The Complexities of Creative Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[3] Ibid., 55.


Dodging the Drafts

I just submitted the first full draft of a dissertation chapter to my adviser.  Producing it was a painful process—I missed the first deadline we set, just before Thanksgiving.  But a major reason I got my chapter in by the new deadline is the fact that I had a commitment to get a draft to my writing partner last week.  Her feedback and encouragement motivated me to get the draft in better shape and in to my adviser on time.

Letting someone read your drafts can be intimidating. I don’t recall sharing writing very often in college. I proofread my best friend’s thesis the spring of our senior year, and, although we had collaborated closely on numerous creative projects, it was the first time I had read a draft of something he had written.  I have been required to give presentations on my research-in-progress in a number of my graduate classes, but only once have I been asked to share drafts of work with classmates, in a Research and Bibliography course during my first semester of my Master’s degree at UT.

Keeping our drafts private stokes anxieties and mystifies the writing process.  It perpetuates the notion that “good” writers create perfect papers, fully-formed with very little effort while “bad” writers struggle.  It masks the truth that writing is a skill that must be practiced to improve, that even great writers grapple with organization and argumentation in early drafts, and it de-emphasizes the importance of editing and revising.

This semester I required my students to partner up and workshop drafts of their final papers.  I had one student tell me she was too embarrassed about her writing to participate in the workshop.  In my experience, I assured her, once I push past that initial nervousness, sharing drafts actually helps to relieve my anxieties about my writing, and giving feedback on others’ drafts always teaches me something I can apply to my own work.

Here some thoughts on sharing drafts with writing partners:

  • Pick your partners carefully. Do you want to work with someone who is close to your topic or removed from it? Someone in your field or outside of it? Someone at the same stage as you in his or her career or someone farther along?  In general, I have preferred to work with colleagues who are in my discipline, but who are not in my current PhD program.  Now that I am at the dissertation stage, I feel it is important to work with a partner who is also writing her dissertation, so that the stakes of our work are similar.  Make sure that you trust the person you are working with, and that he or she is a good balance of critical and kind.  You don’t want someone who is going to tear your drafts apart and completely drain your motivation, but you don’t want someone who will uncritically praise your work either.
  • Know your partner’s strengths and draw on them. I have a list of friends whose feedback I solicit depending of the piece of writing and the kind of help I want and need on my draft. My former English teacher mother is an eagle-eyed grammar editor.  A friend who is a journalist as well as an academic never fails to make my prose pithier. Another, who works at a university writing center, pushes me to think about structure and organization.  A poet friend helps me to uncover more interesting connections and make more meaningful arguments in my work.  A grant-writer friend is amazing at editing drafts of cover letters.
  • Set parameters for your feedback.  Are you going to use Track Changes to line edit each other’s drafts or simply make comments on them?  Will you send each other your thoughts in writing, meet in person, or Skype to discuss them?  I find it useful to send a few questions to my partner along with my draft to guide her reading.  If I want nitty-gritty grammar feedback (for instance, on a later draft of a paper), I say that. If I want big picture comments about the strengths of my arguments or structure of my paper (as I did with this very drafty first draft of my dissertation chapter), ignoring smaller errors, I say that too.  I let her know the sections with which I am struggling, especially in a longer piece, so she can focus her attention there. I often ask her to tell me in her own words what she sees as the argument in each paragraph of my paper, which helps me to judge what changes I need to make for the next draft.  I always ask my partner what kind of feedback she wants on her draft, so that my comments are as useful as possible for her.
  • Set reasonable, frequent deadlines and stick to them. A big part of a successful writing partnership is accountability. Make deadlines for sharing your drafts and giving feedback. Take the deadlines you set seriously.  And be sure that you allow yourself enough time to thoroughly read and comment on your partner’s work.

Writing as Therapy

For the sake of variety, I had hoped that I wouldn’t start this final blog entry of the semester with a personal anecdote, as I’ve done in many of my past posts. But the reason I even considered the topic I decided to write about here is quite personal.

