Composition Across the Curriculum

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

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

sascha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking for Success: a video project

Giving oral presentations is a regular part of most Baruch undergraduate experiences.  From a Freshman Seminar session devoted to presentation skills, to Intro to Speech Communication, a required course for most Baruch students, to the formal group presentations that upper level business students deliver, and more, presenting ideas orally is a part of the Baruch College culture.

But what makes for a meaningful presentation assignment, and what do these assignments look like across the many disciplines here at Baruch?  I asked three professors—Ed Kurpis, Professor of Management, Cheryl Smith, Professor of English, and Peter Gregory, Professor of Mathematics, to share with me their thoughts on an oral presentation assignment they use in class.  In the video below, they talk about the particular requirements of their assignment, what makes the assignment a rich learning experience from a communication perspective, and what success looks like in completion of the assignment.  Watch for yourself:

Although these three disciplines may approach oral presentation somewhat differently, I noticed interesting trends in the responses I got.  All three professors characterize their assignments as opportunities for students to develop authority over a set of ideas, make original connections, and bring self-reflexivity to their thought processes.  Another theme that emerged was speaking with authenticity.  While the three might not give identical definitions of this term, characteristics that they used repeatedly to describe authentic speech were confidence, clear purpose, physical/vocal animation, and genuine interest.

The Netflix “Canon”: Taste as Absence of “Taste”

Sight and Sound’s 2002 “Greatest Films Poll”  was voted on by the “world’s leading film critics.”   See  http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/polls/topten/   Here are the results:

  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Vertigo
  3. Rules of the Game
  4. The Godfather — first two
  5. Tokyo Story
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  7. Battleship Potemkin
  8. Sunrise
  9. 8 1/2
  10. Singin’ in the Rain

One of these films was available on the Netflix “Watch Instantly” [WI] list.*  The other nine films can be obtained via the Netflix DVD plan.  But who wants to wait several days when everything should be accessible–instantly?

Netflix-classic list

It might be unfair to refer to either Netflix’s WI or DVD plan film lists as establishing a millennial film canon.  Of course, how Netflix organizes its titles has very little influence on the professional critic and academic thinker, but it can be argued that these lists influence general taste and determine what American audiences consider as good or best in film–or, at least, what they think they should view.  Arguments will be outlined here that Netflix film lists influence the unconsidered criteria that organize film judgments by Netflix client-viewers–and there are many.  In a recent call for papers for a publication to be titled How Netflix is Changing Media, the “Society for Cinema and Media Studies” reported that the online film supplier commands 30% of all Internet traffic.  How do the ways film titles are organized and the process of creating film lists in the Netflix website influence which films are watched and which films are known and which films are judged as “best”?  Netflix lists are influential in determining the place of a director or film within the cultural field; but rather than being evaluated (valued?) by a cultural worker such as a film critic, artistic worth is established by a corporation within the economic field of power.

Let’s begin with a traditional approach to aesthetic judgment and taste.  Sight and Sound‘s list of best films is the tip of a longer list of 100 best films.  Further, the journal presents another list of best films chosen by top film directors, as well as a list of top film directors as chosen by critics.  One may disagree with these critics’ choices, but, based on the accepted authority of the journal’s writers, this top ten list is a reasonable place to begin a discussion of film aesthetics.   Criteria–social, cultural, historical, theoretical– used by these cultural workers in distinguishing good from not-so-good films can be analyzed and evaluated. [Note: There is no list of top film critics picked by film directors.  Shouldn’t the quality of the film critic judgements also be judged?]  Clearly, such authorized “best” lists are influential, at least in a cultural field of power.

Can similar considerations be applied to Netflix’s lists of films?  Certainly, Netflix presents recommended, or what could be interpreted as preferred lists of films that are graphically displayed on the home screen of its website; these lists are then broken down into a variety of sub lists.  Each list has a consistent order–that is, lists are in the same order, every time one signs on.  Some criteria was used in constructing these lists, but it is not the criteria used by the Sight and Sound critics; rather, most likely, choices are made by something resembling a business-model algorithm.   Of course, this analysis is complex and more research is required.  This posting is far from an exhaustive analysis and is formed to point at something interesting in describing not only film aesthetics but audience agency.

