Composition Across the Curriculum

Due to our many discussions about Communication Across the Curriculum and multimodal composing at the Schwartz Institute, I became interested in the idea of Composition Across the Curriculum. In particular, I wanted to think through the pedagogy of using writing, speech, and video in the same classroom. What is similar and what is different for students and instructors when it comes to these different technologies of expression?

Below is an interview with documentary filmmaker Sascha Just, who teaches film production and public speaking in Baruch’s Department of Communication Studies. Her short doc Ambassadors – The Native Jazz Quartet at Work has been screened at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA, the The Queens World Film Festival, where it was nominated for best short doc, and at Woman with A Movie Camera.

sascha

1. What kind of assignments do the film production students create?

The students have four assignments. The first one is a dialogue scene. They form groups and pick a scene. We then film the scenes in class and they edit them in the library computer lab.

For the second assignment, they go out and film a chase scene. Two or three people chase each other. It’s a very fun assignment, creative, somewhat adventurous. More than anything, it teaches how to compose a shot and how to create continuity. –How to build a story. We are dealing with structure based on logic. –Basic film language. At this point, most of them could handle [the editing software] Final Cut and all scenes turned out extremely well.

The third project was a fundraiser/kickstarter video for their final project, which was a short documentary. I figured this is a business school and I want to teach them the reality of filmmaking. It’s expensive. A short fundraiser forces you to focus on the essence of your project. The final assignment was 10-minute documentaries.

2. What kinds of writing do the students do during the semester? How does the writing prepare the students for filming or help them reflect on what they created?

For the chase scene, students drew storyboards to ensure that the shot order would be effective, economic, and logical. For the documentary project, they wrote a production plan: a premise of the project and description of what they were going to shoot, where and when. It helps tighten the production, schedule the shoots, plan interviews, and overall tailor production decisions to support the main idea of the film.

The students write a film analysis paper and an exam.  Both written assignments ask students to demonstrate their understanding of film language. This means on the one hand that they use the correct terminology and can communicate with other filmmakers. On the other, it means that they grasp the meanings a sequence of shots can express. For example, why does the filmmaker choose to shoot this scene with close ups? What did she try to convey?

3. Do you see any strong connections between structuring a speech and structuring a doc? –In terms of clarity of perspective, editing (knowing what to put in, take out, when and how to present information), etc.?

Doc films in particular work with reality but they are no more realistic than so-called fiction films. No matter how accurately researched, they always play with reality. The same can be said about speeches and academic papers. I guess, altogether I question the possibility of representing reality.

However, I believe in putting great effort into creating a structure built on logic. That turns out to be one of the most challenging aspects of filmmaking and public speaking. The questions of “does this scene belong here or there, why does it feel right to place this scene here and not there” preoccupy me a lot. It’s a constant negotiation between the style or aesthetics I am trying to create and the content/information I am trying to communicate. Again, the same as with speeches or academic papers.

AMBASSADORS is a very simple story without real dramatic climax, but was nonetheless difficult to structure. The musicians noticed it – I used the songs as a structure. I personally do not like to work with voice overs, but there are many great films that do (REEL INJUNS, a must see). I am trying to keep my own voice out of it as much as possible, because a) I am more interested in what the characters have to say and b) I feel that my viewpoint comes through a lot anyhow, simply because I select, interview, structure etc.

4. Any thoughts on the communication that happens between the documentarian and the subject and between instructor and student? If the same, how so? If different, in what ways?

I hadn’t thought of it before, but I think there are parallels between interviewing and q & a with students. Both require attentive and engaged listening. Waiting till the person is finished. Prompting further thoughts with short follow-up questions. Phrasing questions short and clear. Neither students nor interviewee should spend too much time trying to figure out what it is I am asking, right?

Both students and interview subjects respond much more willingly if they sense that I care. Once I cried in an interview, because what the person (an older, very unhappy Indian) told me was heartbreaking. It turned out to be one of the most meaningful and informative interviews I have ever conducted. So much for neutrality.

We never are objective anyhow, so why would I try that in such heightened situations like an interview or the classroom? It becomes dishonest.

5. Do you have any thoughts about how people’s behavior changes in front of the camera (particularly in this digital smart phone age)? –I ask this particularly in the context of Baruch where we use the technique of taping students and doing an immediate playback so they can experience their vocal and bodily delivery habits as an audience member would.

Even very confident people who believe that they forget about the camera are on some level aware of it. In my opinion, they perform for the camera. Not necessarily a problem. Without the camera, they would perform for the teacher, class, or interviewer. Performing is so often defined as negative = fake. But ultimately it means that students or interviewees pull themselves together, focus, try to make a good impression, and eliminate distracting stories or habits to the best of their ability.

Sascha Just was born and raised in Berlin, Germany and is a doctoral candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center’s Theatre Department. Her dissertation is about the cinematic representation of New Orleans performance cultures. Just’s in-process documentary film Heirs is a music-driven portrait of New Orleans composed of three artists’ journeys into the city’s past: drummer/vibraphonist Jason Marsalis, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Darryl Montana, and theater artist Lisa D’Amour. 

