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.

Unbridled Archival Passion

I’m in love with archives. This is why.

photo (5)

When I found it in the Michael Shea Papers at Buffalo State College in Buffalo, NY, I squealed audibly and clapped my white-gloved hands. It is a letter from the animal trainer Leon Morris to Mr. Shea, a vaudeville impresario in Buffalo. Before there was a developed system of agents and managers, performers booked their own gigs so it was necessary to promote themselves constantly. Hence, this stationary’s representation of Morris in formal equestrian garb bordered by striking illustrations of monkeys, dogs, and horses.

Sometimes I’m in archives and I don’t want to leave. Even when the microfilm spinning past my eyes is giving me a headache or I’ve developed “archive elbow” by turning the pages of a giant ledger for eight hours in a row. Real professionals will tell you that you need to “get in and get out” or risk becoming lost in the archive. I’m still trying to temper my passion.

An Amateur’s Guide to Creating Audio Projects in Audacity (captured by Camtasia) – Part I

Hello, my name is Josh and I’m an addict of public radio. I get my morning fix from the BBC. When I ride the subway, I keep my dosage steady with podcasts from the CBC. Over lunch and in the evenings, it’s news and talk from WNYC. Weekends, I binge on flagship programming from NPR and PRI.

I’ve tried to infect my students with this affliction by replacing at least one reading assignment every semester with take-home listening questions on a particularly good radio program relating to the topic we’re studying. While I don’t think I’ve attracted many converts, many students have at the very least said: “I thought it was going to be really boring… but it wasn’t.”

I think there’s plenty of pedagogical value to be harnessed from listening to public radio, but students could also benefit from creating their own audio projects modeled on public radio formats. A few years ago, I enjoyed having the opportunity to present my research for a graduate course in public anthropology in the format of a radio documentary. I’d done a bit of audio editing using the digital recording software ProTools before, but for that project I used GarageBand, which comes with every Mac and is much more user friendly.

Since I’ve mainly computed on PCs for a few years now, I figured it was time to try out Audacity, the free audio editing software for PC (and Mac) I’ve often heard about. After the workshop on Camtasia screen capture software at the BLSCI a few weeks ago, I decided to try to make a little video with some ideas about making audio projects using Audacity. You can watch it below.

DISCLAIMERS:

  1. As per the title of the video, I am a TOTAL AMATEUR at audio and video editing. I embarked on this project in the spirit of play mentioned by Suzanne at the last BLSCI meeting. I would feel vindicated if this prompted some of the experts in our midst to share some of their ideas about creating audio projects (and, ahem, what I could do better)!
  2. Yes, that’s right, there’s several shots of me surfing the web in there. Have you ever watched the linkbait videos on weather.com? Filming the internet is totally legit.

TEASER:

Features a cameo from a true expert in communications!

Notes on Writing Across the Curriculum at BLSCI

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

 1. FACULTY DEVELOPMENT

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

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

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

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

 2. FACULTY SUPPORT

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

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

3. STUDENT SUPPORT

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

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

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

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

The Soundtrack to Productivity

Stop and Listen. What do you hear? Music coming through your earphones? The chatter of a coffee shop? The car horn-punctuated midtown din, filtered through library windows? The hum of your computer in an otherwise silent, isolated space?

It would seem prosaic to state that sound is a key aspect of our immediate environments, and that different tasks are best accompanied by different kinds of aural stimuli. A radio show on the most appropriate music for exercise and athletics got me thinking about this again recently. The expert interviewed on the program conveys some rather unsurprising findings: Music can have a positive stimulative effect on people seeking to get the most of their workout; songs with relatively fast tempos are optimal as background music to exercise—125-140 beats per minutes is ideal; changing the tracks in your playlists frequently will maximize the music’s motivational potential by reducing the risk of boredom. On the other hand, music can play a distracting role for elite athletes engaged in intense competition.