Traditionally or historically, what has determined “taste” in the arts?   Historically, three basic questions have been asked about art [Western]; in significant ways, these approaches have formed the quality of aesthetic judgments:[1]  1. What are the characteristics of art–as in opposition to what is not art, like religion or philosophy?  2. What is the goal of art? Involved in this question is the possibility that art has no practical outcome.  3. Who determines what is good or worthwhile art?   Thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Bloom have considered the first two; Pierre Bourdieu wrote extensively about the third question.  Bourdieu identified who in a society was authorized (recognized as able) to determine what is aesthetically worthwhile.  Simply, from this perspective, “taste” in art is an outcome of family background, but it can also be engendered through education.  For the former,  discernment can be the inheritance of the aristocratic or merely upper-class child who absorbs her high-borne environment.  But Bourdieu also found that taste is an outcome of education.  Bourdieu’s  “disinterested” academic, like Hegel’s “connoisseur” is “thorough[ly] acquainted with the whole sweep of the individual character of a work of art … necessary for the study of art” [“Lectures on Aesthetics”].  From this perspective, appreciation of and enjoyment of art, as well as the capacity to discern good from bad art, requires a broad historical, theoretical, and comparative understanding of an art piece.  Thus, a film critic’s authority to judge is based on a recognition of her taste based on education and breadth of experience of the forms that films can take.  Thus, without understanding, there is no taste.

In this way, cultural experts are authorized to create Leavis-like lists of best films that make their way into college film studies syllabi.   Even the most expansive lists are necessarily based on some criteria determined by expert authorities, and these recognized lists influence the “requirements” of “taste” for others.  Of course, any criteria can be rejected and reformed, but the point here is that any change is based on who, at the time, is recognized as authorized to create a canon of important films for a particular era.

Following this Bourdieuian approach, in the dominated field of cultural list-making [my term] there are two sorts of “position takers.” [See The Field of Cultural Production, pp. 16-17].  First, the traditional or “orthodox” list-makers–consisting of academics and sophisticated critics–who “as a function in their position in the field, of their specific capital, have a stake in conservation.”  High-end position taking results in Sight and Sound’s “best” lists, the Criterion Collection, Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation with the filmmaker’s goal of bringing old, influential films to the public–see  http://bit.ly/1nayTe9–and MUBI’s choices of streaming films–see http://www.mubi.com   But position-taking can also be engaged by the heretic list-maker who pushes the boundaries of what is accepted by the first set of position takers.  This heretical attitude is taken up, for example, by the Scalarama Film Festival–http://scalarama.com– or the Yellow Fever Film Festival– http://theyfiff.webs.com/

Netflix film list-making process does not fit into Bourdieu’s scheme.  Certainly, as a single entity, Netflix is a list-maker with something that can be identified as establishing a “taste.”  It’s lists and the order in which they are presented have a constancy and are enormously influential in which films are  “good” or at least worth watching.   But criteria used by Netflix for list-making are not comparable to the strategies used by position takers discussed above.  Netflix lists of film titles are not based on either academic/traditional/orthodox or heretical sensibilities.  Choices are not affected by relative placement within a cultural field in which taste is an outcome of knowledge or class; rather, list-making decisions arise from capitalist determinants.  This is not saying that Netflix film lists are “tasteless” or have no “taste”– these terms make no sense in this context; the Netflix process of list-making has nothing to do with authorization of cultural workers who possess what Bourdieu calls Symbolic capital.  Rather, the Netflix taste emanates from Fredric Jameson’s late capitalism; it is a postmodernist taste–that is to say–it is a “taste” that is distinguished by an absence of “Taste.”

What forms do these lists take?  Netflix engages different sorts of lists which are based on a corporate goal of creating and satisfying the needs of the individual client-viewer.  Netflix lists films in a variety of ways:

  1. General list of films on the home screen.
  2. Genres of films — and sub genres of films.
  3. Recently purchased or viewed films of the individual client-viewer.
  4. Lists of the client-viewer’s favorite films based on her own ratings.
  5. “More Like” lists.  Based on a particular film the client-viewer has searched, Netflix suggests other titles.

