What is a Freshman Seminar?

The Freshman Seminar here at Baruch has long been a mystery to me.  Although I’ve been a Freshman Learning Community leader twice, this has never afforded me much insight into the required but not credit-bearing class, taught by mostly non-faculty, that first-year students attend to learn about Things Freshmen Need To Know.  Entering college is a profound transition for many first-year students at Baruch, including those fresh from their senior prom and Regents exams, those who spent the last decade running their own small business, those whose educational experiences up to this point have been outside of the U.S., and everyone in between.  This semester I’m working on developing a communication-related enrichment workshop to be offered in conjunction with the Freshman Seminar program, which afforded me more knowledge about the program.  Taking a closer look at its structure piqued my interest in the larger freshman seminar movement around the country.

I wondered, what is a freshman seminar, and what is its purpose? What forms does it take at different kinds of colleges and universities? Who does it really well? A bit of research led me to this observation: the form that a freshman seminar program takes at a particular school can communicate a great deal about how the school views its primary institutional function.

The first thing I noticed was that while many universities use the term “freshman seminar,” they use it to designate quite different things. There are two main forms that the seminar takes (and yes, this is a generalization that surely overlooks much diversity).  At most “elite” (ranked as highly selective) private colleges whose websites I skimmed, the freshman seminar refers to a series of very small, highly focused courses designed and taught by faculty according to their specialized research interests. These courses are discussion based and often writing intensive, functioning as an opportunity for first-year students to experience the intimate and rigorous setting of an upper-level seminar at the start of their college career.  A few examples are the programs at Harvard, Princeton, and Bard.

At many other schools—trending in the direction of public and less “elite” institutions, although there are exceptions to this—the freshman seminar is a non-academic program for first-semester students that orients them to the institution’s resources, helps them navigate new challenges of college life, and integrates them into the larger social body of the school. Here are a few examples, from SUNY Stony Brook and New Jersey Institute of Technology.  The brief description of the Freshman Seminar at Baruch has more in common with this second group than with the first.

At first glance the two models may seem entirely different, but I think they attempt to do similar work from different angles. Both models share central aims of integration into a community. In the academic seminar model, the student is integrated into an intellectual community by developing a close working relationship with a professor and a small group of students bound by an interest in a particular set of questions or themes. In this model students often choose or even apply to particular seminars. This kind of seminar is meant to introduce freshmen to the intellectual work of college learning, in relation to a community of thinkers. In the orientation model, the student is integrated into a social community united by the process of managing new challenges and making use of the resources presented by the college institution. The emphasis is at least partially on professionalization and career planning.

Doug Brent’s article Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy draws a chronology in which the orientation model (what he calls the non-credit bearing “transition” model) preceded the newer “academic content seminar” model. He argues that such academic freshman seminar models resonate particularly with WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) pedagogy, because they affirm the idea that learning how to learn, like learning how to write, happens when learners are deeply engaged in discipline-specific inquiry, not prior to the inquiry or in a vacuum where learning is considered in theory.

If the pattern I detect is accurate, why does the orientation model persist more often at public and less elite colleges, while the most elite colleges have adopted the academic model?  Can an academic content freshman seminar also sufficiently cover the kinds of skills that are covered in a not-for-credit orientation model seminar (and perhaps even do so better than the orientation model can)? What do these different models communicate to freshmen about their primary role as students?


Brent, Doug. “Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 57, no. 2 (Dec. 2005): 253-76.

Trespassing Across the Curriculum or My Semester Abroad in a Land Without Idols

Exactly one week before classes were to begin this term, I was notified that the two sections of ENG 126, “Writing About Literature,” I was scheduled to teach at another CUNY campus had been cancelled due to under-enrollment. In that instant, my dream of a fall flush with dinners and drinks, theater and full-priced opera tickets, morphed into a nightmare of cold leftovers in the 6-hour long rush ticket line at the Met. But such is the life of an adjunct.