Over the last few months I’ve been dealing with the serious illness of someone in my immediate family. Something that has struck me in going through this experience has been the extent to which the act of communicating can be a trigger for emotional release. I’m thinking of “communicating” here fairly narrowly as being on the outgoing or receiving end of verbal or written communication. What I’m talking about is how you might be more or less holding it together, emotionally speaking, until you talk to someone about what’s going on or read the supportive words of dear friends. At least that has been my recent experience. What I haven’t tried out is the potentially therapeutic outlet that writing about difficult experiences appears to offer a lot of people.

I think there’s a general notion in our culture that for a lot of professional writers, putting pen to paper offers them a crucial emotional vent (like music for musicians, painting for visual artists, etc.—though I think most people would exclude academics and journalists from this group). I’d imagine that people who practice regular journaling might affirm that the emotional benefits of writing about one’s personal travails are in fact available to the wider public. Personally, I haven’t practiced the type of “expressive” writing that I think could yield such benefits. For the better part of ten years I’ve focused almost exclusively on the research-based writing that is standard in grad school, neglecting most other literary modes. I’ve been thinking about the therapeutic value of writing recently as I’ve come across memoirs by people who have gone through serious illness and as I started reading a friend’s blog dedicated to her own health issues. So, for this post I figured I’d do a quick web search for “writing therapy” to see what the popular wisdom of the internet has to say about it. Here’s some of what I turned up:

Psychologist James Pennebaker appears to have done important research that sought to investigate the positive effects of expressive writing. In a widely cited article published in 1997, he compared the long-term effects on a group of subjects who wrote extensively about traumatic events to a control group that wrote about “superficial” topics. According to one assessment:

If you followed the people in these studies [who wrote about personal trauma] over time, they reported fewer illnesses, they went to the doctor less often, and they suffered fewer symptoms of depression in the future. They were less likely to miss work and school, and their performance at work went up. These effects lasted for months and years after writing.

A 2008 study on cancer patients who were involved in an expressive writing program found that for a sizable percentage of them writing about their illness brought about some improvement in their quality of life. On a more anecdotal level, a search for the tag “writing therapy” on The Huffington Post brings up a number of interesting articles describing different people’s experiences with using writing as a tool to overcome some sort of difficult experience.

Since the rise of the internet age, blogs have become the preferred medium for people of all stripes to share their personal turmoil. By 2005, a Washington Post article reported that blogs combined the benefits of writing about one’s problems with the possibility of forming virtual communities. An AOL study cited in the piece indicated that “nearly half of bloggers consider it a form of therapy.” Unsurprisingly, blogs about people’s experiences with serious illness—written by themselves or by their relatives—make up a sizable portion of the blogosphere.  Early on, hospitals began featuring patient blog postings on their websites, apparently recognizing both the therapeutic value to patients but also their marketing potential. Over the last decade, there have been several efforts to scientifically explain the potential benefits of blogging.  A recent study on teenage blogging concluded:

the engagement with an online community allowed by the blog format made it more effective in relieving the writer’s social distress than a private diary would be.

*              *              *

In the process of writing several drafts of this post I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to test out some of the ideas outlined above by writing something more confessional. That didn’t feel like a risk I was ready to take yet. But in versions in which I specified up front the “illness” (cancer) and the “someone” (my mom), I was again caught off guard by the emotional power that merely typing characters into a word-processor can effect. I probably won’t start up a blog, but I may do well to practice more of the low-stakes writing us peddlers of Writing Across the Curriculum philosophy tend to preach.

