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, 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.

Be Interested?

A few weeks ago, at the SUNY Council on Writing Conference, I heard Richard E. Miller give a fascinating keynote called “Who’s this for?: Audience in the Classroom without Walls.” What I found most exciting about his remarks was his description of an assignment he gave a creative nonfiction class: Be Interested. My understanding of what this means is that Miller  asked his students to “produce a research project that others would read willingly.” My first reaction was of the “I want to steal that assignment” variety.  But as I thought more about the prompt, I began to wonder if a student would be as excited as I was. Miller mentioned that he had students who grappled with questions like “How do you become interested in anything?” and struggled with finding a way to experience curiosity in a moment when information is “superabundant.”


The more I toyed with this kind of assignment, the more I found myself wondering more about what I’d actually be asking students to do, what it actually means to genuinely be interested in something, and what that might look like in writing. A cursory glance at the OED shows that the word “interest” is defined using terms like “concern,” “curiosity,” and “sympathy.” But, interestingly, one definition also lists “to share in something.”

The idea of “sharing” seems central to composing, at least to me. But, often, I think it is this component–that of engaging and collaborating with an audience outside of the “teacher”–that I think might be lacking for many students (and here I’m thinking specifically of the freshmen I work with). To return to Miller’s prompt–I suppose the “assignment” is really to be interested and to be interesting. And, I also suppose that in an environment where students are perpetually in some kind of rubric quest, this probably feels very very scary.

But, on the flip side, this kind of opportunity is one that we should hope students encounter more and more. As Gardner Campbell points out:

We might begin with a curriculum that brings students into creative, challenging contact with the history and dreams of the digital age, perhaps in a first-year experience that asks them to reflect critically on their own digital lives as well as begin to shape and share their own digital creations, both intramurally and publicly. Research into the neurobiology of learning, building on decades of educational research, has shown that students learn deeply when they are asked to narrate their learning, curate their creations within the learning environment, and share what they have curated with a wide and, when appropriate, a public audience. As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests.

This excerpt is from part 4 of Gardner Campbell’s excellent series of posts on “The Road to Digital Citizenship,” this one subtitled, “Fluency, Curriculum, Development.” Campbell connects student investment in their own work with developing a pedagogy that allows for rigorous reflection on what it means to live a digital life. Campbell also makes the important connection between “sharing” and “publicness,” an important link where the truly interesting might occur through the kinds of conversation digital compositions enable.

Asking students to approach this kind of inquiry marks an important shift in the definition of what it means to write an “academic essay.” I wonder if what is actually happening is a return to Montaigne’s sense of the essay as a “series of attempts,” or Francis Bacon’s “dispersed meditations.” By encouraging students to “be interested” and “curate their creations,” the usual chore of the “paper” becomes more of an experiment in invention or “making.”


It is no coincidence that “Composition as Explanation,” Gertrude Stein’s sonic exploration of what it means to “create a composition,” employs the verb “to make” as one of its central repeated words. For example: “This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.” This work is also the first time that Stein refers to her sense of a “continuous present” which was crucial to how she thought of her own process.

steintokEducation writer Audrey Watters lists “The Maker Movement” as one of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012″ and describes the importance of this kind of pedagogical approach as, “we need more learning by making, through projects and inquiry and hands-on experimentation.” When we actually ask students to physically invent something, to take objects and turn them into something that did not exist ten minutes earlier, this is a very different kind of learning from writing a 3-5 page paper. It marks a return to the kind of “learning by doing” that John Dewey advocated for–“Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.” In other words, when we are engaged in the act of “making” or “doing,” that is when real learning occurs, and that is also when I think the sensation of “being interested” is rediscovered.

In many ways this post feels like its own experiment in what Stein might describe as “beginning again and again is a natural thing…”–I wanted to think about this idea of “being interested,” which consequently was so interesting to me that only now have I realized what the connection is to my own recent experiences in the classroom. Meechal recently wrote about one of my latest forays into technology in the classroom, one that I am still processing. When given the chance to use the MaKey MaKey with my 2 composition 2 sections (thanks to Mikhail & BLSCI), I jumped at the chance, trusting a gut feeling that “making” something physically might teach us something about what happens when we “make” academic essays.