My prospective income and peace of mind were partly restored when The Department offered me a single section of WRIT 303, “Research and Writing in the Professional Programs,” as a replacement. I wasn’t much concerned about the migration from “writing about literature” to “writing in the professional programs,” which, at York College, include nursing, occupational and physical therapy, community health education, and a range of other health, social, and behavioral sciences fields. After all, I wasn’t always an English major: I have a BA Human Service Advocacy and an M.Ed. in Secondary Teacher Education. It’s been some time since I’ve worked in either field, but surely I could pick up APA citation style again. More important, I’ve spent the last two years as a CUNY Writing and Communication Fellow, immersed in the language and culture of WAC, WID, and CAC–those unhappy and ungraceful acronyms that name our field and proclaim our identity as citizens of the (academic) world, able to construct persuasive arguments in any discipline-specific language.

It took until the third week of classes for my serenity once again to be disturbed. It happened at the point in my syllabus where I confidently instruct my students in the art of introducing sources. Never, I commanded, drop a quote or paraphrase without identifying the author, title, and genre of the work you are citing: T.A.G. your citations! And that’s the minimum respect you owe to your sources; you might even add a little something about how influential (or controversial!) the work has been in your field. For example:

In the widely read [groundbreaking, ubiquitously cited, still controversial, etc.] first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that, while prior to the mid-nineteenth century “[t]he sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” (Foucault, 1978)

I’ve used this same lesson (with different sources, depending on the course content) as long as I’ve taught college writing, and it’s what I do in my own writing as a Ph.D. student in English.

I sensed something was amiss when students looked from the board to the reading and doubtfully back to me as they tried to reconcile what I was telling them to do with what they were reading. My sense was confirmed as I circulated around the room during the exercise and saw students writing things like

In a recent article in The Journal of Individual Psychology, “Cultural Competence: A Primer,” Len Sperry defines “cultural competence” as “the capacity to draw effectively upon cultural knowledge, awareness, sensitivity, and skillful action in order to relate appropriately to, and work effectively with, others from different cultural backgrounds.” (Sperry, 2012)

Too much information, I thought. What does it matter where it was published or even who wrote it beyond the perfunctory parenthetical citation of last name and year of publication. Why not simply write “Cultural competency can be defined as,” insert quotation, cite and be done with it? And, in fact, that’s what the articles I assigned were doing: “Culture can be defined as ‘the values, norms, and traditions that affect how individuals of a particular group perceive, think, interact, behave, and make judgments about their world’ (Chamberlain, 2005).” Does anyone jump to the reference list to find out just who this “Chamberlain” is? Or feel deprived that we aren’t even provided a page number so we can more fully contextualize the passage quoted? I didn’t.

And yet, as an expatriate English person abroad in the social sciences, I miss the intimacy with which the Humanities engages with sources. We’re taught that writing with secondary sources is like entering a conversation (a cocktail party, even!), listening to the other speakers, and jumping in confidently with our own “intervention.” Writers in the social sciences can sometimes seem to treat sources like faceless statisticians without even first names. Citation in literary theory and criticism, on the other hand, often looks like idol worship–or else the smashing of those idols. In any case, the work is frequently as much about the sources cited as it is about the common object of writer and source. Think of the the complex and fraught legacy of Michel Foucault, whom I quoted above, in the field of queer studies. Simply to cite him, parenthetically, without discussion, without even the courtesy of a first name, in a work of literary criticism would be akin to seating him at a back table with the second cousins. That’s no way to host a party.

Principles of Persuasion

At the end of each semester, I always wrap up my management 3120 and 3300 class with a couple of lectures on negotiation and persuasion. Students learn about various techniques of negotiation in the business setting as well as practice using persuasion practically in their day to day lives (one of my students’ favorite topics is when and how to ask for a raise). More importantly, becoming familiar with the fundamental principles of persuasion contribute to communicating more effectively overall.

My task this year as a WAC fellow is to support business policy 5100 students with their final oral presentations by providing advice and individualized feedback. Public speaking is a difficult art to master, but if we narrow it down, successful presentations in the business field share a common element – presenters incorporate persuasion principles! Most of the presentation in business classes put students in a position where they role play as a consulting group to provide recommendations to companies and advise top managers in terms of future strategy and decisions. Students must convince their audience that they are able to accurately predict future outcomes and they are a trustworthy source of information. Two presentations with the same quality of content can have drastically different outcomes in terms of effectiveness, where the difference often lies in the choice of words, team member cohesiveness, and nuances in message delivery. Hence, I believe that students should be introduced to negotiation and persuasion techniques when they prepare their oral assignment.