On Disorganizing and Reorganizing

(Or, “8 Things That Listicles Tell Us About Process”)

  1. If I begin with a list, I’m about to start a project— maybe tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s trip, a draft, or a revision. “This is what I need to do,” I assure myself.
  2. The word “listicle” is odd and ugly. But I don’t mean ugly in the same way that Stanley Fish means it when he says: “…‘blog’ is an ugly word (as are clog, smog, and slog).”  The word, listicle, is crudely formed by smashing together “list” and “article.” It’s an article that plays on a system of classification.  The writing (thinking) process, the drafting of ideas, and evaluating of information can be uncomfortable, clunky, and uneven procedures. The word “listicle” honestly reflects the messiness of process.
  3. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool of organization. Some examples: What do I need to get at the grocery store? How many more course credits do I need? What don’t I know? What do I know? A list is a useful genre for prioritizing tasks, assessing objectives, and discerning values.
  4. A list is a familiar form of writing and a tool for organization. A retail worker uses it to check a store’s inventory. A bartender scribbles a list of what to restock a bar with. An administrator of any rank is an expert in the form. A syllabus is a hybrid list. A student can use it to brainstorm.
  5. I make lists to remember. I realize I haven’t talked about what makes the word “listicle” an odd word… It shares sounds with unexpected words, like tickle, pickle, and popsicle. Listicle also conveniently rhymes with mythological and ideological.
  6. To create a list is to create a mission, a manifesto of some sort. Perhaps a list is content in desire of form; maybe it’s knowledge impatiently in want of coherence.
  7. A numbered list implies order. But sometimes the order seems arbitrary or trivial. “23 Signs You’ve Lived In New York City,” “31 GIFs That Will Make You Laugh Every Time.” Why 23? Why 31? Lists draw on the appearance of structure, but maybe they’re just disorder masquerading as (or maybe they’re new shapes waiting to supersede) order.
  8. A list can be a form of critical inquiry. Place two lists next to each other— one for pros, the other for cons— and a one person debate can commence. Art is in “listicle,” tactically obscured from view, and it’s present if one wants (or has) a poetic mission. A list can be a form of critical inquiry: a “to do” list might actually be a “to know” list. Or maybe a list is, at its core, a performance of: “This is what I do and this is what I know.”

***

A confession and some brief notes on my pedagogy:

This blog post is an attempted exercise in demonstrating how meaning is built into form (which is what I tried to do with my previous piece on the mixtape). It is also an excuse to quarrel with an Internet form that I have long been ambivalent about.

In my classroom, students and I spend a lot of time discussing form and structure. Meaning, I tell them, is not just located in content and plot: meaning is also mediated through its structure. This might be obvious, especially for those who specialize in literary criticism, but it can be a challenge to get undergraduates to think about structure in concert with content. In our more dynamic and fruitful discussions, students and I merge our close-readings of a narrative’s texture and relate our collective reading to that narrative’s structure. Chapter seven, “Structural Principles: The Example of the Sonnet,” of Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form has been particularly helpful in getting students to think about form and structure, not just in terms of poetry, but also in terms of shaping their own form(s) of critical inquiry.

A Babel Mixtape

Adrian Tomine, "Society Dictates" (2001).

Adrian Tomine, “Society Dictates” (2001).

Rewind. A context When I was in middle school, I didn’t realize that I was witnessing a shift in communication. The shift seemed ordinary. Our neighborhood mail carrier, whose mouth gripped a lit cigarette and hands skillfully shuffled through envelopes between houses, facilitated a steady flow of free-trial AOL discs to my home — discs that were later tucked in dust behind the tower of my family’s shared desktop. The discs gradually disappeared. They belong to a period in my life when the U.S. postal system didn’t seem so fragile and my best friend left me coded messages, gibberish to my parents, on the answering machine.

Fast forward, to high school. I live in the same house, on the margins of suburbia, but now I instant message in the evenings. One night, as I type in the dark, I notice that many of the AIM screennames, mine included, share one common adjective, one common unit: “azn.”

Fast forward, to November 11, 2013. Play: It’s November in New York City and, with warm breaths clutching the cold air and the population of shopping bags booming, all signs point to winter’s arrival. Though summer seems to be at a distance, a scene from this past August lingers still on my mind.