Picture1In small groups, the students were given MaKey MaKeys, a number of different materials that conducted electricity, and access to a laptop and told to “make” and “invent.” As a teacher, what was interesting to me was to watch the groups’ progress–many began by seeming a little confused, admittedly not knowing what to “invent,” and feeling at a loss for ideas (or “interest”). But, I also got to watch each group work collaboratively and experientially and ultimate discover the spectrum of things they  might do.

And, after the class session, students blogged about what they experienced through “making.” A few sample responses:

  • “If we just looked at the surface of today’s session, we would see that we were just playing around with the Makey Makey and doing things that are totally unrelated to our English class. However, if we think more deeply, we will see many similarities, especially with the process of writing. At first, we need some ideas to invent something amazing with Makey Makey; if not, we will just be playing and there will not be any creation. It is like writing our essays; we need a specific thesis to write a good essay based on the thesis.”
  • “Making something with the Makey Makeys very musch resembled the writing process. In class on Monday we were supposed to “outline” our plans and ideas for what we wanted to make today in class. An outline plays an important role in essay writing so that the writer has their thoughts and ideas organized and ready to be written down and explained. Each invention also required several “revisions” and “rewrites” in order for it to reach its “final draft” stage. I know that my group changed plans, inventions, and strategies a few times throughout the class period.”
  • “For a good portion of our time we were bouncing back and forth between these questions and sitting there thinking about what we should do. I felt frustrated at the fact that with all these tools we were just stuck, it was like our creativity was at a standstill. However after revisiting the objectives of using the Makey Makey and playing around with it, things made a turn for the better. With developing a greater understanding and applying that understanding to ideas we had, we were able to center on one idea and go with it…Relating to writing, when have that moment where you know the message you want to communicate and gather all your information; everything comes together and flows. Centralizing your idea and making attempts towards it can assist in your creativity. Whether is be the next groundbreaking IT program or your final paper, the initial beginning may prove to be the most difficult; but after you overcome that, you will have your masterpiece.”

Interviews (not the academic kind)

This is a piece about using technology to document and preserve as well as connect anew. It is also about advocating for audio documentation as a break from the insistent and incessant visual realm. Rest your screen eyes (after you read this) and just listen. I hereby issue a challenge to you:  this Thanksgiving, be the weird/annoying relative/friend who is always up to something and can’t just relax in front of the parade, dog show, or Detroit Lions. Tell them you just have to do this one thing…

Select one relative or friend, perhaps a parent or the oldest person at dinner, and ask to interview him or her. If you have a smart phone, then you have a piece of recording technology John and Ruby Terrill Lomax could scarcely have imagined when they lugged around heavy equipment like this in the 1930s:

Library of Congress, American Folklife Center

Even without an external directional microphone, the voice recording feature on smart phones is an incredible tool. The oral history project StoryCorps has declared the day after Thanksgiving “National Day of Listening.” I see this as a very intentional effort to combat the competitive shopping delirium of “black Friday.” StoryCorps provides an excellent list of questions that suit a variety of themes such as Working, Religion, Family Heritage, and War.

Even if you think you’ve heard  every one of a person’s stories one hundred times, themes can open new territory. When I interviewed my father in the StoryCorps booth in 2007, I focused on his childhood memories of World War II. He had told me many times about peeling the foil from the paper of Wrigley’s gum wrappers and getting cash for the foil. But it was not until the recorded interview that he described the profound trauma of seeing news reels with concentration camp footage during Saturday movie matinees. I have a CD of the interview, and it remains startling when my father bursts into tears on the recording.

Starter questions such as “what is your earliest memory?” or “what are you proudest of?” put people in the zone of recollection. These questions can break surfaces that, through habit and routine, have congealed over something potentially rich and evocative; like a dull skin coating a luscious mousse. If you take up this challenge to conduct a Thanksgiving interview, and do wind up breaking through the stubborn skin to discover something profound, please report back to the blog and share your experience.

When we conduct interviews, we are not only communicating across various entities (curricula, generations, turkeys); we are creating primary documents for the potential researchers of tomorrow. A Speaker’s Guidebook (O’Hair et al.) discusses the use of different types of evidence for making a strong, clear argument. The types of evidence include: extended, brief, and hypothetical examples; lay and expert testimony; narrative or anecdote; facts; and statistics. The oral history interview potentially provides the listener / would-be researcher with most of these types of evidence. In this Lomax recording of

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the Lomaxes intended to document a short lullaby, but inadvertently documented the use / employment of a black woman transplanted from Virginia to Texas who nursed well over a dozen white children across two generations. This snippet of musical ethnography suddenly becomes relevant to the research of labor historians, women’s studies scholars, African Americanists, and southern culture historians, to name a few.