How are Netflix lists generated?  Who or what makes the decisions?  What are the criteria used to generate these lists?  What might go into the algorithm of choice?  Here are some possibilities of what is measured:

  1. The score–up to five stars–that the client-viewer gives to films she has watched.
  2. Commercial concerns of what is profitable.  Pushing a film or television show to support an investment..
  3. Popularity of a title.  Giving the audience what it wants.[2]
  4. Variables available to Netflix about their client-viewers via social media. [This is a reach, but it is possible that such information could be obtained and used.]

Shadows-Netflix

Let’s use an example to examine a specific “More Like” list.  Following my search for John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) Netflix offered a “More Like“ list that included suggestions of other films I might like.  But titles in the suggested list were confusing.  What was emphasized by the algorithm that produced this unlikely list? Old films? Films seldom viewed? Critically controversial films?  Actor’s film?  Quirky films?  Films by independent producers?  This is what Netflix suggested I watch after viewing Shadows:

  1. Lion in Winter (1968)– Due to its good acting?
  2. Brick Lane (2007) — This is an Indian film about east meeting west, recommended on my interest in “Sunshine Cleaning”? How does this relate to “Shadows” gritty portrayal of inborn prejudice?
  3. The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) — Huh?  Memorable score?  Certainly the Cassavetes film was filled with interesting jazz riffs but nothing as hummable as the Kwai score.  Hear it at —  http://bit.ly/1vRJmS1
  4. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) — OK, I can sort of go with this choice–broody Actor’s Studio acting–angry actors–old film–characters yelling at each other–relationships on the edge.
  5. Citizen Kane (1941) — Both are “classic” auteur films–but how very different.
  6. Far from Heaven (2002) — This is a commercial film about marital problems with Julliane Moore and Dennis Quaid.  It does involve racial tensions.
  7. Annie Hall (1977) — Both are auteur directors dealing with relationships.  Both directors use improvisation.  Of course, one is a comedy and the other is not.
  8. Rabbit Hole (2010) — Sorry, I do not understand this suggestion.  A happy couple falls apart when their son dies in an accident – Nicole Kidman, Dianne Weist – directed by John Cameron Mitchel.
  9. East of Eden (1955) — Possibly Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause but not James Dean’s first film.  Dean is an improvisational actor who is ready to make in-the-moment, inspired choices, willing to spew out his emotional guts to the awe of the viewers and the consternation of the other actors. See how the actor Jim Backus struggles with Dean’s intense, improvisational acting style.
  10. Dr. Strangelove (1964)– Right.  What are you thinking Netflix?  Is it because both Kubrick’s and Cassavetes’ films make the viewer squirm?

Shadows-Netflix2

Netflix’s “More Like” list for Shadows did not guide me to Cassavetes-like films–a film maker dealing with actor improvisation and in-the-moment emotional reality–or to experimental films or to films linked to a certain period of American film making.  Why was nothing listed from the French New Wave or British Social Problem films of the period or with contemporaneous films dealing with black-white racial issues of the period, such as Flame in the Streets (1961)?  Why was no Mike Leigh film suggested–a director who also worked improvisationally with actors?

Netflix list making is a business-model, production process that resembles a democratic activity in which authority of choice appears to belong to the everyday film viewer.  In the past, Leavis-like academic authority over cultural taste was countered by an argument that valued the taste of the common person–an argument for popular culture–as for example was done by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall and British Cultural Studies since the mid 1950s.  Here popular taste was used to push a New Left agenda in which working-class social realism was seen as an engine for agency for positive–read “socialist”–social change.  But despite its everyman approach, with Netflix, there is no sense of a working-class taste or bourgeois taste; rather, choosing what is good has devolved into an absence of any particular taste.  A film [or director] is good or bad based how entertaining it is.  Does it please the client-viewer?  And never mind what “pleases” means.

Traditional sense of authority is eliminated as the opinion of other client-viewers replaces that of the academic expert or critic.   As is the case with social media in general, Netflix connects [sutures?] its client-viewers to its product by inviting him to “Write a review” of what was watched.  Further the client-viewer review is rated by other client-viewers–via a system of awarding stars–as to whether the review was “Helpful,” “Not Helpful,” or “Inappropriate.”  The “Most Helpful” reviews are featured at the top of the review list.  But without any criteria, what do these ratings mean?  Of course, that is besides the goal of connecting the client-viewer to a product. Shadows has over 60 of these reviews.