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, "In the Mood for Love" (2000)

Movie still of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, “In the Mood for Love” (2000)

 

Rewind, August 23, 2013. I was at a retrospective screening of Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, a movie I’ve seen many times before. This viewing experience was different, not only because it was the first time I saw it projected on a screen. This time I couldn’t immerse myself in the Cantonese script, so I straddled between reading the English subtitles and following, whenever I could, the dimming warmth of the Chinese language. There is a scene where the female lead, Mrs. Chan, makes an observation to the male lead. Mrs. Chan’s words sound familiar, but conjure a strange image in my head. I imagine a glistening net of golden honey threads, formed like a three-dimensional word bubble. Then, clunky and literal, words crystallize: “You’re like my husband. Your mouth is sweet and your thread is smooth.” The white letters, the subtitles, tell me: “You’re like my husband; he’s a sweet talker too.”

Pause. A reflection on the form and content of my cac.ophony blog posts: I try to maintain the formal expectations of voice and brevity, of personal tone and notation of  (my writing, thinking) process. Fragmentations and serialities mark the varying tempos of learning, an ongoingness of learning shaped by a historical present. Realizations, to invoke Mrs. Chan’s emotional articulation, can “sneak up on you,” catch you off guard, at a later time. The posts also depict my unfinished thinking with Lauren Berlant, Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, and Raymond Williams. The links embedded in each post are citations of the texts, online resources, and images I’ve been thinking through.

In terms of content, I’ve been trying to cohere some thoughts about the relationships between labor and exposure, between culture and capital, in a digital age. How do these relationships inform the shifting languages of the internet and the communities created around varying idioms and practices? The question that I’m formulating here is one that relates to my academic interests in race and labor:  how do the conditions produced by internet communication affect communities tangled, or aligned, along the coordinates of race, gender, class, and sexuality?

In terms of pleasure, I confess, I delight in the tentative thrill, the brush of potentiality, that comes with being derailed, reoriented, by the simple acts of scrolling down a newsfeed, swiping through images, and clicking on embedded links. Play.

On Reading Academic Blogs

Let me invite you into a scene that I often rehearse. Perhaps you are familiar with it too. It’s usually staged with the assumption that one has a concrete research or reading agenda upon opening a web browser. Rehearsing the scene is a risk, for an initially steadfast objective can fray and disintegrate into Youtube videos of cats or Buzzfeed listicles. What I’m about to describe is the point at which the solitary act of paging through a book connects to the Internet’s labyrinth of hyperlinks. In this scene a novice is reminded that she’s been reading with, and was simmering in the ideas of, scholars who blog.

***

Enter doctoral student. With a cup of coffee at a safe distance from her keyboard and a stack of reference books nearby, her laptop warms up while she consults an assemblage of notes and quotes. “It is easy to forget,” the student reads, “that cultural Marxism itself provided us with an account of the matter of affect as key to reading the historical present.” The student did forget and, yikes, she doesn’t recall where this quote is from. She reads a few more scrawls. “History hurts, but not only.” And, oh here’s the give-away: “All attachments are optimistic.” The penetrating and terse sentences, the student realizes, belong to Lauren Berlant’s monograph, Cruel Optimism. The student swivels on this moment of recognition, for she’s encountered this style of writing before, but not only in this monograph. The recognition congeals when she returns to a research blog that she haphazardly explored in the past. She rereads Berlant’s blog posts:

 July 24, 2013: “If I run out of gas, but not out of love, if you let a piece go without completion, if the session isn’t finished but definitively over, if the delicious coffee could only wake us forever…”

June 3, 2012: “Delaminated from week 1 lecture notes, Love Theory (Winter 2012)…I am a love theorist. I sometimes feel dissociated from all my loves.”

September 18, 2010: “I never fall out of love, but run out of gas. That’s what I mean by thinking as a transformation within stuckness.”

As she scrolls down the blog, descending into older posts, the student realizes that she has, in fact, been returning to similar, but not identical, phrases and syntactical structures of thought. She locates Cruel Optimism in the nearby stack, flips to a dog-eared page and revisits a passage about intuition: “[T]he visceral response is a trained thing, not just autonomic activity.” End scene.