Not only can interviewing foster emotional connections and provide future researchers with material, it can be a powerful and effective pedagogical tool. When I taught Introduction to Acting at Baruch, the final assignment of the semester was for each student to interview a family member and to create a monologue drawn from that interview. The project was inspired by the performer Anna Deavere Smith. Smith’s bio describes an approach to performance that “combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance.”

Whatever one thinks of Smith’s final performances, her methodology provided a strong model for my class. Students conducted the interviews, edited them for clarity and narrative focus, and formulated blocking choices based on the emotional beats. Without exception, the work was much more affecting, detailed, and fully realized than anything that had come out of students selecting monologues from edited collections.

Pastor McRemus’ Sermon on Academics, ctd.

At the request of the author, we have unpublished “Pastor McRemus’ Sermon on Academics.” All of the comments were unpublished with the post.

The author writes:

It was only speech. It caused no actual harm.

To be clear, this was the author’s decision and the author’s alone. We will be deliberating internally about any changes in policy to come about as a result of this episode.

I fucking hate blogs, but I’m obliged to do this 5 times for reasons I’ll explain later. So, for my first one, I thought I’d just introduce some questions.  No one’s watching, so if you’re bothering to read this, you might as well be honest with yourself (though seriously, don’t bother).

We’ve heard a lot of nonsense here and elsewhere about who’s to determine taste, who’s to say Mozart’s better than a McDonald’s jingle, blah blah blah. Typical, but let’s leave that off till next time. For the time being, let’s just talk internet:

We say it’s good that everyone has a chance to express himself. Why? Think about it for a minute. Why is a democracy of expression good? Why is everybody having the right to talk and feeling perfectly comfortable talking necessarily good? Might blogs be harmful?

Is it a good thing for everyone to speak his mind at all times?

Now suppose you heard two melodies, one from a great symphony, one from a commercial jingle. You then were asked to name whether the first was Beethoven, Schubert, or Brahms, and whether the second was McDonald’s, Modell’s, or Verizon. Which do you think you would have a better shot of identifying?

That is you. That is what you are.

Same thing with two sentences. Is the first by Milton or Keats or Wallace Stevens. Is the second the motto for sprite or pepsi.

That is you. And yet you write.

            Or, would you be more capable of explaining the ideas of Kant, or Schopenhauer, or Heidegger, or describing Modern Family, or American Idol, or Lost? And are you more familiar with those shows or our political system? our economy? I think you get the idea.

            Two questions now: What percentage of the population is like you? And, do you think you arrived at your sterling identification skills freely? I.e. did you choose to know what you know?

But hey everyone, express yourself, right? Everyone does. Who can sift through all this shit? How much shit there is! And who can sift through it all?

Why is this a problem? Well, suppose there’s something really good out there.  Who can sift through all the stupid shit and find the good things?

Oh, you’ll find it! But will you? Maybe you couldn’t even spot it if you saw it. Remember what you’re like, from the questions above.

And what happens when generations of people like you express themselves, and other generations listen? When whole generations are drowned in the flood of your slavish inanities? Won’t they become more like you, but even worse? How will those people identify anything? How will they make anything? How will those who make exist among them?

Doesn’t it just all turn into white noise, billions screaming stupid shit at once?

Does anything get through the white noise? Does a melody sail over it? Does the white noise accompany a melody?

If it does, do you think that melody will be Mozart, or the McDonald’s jingle?

I repeat, did you choose to know what you know, to like what you like, to think the things you write about?

Do you think your incessant talking makes you free?

Now I only did this because it’s mandatory for me in order to get my fellowship check—believe me or don’t, I don’t care. Why do most other people write blogs? Here, I’ll answer my own question; I think it’s generally a safe rule that people with the least to say cannot stop talking.