At the top of the “Most Helpful” reviews list was this one:

Shadows was one of those rare movies that I like, but I have no idea why. I was bored in places, and I think I might have fallen asleep once or twice. Somehow, in spite of all that the mood and style of the thing drew me in. The improvisational jazz, the cool beat lingo and certainly the racial themes left me thinking about it long after I saw it. If you often confuse yourself by liking movies you hate watching, it’s highly recommended.

Though there are some interesting observations here that may be helpful in making a decision about watching this film–it has “improvisational jazz” and “cool beat lingo” from the period.  But without knowing specifically what this reviewer thought about the racial themes or who this reviewer is, we are left with a generalized and useless opinion.  The following review was awarded a single star:

I have always been a Cassavetes fan from the start, but, usually only for his acting. This film was awful and a complete waste of time. I expected a lot more, and got a lot less from J. C. He certainly needed to learn a lot more of directing before he even started on something like this. I see where a lot of people here like the film, but, I think that they are only trying to be hip, and pretend to know something. There was nothing about the beat scene, as advertised. The only thing beat was the three guys in the storeroom, and, boy, were they beat.

What was the impulse to write this or the general impulse to share online?  Like much of social media this communication is so personal it is impossible to decipher.   This last example has the tone of what has been defined here as a traditionally authorized review:

Just before Jean-Luc Godard was preparing to turn European cinema on its ear with the debut of Breathless, a charismatic young New York actor did much the same on this side of the Atlantic. Godard’s film ended up having more widespread impact, as it didn’t have the crowded American movie market that greeted Shadows to compete with, but John Cassevetes’ debut was no less revolutionary. And in the same way that Godard’s film changed the rules for the artistic side of filmmaking, Cassavetes’ ushered in a new business model, practically inventing the independent film industry as it existed for decades. The film, which began as an acting exercise in Cassavetes’ own upstart actors’ studio, tells the story of three siblings rooming together and trying to make it in New York. The oldest brother is singer whose old-fashioned crooning style is making him out of fashion and making it more difficult to find work. The younger brother is more of a beatnik jazz musician. And the sister is a light-skinned black woman who “passes” as white; one of the film’s most dramatic sequences observes the fallout that results when she begins a relationship with a white man who only finds out about her race after meeting her brothers. This was incendiary stuff for the late 50s, and Cassavetes, in what would become a personal trademark throughout his career, never shies away from the most difficult aspects of relationships and friendships. Springing as it does from an acting exercise, all the dialogue is improvised. Shot on the fly and written just as spontaneously and raggedly, Shadows’ energy is just as breathlessly invigorating as Charlie Mingus’ jazz score.

Does Netflix’s “Member Reviews” contain the possibility of Habermas’s “public space” in which aesthetic ideas are democratically shared and communal values formed?  Might this be a place for positive social change?  I do not think so and not because there is no mechanism for the development of ideas in any directed way; rather, the mechanism is directed by, ultimately, controlled by corporate profit considerations.

Netflix list-making is not opposed to Bourdieu’s models of how “distinction” develops and changes; rather, it is unrelated.  What had been understood as “taste” is irrelevant to the Netflix production processes and goals.  Film lists are de-authorized, or, rather, the client-viewer is authorized by other client-viewers.  But this opinion-making is not within a public sphere; rather it is under the hegemonic umbrella of the corporate structure in which film recommendations are based on business-models and computer algorithms and profit-driven goals of audience satisfaction —  in an ultimate fracturing of any notion of “taste.”

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*Eisenstein’s paean to Soviet Russia, Battleship Potemkin, can be viewed instantly on Netflix.  But you will have to wait a couple of days to receive Citizen Kane in the mail.   Is this a capitalist joke?

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References

Bourdieu, P.  (1984).  Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Trans. Richard Nice.  Harvard University Press; Cambridge, Mass.

— (1993). The field of cultural production.  Columbia University Press: NY.