***

I love how Berlant returns to and ruminates on ideas. The time-stamped entries on a blog imply shifts and, yet, despite these movements, there often remain fierce attachments to thoughts, feelings, situations, and unresolved queries. It may seem obvious, but I think it bears reiterating: blogs do not simply document content or data in real-time. They also register patterns of thought, continuities in values, revisions in an idea, default modes for inquiring about the world at large. And in an age where we are increasingly saturated in data, I wonder–as a student, a teacher–how we might interlace the production of information (i.e., a blog entry) with the anticipation of return. That is, I wonder how we might return in order to revise, remediate, and assess.

I begin with this scene as a way to introduce, and experiment with, a few thematics that I will return to in the coming weeks: the relationship between access and process, public scholarship, and how writing is shaped by emergent forms of reading experiences.

Posthumous Tweets, Postmortal Updates: Voicing the Dead in Writing Assignments

A recent blog post in The Guardian, “Why Death is Not the End of Your Social Media Life,” describes how “social media is…bridging the gap between the living and the dead” through digital services such as LivesOn and DeadSoci.al. The former—with its mildly witty tagline “when your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting”—builds a profile of you based on your tweets, who you’re following, who’s following you, and so forth. After you have exhaled for the last time, the Twitter app LivesOn takes over where you left off and keeps “you” tweeting from across mortality’s threshold. DeadSoci.al, a “free social media tool,” takes a slightly different approach by allowing the user to craft her or his own “digital legacy,” which links to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and would be deployed upon notification (and presumably verification) that one has died.

As someone whose research centers on matters of death and the dead in early modern English drama and whose pedagogy is aimed at strengthening and expanding written and oral communication skills across a range of media—not to mention, someone who’s more than a bit fidgety over the inevitability of her own expiration—I am intrigued by this technology and its applications. While I don’t see myself creating a posthumous social media “me,” my immersion in my subject matter has my mind abuzz with all sorts of imaginings. Will my FB newsfeed someday include others’ posthumous updates? And just what might such updates say: “It’s your birthday, live it up” “I know who’s going to win the election,” “Dante was right?” Will my own updates be “liked” by assorted dead people in the future? Part of the fascination with these new tools, of course, comes from the creepiness that surrounds them—one reader comments that this turn in social media is “pretty creepy,” while another ventures, “this definitely has a certain weird appeal.” Of course it does because the dead don’t remain entirely dead. We don’t let them. They’re part of our individual and collective psyches.

At the same time that we try to shield ourselves from the dead by limiting our contact with corpses (we have created hospitals, hospice centers, and funeral homes to take care of what our forebears routinely did), and by dieting and exercising our way towards death-at-least-a-little-deferred, we remain pretty drawn to them. The popularity of forensic television dramas such as CSI, films such as the Twilight Saga, and exhibitions like Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds series underscore our simultaneous revulsion and fascination with death and the dead. LivesOn and DeadSoci.al extend this connection—that is, the connection between the living and the dead, which cultures have sought via the creation of Purgatory, the belief in the visions of sages and clairvoyants, the establishment of philanthropic endowments, et al. In our seemingly endless quest to maintain communication between the living and the dead, the world of social media—which draws together at least half the world’s population—is a logical addition to this constellation. These latest forays in social media also speak directly to our fear of annihilation and our indignation over the cessation of personal identity.