Later tools,

F. Scott FitzStalin

Knowledge Politics #2: What Universities Do

This is my second post in a series on the politics of knowledge. My goal with these posts is to consider a basic question of critical university studies: How do universities differ from other kinds of social organization such as government agencies, corporations, and cause-oriented nonprofits? What is the importance of higher education? What kind of constituency does it present? What does it mean to build a social institution around the transmission and discovery of knowledge? What is “knowledge” in this context and what are its politics? [Read more…]

The People’s Research Library

My post is an appeal to readers, writers, and scholars who use the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street central research library. That is, all people who make use of this amazing, impressive democratic institution. The NYPL’s proposed Central Library Plan (CLP) calls for a fundamental transformation of the 42nd Street space whereby the Mid-Manhattan Circulation Library (across the street at 40th Street) and the Science Industry and Business Library (SIBL, at Madison and 34th) would be incorporated into the 42nd Street location. Up to 3 million books from the central library’s research collection would be sent to an offsite storage facility in New Jersey and the seven floors of stacks that formerly housed these books would be demolished to make room for the circulation library, SIBL’s research collection, a multitude of public-access computers, and an internet café. The CLP will adversely alter the way the public can use the central research library and strike at the very heart of the research library’s egalitarian mission. In his recent article, “Stop Cultural Vandalism,” Scott McLemee rightly declares, “the CLP needs to be stopped” Together we need to decide how we will accomplish this goal.

Public Library

cc photo credit: Paolo Rosa

Implementation of the CLP will impair the ability of writers, readers and scholars to conduct research at the NYPL’s central research library. Patrons organize their library time around heavy, often complicated schedules. We therefore must maximize the time we spend in the library. My requested materials typically arrive together, allowing me to hunker down and get to work. Under the proposed plan, it is impossible to guarantee that all of one’s requested items will arrive together—a significant impediment to maximizing time in the library. What if a few books arrive one day and the rest trickle in over the next couple of days, but a patron cannot be back at the library for another week? And what about the patron who has traveled from outside NYC, and thus has a very limited timeframe in which to conduct research? Or the student who is striving to write a research paper under deadline? Architects of the CLP claim that requested materials would be available within 24 hours. In a piece titled “Improving a Treasured Institution,” NYPL President and CEO Anthony Marx argues that “24-hour turnaround is made possible by major enhancements already in the works, most notably by bar-coding every item.” Upgrading the means by which books are tracked makes sense. Moving the books offsite does not. Current turnaround for most materials is roughly less than an hour and that is because most of the collection is located in the stacks or in storage under Bryant Park. Touting a projected 24-hour turnaround as a benefit underscores a major flaw of the CLP and the myopia of its supporters: researchers should not have to wait 24 hours—and probably more—for their materials. Indeed, due to time constraints and deadlines, they often cannot.

A sectional view of the New York Public Library. (1911)

A sectional view of the New York Public Library. (1911) by leiris202, on Flickr

The CLP also fails to take into account the serendipitous aspect of research. While reading a particular text, I have often been guided to additional sources via footnotes and bibliographical entries. I then request those texts and receive them in an hour or so. Threads of thought have the best chance of coming to fruition when they are unbroken, when one can engage with several texts at the same time. Trying to hold on to a thread—before it even becomes an idea—for days before one can consult a needed text is difficult, if not impossible. A keyboard or a pen and paper are often not enough to keep an idea going. A book is vital to the development of an idea and, if the flow of research is impeded by having to wait longer for materials, then the quality of one’s research will suffer. Given the logistics of peoples’ schedules, many day readers may simply forego by necessity the opportunity to read the books they want to read. Books that people cannot find in circulating collections, books that are out of print, books that are unavailable digitally in their entirety, books that are unaffordable for personal purchase. Circulating and research collections are completely different from one another and one should not be the sacrificial lamb for the other. In response to a query on what will replace the stacks, the NYPL cheerfully declares, “Books!” Does anyone else see the cracks in this veneer?

It is disingenuous to argue that, after the NYPL’s largest circulating library has been folded into the nation’s second-largest public research library, research activities won’t be compromised. They will. Whether one is involved in a years-long research project or has devoted a day to read up on a topic of personal interest, the patron of the research library is there not only because of the collection, but also for the overall environment that the research library provides. The expansive Rose Main Reading Room, whether on a weekday morning or mid-afternoon on a Saturday, provides a conducive place to work. That is because people are there to read and write and this engagement is wonderfully palpable and inspiring. The anticipated spike in traffic from combing three libraries into one is enormous. Lauding this increase, the NYPL boasts, “[t]he number of visitors to the new Schwarzman Building will likely triple, and the percentage of people using the collections will soar.” Try conducting focused research under those conditions! Researchers working on long-term projects may apply to use the Allen Room or the Wertheim Study. There often is a waiting list, though, and access is limited. The CLP calls for the allocation of “dedicated spaces for up to 500 NYPL-affiliated writers and scholars,” however that will still leave the vast majority of research library patrons to try to function as researchers in overcrowded, mixed-use space.