I gathered a short list of key concepts (adapted from Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence) that I want to go over with the students in order to help them with (1) working with other students in a team and (2) deliver their presentation effectively and convincingly. Hopefully it will be helpful to them not only for their project, but also for other experiences where they have to work with others and present ideas.

  1. Reciprocity

The principle of reciprocity states that people feel obliged to offer concessions to others if similar discounts have been offered to them. This is because people are uncomfortable with feeling indebted to others. I have seen many groups fall apart near the end of the semester because many students do not know how to get their teammates to work together. Using the idea of reciprocity, the team leader or the team members who are more proactive should divide up the work early on, make small sacrifices/concessions first, and then pressure other team members to complete their own tasks.

  1. Consistency

According to this principle, people want to stay consistent in their opinions, especially if they have shown interest in an idea and become committed to the idea early on. Student presenters should hook their audience with information that everyone can relate to at the beginning of the presentation to capture people’s attention, then ask related questions and interact with the audience throughout the presentation to keep everyone interested and engaged. Important pieces of information and main ideas should be stressed and repeated several times throughout the presentation.

  1. Mimetic imitation and social norm

This principle is based on people’s tendency to yield to group pressures and conform to the norm. When working with teammates, team leaders should pressure everyone to agree face to face on a strict deadline to establish a productive norm within the group. During the presentation, students can improve their persuasiveness by introducing real life examples involving well-known companies and events that match their decisions, which will help to convince the audience that the presenters’ recommendations are commonly used by others.

  1. Liking

We are more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability can be built based on a wide range of things such as similarity in interest, compliments, or personality. Student groups are more likely to be functional if team members first get to know each other and develop a more authentic interpersonal relationship with each other before they have to do work together. If students in a group like each other, the team will work together more smoothly and the presentation will demonstrate better chemistry between members.

  1. Authority and legitimacy

People feel a sense of obligation to listen to people in positions of authority (eg. Pharmaceutical advertisers use doctors to promote their products). There are a few things students can do to improve their appearance of authority:

  1. Wear business attire
  2. Introduce team members as colleagues in a made up consulting firm
  3. Get rid of filler phrases and choose words carefully
  4. Make eye contact, speak loud/clear, and use hand gestures/body language
  5. If possible, bring up relevant prior experiences

Swamp Problems

But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?

—Meno to Socrates

In the “Paradoxes and Predicaments in Learning to Design” chapter of Donald Schön’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner, a text that I will be reading and thinking about with my students in upcoming weeks, Schön evokes the perplexity that many of us confront at the beginning of learning a new skill or discourse. Feeling that we are missing some essential key, we attempt to quell our mounting anxiety by faking the external signs of competence, even as it begins to dawn on us that we are so far afield that we do not even know where to begin looking for the missing key (do not, perhaps, even know that it is a key we are seeking at all and not, rather, a steel file, or calcium carbonate, or a rose-flavored macaron). Schön focuses on the particular pedagogical situation of the architectural design studio, a locus of the design student’s “experience of mystery and confusion,” where, one student observes, “What we have here is a very Kafkaesque situation where you really don’t know where you are, and you have no basis for evaluation. You hang on the inflection of the tone of voice in your crit to discover if something is really wrong.” Hanging on the inflection, the design student (who has not yet learned to “think architecturally”) can sense – viscerally, intuitively – the discrepancy between her performance and the studio master’s expectations, even before she has the conceptual tools to name or describe the particular nature of that gap.

Schön connects the design student’s “predicament” to the paradox described by Plato’s Meno, the “general paradox attendant on the teaching and learning of any really new competence or understanding; for the student seeks to learn things whose meaning and importance she cannot grasp ahead of time.” The student knows that she is failing to see something, yet without seeing what it is she’s missing, how can she begin to look for it? Complicating the design student’s situation even further, the studio master cannot tell her what she needs to know, cannot give her in advance a description of the idea that she needs to attain. In learning to design, it seems, certain “essential ‘covert things’ … can never be explained; either the student gets them in the doing, or he does not get them at all.”