I’ve been giving thought, as well, to the classroom and how the idea of tweeting or updating posthumously might be used in writing assignments. Admittedly, nothing has really crystallized yet, but I find myself returning to an example set by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Twitter-driven 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet, titled Such Tweet Sorrow. Taking place in real-time over the space of five weeks, six principal characters (Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse, Friar Lawrence, Mercutio, and Tybalt) tweeted improvised lines, which were supplemented by characters’ tweets on current social and political events, and tweets from the actors reflecting on their roles and responding to audience tweets. What if Hamlet took to Twitter or Facebook? How might his meditations on death read in 140 characters? What could we learn from rephrasing or supplementing these vast thoughts within such tight parameters? What sorts of photos would he post on FB and who would some of his FB friends be? Imagine Hamlet Sr. tweeting from Purgatory or Gertrude’s closet, Polonius continuing to insist himself from behind the arras and from his plight as “supper,” Ophelia updating her status as she floats away or as Hamlet and Laertes come to blows in her grave? How might the study of early modern beliefs about death and the dead be enhanced by role-playing through social media and what would these classroom tweets and updates reveal about our own thoughts on the subject? By directly weaving their voices into the play, exchanging tweets, and sharing insights and questions coming out of these tweets on a course blog, students could produce a rich conversation from which to draw their own questions towards a thesis statement for their papers. As I continue to play with the shape and learning outcomes of this assignment, I’ll let myself be guided by the idea that it should stir the students’ sense of investment in their writing. This, plus the belief that their voices can productively comingle with language that is often thought of as arcane and closed off to postmodern ears, eyes, and mouths.

Grad School Year’s End Blues

Like everyone, I am looking forward to the end of the semester. After the last two weeks packed with teaching, oral presentation rehearsals, meetings–let alone my own writing deadlines and classwork–I’m right there with everyone else hailing the approaching summer. As much as I love the work I do, I know that in a mere month I’ll get the rare privilege to sleep in on a Saturday without anxiety. For those of us who are lucky enough to get to slack a bit in the summer, it’s sometimes all we can use to keep us going. Administrators right on down to students–we’re all singing the same poppy song. It’s about sunshine and sleep and freedom.

Photo ©Bahman Farzad / lotusflowerimages.com

Photo ©Bahman Farzad / lotusflowerimages.com

However, I’ve also been feeling something unique this year as the last weeks of the term arrive: I’m calling it the Grad School Year’s End Blues. You may be familiar with it. The Grad School Year’s End Blues comes sliding in with the deadlines pulsing just in the distance. It floats around as that residual senior-itis brushes off the folks who are actually leaving. It comes (to me at least) along with the swelling acknowledgement that “my summer off” will be a write-a-thon punctuated by expensive conferences and exams.

But it’s not all about disappointment or anxiety, these blues. That’s the chorus, to be sure–the hook. I want to sing one particular verse, one that I’m just learning for the first time this year: the verse about the end of a one-of-a-kind teaching experience.

I tend to surround myself with teachers who love to teach, and I’ve heard them each hum a line of this one in their time: about the honors capstone course they got to teach that once, or the totally blog-based integrated learning environment they’d finally perfected after years of tweaking. The last lyrics always end, “but who knows when I’ll ever get to do that again!”

That’s my situation this year. I ended up getting a repeat gig as a first-year composition instructor for the honors engineering program at City College. Two falls in a row now, I’ve taught honors engineers with a curriculum I adapted from the department’s template. I’ve experimented wildly, and received decent support and encouragement from my supervisors. I gave it a few injections of comp/rhet methodology (process work, freewriting, revision, collaboration) and technology (wikis, blogs, multimodal assignments). The really special thing is that this year I got to teach only these students: the two sections of the honors English 110 course from the fall followed me almost wholesale to the 210 course I’m teaching this spring. For the first time in my teaching career, I got to see how a writer develops over more than 15 weeks. It’s been tremendously instructive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I feel a hokey kind of pride for how far these particular students have developed. They’ve grown tremendously in their understanding of writing, both as a practice and as a discipline of study. But that’s not the feeling in this song. This is Nina Simone, not Sarah Vaughan. There’s a snarl behind those tears.

The reality is, as an adjunct teacher who studies composition pedagogy, I benefit professionally from the chance to experiment on a wide variety of writing curricula, student demographics, and physical spaces (this year in a computer lab for the first and probably last time). I know that this was probably my only chance to study this kind of pedagogical situation, at least until I’m in a full-time job. The truth is, I got lucky just to get this kind of experience the first time: most people get very little freedom in the courses they teach. And I might get lucky enough to get another go at it, to see if the successes I had here are actually repeatable. But I probably won’t.