The price of this overhaul is estimated at $300 million. The cost of this overhaul is well beyond dollars. One does not upgrade a world-class public research library by turning it into a glitzy, overcrowded facility. Nor does one upgrade the city’s largest public circulation library by shutting down its current location and reconfiguring it within an existing library. Public access computers can be added without gutting the stacks. Of course money is an issue. It always is. However, if the CLP is the best that the library’s executives can do in light of objectives and budgetary concerns, then they have failed in their stewardship of the NYPL. The library has a page on its website titled “Join the Conversation” through which the public can communicate its concerns. Yet, since comments are not shared through the site, a “conversation” never really materializes and how the comments are handled behind closed doors remains unknown. There is also a Facebook campaign dedicated to stopping the CLP. But we need to do more than “like” it. If we want to assure that the people’s research library continues to operate as such, then we need to collectively, vocally, and tirelessly speak out against the Central Library Plan until it is stopped.

Speaking, Acting, and Taking Your Shoes Off

Sydney, 1938 / Sam Hood (State Library of New South Wales collection)

In preparation for an upcoming CLASP (CUNY League of Active Speech Professors) symposium at Hostos Community College, I have been reflecting on this meaty topic: Theatre Practice and Communication Studies–the Intersection of Two Vital Disciplines.

Over the last few years, I have had opportunities to think about this from a number of perspectives, but when trying to compose my thoughts in a coherent form for the panel, I needed a jumping off point. I went back and looked at an article about the role of the introductory theatre course in the liberal arts curriculum, which the Institute’s Director, Mikhail Gershovich, co-wrote with theatre scholars (then Fellows) Amy Hughes and Jill Stevenson. A baseline assumption of the article is the reciprocal exchange between actor and spectator that makes theatre studies “an ideal forum in which to explore the means and methods of effective oral and written communication.”[1]  As I read, I discovered one potential source of my writer’s block; the panel topic requires elaboration on a point of intersection that has become intuitive. I have conditioned myself to take these principles for granted in my teaching and my coaching of students, as I time and again return to the basics of theatre collaboration: as the article spells out, in the classroom these basics (ideally) translate into encouraging cooperation among students, active learning, prompt feedback, time on task, high expectations, diverse talents and ways of learning. Speech and theatre arts become just two chummy pals, the cookies and milk of the liberal arts curriculum.

Even though I recognize that disciplinary battles between theatre and speech have a long and sordid history, I’ve often found the opposite to be true—that faculty boldly yell across these divisions, in an effort to get past what are really just departmental (or bureaucratic) boundaries—boundaries which are changing more slowly than our pedagogies. My charmed vantage point might have to do with the fact that I have had “communications people” expect certain strengths from me as a “theatre person,” and vice versa, and rarely confront the kind of “get out of my playground” mentality for which many academic fields are famous.

This can sometimes cause problems, too. Maybe you’ve had the same experience: when considered the “theatre person” in the room full of “communications people”– disciplinary divisions being what they are—it is assumed that you’ll be the one capable of immediately engaging students in a full body warm-up, making inflexible students flexible, convincing shy students to pop from their shell, evoking diaphragmatic breathing from the whisperers, and, at a moment’s notice, reveal a grab bag of tricks and strategies that will free them from their frozen stances. Because of these assumptions, when I began teaching Public Speaking– and before that, English as a Second Language– I occasionally felt like a fraud; I didn’t actually have in-depth training in voice or movement as an actor, beyond an inglorious stint on an improv team in college. (Many of my performance experiences were  in the realm of performance poetry, which privileged the word over any other consideration.) My academic theatre training focused on dramatic structure and playwriting, along with critical reading of texts– theatrical theory and plays– and I believed my strengths in the speech course would stem from there, through structure, research, and analysis. (When forced by curricular fiat to take acting courses, I shrank in fear of being asked to remove my shoes in the presence of other students.)