On teaching/thinking with Tim Gunn

I wanted to de-clutter my workspace this morning, so I started cleaning my desktop. To my delight, I found this screenshot:

makeitwork

A couple of months ago, I was reading Tim Gunn’s responses on Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything.” I first learned about Tim Gunn from watching Project Runway, a reality television series that features aspiring fashion designers who compete with one another on a variety of challenges that test their skill and creativity. Gunn serves as the show’s co-host and, more importantly and interestingly, as a mentor to the designers. Week to week, up until Project Runway was picked up by the Lifetime Channel, I looked forward to watching Tim Gunn wander around the workroom of the designers. He would walk around and attentively study each designer’s work in progress while offering some suggestions and guidance. Gunn would habitually close his remarks with encouraging words: “make it work” or “carry on.”

Gunn’s walk around the Project Runway workroom is an oddly manufactured situation. Here I mean that his counseling of contestants in the workroom belongs to a genre of entertainment where interests are grounded in the growth of a brand. Reality competition shows can be a bit disheartening to watch. Under the guise of promoting young talent, the corporations behind reality shows make bank without having to respond to the individuals vulnerably exposed in the workroom with their unfinished works. It’s a game of attrition, we’re told. That game’s logic manifests in various ways, but most prominently in the belief that those who lose are weak and incompetent. It takes on another scary, dangerous form when contestants rationalize their exploitation: “I’m not here to make friends.”

Enter Tim Gunn, whose lovely phrase “make it work” came out of another oddly manufactured situation: the classroom. Within the particular situation of designers in a workroom, or students in a classroom, “make it work” signifies a practice. This practice can’t be reduced to a simple game of winners and losers. Because its objectives are not about a ranking or a grade, the practice of “making it work” is really about exercising problem-solving, resourcefulness, and experimentation. Intentional or not–it’s hard to tell these days because writing often occurs in moments of haste–Gunn’s response on “Ask Me Anything” offers a model for how we can implement a “make it work” ethos in situations of learnings. Notice how, as he explains the meaning of the phrase, Gunn moves from the distinction between “I said” to “you’re” towards a “we.” He elaborates that the phrase is meant to provoke thinking through challenges rather than assigning blame or incompetency on the part of the student. The problem isn’t the student, so Gunn’s advice takes on a supportive but impersonal tone:

“Offer up a diagnosis for what’s going wrong, and a prescription for how to make it right.”

Even though overt displays of branding and commercialization infiltrated the designers’ workroom on Project Runway, and though “make it work” has been appropriated in ways to promote the show, “making it work” remains a practice that is tailored to the concerns and particular interests of individuals in the process of learning.

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Even good teachers are teased by students, of course. Here’s one of my favorite scenes from an early season of Project Runway:

Also, here’s Terry Gross’ Fresh Air interview with Tim Gunn from earlier this year.

Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY

Following up on Kristina’s post about her experience as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) fellow at Baruch this year, I thought I’d report on a meeting I attended recently that gave me a glimpse into the state of the WAC fellowship across different CUNY campuses. About a dozen current WAC fellows working at different colleges got together at the Graduate Center at the beginning of April for an unofficial information session to share our experiences with each other and with incoming fellows. The portrait that emerged from the discussion was that of a WAC program that is implemented inconsistently across campuses and of wildly different experiences for WAC fellows.

(A bit of background for those who are unfamiliar with the CUNY system: Most of the CUNY colleges have a WAC program; CUNY graduate students with five-year fellowships are assigned to work as WAC fellows at a particular college in their fifth year, following their stints as Graduate Teaching Fellows [GTFs] in their second through fourth years.)

The tasks that WAC fellows work on at different colleges vary greatly. Perhaps one of the most common things WAC fellows do is work with faculty to help them incorporate WAC principles in their classes. While fellows at many colleges represented at the session I attended undertook this type of work, at some campuses this did not happen at all. Moreover, several fellows reported that it was difficult to recruit faculty to participate in WAC programs, especially in cases where their professional development was not being remunerated, and that senior faculty sometimes expressed discomfort with being advised by inexperienced graduate student fellows. Among many other specific responsibilities, WAC fellows worked one-on-one with students at writing centers, created websites for their college’s WAC programs, edited publications for student writing, and collaborated with faculty from different departments to implement a “linked” course environment. My work at the BLSCI this year offers examples of yet other duties to which a WAC fellow might attend. It was essentially divided between: (1) working with small teams of students in Management and Society courses to help them polish the delivery of their in-class debates; and (2) exploring themes relating to WAC, communication, pedagogy, technology, etc. through my contributions to this blog.