Gilbey, R. (2013, August 30). This week’s film events.  The Guardian. Retrieved from http://theguardian.com

Hegel,  G.W.F. (1818-1829). Aesthetics: Lectures on fine art. Trans. T.M. Knox, 1973. Retrieved from  https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ae/index.htm

Olivarez-Giles, N. (2013, August 17). Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation brings eight rare films to Hulu.” The Verge. Retrieved from http//theverge.com


[1] There is much that could be said about the validity of making lists and what deep assumptions stand behind a particular formation or [production] process of making lists, or what a list means to a particular reader.  This analysis is engaging the “fields” approach as a way to examine list making from the POV of authority and what happens when there is no authority–in this sense.

[2] In a recent public discussion at John Jay College the Executive head  of Time/Warner’s Media Responsibility Division emphasized the corporation’s duty to give its audiences what they want.  This is the corporate definition of moral and civic responsibility.  Clearly in the present sense of corporations and business models, there is no place for aesthetic authority or attitude or “taste” or “distinction.”  There is no overlap.

Looking the Part: “Representative” Black Men in New Media

While re-reading a chapter of historian Kevin K. Gaines’ important book, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture, in the Twentieth Century (1996), I came across a passage that I had not given much thought to beforehand.  Writing on African Americans’ strivings for respect within a racist society at the turn of the 20th Century, Gaines explains:

It was difficult for African Americans to avoid minstrelsy, a major obstacle to the assertion of bourgeois black selfhood.  Because photography was crucial in transmitting stereotypes, African Americans found the medium well suited for trying to refute negrophobic caricatures.  In addition, black painters, illustrators, and sculptors, along with writers of fiction produced antiracist narratives and iconography featuring ideal types of bourgeois black manhood and womanhood.  At a broader, grassroots level, there is an extensive photographic record of African Americans’ concern to infuse the black image with dignity, and to embody the “representative” Negro by which the race might be more accurately judged.  Studio portraits of uplift and respectability—depicting black families with attributes of cleanliness, leisure, and literacy—found expression in the sitters’ posture, demeanor, dress, and setting.  In most portraits, whether of individuals, of wedding portraits, or of groups, one sees an intense concern for projecting a serious, dignified image…  Anything less than stylized elegance would betray the ideals of race advancement and, indeed, hold back the race, as did the profusion of commodified, demeaning portraits taken of unsuspecting, often youthful and destitute African Americans. (p. 68)

Contemporary forms of electronic media such as television and the internet are certainly just as, if not more, effective than traditional photography and minstrel theater were for disseminating or challenging racist propaganda.  The following recent new media campaigns were all at least partly conceived as platforms for challenging unflattering images of African American men and boys in the popular culture.  Each campaign employs various visually grounded emotional appeals directed toward vaguely defined audiences regarding discussions of how black men should strive to appear in public and how the “representative” black man looks and carries himself.  By engaging in these politics of respectability, the creators of the campaigns, through one lens, are heroically asserting black men’s agency regarding how they are perceived by the larger society, but through another lens, may simply be projecting a mass of black bourgeois status anxieties onto their poorer skinfolk.  As evidenced by the brouhaha over Trayvon Martin’s infamous hoodie, such messages can work to reinforce the deeply reactionary notion that blacks—particularly the poor and working class black men who are the foils for these campaigns—are ultimately responsible for the consequences of white racism by virtue of their own failure to behave properly and present themselves respectably in public.

The “Stop the Sag” Campaign

stop-the-sag-billboard-2

In 2010, then New York State Senator Eric Adams (now the Brooklyn Borough President), as a component of his reelection bid in Brooklyn’s gentrifying 20th District, erected a billboard in Crown Heights featuring the backsides of two young black men with their baggy jeans sagging to where their boxer shorts were in full view.  The sign extolled messages intended to uplift the peers of the young men in the picture: “We are better than this!” “Raise your pants, raise your image!” In the corner of the billboard, a campaign photo of Eric Adams in a conservative business suit sat juxtaposed to the image of the young men with their sagging jeans.  With the juxtaposition, Representative Adams situated himself as a “representative” black man whose trustworthiness was assured by his unwillingness to stand for the shenanigans of those black youth who were “showing their asses” in public, so to speak.