But I warmed to the challenge of being the “theatre person” among the communications people in part because I realized that their expectations reflected a true need among our students—and a potential gap in public speaking courses. The hope that a “theatre person” could more efficiently tackle these needs inspires me to believe in the best that theatre training can and should offer, within the context of a communications course. It is this inter/disciplinary “hope” that has slowly infused my speech teaching practices with “borrowings” from the theatre discipline: I now rely on my comfort watching and discussing the body and its relationship to breath, or my familiarity with the push and pull between the rehearsal process and the eventual work, and I follow my desire to push the desks aside in order to transform a classroom into a training space.

Additionally, in my experiences at the Institute– where one of my responsibilities last year was to support sections of Introduction to Theatre Arts– I met instructors who wanted to integrate communication goals into their coursework, but felt that approaching the course through dramatic literature tied their hands. They had fallen into a routine of assigning play reviews and response papers, rarely asking their students to move from a written to an oral form of communicating ideas. Usually this was “fixed” easily, since the instructor had already designed the course to encourage active learning and collaboration, allowing for numerous places of oral communication interventions. Taking it a step further, we would brainstorm where public speaking challenges might belong in this model of the theatre arts class—a discussion that frequently boiled down to assignment design.

In the context of the proposed Pathways Initiative– which would mean real changes to prioritization of Speech Communications courses within the CUNY curriculum– it is important to go beyond oral communications as something that can be “tacked on” to any discipline with ease, and to ask real questions about the actual needs of students, not disciplinary divisions. (And this post is in no way meant to be reflecting simultaneously on Pathways, although I invite thoughts on how it relates.) The CLASP panel is looking at intersections between theatre practice and speech not because intersections are all the rage, but because it is the divisions that have proven unproductive with time. For the individual instructor, the most important challenge becomes seeing beyond the intimidating gaps separating that “Other” discipline, and rather to see shared goals between the two.

[1] Amy E. Hughes, Jill Stevenson, and Mikhail Gershovich, “Community through Discourse: Reconceptualizing Introduction to Theatre,” Theatre Topics 16, No.1 (March 2006): 86.


Knowledge Politics #1: Critical University Studies

Following my last post, I had a bit of a heated exchanged with a commenter named Ryan. What came up for me from that was a desire to more fully articulate the relationship between knowledge and politics. I attempted to do something like this back in October, but as usual I bit off more than I could chew and wrote a long and probably esoteric-sounding post. I want to try again, so in the coming weeks I will attempt a series of posts that focus on the politics of knowledge from a few different angles. I hope this will be a place to work through some of my questions, and I eagerly welcome comments and feedback.

There has been much discussion recently of how to make teachers more “accountable” through measurable data, and of how and when to involve new technologies in the classroom or even to develop internet-based courses and degrees. These are important issues but, as with so many things, public debate surrounding them is for the most part superficial and shortsighted. Instead of having a real conversation about the politics of knowledge, we are distracted by reductive ideas of accountability and shallow notions of technological advance.

CUNY City College of New York

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Saving Lives or just Documenting Suffering?

© Jonathan Stillo - Stefan reflected in a mirror staring off the balcony. He would do this for hours when he especially missed his wife and 13 year old son. He died a few months later at the age of 37.

Last week, the New York Times Lens Blog highlighted the work of Misha Friedman, a Moldovan-born photographer who has documented tuberculosis patients in the Former Soviet Union.  Friedman questions whether he has done any good for the patients, in the post “Saving Lives or Photographing Them?” “Most of the people you see here are dead,” Friedman tells the interviewer.  “My images have not really helped them. Maybe they’ll help people in the future. Maybe they’ll help with fund-raising here and there. But to these particular people, they did not help.”

What Friedman is feeling is the same thing that I have been troubled by—that after two years of anthropological fieldwork which included living at a TB sanatorium [click here to read more about what I am doing in Romania], did I do anything for the patients whose heartbreaking stories I collected? It is easy to say in the abstract that one’s photographs or research will help hypothetical future patients, but what about the person in front of our lens or talking into our voice recorder?

It’s like a collapse. Since I caught this disease, I lost friendships, social circles, acquaintances. They marginalized me, bit by bit. You’re no longer seen with good eyes, no longer welcomed. You’re not in the position of satisfying your needs, because you can’t work for a period of time, especially if you don’t recover to restart your work you slowly crumble as a whole. And you end up alone. – Stefan age 37 a Romanian MDR-TB patient shortly before he died.