While I don’t think that the diversity of WAC fellows’ work is inherently problematic, one of its main drawbacks, as I see it, is that fellows receive vastly different levels of immersion into the world of WAC. It appears that in well-supported programs where fellows were able to work closely with receptive faculty to revamp their syllabi according to WAC ideals, the fellows themselves came away with lots of resources for their own teaching. On the other hand, tutoring students through writing centers did not seem to give fellows the opportunity to learn deeply about WAC strategies. Personally, even though I did provide the professor whose students I was coaching on oral presentations with some WAC-inspired ideas about low-stakes writing and grading rubrics, my work at Baruch wasn’t centered specifically on WAC. I got some cheap laughs at the meeting by introducing fellows at the other campuses to the acronym that had guided most of my work at the BLSCI, which wasn’t WAC, nor WID (Writing in the Disciplines)… but CAC (see the title of this blog).

Another issue that arose at the meeting that is related to differing responsibilities for WAC fellows is that of uneven workloads. While some fellows felt that their supervisors were squeezing every possible work hour out of them, others had a large amount of idle time due to disorganization in the program at their college. Fellows at more than one campus (including at senior colleges) reported that lack of adequate compensation for the WAC coordinator positions was resulting in a high rate of turnover for this role and leading to frustratingly chaotic conditions for them.

It seemed evident from our discussion that there is a great need for a re-examination of how WAC is implemented at the different colleges and for a forum where the strengths of each program can be shared. Another important point that was raised by numerous fellows was that they felt that they would have benefited enormously from learning about WAC during their prior assignments as GTFs. An idea that I found compelling was that GTFs should get good training in WAC principles after their first year of teaching and have the opportunity to experiment with different WAC strategies during their next two years as instructors. Then, by the time they take on the WAC fellowship in their fifth year of graduate studies, fellows would have a much stronger and personally tested grounding in WAC pedagogy that would not only enhance their own teaching but also put them in a much stronger position to advise other faculty on how to implement WAC. In the past, CUNY WAC fellows had the opportunity to develop their skills more profoundly and offer continuity to their college WAC program over the course of two year appointments. Since the prospect of getting funding from CUNY for two-year WAC positions seems dim, allowing five-year fellowship recipients to engage with WAC ideals earlier in their careers could bring back some of the benefits of the two-year appointment. This change could help address the uneven exposure to WAC that fellows at different colleges receive and provide for a much stronger training than the inadequate CUNY-wide training for WAC fellows that was provided at the beginning of the year (which was also the subject of a good amount of griping at the session).

In light of the challenges faced by WAC fellows, the Doctoral Students Council agreed to discuss the concerns presented at the informal session at one of their plenary meetings, and a DSC working group might be created to evaluate the WAC fellowship.

Enlivening Space, Writing about Place through Digital Maps

A couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America (affectionately—and appropriately—hashtagged #ShakeAss14). This was one of the most rousing SAA conferences I have experienced, in great measure because it really got me thinking about the convergence of traditional and digital research methods and teaching possibilities. The seminar in which I was a participant, “Theatre and Neighborhood in Early Modern London,” had much to do with spurring me to think along these new lines, not only because of the topic, but also because several of my fellow participants are at the helm of fantastic digital projects. In the early stages of my project last Fall, I had decided that I would publish the article (that will emerge from this paper) in a digital format and then—because my project (an examination of the River Thames as an early modern neighborhood that linked London with theatres in Southwark, via a ferry crossing to an “underworld” of sorts) deals with spaces and spatial connections—I also decided that I would integrate my text with a map that peoples the Thames, locates the playhouses and related entertainment venues, and so forth. Hence my arrival in the world of navigating and creating early modern digital maps—maps that tell stories, expand upon stories, and are expanded upon by additional stories. Though I grappled with my project in the usual conference paper way (reproached it, (re)revised it, hid under furniture from it, cajoled and occasionally admired it), I also had fun working on it, not least because of its digital/interactive/play-with-me possibilities.

Of course, how could I not respond this way after I had discovered the Map of Early Modern London (MoEML)? Click on the link and you will see what I mean. Play with its interactive features. Where do you end up—not just on the map, but in your imagination? I’m seeing and thinking—imagining ways in which this process of making could be used in composition and literature classrooms. Of course, I am at the very early stages of learning how to make digital maps, but it’s an exciting stage because, on the one hand, I’m teaching myself how to make new stuff, and on the other hand, I’m exploring ways to make this material engaging (and hopefully illuminating) for audiences curious about the interactions between early modern playhouses and neighborhoods — and more broadly, about how people define and demarcate “space” and their relationship to it in particular cultural and historical contexts. As I continue to research and build this project, I am also thinking about writing assignments for both composition and literature courses, specifically what sorts of assignments to create around digital maps and vice-versa. For instance, an assignment might ask students to map a part of their city — perhaps their commutes from home to school to work. What do the visual points of the journey reveal about neighborhoods traveled through, or about the journey of pursuing a college degree while working full-time? How do these physical and conceptual dimensions mutually constitute one another? Or, by using digital tools to map a particular character’s comings and goings, students might enrich their understanding of that character. And if students interconnect their maps, they could produce a rich, interactive guide of the play or novel we are studying. As I work on my early modern neighborhoods project, I am making connections between digital maps and writing, particularly the ways in which digital map-making and writing shape each other, stir the imagination, and enhance our abilities to perceive, make, analyze, and share.