Experience working in diverse teaching spaces matters.
Photo by Mike1024 via Wikimedia Commons.

For me, and a lot of pedagogy folks out there I know, access to a free range of courses to teach is like access to lab space. The reality for most of us who adjunct at CUNY is that it’s usually the luck of the draw whether we land in departments that give us access to a variety of teaching opportunities, or those that reserve the more challenging courses for full-time faculty. If we want to push our scholarship as compositionists, to produce innovative work that will lead to publication, or to ensure a wide and impressive teaching portfolio for when we enter the job market, we need access to new and challenging teaching experiences. From my experience in English departments, at least, the keys to that lab space are guarded pretty tightly (tell me in the comments if it’s different elsewhere).

So, I’m sure I’ll enjoy my summer when it gets here. I bet I’ll have a great time at that conference, and I’ll learn Spanish, and I’ll write a ton and still somehow have fun in the sun. But for now, I’m still here reading student papers, trying to enjoy the last good bits of the term, and singing these Grad School Year’s End Blues.

Own It

I hate when people post to blogs anonymously.

There are several blogs I follow regularly, on topics ranging from Appalachian Trail Thru Hikes to Philosophy (admittedly, there are many more on frivolous topics than rigorous ones). Recently, I was attacked by another commenter who made gross generalizations about the posts I’ve made on the blog and concluded by saying she “was glad [she] would never meet me.” Who was this commenter who took it upon herself to defame my character (on a blog related to clothes, and in response to a post I made about not liking a new style of tank top)? Anonymous. It seems that these days it’s okay to throw punches and then run and hide. Ownership and responsibility have been relegated to the backseat, while cowardice is now riding shotgun.

xkcd: Wikileaks

The vast majority of published content is not a matter of life or death; it does not involve high-profile whistle blowing. In most instances, there’s no need for anonymity. Or rather, there should be no need for it – either you should attach your name to what you’re writing, or you shouldn’t write it. I’m not denying anyone’s First Amendment rights – you can write (almost) whatever you want. But that doesn’t mean that you should. (Keep in mind that you can eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in one sitting, but you probably shouldn’t.)

I have my students post and respond to weekly discussion board prompts. When discussing the assignment with the class, the following conversation ensued:

Student: “Do we have to include our name when we post?”

Me: “Yes – your name automatically appears. You cannot post anonymously, or I won’t know who the post is from and won’t be able to give you credit for the assignment.”

Student: “You could assign us each a secret number or code that we use when we post so that you know who the post belongs to, but no one else knows.”

Me: *confused* “That just seems really difficult when you can just post your name. Is there some reason you don’t want to use your name?”

Student: “Well, you know, so we don’t have to worry about offending someone.”

And there we have the crux of the issue: we are worried about offending people. More accurately, we are worried about people knowing who made the offensive comment. We don’t want any fingers pointed our way.

xkcd: Listen to Yourself

Here’s my suggestion: if you’re that worried about what you’re writing – don’t write it. I don’t mean this simply as “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Indeed, I wholeheartedly reject the notion that we should say only nice things and avoid the unpleasantries of life. Controversial statements need to be made. They prompt us to think critically and question our assumptions – the very essence of philosophical behavior. Controversy forces us to examine, analyze, deconstruct, and reconstruct our own beliefs. It is upon examination of your opponent’s position that you often manage to strengthen your own. Know thine enemy.