The subtle distinction between “getting it” and “not getting it” points to a kind of irreducible remainder in the practice of learning to design, something greater than the sum of the tasks that the student performs and the studio master’s input on the results of those tasks. The studio master “cannot explain these things with any hope of being understood, at least at the outset, because they can be grapsed only through the experience of actual designing.” Even the experience of actual designing is no guarantee of learning; it remains mysterious (a question of “divine dispensation,” in Plato’s terms) when and if these “covert things” will eventually take root for the student. For even if the student is “able to give a plausible verbal description of designing—to intellectualize about it—he [may] still be unable to meet the requirement that he demonstrate an understanding of designing in the doing.” The only evidence that the student has at last learned to “think architecturally” seems, finally, to issue from within, to be embodied within the student’s practice; it seems, paradoxically, not to have been transmitted from the studio master at all. This question of whether knowledge derives ultimately from the teacher or from the student returns us to another Socratic hypothesis: that “the nature of the process by which we may ‘look for what we don’t know’ … is, in its essence, a process of recollection; the learner ‘spontaneously recovers knowledge that is in him but forgotten.’”

The situation that Schön describes applies aptly to the task my students at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering are now facing as they begin drafting their first essay, an entity that many (perhaps all?) of them might still perceive as one of those “covert things.” Like Schön’s studio master, I have offered guidance that may appear, for now, enigmatic, in that I cannot tell them what shape their eventual essay must take, or prescribe the process by which they will write it. I have told them that their essay must host an idea – something that, unlike a thesis, cannot be constructed according to a plan or formula in which words slide into place like the parts of an Ikea chair. I offer them no assembly manual for this thing that we call an idea; we will know it when we see it. Essentially I am asking them now to do something that I have not taught them how to do, asking them in the doing to work their way out of the perplexity I have been complicit in making.

Like the design tasks that Schön describes, the work that students in writing classes undertake requires that they formulate “the problem of [the] problem.” Rather than present our students with problem solving tasks, we ask that they themselves crreate or select or enact problems. Unlike the perfect AP English exam essay with its sleek topic sentences, the essay that I have asked my students to write may well be “unteachable” – unteachable unless, following Carl Rogers, we “[reframe] teaching in a way that gives central importance to [the teacher’s] own role as a learner.” Schön turns to the controversial remarks that Rogers delivered to a group of Harvard faculty in 1952 in order to think about the role of the teacher in light of the radical destabilization provoked by the Meno. If the student can only ever learn through doing, what does the teacher do? For Schön, Rogers’s performance of “uncertainties and convictions” before the Harvard faculty strategically “elicit[ed] self-discovery in others, first by modeling for others, as a learner, the open expression of his own deepest reflections.” Only by enacting the “paradoxical teacher who does not teach” – who invites or provokes rather than instructs – can the teacher begin to put students to work.

These reflections are inspired in part by a professional development meeting that took place last Friday for the faculty who work as consultants for NYU’s Writing Center, where that center’s director, William Morgan, opened the morning’s conversation through another passage from Schön, in which the writer describes what he calls “the swamp of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry.” Placing Schön’s “swamp” in conversation with L. S. Vygotsky’s concept of “the zone of proximal development,” we talked about the different kinds of confusion that writing entails: the productive kind that leads, after a period of necessary struggle, to insight, and the non-productive kind, the kind where students remain “stuck” in the relative safety of rote ways of thinking rather than attempt the often frightening task of descending into the swamp. We discussed, too, the many different words that exist for the various topological obstacles that we encounter as we attempt to chart new courses (metaphorical and actual) through unknown terrains: swamp, marsh, sinkhole, quagmire, quicksand.

As writing teachers, we face yet another paradox: we find ourselves constructing these bogs and bayous (the “swampy lowland[s where] messy, confusing problems defy technical solution”) even as we also try to guide our students out of the mud and towards the clarity of expression they ultimately need.