So You Want a Rec Letter?

There were a few things I wanted to write about for this week’s post, but I decided to settle on one: writing recommendation letters.  When I was teaching, I always told my students that while they were taking my introduction to cultural anthropology course that they needed to conduct themselves in a manner that reflected their intellectual and academic abilities so they could get the best return on their investment—their education.

I also reminded students that there will come a time when they will request a recommendation  letter from me, and that letter will not be a standard form letter comprised of a short paragraph that basically provides little to no information about the student and her academic performance.  My letters will contain at least 3 paragraphs discussing the student’s performance and the qualities that will make her  an ideal candidate for the programs she is seeking to gain admission to.

There is one caveat, I told students not to ask me for a letter if one is applying to doctoral or Masters programs because my status as an adjunct won’t really count.  The nation’s recent economic downturn sent many unemployed back to school, with many people seeking graduate degrees as a way to enhance their employment opportunities in anticipation of the rebounding job market.  With many students recognizing that their bachelor degrees are insufficient to compete in today’s economy, students are beginning to think long term and that means obtaining post-secondary degrees.  Adjunct instructors recognize the importance of undergraduate students planning for post-secondary degrees because many adjuncts are struggling to complete their doctoral degrees on minimal adjunct salaries or have completed their degrees and still earn a paltry salary.

Nationally, higher education institutions are becoming more reliant on adjuncts to teach their courses with some adjuncts having little success obtaining full-time positions once their Phd is granted. With more institutions becoming dependent on adjunct labor, there is high likelihood that undergraduates will spend more class hours with adjunct faculty than full time faculty, yet only letters by full-time faculty are considered sufficient to bolster graduate applications.  Adjuncts provide students with in-class instruction, office hours, and in some cases counseling, yet these interactions aren’t enough to support a student’s graduate application.

I receive at least 3-5 recommendation letter requests from former students each semester.  Some are for graduate programs and others are for study abroad programs, internships, and scholarship applications.  Depending on the rank of the institution/program that the student is applying I assess whether my letter will hurt or help their application.  If it is highly competitive, I politely decline and tell students to ask a full-time professor, if the program is not highly competitive, I usually say yes immediately and commence to writing.  However writing a good recommendation letter is a lot of work, and although I am not currently teaching, I still put in the time to craft and fine tune my recommendation letters for undergraduate students despite the fact that my efforts may be fruitless.  I mainly write these letters for one reason, and it’s the reason I force myself to sit at the computer no matter how much of my own work I have to complete:  I remember being an undergraduate eager to apply to African American Studies graduate school programs almost twenty years ago and asking my adjunct instructor for an African literature course to write a letter for me.  He obliged, and thankfully I was admitted into a program, I can’t remember his last name but we all called him Chiji.  

I can’t imagine that seventeen years ago Chiji’s salary as a doctoral student at a public university was better than the paltry salary I received as an adjunct, but having taught for many years as an adjunct, I have a great respect for what he did for me.  Now I can see that he might have mustered up some strength to sit before his computer to write a recommendation letter for me amidst writing his dissertation.  I haven’t gone back to my transcript to get his last name, but I do imagine it would only read-STAFF beside the course, as it still does in many online course schedules taught by adjuncts.  I don’t know if it was Chiji’s letter that helped or the letters from a full time professor, and tenured professor that helped.  All I can remember is his willingness to write a recommendation letter for me, and with that memory and energy, I write letters for my former students too.

Notes on Writing Across the Curriculum at BLSCI

This piece serves as a reflection and elaboration of my current work as a Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Fellow at BLSCI. I would say that the WAC principle of scaffolding assignments in the classroom—that is, breaking work into smaller, skills-specific exercises that link together as a meaningful whole—holds true for developing and rethinking curricula. During this academic year, I navigated the various (and exciting) pedagogical initiatives at BLSCI by identifying a small set of questions to think about across different contexts and learning communities (i.e., faculty members as a group, one-on-one development with a professor over a semester, one-on-one sessions with students, in-class workshops). Specifically, my inquiries and energies were directed towards experimenting with ways to get CUNY undergraduates to simultaneously synthesize course content while exercising a skill that develops and sustains their individual, intellectual interests. This is an extension of what I try to do with students who work with me: students simultaneously rehearse the skills of the discipline and (ideally) gain familiarity with practices that would encourage them to continue producing knowledge that’s meaningful to them, beyond the space and time of a class. What follows, I hope, is a contribution to the ongoing conversations that my BLSCI colleagues have maintained—conversations that inspire me to actively integrate into my own work the value of syncing the uniqueness of one’s voice with a personal commitment to a learning community.