Adams’ followed his billboard campaign with a widely viewed and shared “Stop the Sag” YouTube video.  In the clip, Adams, speaking over flashing images of Jim Crow era racist propaganda and then snippets of black boys sagging, claims that sagging jeans are a part of a long legacy of racist stereotyping in the United States, “but this time it is self-imposed.”  By the end of the video Adams is, once again, pictured in a business suit ironically telling young black men, “Don’t surrender control over your own image.”  It was an apt message.  As Adams was willing to recycle unflattering images of low-status black boys—most of whom were likely too young to vote for or against him—for political expediency, it becomes immediately clear to whom he is not accountable as a public official.

Street Etiquette’s “The Black Ivy”

BlackIvy

Around the same time of Adams’ “Stop the Sag” campaign, another duo of enterprising young black men posted a seminal photo shoot onto Street Etiquette, their popular style blog targeting cosmopolitan young black men.  Travis Gumbs’ and Joshua Kissi’s “The Black Ivy” piece featured photos and video of about a dozen impeccably dressed college-aged African American and African guys leisurely hanging out on the campus of City College, CUNY simultaneously paying homage to iconic Ivy League preppy styles as well as mid-20th Century yearbook “campus life” photos from prominent black colleges like Howard University, Morehouse College, and Hampton University.  The young men in the photos, dripping with bourgeois confidence and comfort, wore contemporary “black dandy” staples such as colorful slim-fitting khakis, tanned wingtips, tweed sport coats, and bowties in stark contrast to the baggy, hip-hop styles that many have come to expect from young urban black men.  The piece was wildly popular, even garnering accolades in a New York Times Fashion & Style article in which everyone from hip-hop artists to college professors gushed on how Gumbs’ and Kissi’s “political expression” was expanding the repertoire of cultural archetypes to which black men can aspire and through which they might be viewed.  In that way, the collegiate theme of “The Black Ivy” thus reflects the creators’ aspirations of upward mobility and racial uplift by way of dressing well and respectable comportment—a curious logic that runs contrary to the conventional narrative that material improvements are typically the trappings of upward mobility and not the other way around.

“Suit and Tie at the 217”

suitandtie

Earlier this year, a group of black Illinois high school students came together, with the help of their school counselors and the local chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a prominent African American Greek-letter organization, to create “Suit and Tie in the 217.”  In the viral YouTube music video cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie,” the boys are depicted moving through their school day—dancing in the hallways, studying in class, and playing ball in the gym—while, once again, dressed in the collegiate preppy style, similar to the guys from “The Black Ivy,” indicating their high aspirations and personal discipline.  Of course, none of the boys are sagging their jeans or even have their shirts untucked, thus distancing themselves from the supposedly “self-imposed” stereotypes in Eric Adams’ “Stop the Sag” campaign.  All the while that the boys are walking confidently toward the camera and coolly smoothing out their collared shirts, messages flash on the screen: “We are not gangsters and thugs.” “We are scholars.” “We are athletes.”  These are certainly important words for a world that views black youth with contempt and fear, and they are messages that the video’s creators, thankfully, were insightful enough to realize that photos of black boys wearing bowties cannot convey.  I wonder how such a campaign might have been received had those same positive messages been flashed across the screen in a light-hearted video full of black boys with sagging jeans.  Can racism be thwarted by videos of well-dressed black boys?  For a historical perspective, Kevin K. Gaines further notes, “Many [early 20th Century] whites, however, remained unmoved by African American’s attempts at respectful self-representation.  If images of black respectability were not omitted from the white press altogether, they were relentlessly mocked and parodied through minstrelsy.” (p. 69)

I certainly cannot fault the “Suit and Tie in the 217” boys, the Street Etiquette men, or even Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams for wanting to combat negative images of young black men in the larger culture, and it is a testament to their thoughtfulness and ingenuity that they would engage those negative stereotypes through their creative use of new media technologies.  Nevertheless, by suggesting so strongly that racial (self) perception is simply a matter of black men’s sartorial style, that the creators as exceptional to other black men, or that it is incumbent upon black men to “evolve” into mature, respectable citizens (evidenced by donning fitted pants and neckties) in order to eliminate racism, the campaigns end up cosigning the very same negative stereotypes that they are trying to dismantle.

Gaines, Kevin Kelly. Uplifting the Race: Black Middle-class Ideology in the Era of the “New Negro,” 1890-1935. N.p.: n.p., 1991. Print.