We are losers in society. And when you see yourself, the way you are now, and you know what you used to be, when you mattered, and worked… it’s hard for you. This is why we say we are embarrassed, because you don’t matter anymore, to anybody. Mircea 55, dying of XDR-TB.

Mircea’s bright blue eyes well up with tears as he tells me about is life before he contracted tuberculosis in 2005. He is a tall man with large hands who used to be a coal miner. Now, he looks much older than his years and he always looks sad. He hasn’t seen his family in a very long time. No one comes to visit him at this mountaintop Romanian TB sanatorium. Most of all, he wishes he could see his little grandchild. He doesn’t have any pictures, he says it hurts for him to remember those better times. The drugs that Mircea is taking are not going to cure him. XDR-TB or Extensively Drug Resistant TB  is resistant to most common treatments. Before I left in August, I took some portraits of Mircea on his bed, and had them printed for him. He didn’t remember the last time someone took his picture. Now at least his family will have something to remember him by. When I return to Romania next month, I don’t expect to find him alive.

© Jonathan Stillo- The long hall leading to Mircea's room. Many of the patients are too ill to reach the staircase at the end.

Before I left for Romania in 2009, my department chair pulled me aside and gave me some advice. He told me he was worried about me–that as mentally tough as I thought I was, conducting this research was going to be so much harder on me than I thought. He asked me to please take care of myself.  At the time, I dismissed what he said. I have always worked with marginalized and sick people, homeless people, sex-workers, crack and heroin users.

I think I realized that I was in over my head when Mr. Popa died. I remember sitting on his bed watching his sunken-in chest moving up and down with each strained breath. He told me he was afraid to go to sleep for fear of dying. I held his hand and could only focus on how cold it was. He died crying, waiting for his son who would never arrive. He wasn’t an old man at 52, like many patients he didn’t even  make it to retirement age.

© Jonathan Stillo "The Last Garden of Mr. Popa" published in "Tuberculosis: Voices in the Fight Against the European Epidemic" by the TB Europe Coalition and Results.UK

I remember meeting with master’s student who was transcribing some of my interviews and warning her that the content is heartbreaking and that she would have to be able to handle that. To this she asked, “so how are you handling it?” She caught me off guard and I replied with complete honesty, “I’m not handling it well at all. I’m a mess.”

Living at the sanatorium, listening day after day to people who had lost hope I soon began to realize that for many of these patients, there would be no happy ending, no recovery and no beautiful reunion with their family. Many of their families had moved on without them. Their lungs were riddled with holes and in some cases, the medicines simply were not working. They would tell me “yes, TB is curable, but not for me.  All too often they were right. They would die even before I was able to get the interviews transcribed. I never told my research assistants when they were transcribing a dead person’s words, but I think sometimes they knew. It always left me wishing I could have done something, for them while they were alive, besides just the gifts of coffee, chocolate, crossword puzzles and an empathetic ear.

© Jonathan Stillo- One lung X-ray. A now deceased patient was momentarily entertained when I told him a tree had grown where his lung once was.

At my best, I feel optimistic. I’m glad that people are finally paying attention to the problem of  TB in Romania, and I am happy to have become an advocate for this cause. Unfortunately comes at the expense of more scholarly pursuits (such as completing my dissertation after nine years).  I don’t know what will ultimately come out of my efforts to help the patients. Since 2011, I have worked in partnership with the US Embassy and the Romanian National TB Control Program on new anti-TB advocacy and education campaign. NGOs have used my photographs and patient stories in their publications and one of my favorite patients is even quoted in a World Health Organization brochure.  I’m working with NGOs to develop funding proposals. Lately, I have been writing things to inform and influence (hopefully) policy. The worst part though, is I’m haunted by the ghosts of dead patients who wanted me to give them a voice.  I still have nightmares about them, but not as many as I used to. When I returned to America, a colleague told me that my “fieldwork had traumatized me and I need to come to terms with that.” I had never thought of it that way. As difficult as this research was for me, it does not compare to what the patients are going through. Now that I have at least a partial understanding of what they are going through, all I can think of is how to improve their situation improved. How can I help to reduce the suffering and death that this curable bacterial disease causes? I know these are activist and advocate questions and many will say my objectivity has been compromised, but at the end of the day, objectively documenting suffering does not feel like enough.