 1. FACULTY DEVELOPMENT

I helped facilitate the “Why the Research Block?” Faculty Roundtable in October 2013. Professor Louise Klusek and Professor Stephen Francoeur led an informative discussion on how to teach undergraduates the structure of and the various approaches to academic research. They illustrated the importance of stressing to undergraduates that academic research is an exercise of multiple skills over a period of time. For example: strategically identifying keywords, locating the proper databases, evaluating the quality of sources, and synthesizing those sources are all constitutive of the research process. The roundtable discussion left me with this question: how do we get students to creatively, critically engage the source materials of their chosen discipline, whether that may be a passage in a novel or a set of numerical data? This inquiry became the motivation behind my pitch for the “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable.

The “Writing About Numbers” Faculty Roundtable, which I co-ran with Professor Bill Ferns about a month ago, is informed by my experience as a student and instructor at CUNY. I developed variations of teaching a tripartite structure to critical thinking. The three parts include: a claim, evidence to support the claim, a narration of how the selected evidence relates to the claim (the analysis). This is a version of my own approach to research writing and it is an approach that I learned from reading Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations before I started my doctoral studies.

I developed “Writing About Numbers” from my experience in teaching content-heavy courses while modeling for students techniques of argumentation. During class, I frequently ask students to engage directly with the course content, the evidence if you will, and then we build claims together based on an assessment of the evidence (i.e., its textures, effects, and utilities). The evidence and methodology varies from discipline to discipline, but there is an obvious overlap between the disciplines: a shared value of teaching our chosen discipline’s techniques of synthesis and critical thinking. My sense that writing and mathematical reasoning as mutually reinforcing skills comes out of this notion and Toby Fulwiler’s observation that: “Writing and arithmetic provide general tools for manipulating and expressing ideas and information.” The citation for this source and the outline of my presentation can be found here.

Working and co-presenting with Professor Ferns has been generative, especially in opening up a conversation about how instructors can guide students in clearly narrating and effectively visualizing data through communicative models (i.e., graphs, maps, charts).

 2. FACULTY SUPPORT

I provide support and collaborate with faculty in developing writing assignments for their courses. In the fall, I helped a Great Works instructor in preparing students for their term papers. I gave an in-class workshop on how to draft for papers on literature.

I’m currently working with David Gruber, who is a professor of Biology and Environmental Science, and we’re collaborating on scaffolding a few assignments that relate to symbiosis and microbes for his upper-level course “Microbial Ecology.” Two weeks ago, to prepare students for their final research project, I gave an in-class workshop where students and I discussed the structure of scientific prose. Professor Gruber had assigned a chapter from Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters. Microbe Hunters is a stylishly-written, narrative-driven popular press book and I walked students through a conversation about how de Kruif’s style is reflective of his research content. We talked about writing to different audiences. We also discussed how to strategically position, and reposition, the topic of a research paper in order to develop ideas. George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing” was instrumental in my framing of the workshop.

3. STUDENT SUPPORT

Throughout this academic year, I meet with students for one-on-one sessions.  For an hour, I work with a student on an assignment from their Great Works course. These sessions are incredibly instructive in getting me to think about my own pedagogy. Because I frequently work with faculty at Baruch, these sessions serve as a reminder that each student’s learning process is characterized by a different set of particularities and struggles.

These sessions give me a sense of what works (and what doesn’t work) when creating an assignment or essay prompt (specifically in how questions or prompts are framed). Additionally, last semester, when I joined BLSCI Director Suzanne Epstein for a grading session of student writings in aggregate, it was useful to think about my sessions with individual students in connection to Baruch’s English Department’s rubric and standards.

4. BLOG WRITING (AS PROCESS, PEDAGOGY, AND SCHOLARSHIP)

I’ll write more about this in my final post for this semester, but for now I just want to note that participating in the ongoing conversations at BLSCI has pushed me to think more broadly about public humanities, the various genres of scholarly labor, and the technologies that shape those forms of scholarly labor. In particular, I’ve been thinking through Tressie McMillan Cottom’s blog and Brooklyn College’s Professor Corey Robins’ piece on Aljazeera.

Teaching Queer Language/Queer Language Teaching

I have been teaching Italian for nearly ten years now and have never come out to my students. For some reason the words “I’m queer” never seem to come up when we are conjugating verbs or figuring out how to use direct object pronouns with the present perfect of transitive verbs. After class last week a student in my Italian 300 advanced contemporary culture class came up to me and said that he had never been in a class where the students were encouraged to play with the messiness of ideas and language, that especially in his language classes, instructors are quick to fill in the blanks with unknown vocabulary words or spell out “correct” ways of reading and interpreting. I realized that while my sexual and gender identities never necessarily make it to the blackboard, I am attempting to queer the space of the classroom and the approach to self-expression in language learning in a way that acknowledges the power of the form in order to push past it.

On the one hand the “straight” is a strict adherence to semantic and lexical structures and carries, especially among academics, a certain level of moral rectitude.

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The queer, on the other hand, is the messiness of the relationship between the idea and its expression, favors the investigation of possibility within word choice, neologism, structure and gender. Linguistic queerness in thus the spectrum of possible forms of expression that are produced by and through queer as a theoretical concept and not a sexual or gender identity.