Close Encounters of the Library Kind

I’m going to piggyback (okay, outright copy) from Catherine’s passionate communiqué and write briefly around an image from a recent archival trip. My experience of archives is less passion– although I think I’m getting there– and more tentative fumbling through books and papers. However, as I get more proficient, I’m finding that research is turning into a process that’s very different than I expected it to be.

Woodcut image from "“A lytell treatyse of the horse, the sheep and the ghoos” with sketch

This is the bottom portion of a woodcut from A lytell treatyse of the horse, the sheep and the ghoos by John Lydgate, printed at Westminster by Wynkyn de Worde about 1499. It’s in the Rare Books collection at Cambridge University Library, where I had the great fortune to go in March of this year. I went specifically to look at another small book printed by de Worde, a 1501 pamphlet excerpting portions of The Book of Margery Kempe.  Cambridge was the third archive I’d been in for my dissertation research and by far the most intimidating. I felt far from home, a novice researcher who hoped she didn’t look too much like a clueless American. I decided that while I was there I should look at as many examples of de Worde’s printing as possible.

This image, particularly the rough ink drawings underneath, charmed and comforted me.  Was it evidence of a previous reader who wanted to learn to draw animals?  Incontrovertible proof of a timeless obsession with cats?  I have to admit that I have no idea who made these little sketches — they also appear in a 1906 facsimile published by Cambridge University Press– but they remind me that books are objects with their own lives and personal histories, used for purposes well beyond what may have been intended by their producer. My dissertation considers how encounters/performances with medieval objects (construed broadly) shape the way later periods understand the Middle Ages.  This image made me think about the (casual?) intimacy with books and their contents that may have developed as they became more accessible, wide-spread, and portable.  My work is preoccupied with people’s relationships to material objects.  As my own relationship to archival material changes and deepens, I am challenged to think more broadly about how others may have related to these objects, in the past and today.

On teaching/thinking with Tim Gunn

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

makeitwork

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enlivening Space, Writing about Place through Digital Maps

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

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

Start by imagining everything in the universe

I have a problem as a writer: I’d want to talk about everything at once. At a recent meeting of Schwartz Institute fellows, the editor of this blog tried to convince us to write smaller posts, pieces that don’t necessarily take on huge subjects or heady academic arguments, but instead simply muse or riff or chat for a little while about what we’re interested in as scholars, teachers, internet trolls, Beyonce fans, whatever. Keep it simple, he said.

To prove that I’ve taken this message to heart, I will share my musings on a little topic I find myself contemplating more and more these days, the cosmos. That is, all of space and time laid out on the grandest scale. Or rather, on Cosmos: A Personal Journey, the 1980 mini-series created by Carl Sagan and the recent reboot of the series currently airing on Fox, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Logo for 2014 Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Cosmos sets out to explain complex concepts from physics, biology, and astronomy to a popular audience, using stories, metaphors, and stunning visualizations to impart to non-scientists the wonder of the universe and the power of science. In essence, the series tells the story of the universe as revealed through developing scientific theories over human history. Taken together, we see how human life emerged as one small part of the cosmos and how human cultures learned to use the tools of science–rational thought, experimentation, careful observation, exchange of knowledge–to build ever-more sophisticated understandings of the universe in which we live.

I won’t go on here about which version of the series is better, especially as we’re only six episodes in to the new series at the time I’m writing this. (Obviously, Sagan’s original version is better, as originals tend to be.) Instead, I want to think a bit here about what Cosmos has taught me as someone who thinks about broad, invisible social and cultural systems like race, class, and disability as revealed through the tools of critical cultural theory. While I study broad theoretical concepts about social and cultural identity, I work in real-world colleges and universities, institutions that deal with practical things like grading rubrics, administrative policy documents, and student transcripts. While I like to talk about everything at once, contemplating vast invisible systems of resource distribution and social privilege, I need to be able to communicate my ideas to administrators, service providers, fellow faculty, and even students who might not share my vocabulary or my fascination with abstract, invisible systems.

I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about here: the way Cosmos teaches us to think about time. As humans, we tend to measure time in units that make sense to us–hours, days, years. These units are helpful for organizing time in the scale we actually deal with it: how long it takes to get to Brooklyn or to write a dissertation or to live a life. The problem with communicating scientific ideas about the universe to non-experts is that the real scale of the cosmos stretches out over billions of years, a scale far beyond our comprehension in everyday terms.

