When the heart wants art

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look, ma, I can read!

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

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.

The Ask

I admit to having experienced a slight cringe upon hearing the word “ask” used as a noun recently. The usage to which I’m referring usually takes some form along the lines of “the ask is that you do so and so…” or “the ask is for such and such…” I only started noticing this replacement of “request” (or “demand”!) with a nounification of ask in the last year or so, and had been wondering about this apparently new semantic trend. Then, a few weeks ago, I received an email that reawakened my curiosity about the phenomenon. The message was from someone involved with union work who was asking a favor of his contacts. At the end of the message, he wrote:

To repeat “the ask” (union-organizer lingo for what we’re asking you to do): Please help…

Since I first started coming across ask-as-noun-replacing-request in activist circles, this assertion that “the ask” is commonly used in union talk caused me to speculate as to whether it was part of some leftist conspiracy. There may be some evidence for this. For example, a poster on the timely “Stop Using ‘Ask’ As A Noun”  Facebook page writes that they hear it all the time on NPR, that bastion of the liberally biased media. And, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state for the socialist Obama administration, purportedly once said:

We’re going to expect more from the Afghan government going forward, and we’ve got some very specific asks that we will be making.

But it appears that use of “the ask” cuts across diverse sectors. For instance, in finance lingo, the minimum price a broker will take for a financial instrument is sometimes called “the ask.” Curiously, a nounified “ask” appears to have infected the vocabulary at corporate behemoth Microsoft in the mid-2000s, as can be seen in blog entries written by more than one frustrated employee. I find this especially amusing considering the fact that the Encarta Dictionary built in to Microsoft Word does not include a noun form of “ask” in its entry for that word. As I type this, I see the phraseology “the ask” appearing throughout this post underlined in cautionary wavy green by Word’s grammar checker.

And this brings us to the potentially irrelevant issue of whether using ask as a noun is grammatically correct in the first place. Along with MS Word’s dictionary, the authoritative thesaurus.com offers no synonyms for the noun form. Ah, but the OED informs us that ask was used as a noun as far back as the year 1000 AD (and I don’t mean in its other guise as a noun: an English/Scottish term for a newt)! The OED update from 2005 further cements “the ask’s” grammatical propriety with reference to its contemporary colloquial usage in Australia, where it is usually interpolated by the modifier “big” (e.g. “that’s quite a big ask” [please make sure to pronounce the "k" if you say this]).

Despite the grammatically correct roots of “the ask” in ancient English, though, it’s clear that this form was not regular in modern language. It’s also evident that “the ask” has been making a comeback of late, and that it might be part of a more general linguistic trend that is meeting with some resistance. A piece in the New York Times by Henry Hitchings last year placed the revival of “the ask” in the context of a phenomenon he described as nominalization (the correct term for “nounification”): when a verb or adjective is transformed into a noun. Nominalization (itself a nominalization of “to nominalize”) comes in two types: the first involves adding a suffix and is more common (e.g. “to frustrate” becomes “frustration”), while in the second the same word is simply converted into a noun. The article’s opening paragraph gives a few notorious examples of the second, more controversial type of nominalization (though another NYT opinionator has lambasted academic writing for inelegant overuse of the first type):

“Do you have a solve for this problem?” “Let’s all focus on the build.” “That’s the take-away from today’s seminar.” Or, to quote a song that was recently a No. 1 hit in Britain, “Would you let me see beneath your beautiful?”

As Hitchings explains, this kind of nominalization can be employed in speech or writing to sound edgy or jaunty; think of the currently hip phrase “epic fail.” But he points out that in the case of “the ask” there is a sort of “distancing” or depersonalizing effect. For instance, the expression “the ask is that…” is undoubtedly less direct than saying “I am asking you to…” And I think this is what irks me about “the ask” (or, as a request of me was put in a recent email, “the want”), rather than some obstinate reaction to linguistic change. The role of “the ask” in obfuscating the personal dynamics of a request is perhaps supported by its prominence in fundraising lingo, as established in the title of the 2006 book The Ask: How to Ask Anyone for Any Amount for Any Purpose. (Along these lines, the protagonist of the 2010 novel The Ask is a university fundraiser.) There also seems to be a perception out there that “the ask” is an evil component of corporate doublespeak; many posters on askisnotanoun.com—a site that simply compiles the approximately bi-weekly tweets reaffirming the position stated in the URL—allude to its use in business jargon. Given this popular view, it seems a bit ironic to me that Marxist union activists are claiming “the ask” as their own!

Dear Students,

[In honor of 50 years of Beatlemania]

Dear Students, open up your eyes

Dear Students, see the sunny skies

The wind is low, the birds will sing

That you are part of everything

Dear Students, won’t you open up your eyes?


Look around round

Look around round round

Look around

The word “theatre” comes from theatron, the Greek word for “seeing place.” Actors ask audiences to look at them. As instructors, we ask students to look at the world… as it was, is, and could be. It often helps to ask students to begin by looking at themselves.

I start the semester with a letter to students that I project onto the screen and read out loud. I then ask the students to write me a letter about their understanding of contemporary theatre and any prior performance experience –including sports, debate team, dance, and singing. I also ask them to identify two learning goals for the semester.

Sometimes I feel awkward doing this classic WAC tool. Do the students think it’s hokey? A handwritten letter; what is this, a Jane Austen novel? But, I love the students’ responses so much that I keep returning to it.

This semester I am teaching a weekly three-hour night class, which means almost all of my students work full-time and this Intro to Theatre course is being squeezed into very packed lives. I started my letter with “Welcome to the Spring 2014 semester. Although you may have signed up for this class to fulfill a requirement and because it fits your busy schedule, I am convinced you will get a great deal out of our exploration of Western theatrical conventions.”