While comprehension is always a goal, queer language is most interested in the speaker’s negotiation with the unstable self. From a Lacanian perspective we might say that the child had entered the social linguistic realm of the father (in his primary language) but has pushed passed this realm in search of another secondary language/father. (Does the primary language then become the mother in the triangle of self-formation? Is the symbolic world of the phallus a transsexual woman once the child seeks another phallic signifier? Or is it perhaps that the child has two daddies?) The instability of the self within this new space mirrors the instability of the prelinguistic child. There is no unity of self, there is no participation in the social order; there are ideas, their relationship to structures, and a space for play and experimentation.

This idea of play, of messy self-investigation through uncertain language must of course present itself very differently in an elementary language class where students are just learning the fundamental structures of language. The first step in any good coming out story is recognition, and language queers should be no different. Recognizing how political the gendered nature of the Italian language is (The feminine noun “casalinga” means housewife while the masculine noun “casalingo” means household product and not househusband) creates an awareness of language as a political tool and cultural construct. The errors that students make in elementary classes (“mangio tutti” = I eat everyone ≠ “mangio tutto” = I eat everything) should be discussed and “corrected” in a way that emphasizes the difference between the intention of the speaker and the meaning as perceived by the listener. What I am arguing here is that queer potential exists both in understanding the political constraints of the gendered nature of words and language use, and in refusing to participate in the rigidity of lexical correctness as long as the linguistic work that is done centers around the learner’s use and meaning.

In advanced language and culture classes (conducted entirely in the “target” language) the material is often taken from primary historical sources. At this point the basic and intermediate grammatical structures are taken for granted and most students focus on learning how to communicate their analysis of the texts being discussed. Refusing to be a walking dictionary I often encourage my students to talk through the difficult ideas using the words they have at their disposal. The discomfort is always tangible, but now, halfway through the semester, everyone allows everyone else the time and space to shape ideas and talk through linguistic possibility as they discuss their relationship with the texts.

babI have always been fascinated by the doge meme, reading a post about doge grammar I realized its connection to this queer approach to language. The creator of the doge must have a solid grasp on primary language structures and intentionally mess them up. This “messing up” is actually the creation of a new language, a language based on the relationship between the linguistic and the visual structures within the meme. The social and cultural ideas are expressed through this dynamic relationship that relies primarily on the new language created by the word/image interplay. While I do not encourage my students to match unquantifiable nouns with adjectives of quantity that specify plurality, there is something valuable in the way that the incorrect grammar structures of this meme create new meaning in a new context, something reminiscent of the work being done to understand the self’s relationship to its own self expression when both are constantly and necessarily “works in progress.”

These ideas are very much works in progress. I must confess that I am concerned about the possibility that these ideas support a queer/straight binary that is not my intention in any way. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a conversation (understood as broadly as possible) about language, pedagogy and queerness.
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Seeing Weird Theatre: Analysis of an Assignment

My dissertation is about contemporary experimental performance, what I like to call “weird theatre.” I introduce myself to my students, joking that I write about weird little performances that happen in weird little spaces throughout the city. When I give this introduction, when I write on my blog, www.weirdtheatre.org, when I trudge out to these venues, I reflect upon my commitment to weird theatre. What draws me to these weird performances? How does weird theatre make meaning differently than more traditional theatrical forms?  When I teach weird theatre, I often think about the politics that undergird its weirdness. To whom is this theatre accessible?  Who are its intended audiences—is weird theatre only meaningful to “in the know,” experienced spectators?

Some people find experimental work hard to understand or pretentious, but I love its possibilities. As an actor and a feminist, I always found realistic theatre foreclosing; the possibilities of who I could play and what I could do onstage were limited to the realm of the real, which for me often meant sweet, femme-y ingénue characters, women I was not particularly interested in pretending to be. In college, my professors introduced me to experimental performance and feminist and queer performance art and my understanding of the possibilities of performance was forever altered. I can say with certainty that exposure to this work changed the course of my life.

I hope, in exposing my own students to experimental work, I will have some small effect on their perception of the possibilities of performance. Two summers ago, teaching an Introduction to Theatre course, I took my students to one of these weird little theatre spaces, the now defunct Collapsable Hole (sic) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see a weird little performance called Space//Space by the critically-acclaimed experimental company Banana Bag & Bodice. It was a bit of a risk; in the intro course, many students have never attended live theatre, let alone experimental performance in an off-off-off-Broadway venue. But we had spent the semester defining theatre beyond conventional playtexts, we had discussed devised work, read Godot, and studied non-Western performance traditions. I felt they were prepared for the performance. Company members Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe generously agreed to stay afterwards to speak about their process and answer any student questions.

SpaceSpace-11-590x375

Image courtesy of http://bananabagandbodice.org/show/spacespace/

Some students hated the performance. Some loved it. But they all met the challenge of its weirdness.  I had them write reviews of the production, and I was so impressed with their writing, I asked their permission to quote their work in the analysis of the assignment I knew I would someday write. The following are some excerpts from their critiques, all of which demonstrate engaged critical thinking.

