’re pitching each judge the perfect joke.

Recently, at a game night with friends, I got to thinking about how games like these could be used in a writing classroom to teach students some important lessons about rhetoric and persuasion. One of my advisors, Mark McBeth, plays a game with his students to teach them about classical means of persuasion–ethos, pathos, logos. He puts his students in a scenario where one has a dollar and another student tries to come up with the right argument that will convince the first student to hand over the dollar. Will it be a sob story, a reasoned argument, a claim to honesty, a song and dance . . . what interaction will lead to the desired result?  After a few rounds of the panhandling game, students go away to read and write about rhetoric with a newfound understanding of the practical challenges of knowing your audience and the tactical advantages of planning your argument with savvy and skill.

Like Cards Against Humanity, Mark’s panhandling game removes many of the tricky bits of real-life rhetorical situations, allowing players to focus on their choices as rhetors, rather than on, say, the pressure of initiating an encounter or the fear of rejection. It’s just a game, after all. But unlike Mark’s game, these rhetorical party games, because they’re about telling jokes and making people laugh, allow players to get to know one another as people with complex and idiosyncratic sensibilities–a great bonding experience in a writing classroom. It gives players a concrete understanding of what it means to appeal to an audience–often a difficult concept for students to grasp in the abstract or on such high-stakes tasks as essay writing.

So, could games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanities be used in the writing classroom? I think so. I’d have to be careful, of course, about designing the activity and an appropriate followup writing project to build on the experience. I think it’s certainly worth a try. Let’s play! Might be funny.

The Ole Miss Project

Two weeks ago, a news story lit up my RSS and Twitter feeds. A college production of The Laramie Project at the University of Mississippi–better known as Ole Miss–was disrupted by homophobic shouts from football players in the audience.

Ole Miss Rebels player L.Q. Smith scores a touchdown against Notre Dame in 1977

For me, this was a play that seemed dated in its activists tendencies. The play has even seen a celebrity TV version on HBO–a sure sign for any activist cause that the last vestiges of controversy had been stripped out of an artwork and remade for mass consumption. This is a play we teach in our theatre history classes to explore the sociopolitical climate of the 1990s and early 2000s. There has even been a revisiting of the source material, when the Tectonic Theatre Company went back to Laramie ten years later. The original play was stuck in its activism of the identity politics era, so even the original theatre company needed to update it. But obviously, this view was the result of my location within the echo chamber of East Coast liberalism and the academic theatre. In fact, a play like this can still reveal much about communities in which it is performed. As was evidenced by the reaction at Ole Miss earlier this month.

Despite the way that the play is usually advertised as a play about the dangers of homophobia, it is actually much more complex look at a small town in the midst of the media circus surrounding the Matthew Shepard murder trials. This community view–and not the simplistic moral “don’t hate gay people”–is the lasting importance of The Laramie Project.

When I took part in a reading at my college over a decade ago, we were caught up in the liberal, feel-good project that this play afforded us on a mostly like-minded small liberal arts campus. Our play was not activist since we were performing for the choir, After the performance, everyone, actors and audience together, could share a good cathartic cry and feel good about ourselves that we had taken part in this piece of important political theatre.

Not quite agitprop, but still thinking we were doing important political theatre

Not quite agitprop, but still thinking we were doing important political theatre

The production at Ole Miss, however, seems to have brought renewed life to this play that I had dismissed as dated. The Laramie Project at Ole Miss brought up many stereotypes. Not just the stereotypes held by the disruptive audience members. Stereotypes that out-of-touch liberal East Coast elites hold about the South.

If a production of this play can provoke this kind of outburst from students at Ole Miss, then obviously the themes touched on in the play are not as outdated as I assumed. There are places in this country where this kind of play is still dangerous. Of course, you might say, this was Mississippi, we expect that the students would react negatively to this play. We should not fall into the trap of painting all students at Ole Miss with the same stereotype.

The coverage of the event is telling. The New York Times–that grey lady of stodgy East Coast elitism–made sure that its readers knew that Ole Miss was only forcibly integrated in 1962 and that racist protest against the President occurred there as late as 2012. These events seem unrelated to the homophobic disruption that occurred in the theatre–unless you want to make sure to paint the Southern university as a hotbed of anti-liberal hate speech. Is this context or merely replaying the stereotype of Southern backwardness that seems so prevalent up North? But we must remember that the students on stage were also Ole Miss students.

Don't let Northern stereotypes define them!

Don’t let Northern stereotypes define them!

On the other end of the reporting spectrum, ESPN.com wanted to make sure that its readers knew that the school couldn’t verify if student-athletes were responsible for yelling slurs during the show. Is this just another way to make sure that student-athletes aren’t held to account for their actions on campuses that devote most of their resources to football? Or am I merely stereotyping the school’s treatment of its athletes?

In the end, one of the actors, Garrison Gibbons, wrote a moving and very public statement about the incident.

It would be easy to characterize what happened last week as the fault of just 20 to 30 football team members, but that would be unfair. This wasn’t a football team against a theater department. There were others in attendance that responded in kind. Let us instead use last week’s as reminder of why we chose this show and why it–and shows like it–are important.