Another source of inspiration for these remarks is Kristina’s post below. The “make it work” principle she discusses in the context of Tim Gunn’s marvelous catch phrase seems to point to another kind of engagement with the mysterious space of designing:

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.

Telling the designers on Project Runway to “make it work,” Gunn models a way that we, as teachers, can put the space of the classroom to work, emphasizing “the problem of the problem” that can only be seized through practice. Telling the designer (or the writer) to “make it work” communicates to her “that she is expected to learn, by doing, both what designing [or writing] is, and how to do it,” and that ultimately “she is the essential self-educator” (Schön). Envisioning the writing classroom (or the writing center cubicle) as a studio space – a “work-room,” more than a classroom – entails launching not only our students but also ourselves “on a process which is both fascinating and at times a little frightening,” as Rogers put it; for “[i]t seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward that [which] I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing reality.” Like my students, I do not yet know where we are headed; I only know that it’s working.

1 Donald A Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Applying Writing Across the Curriculum Principles in Management 3800 Courses

Riffing off Josh’s thoughts about Challenges in Writing Across the Curriculum at CUNY, I want to consider whether WAC can be meaningfully implemented even though fellows have, as Josh puts it, “wildly different experiences.” His characterization of the WAC programs at CUNY is spot-on. Over drinks this past weekend, I discussed assignments with some friends who are also beginning their fellowships and we discovered just how much they diverge across the colleges (I know, that’s some riveting bar talk). While the divergence speaks to the unique program needs at the different colleges, this inconsistency is at odds with the monolithic way WAC was presented during this summer’s orientation for new fellows. So I thought I would use this space to work through how standard WAC principles might apply to my particularly non-traditional assignment coaching Management 3800 students on the delivery of their in-class debates.

Initially, it was a bit bewildering to me to be a Writing Fellow whose work doesn’t directly relate to writing. Dare I say that I failed to see how my role coaching oral presentations could possibly have anything to do with the approaches to assignment design that I spent two days evaluating and preparing to put into action during the WAC orientation. However, having met with the professor whose courses I am supporting and gotten a sense of his thoughts about debating and what he is looking for, I now see how implementing WAC practices could help his students meet these expectations. To this end, I generated the following ideas that integrate WAC principles into aspects of the debate assignment:

WAC Principle: Scaffolding

Debating well requires various skills related to effective communication, like “the ability to subordinate ideas,” “the ability to think and speak in outline terms” and “the ability to adapt” (I am borrowing this language from a document the professor distributes to the students at the beginning of the semester). Because students must develop these related but different skills, it makes sense to scaffold, or break the larger, high-stakes assignment into a number of lower-stakes, skill-specific activities. Last week I visited the classes to introduce myself and there was a palpable fear among many of the students about the prospect of debating in front of their peers. For these students, the stakes, indeed, are high. Scaffolding the assignment to enable progressive mastery of the skills needed to debate well would likely help alleviate their anxiety and build their confidence. In coaching sessions, I then could ask students struggling with a particular aspect of communication to recall the skill-building activity from class.

WAC Principle: Reflective Exercises

Related to the above, assigning metacognitive activities that ask students to reflect upon their own reasoning process could support the development of communication skills. For instance, exercises might prompt students to ask themselves why they thought it made sense to present their points in this order versus any other, or why they thought this was the most convincing evidence to present here to support an assertion versus evidence that might be held in reserve. This kind of reflective strategy can help students internalize—rather than memorize—their debates, enabling them to adapt more readily in the moment. Metacognitive reflection also emphasizes that a successful debate is “a process not just a product”—a WAC slogan that was repeatedly thrown around during those two days of orientation.

WAC Principle: Develop a Voice

Students who have a strong voice for their opinions are better able to communicate with confidence and thus convincingly engage in a debate. Using VOCAT as a tool for students to orally engage with current issues related to their coursework would help them develop a voice. Or, setting up a course blog where students express their ideas and respond to their classmates can give them a chance to exercise their voices in a lower-stakes setting which simulates the exchange of opinions in a debate.