Even as a student expresses the ways in which the performance falls short, she still engages critically with it and supports her assertions about its weaknesses:

Sitting through the performance I was puzzled as to what was going on and what was the purpose. Simplistic and often single-worded dialogue left me waiting for that point in which things would make sense. I learned that it wasn’t meant to make sense. . . . Portraying the human mind as it deals with isolation, loneliness, and the downward spin to insanity is hard to achieve. The performance by the actors, I felt, lacked genuineness and therefore evoked feelings of confusion rather than acknowledgement and empathy. There was not enough information to bring the performance together as a whole due to the scattered, simplistic dialogue and limited actions of the performers.

One student, a former professional dancer who felt the performance “penetrated her subconscious,” provides a nuanced reading of Lumus’s transformation from male to female during the course of the play:

By the performance’s conclusion, Jelliffe’s transformation was complete: her pale skin, long hair, and naked, pregnant body, created an angelic, Madonna impression. She finally grew into her namesake, Lumus, similar to luminescence. In physics, luminescence is a form of cold body radiation, which contrasts with incandescence, light emitted as a result of heat. Although Lumus was now physically radiant, she had also undergone a cool emotional transformation. From her initial warm relationship with, and naïve dependence on Penryn (Craig), she evolved into her own entity: standing up to him, questioning him, threatening him, berating him, destroying his life’s work, and ultimately, holding his hand to her pregnant stomach, she cradled him as he died. Her final words, “I have no husband, okay,” completed this transition, and yet, spoken with a note of sadness, they conveyed a hint of regret. Neither completely good nor completely evil, Jelliffe succeeded in portraying the complexity of the human condition . . . Space//Space is a tragicomedy; it portrays man’s limitations and failures, with moments of comedy interspersed. In true Beckettian fashion, it puts its audience through the experience of the characters. We live their waiting and sleeping, we feel their desperation, and we observe their inner struggles, finding ourselves amused by repetitious dialogue, and humbled by the futility of life.

Another, a psychology major, who changed her minor to theatre after taking my class, offers a beautiful analysis of a musical moment in the show:

 . . . the performers used melody and rhythm to express their emotion. Jessica’s character sang a song about being a “space girl in space” when s/he finally accepted the change from a man to a woman. Her voice singing this song still remains in my mind as a very strong moment. I associate it with the feeling of embracing who we are for whoever we are and living with what we have.

Another reads the performance in a larger socio/political context:

Visual metaphors brilliantly included in the play emphasize the power of control the government, society, religion has upon humans. Depending on perspective the spectator takes, it can be interpreted as control of the market, power of surveillance, restricted liberty, the power of the law. For instance, “emergency sandwiches” that come from mysterious hatch, and blue liquid supply (must be water) available for the characters in “spaceship” (which looks more like a laboratory hamster cage), signify that humans throughout their lives are nothing but test subjects.  Human life is represented by the roll of tape that records every step we make, and every word we say. And what we have at the end? Just a broken record . . .

The performance led a pre-med student to reflect on existential questions:

Time and time again, Lumus would ask “Where are we?” and “Why are we here?” and Penrym  would respond with some frustration “We are in Space. We are doing our job.” What their job is exactly is left up to interpretation by the spectators themselves: is it to maintain society’s morals and values in space? Is it to test the effect of being in isolation from the rest of humanity? Are they supposed to give in to their natural instincts? Is their job to ponder their existence or simply just to carry out normal every day functions (such as eating and sleeping) without exercising their brain at all? . . . Space//Space brings to our consciousness the idea of how society have and will continue to shape our perspective of our existence. What the characters suffer from while isolated in space is choosing between living deliberately or serving society and it’s never ending expectations of proper conduct by doing their ‘job’ . . . Social norms and roles may appear restrictive but we now depend on them to give our lives superficial meaning by having us go to school, get educated, and create a career. These things keep us busy in the everyday, material world, but once left alone with just our thoughts our human minds seem to be vulnerable to despair and hopelessness. Space//Space showed us how outside of society, Penrym and Lumus were at a lost as to what they should do with themselves, resulting in both of them undergoing great turmoil that we don’t see get resolved by the conclusion of the performance.

My students’ inspired analyses and astute critiques confirm that spectatorship of experimental work encourages deep critical thinking and creative analysis. Their writing shows that weird theatre is not necessarily esoteric, that spectators of all sorts can find meaning in it.  In fact, the variety of students’ interpretations of the piece leads me to wonder if—because of the openness of the texts—weird theatre is actually more accessible, in some ways, than realistic work.  Regardless, their responses—positive and negative—reaffirm my commitment to weird theatre, and especially to making it available to all audiences of all experience levels.