As instructors, it is also important for us to remember that these football players were required to attend the production as part of their Intro to Theatre course. Making your students attend the school productions seems to be a near-universal assignment for Intro theatre courses, it is one that I know I have used in my Intro Acting courses. Could the instructors teaching these courses have better prepared their classes for this event? I wouldn’t have thought that I needed to spend class time instructing my students not to shout homophobic slurs at performers. So maybe that “we’re past this” mentality contributed to the problem. If we don’t talk about it in our classes, that doesn’t mean these problems don’t exist.

As Gibbons reminds us, this thirteen-year-old play can still be used as a tool to foster discussion, if we are willing to use it as a medium for discussion rather than merely a means to preach to the choir or to blame our detractors.


On a Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, I ventured to the South Bronx to conduct a college admissions essay writing workshop at a church.  A high school classmate of mine contacted me on Facebook and asked if I could teach a workshop for her church’s annual college fair.  I jumped at the chance to give back to these students just an ounce of what I had so fortunately received as a high school honor’s student twenty years ago.  Loaded down with handouts and sample essays, I bummed a ride to the train from my sister to brave the onslaught of weekend service changes.  As the train meandered from the Northeast Bronx where I live, to the South Bronx where the workshop was being held, I wondered if I would be able to convey the importance of writing as a process to the high school students.

This was the first time I would be teaching a college admissions essay writing workshop, and for the most part I made no assumptions about the high school students, except that based on past experience teaching Verbal SAT courses, I was sure they would ALL be afflicted with “senior-itis.”   How does one get teenagers who’ve been in church all day to focus on writing an admissions essay?  How does one get teenagers to focus on something besides their electronic lovers (ipods, mp3s, phones)?

Luckily, my self-absorbed tendencies require undivided attention when I teach, so I began the workshop with getting the students to write a good hook.  I read my nephew’s draft college essay which left a lot to be desired, especially since he spent less than an hour writing it, and it showed.  Most of the students came to the same conclusion I did after reading my nephew’s draft, BORING.  After our collective symbolic yawn, I told them to write a hook.

One student wrote that she had overcome sooooo much and that she had accomplished a lot.  When I pushed her and made further inquiries as to the specific circumstances she overcame, I realized that for this young lady, her success was indicative of just being able apply to college.  No illness, no hardship, no impoverishment, no violent surroundings.  Nope, she was successful just because she was young, beautiful, and black and going to a college she had yet to apply to.  Don’t you just love the youth?

After pushing her and some other students further, I realized that it was the first time many of them recognized that writing was a process.  Then came the lightbulb moment for me, I was trying to convey to these students in less than an hour, practices that normally takes years to cultivate.  I pushed one energetic male student in particular, to come up with a hook and he just couldn’t do it.  Then I asked him what he loved to do, and he replied with his eyes and body lighting up like he was seeing fireworks for the first time: “Drums! I LOVE playing the drums!”  I asked him what the first sound his drums make when he plays.  He said: “DING!”  My last question to him was, “how does playing the drums make you feel?” He gave me one of the best hooks I’ve ever heard:  “When I play it’s like I’m creating something beautiful for the world, something magical that everyone can feel. It’s amazing!”  I said: “Well, there you have it, you have a hook and it begins with Ding! Congratulations!”

What followed was a strange few minutes of watching this creative young soul try to conform his great hook into an even more boring version of my nephew’s essay. This young passionate drummer questioned whether he “could really start his hook with, the word Ding?” After watching him try to ‘standardize’ his hook, I reminded him that he was applying to colleges specifically to be able to continue playing the drums during his collegiate career, and perhaps earn a music scholarship.  These admissions officers needed to be wowed by his essay, which should reflect his passion for music.  These students were uncomfortable writing for different audiences and writing different genres.   He didn’t realize that he wasn’t the typical college student applying to a liberal arts program, his writing had to be tailored to the musical interests he would continue to pursue in college.

I only had a few minutes to left to teach them about a good closer, and as usual there wasn’t enough time.  As I walked back to train station for the slow subway ride home, I could only hope that these students continued to work on their essays on their own time, and work through the process of writing.  How great would it be to come across a college essay that begins with a “ding” to take to a reader into the mind of this young man’s passion for drumming?  I hope he was brave enough to embrace his creative writing style.

Tomorrow I’ll meet with Baruch College students who have literature reviews due in two days.  I will consult with them on their papers and help them tailor their papers in way that their anthropology professor will find acceptable.  Hopefully, these students will embrace the different writing genres in the discipline and both they and their professor will be open to my advice.  When I sat down to write this blog piece, I only gave myself an hour to finish writing it.  Let’s just say I didn’t meet my time requirement.  Writing is a process, and in my struggle to write a good closer right now, I am reminded of my train ride to the workshop two weeks ago.  Sometimes the journey can be a meandering slow ride, especially when MTA isn’t going your way, but when I can express my passion for writing, teaching and helping students and be moved by one “ding!”  It was worth the ride.