Cosmos uses a visual metaphor to help us make the tricky conceptual leap from common-sense time to cosmic time: the Cosmic Calendar.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand twelve billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the big bang occurring  on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here the entire timeframe of the universe is translated into a single calendar year. This digitally updated visualization from the 2014 Cosmos helps viewers understand thirteen billion years of cosmic change by compressing it into a metaphorical single year, with the Big Bang occurring on the first second of January 1st and human cultures emerging on the very last second of December 31st.

Here we see over thirteen billion years of cosmic development represented as a single calendar year, beginning with the Big Bang on the first second of January 1st and ending (sort of . . . ) with our current moment, the final mili-second of December 31st. In between, we see all 13.2 billion years of cosmic history broken up into months, each representing a bit more than a billion years, allowing us to visually represent events like the formation of the Milky Way galaxy (around “May 15th”) or the development of the first living organisms on Earth (“September 21st”) within their proper historical scale.

Visual metaphors work especially well for chronological information. While time is clearly abstract and invisible, most of us have been well trained to use visual tools comprehend it, tools like timelines, calendars, and daily chronometers (remember wrist-watches?). The Cosmic Calendar works because we recognize the tool of the monthly calendar as more or less universal — kind of like the way news anchors like to measure big physical distances in the number of football fields could fit there.

For my work thinking about colleges and universities, the time scale is much smaller, only a few hundred years.  My challenge comes when I try to think about space.

We are used to thinking about institutions of higher learning in spatial terms. If I want to talk about what Baruch college is like, for instance, I can talk about physically walking around the 14-floor Vertical Campus building, I can see it sitting there beside Lexington Avenue made out of bricks and glass, I can spot it on a map or draw a floor plan of the building.

But representing Baruch on a physical map renders invisible and abstract many of the important features that define universities as institutional systems: you can’t tell by looking at a floor plan which spaces are used by faculty, administrators, or students; you can’t acknowledge that Baruch is experienced different ways depending on your status in the institution. Since I’m interested in the experience of people with disabilities in higher education institutions specifically, these subjective conceptions of space are important to how I map institutions — space as it is experienced from person to person, depending on cultural or social identity. And here’s where I start to need visualizations like the Cosmic Calendar to explain what on earth I’m actually talking about to folks who don’t live in my personal world of theory.

I’ve taken a few stabs at making this kind of visualization. A few years ago I tried to create a map to represent the institutional forces linking me as a first-term graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center to the geographical spaces I moved through as a teacher at LaGuargia Community College. In this diagram, made in Prezi, I tried to represent institutions as rectangular brackets, which contain both physical spaces like classrooms and offices (represented as green rectangles) and institutional forces (represented as circle frames). Forces either emanate from particular geographical spaces or link them together.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this institutional map I made using Prezi in 2011, I attempt to represent physical institutional spaces (as rectangles and square frames) overlaid with invisible institutional systems that link them (circle frames). Here I show how the English teaching practicum system produces institutional forces linking Graduate Center to the teaching campuses. The constant here is my perspective as a first-year PhD student and first-time adjunct teacher.

In this visualization, I was trying to communicate how I, as an inexperienced teacher in a PhD program, relied on a series of invisible administrative programs and policies in order to access the geographical spaces at LaGuardia (including my classrooms, where I got to deploy my authority as “instructor”). Without those programs and policies in place, my experiences of the CUNY geography would have been considerably different. I wanted a way to map the administrative programs, to show the institutions and their forces together in one visual map as I had experienced them given my peculiar status as a first-year PhD student making use of the practicum program to secure employment as an adjunct teacher.

I’ll conclude my musings on space and time with an admission that I’m still no expert at using visual metaphors to teach my audiences about complex, abstract systems–not yet. I’m still limited by my abilities with the kind of digital visualization tools that could help me get my ideas across in more dynamic and straightforward ways, for instance.

Cosmos inspires me to be ambitious in my communicative aims while also being inventive in my tools for communication. See the series for yourself at http://www.cosmosontv.com/ where you find the first six episodes streaming in full for a limited time.

So You Want a Rec Letter?

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

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

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

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

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

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