On the matter of numbers

Mindful of other deadlines, I finally applied pressure to my felt-tipped pen while in transit, on a quiet Sunday morning subway-car. I felt unsuited, ill-prepared, to start writing. No notes to work from. Just a folder full of documents unrelated to this blog post. I did have, for better or for worse, an inky pen with a soft point (ballpoints are better for business) and the blank surface of a manila folder. I began drafting this contextual blog post for the “Writing About Numbers” faculty roundtable that Bill Ferns and I will co-run next week. I ended up with this: drawing out, crossing out, sketching again, a recurring discomfort I’ve had since grade school. The story of this recurring feeling is not particularly remarkable, one that is not so dissimilar from my impulse to avoid the freshly opened new word-processor document on my laptop screen (blankness). The story:  I am immediately stunned by numbers and, in defense, my mind triggers a blank.

scribble

This anecdote is a roundabout way of saying that the initial discomfort I sense when writing in a familiar language is, in some ways, akin to the perceived challenges I feel when encountering figures and languages that I am less literate in (i.e., numbers, data, French). It is, quite frankly, the discomfort–some blending of vulnerability and responsibility–that arises when one communicates while learning, thinking, processing. There is always recourse, though, to leave things blank or to remain silent.

* * *

slaveship

But what does writing, discomfort, and silence (blankness) have to do with numbers and data? I’ll try to explain by turning to a context, by relating my academic work in literary study to the subject of numbers. I study Atlantic slavery and its relationship to literary production. The archival materials and texts affiliated with the Atlantic slave trade have been read as documents that reveal the ways in which lives of the enslaved were reduced and dehumanized by violent abstraction. That is, ledgers, balance books, nautical journals and other accounts of the transatlantic slave trade converted captives into commodities, lives indexed by numbers and figures. Take for instance Stephanie Smallwood’s description, in Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (2007), of how ledgers rationalized the violent logic of the slave trade:

 “The ledger’s double-entry pages and the neat grid of the invoice gave purposeful shape to the story they told. Through their graphic simplicity and economy, invoices and ledgers effaced the personal histories that fueled the slaving economy. Containing only what could fit within the clean lines of their columns and rows, they reduced an enormous system of traffic in human commodities to a concise chronicle of quantitative ‘facts.’… Instruments such as these did their work, then, while concealing the messiness of history, erasing from view the politics that underlay the neat account keeping” (98).

In spite of the violent accountings of the slave trade, practitioners of the humanities–historians and literary scholars in particular–have been able to supply nuance, variation, and interpretation to realities that are gestured at but not revealed by the neatness of numbers, charts, and graphs. In the area of slavery studies, robust and incisive work has emerged from scholars who engage with and rethink the politics, ethics, and historical contexts that adjoin the quantitative facts and the administrative records of the slave trade. This is evidenced by recent scholarly gatherings, like “‘Against Recovery?’: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive,” and digital projects, like Vincent Brown’s cartographic narrative of an eighteenth-century slave revolt.

To return to the question: what does writing, discomfort, and silence have to do with numbers and data?  Writing is a practice in working through the discomfort of learning whatever our subject of study might be. If there’s discomfort, I’ve told students who are silent or on the brink of giving up, it’s because learning is challenging and that thorny realities are involved in subjects we choose to study. Whether working on a formula, or analyzing a set of statistics, or deciphering the mind of Milton’s poetry, writing sets into motion a cycle of processing, self-assessing, and renewing material.

Because writing is a striving for the precise combination of words and signs that correspond to a thought and, simultaneously, an exercise that invites feelings of vulnerability and responsibility, it seems to me that writing is a practice of ethics and politics. In other words, through the process of writing, we reflect on the matter that characterizes whatever our study might be and, as a result, learn a bit more about the limits and the possibilities in what matters to us.

sievers

 Works Cited

Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,  2007.

Source of image #2 and #3: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record (Click on images for exact url address).

Speak to Learn: faculty speak their mind in video on oral communication

The classroom is abuzz with students jotting down notes and eagerly inserting themselves into a fast-paced full-class discussion.  Observant comments from every member of the class forward the conversation towards a collective higher understanding of the topic at hand.

This is my go-to vision of ideal classroom discussion.  But as I have immersed myself in conversations about communication across the curriculum here at the Schwartz Communication Institute, I have come to realize that A) this vision is sometimes hard to achieve, and B) it is only one of many models for meaningful oral communication in the classroom.

Why do we urge students to speak in class?  What does success look like when they do so?  What unique roles does oral communication play in the many diverse disciplines that Baruch students study?  These questions are at the center of two projects I’ve been working on this year at BLSCI.

The first is a short video that speaks to the role of spoken communication across the disciplines.  I interviewed three professors here at Baruch: Mathematics professor Peter Gregory, Business Management professor Ed Kurpis, and English professor Cheryl Smith.  I asked them about the role of spoken communication in their disciplines and in their classrooms.  While their responses reflect the particular demands of their disciplines, they all highlight the centrality of speaking to developing ideas and mastering knowledge in the classroom, and to communicating authentically and effectively in the outside world.  See what they have to say here:

The second project is a faculty development workshop that I am leading later this week (Thursday, February 27, 12:45-2:15pm) with Law professor Valerie Watnick.  We’ll be covering a wide variety of strategies for facilitating meaningful, focused and lively discussion in the classroom.  You can find details about this workshop, and all BLSCI workshops and roundtables, here.