Know thyself. If there’s one thing I hope to impart upon my students, it’s that you should be prepared to give good reasons and support for anything you put out there in the universe. You’re not entitled to unsubstantiated opinions; everything you put out there is subject to the follow-up, “why?” “That’s just what I think” is not good enough. Don’t follow blindly; don’t repeat without questioning; don’t just babble without thinking. Stop and consider the arguments grounding your position. Question every premise. What makes them true – if they are? Do the premises add up to the conclusion? Are there alternative conclusions that could be drawn from the premises? If you’re not prepared to take responsibility for what you say and defend it, then don’t say it. To be rather blunt about it – the world doesn’t need more bullshit. And when I see “Anonymous”, that’s exactly what I see – people who feel entitled to spew their opinions all over, but are not willing to own up to them. And that’s bullshit.

xkcd: Dreams

Here’s another lesson: stop worrying so much about offending people. You cannot control everyone’s reactions. There is a fine line between being offensive and intellectual academic discourse. Both are often controversial. The former is usually based on anonymous, unsubstantiated opinions – the latter on well-thought out and defended arguments. Inevitably, someone will be offended by what you say. But if you have a well-considered, grounded argument for your position, then you have nothing for which to be ashamed. I feel strongly on several ethical issues. While I think that I’m correct, and I’m willing to give a defense of my positions, I don’t want my students to take up the mantle just because I said so. I’d rather my students disagree with my views for intelligent, well-thought out reasons than take what I say as gospel. I’m not a preacher, and I don’t want a flock.

So what to do? Be informed. Ignorance is not acceptable. The world doesn’t need more baseless opinions floating around; progress is made through intelligent, informed discourse. What you say matters – so make it count. Own what you write. If you’re not willing to attach your name to it, don’t put it out there in the world.

I’ll leave you with a piece from the New York Times Opinionator Blog: On Questioning the Jewish State. It’s wonderfully controversial, and no doubt many people are offended by its thesis. But there are two things it isn’t – baseless and anonymous. This is what we need.

-Sophia Bishop

Loving-Kindness and Your Vagal Tone

In the online OpEd column of Friday’s New York Times, Barbara L. Fredrickson shared the results of a scientific research study which proved that the Buddhist practice of Mettā can positively influence the health of the human heart. According to Wikipedia, Mettā is the act of feeling tenderly and positively toward everyone and everything, even those that we hate; it is “associated with tonglen (cf.), whereby one breathes out (“sends”) happiness and breathes in (“receives”) suffering.”

In her OpEd, Fredrickson has a bipartite agenda. First, she shares the results of her research:

My research team and I conducted a longitudinal field experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating warmer interpersonal connections in daily life. Half the participants, chosen at random, attended a six-week workshop on an ancient mind-training practice known as metta, or “lovingkindness,” that teaches participants to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others.

We discovered that the meditators not only felt more upbeat and socially connected; but they also altered a key part of their cardiovascular system called vagal tone. Scientists used to think vagal tone was largely stable, like your height in adulthood. Our data show that this part of you is plastic, too, and altered by your social habits.

The vagal tone is a subconscious process that controls one’s heart rate. I personally think that this study is a great example of how religion and social science can find some common ground. There is certainly a great deal of social value to meditation and spiritual practice–I wonder whether this and other studies will make those who disparage such practices think twice. This study also bridges a lot of ground between notions of physical health v. mental well-being.

The second part of Fredrickson’s agenda in the OpEd seems to me to be more dubious. She questions whether modern technology such as cell phones can negatively affect our social capabilities. This is the OpEd’s opening:

Can you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

As far as I can tell, nowhere in this brief OpEd does Fredrickson offer any rationale for how her study might prove that electronic devices reduce our biological capacity to connect. She uses the following inference to try to prove her point: face-to-face interaction positively influences social gene expression, therefore electronic communication diminishes our social abilities.

Where's the baby? Photo by Dan Zink.

Laptop time. Photo by Dan Zink.

I think that this is an interesting hypothesis, but I don’t think that Fredrickson’s study really goes very far in testing said hypothesis. What is needed is further study on how electronic communication affects our social capacity and the expression of what Fredrickson calls “the new field of social genomics.” I suspect that there are many socially positive as well as negative aspects of electronic communication, and that different users are affected differently. Fredrickson’s warning to mothers that they “may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions — like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child — leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression” seems a little hyperbolic to me, at least without the research to back it up. I’m left wondering whether this OpEd, while wonderful and intriguing, also favors fear-mongering over scientific subtlety.