Anything You Tweet May be Used Against You in a Court of Law…

As is becoming increasingly clear, the United States government is laying claim to virtually all forms of electronic communication. The latest revelations tell us that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been, since at least 2007, working with private corporations to monitor and archive the emails, phone calls, text messages, and internet browser histories of millions of people. The secret program, called PRISM, is part of a disturbing pattern of government surveillance in the years since 9/11.

While the details of these programs are still in the process of being disclosed, many Americans, as this New York Times piece suggests, have become resigned to the idea of a total lack of privacy in the digital age, assuming that nearly anything they type into an electronic device could be subjected to government snooping.

I’m certain that our students have internalized this notion. As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, young people are increasingly aware that their internet activities, including on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, may be viewed by potential employers and factored into hiring decisions. This thought is horrifying enough, but the reality is that more than just employers are interested in mining your data:  corporations want that information for advertising profits, and the national security apparatus wants to run your Tweets and status updates through A.I. keyword algorithms, collecting and archiving justifications for your future arrest and incarceration. Do I sound paranoid? Maybe. But with the New York State Assembly currently considering a law making it a felony (like, prison time) to “annoy” a police officer, please excuse my cynicism.

So, how do we address these issues as teachers of communication? Since it’s basic psychology (and physics) that the act of being observed alters a subject’s behavior, we can assume that the wide cultural awareness (whether conscious or unconscious) that our digital life is being observed by forces potentially hostile to our interests (whether those interests be securing employment, maintaining realities free of personally-tailored consumer propaganda, or avoiding being black-bagged and subjected to extraordinary rendition by private security agents) changes the way we and our students behave online. Since I’m the type of person that frequently experiments with charged political language on social media, I’m often running my thoughts through a legal processor in my mind before clicking “Post,” wondering if what I write might be projected on a screen in front of me someday while a cigar-chomping investigator asks me accusingly what I meant when I posted a photo of a kitten dressed up as Che Guevara on Christmas morning, 2008.  And I’m afraid I won’t have a good answer.

Are my fears overblown?  Again, maybe.  I’ll concede that, being a historian of the Cold War era, I’ve internalized a certain amount of pathological distrust for giant security states. And I’m definitely pre-programmed to become immediately concerned that government surveillance intimidates and silences people that are working for social and economic change, exactly the kind of voices that we need to be listening to and honoring at this moment. But beyond the political stuff, I suppose my main concern for our students is that they will be even more cautious in their digital lives, fearing that they might not “get a job” if they post anything deemed offensive. While it’s important for them (and us) to be thoughtful about the ways that we communicate online, that impulse should not come from fear of punitive action from companies and governments. It’s frightening and disheartening to think that, at the very moment that humanity develops technology with seemingly infinite potential to foster connection and innovation, particularly for young people, elite forces are hard at work creating the practical and psychological frameworks to put severe limits on that evolution.

Finding Your Objective

I was a shy kid.  Participating in theatre helped me gain confidence and find my voice, or at least a voice—or, more likely, many different voices.  I was aware of many of the freedoms theatre afforded, such as a path leading beyond inhibitions and a space to explore alternate identities.  But I wasn’t cognizant of one of the central lessons imparted: that whenever you communicate, you occupy a certain position, you have an audience, and you have an objective.

As the academic year comes to a close and I reflect on my work supporting Business Policy students as a Writing Fellow, as well as teaching Speech Communication, it occurs to me that one the most important skills I’ve worked on with students is that of speaking with purpose and awareness of audience.

Who is your audience?Photo: the Globe Theatre, London, 2008, by Poliphilo.

Who is your audience?
Photo: the Globe Theatre, London, 2008, by Poliphilo.

It is a common practice in various offshoots of method acting for an actor to identify the objectives that drive a character’s every statement and action.  The idea is that people speak and do in order to get things from other people: things as concrete as money, or as abstract as sympathy, affection, affirmation, respect, etc.

Yet so many classroom presentations seem to flounder in the face of this question: what is the speaker’s objective?  What does she want to get out of the communicative act at hand?  In a classroom context, this question sometimes seems irrelevant.  Students, after all, know they are fulfilling required tasks for educational purposes.  I’m becoming a great enthusiast of presentation assignments that simulate a context, audience, and set of objectives more specific than those implicit in a classroom exercise.  Without this clear premise of situation, role, and audience, classroom presenters are often at a loss as to how to present with “professional demeanor” and “awareness of audience.”  I suspect it can sometimes feel that the expectation for them to do so is contrived and unnecessary.

The final group presentation for Business Policy 5100 is an interesting example.  While the assignment varies from professor to professor, many versions require students to inhabit the position of some kind of consultant, and to speak to a particular audience such as a company’s board of directors or potential investors.  Students this semester, mostly graduating seniors, told me that while they had given plenty of presentations throughout their years at Baruch, they had little or no experience embodying a professional role and speaking to a simulated professional audience for a classroom assignment.  This is no easy feat.

I wonder now how the exploration of this role-assumption could be practiced in class throughout the semester, rather than just in this last assignment.  After all, discussing what someone should do in a particular situation is different from embodying the scenario itself—a lesson that I suspect any academic discipline could borrow from the realm of theatre and performance training.