Currently, in the Management 3800 classes with which I am working, the debate assignment is not scaffolded in the ways I describe here. While I discussed these ideas (rather gingerly) with the professor, I do not feel particularly empowered as a WAC fellow to encourage him to adapt his assignment design. My role is to support the students in meeting the oral challenges of the assignment as it stands (it seems this is the institutional precedent for how fellows are to work with Management 3800 courses). There are obvious obstacles to accommodating scaffolding in the course, including a.) the way the debates are spread out over the semester (with the first debate occurring only a month in) and b.) the likely reluctance professors would feel toward revamping their course structure.

The size of the class is also something to consider. During a past semester, the professor I am working with had a particularly small class so that students gave two debates rather than one. I asked him to reflect upon whether he saw a difference in the performance when students were debating twice and he gave a resounding yes. His exact words were, “the learning process from the first to the second debate was incredible.” But with twenty-eight regularly enrolled in the course, he can only fit each student into one debate a semester. In this light, the case for scaffolding in Management 3800 becomes even stronger.

Ethnographic vs. Journalistic Communication

I’m presently wrapping up a summer-long dissertation research trip in Colombia, where I’ve been looking into the history of a type of socially conscious music called canción social (“social song”). One of my main research activities has been collecting oral histories from musicians who were most active during the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve done about two dozen long-form interviews in Spanish over the last three months, so issues around communication have been on my mind a lot lately.

The main thing I’ve been grappling with as I refine my interviewing technique is the difference between what I’ll very simplistically call ethnographic interviewing—the kind championed in fields like  anthropology and ethnomusicology (my discipline) that is aimed at comprehensively describing some aspect of a culture—and a more journalistic type of interviewing. As I started accumulating more and more illuminating testimonies that will undoubtedly prove invaluable to my written dissertation, I began to lament not having put more thought into recording my interviews in a high-quality format that I could use to create audio or video documentaries that could be of interest to non-academic audiences.

The first and perhaps greatest obstacle standing in the way of my making broadcast-quality interview recordings is my utter lack of training. I am now firmly convinced that ethnomusicology graduate programs must include courses on audio and video recording techniques. But beyond the practical matter of training, there are other factors that influence the interview process for academic ethnographers. I’ve often justified my informal recording approach (i.e. plopping my phone somewhere in the vicinity of the speaker and pressing record on the native voice recorder) to myself with the notion that my interviewees would communicate differently with me—in other words, provide me with less of the rich information us ethnographers prize—if I had to envelope them in recording gear, not to mention putting them in front of a camera. I try to impart an informal, conversational tone in my interviews, which sometimes last for several hours, and I think that feel would be lost if I had to spend a bunch of time setting up and testing equipment and instructing people to be conscious of speaking into a microphone. (Catherine’s post last semester touched on how people’s behavior changes in front of a documentarian’s video camera.) Furthermore, many of my interviews veer on to somewhat politically sensitive topics, and I’m quite certain some of the people I talk with would be far less candid if the machinery that records their every word dominated the physical space around them. Finally, if one is planning to present the actual audio from interview recordings in a public forum, it is important to try to obtain clean snippets of speech by not interrupting the interviewee or interjecting with the short affirmative responses that we normally use in every day dialog, and this might contribute further to formalizing the interview.

The other problem I face in obtaining publishable audio is that interviewees I’ve never met in person before often request to meet me in public spaces, usually cafés, which usually have lots of background noise. While I often hold follow-up interviews with my interlocutors in more amenable spaces, I sometimes have only one chance with important figures, and I prefer—and am compelled by the ethics guidelines governing research with “human subjects”—to let people I’m meeting for the first time choose the location to ensure their comfort and convenience.

Needless to say, there are ways to foster an informal interview setting while still recording high-quality material. A friend who studied audio recording suggested using a lapel microphone, which is fairly unobtrusive to the interviewee, can be hooked up to an inconspicuous handheld recorder (or even a smartphone), and doesn’t necessarily pick up lots of background noise. Budget permitting, I might try this set up in future research, though I’ll probably continue to communicate with my consultants in the “ethnographic” mode to which I’ve grown accustomed.

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.


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.]


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?


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.”


*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?



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


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”


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”


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.