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

A fake letter that I wrote to myself.

Perhaps it seems too self-deprecating to begin the semester assuming that most of the students have not chosen to be there. However, many of the students referred to this opening line, acknowledging that this was an accurate description of their situation and, in so doing, expressed relief that they did not have to perform enthusiasm.

At the same time, most students let me know they were hoping enthusiasm would develop throughout the semester and they were looking forward to our many class theatre outings and guest speakers. They also shared wonderful biographical details that I don’t think would have come out in the classroom. It turns out there are four competitive  ballroom dancers and former ballerinas in the class.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

Also a fake. But you get the idea.

I was surprised by the number of students who wanted to work on their public speaking skills and even try some acting. This was very valuable information for me and I am tweaking my assignments and classroom activities to respond to these goals.

As an aside, in this digital age, it is fun to sift through a stack of (yes, sloppy) handwritten letters. –Fun because I don’t have to grade them and look for strong arguments and mastery of content. I just have to take in how the students have chosen to express themselves. I enjoy looking at the ink looped and scratched across the paper. I note who covered the page with ideas and memories and who wrote just a few sentences. The welcome letter is an ideal low-stakes / high-impact tool.

On gravitating and levitating (part one)

I’ll begin with a passage from James Joyce’s “The Dead” to illustrate reading as  an embodied experience in movement:

“Her voice strong and clear in tone attacked with great spirit that runs which embellish the air and, though she sang very rapidly, she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

I gravitate to the text’s directive “to follow the voice.” I repeat the passage aloud and experience the accumulative effects of soft, sinuous sounds that bring the words “attacked” and “rapidly” into sharp focus. At first it seems like an attack, a forced act, to merge my voice with the text. Oh, but those quickened syllables–rapidly–that delicately punctuate the legato of “embellish” and “grace notes”! The pitter patter of saying “rapidly” out loud makes me realize that my reading is a kind of running: my voice chases after my sprinting eyes. I jump in; the text springs. “Her voice” is faceless because it becomes “the voice,” our voice. Together, the text and I, we “feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”


I frequently feel and share texts, as many of us do, on and through the internet. If an article, image, or video is moving–if it’s infuriating, amusing, or inspiring–you and I engage by commenting, upvoting, and reposting: we share. This all happens, rapidly, at speeds that make it easy to forget that reading and writing are embodied movements, activities of relating.



The Complexities of Creative Projects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid., 55.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In a World… of Uptalk, Sexy Babies, and God

Why do you speak the way you speak? Are you aware of your voice being marked by region, gender, or age? Do you consciously try to modify your voice, or do you just let it flow?

small_question mark pic

We know that word choice, inflection, and pronunciation telegraph our personal experiences and identity in multiple ways. I’ve struggled to temper the nasally short A  and hard R of a Western New York accent (though this recently popular NY Times quiz about word choice and pronunciation accurately identified  my city of origin). In her collection of personal essays Crossing Ocean Parkway, Marianna De Marco Torgovnick discusses feeling ethnically marked in academe because of her Italian heritage and growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

What is our responsibility to students to help them increase their vocal awareness?

I feel compelled to let students know when they engage in persistent “upspeak” or “uptalk” –the rising pitch shift at the end of a sentence that makes statements sound like questions. This vocal trend is so common that it often goes unnoticed, particularly among millennials. I like to tell students who are unconsciously using upspeak that it sounds like they are asking the audience if what they are saying is correct, when, in fact, they have done the research and therefore they are the experts.

Lake Bell’s 2013 romantic comedy In a World tackled the issue of how gender politics impact vocal styles and what U.S. society seems to want from  male and female voices. Here is the trailer:

In her interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Bell surmises that reality television has popularized what she calls a “sexy baby voice” (from 19:30-21:20 in the interview is particularly relevant). This multidisciplinary social science website The Society Pages took a look (or listen!) at the question of “The Sexy Baby Voice vs. The Voice of God” –gendered vocal styles taken to their extremes.

The same website also profiled the research of Tom Linneman, an associate professor of sociology at The College of William and Mary, who conducted a study of how gender affects use of uptalk and determined that, in his sample,  women used a rising intonation almost twice as often as men and actually increased their use of it when they were succeeding at a task (in this case, answering Jeopardy questions). This was perhaps “because women continue to feel they need to apologize for their success.”

On the other hand, the freelance journalist Jessica Grose, who often writes for Slate’s The XX Factor, found that her use of upspeak helped her sound “egalitarian and accepting” which was a benefit for some interview contexts. But when it came to hosting a podcast, those same vocal patterns annoyed listeners and undermined her credibility.

The Australian voice coach Victoria Mielewaksa, who has worked on several Hollywood blockbusters, offers a more generous interpretation of uptalk, suggesting that this vocal pattern “has something to do with the way we want to involve our listener… It’s the ‘you know what I mean, I’m trying to be nice, I want to include you in what I’m saying.’” Mielewaksa’s observations resonated strongly for me. I realized that when I am giving students a new assignment I often use upspeak as if to ask “Are you getting this? Do you understand?” But, maybe I should just ask those questions after I’ve explained the assignment without relying on upspeak.

The video with Mielewaksa’s observation is embedded in a recent  LinkedIn post. The post is worth a look. It summarizes a Pearson survey of bosses that showed employer use of upspeak can affect hiring and raises. It also highlights something I never knew, which is that upspeak is also called Australian Question Intonation (AQI) and is not considered a mark of gender or age in Australia, it’s just considered Australian.

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.