On the other end of the spectrum from workout music, pieces with slower tempos and softer sounds can help people fall asleep. What, then, is the ideal sound for that middle ground of activity between heart-pumping exercise and tranquil sleep that most of us are immersed in during the bulk of our waking hours? For the many folks I see with earphones on while ostensibly doing work in libraries and coffee shops, I assume that music is a motivational force. There seems to be a smidgen of scientific evidence out there indicating that listening to music can boost productivity for some people in some settings, and no shortage of advice on what tunes will help you get work done. Of course, workers in many cultures sing and/or use work implements in a musical fashion to coordinate complex tasks and to make boring or repetitive work more interesting. One of my favorite examples of work music is a recording that was made of postal workers at the University of Accra, Ghana in the 1970s:

But there are those of us who can’t envision getting much work done if we tried to type every letter on our computer keyboard in rhythm. (Or, if we broke into office supply-accompanied song. Just couldn’t resist!)

Personally, I can’t even listen to music while doing any work that requires the slightest bit of concentration. The fact that my field of study involves analyzing music in its minute details makes it too difficult to ignore the sounds unfolding around me. But I know that I’m also probably more sensitive to aural stimuli than lots of other people. I’ve never understood how people can concentrate in busy coffee shops, even if there is no background music playing. So imagine my surprise when I learned the other day that there’s a website that will bring the sounds of a coffee shop to your home or office. The Coffitivity site and its related smartphone and tablet apps were apparently inspired by research indicating that the moderate levels of ambient noise typical of coffee shops are optimal for creative thinking. Maybe I’m not a very creative person, since I couldn’t stand more than a few seconds of “morning murmur”—one of Coffitivity’s three coffee shop sound options—streaming through my speakers!

Please Open (Your) Textbooks…

Seems that at the beginning of every semester, I see another blog post or news story about the skyrocketing prices of textbooks and how renting or subscription textbooks are the answer.

There have even been studies that show students are refusing to buy textbooks (whether because they can’t afford them or because they think the prices are outrageous), despite the inevitable hit to their grades.

just the ones i'm getting rid of

A pile of expensive paper, never to be read again (image by plutor CC BY)

In my class, I decided to confront this problem by matching my practice to my subject. I teach a section of a class called “Principles of New Media.” One of the topics we cover is Creative Commons licensing.

I decided to choose all of my required readings from those available under Creative Commons licenses.

The basic tenet of Creative Commons is that the default license should be permissive of sharing, rather than restrictive. Of course, there are different levels of permission. At the core, all CC licenses require attribution. This is the most permissive license, known as CC BY. As we tell our students: you must cite your sources.

But different CC licenses also permit or restrict various forms of reuse.

“No Derivatives”, or ND, restricts the creation of works based on a CC-licensed work. Therefore, the work can only be reused as-is.

“NonCommercial”, or NC, means that you cannot charge for reusing the work.

“Share Alike”, or SA, requires that any work derived from the licensed work must be released under the same licensing terms.

These four attributes can be combined in any form to arrive at the six possible Creative Commons licenses: CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-ND, CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, or CC BY-NC-ND.

For the texts in my class, I start with the CC BY-NC-SA text The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg and published by NYU Press.
I then add readings individual readings that are available under various CC licenses, like Lev Manovich’s new book Software Takes Command (ironically, at the time of writing this post, the book is currently unavailable at that official address due to a software problem) and whitepapers by Tim O’Reilly and others.

And if students want to buy a copy of any of the books, they are available in physical copies. Most of my students, however, read on their tablets, computers, or print out their own copies.

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

Another pile of (potential) textbooks (image by IntelFreePress CC BY-SA)

And if I continue teaching this class, my choice to use CC licensed texts will allow me to remix and add to the texts. I can find and incorporate newer articles by the books contributors, like Jay Rosen, danah boyd, Lawrence Lessig, or Clay Shirky, among others–as long as the newer writings are also CC licensed.

I cannot prove that students are more likely to do their readings than if they had to buy a textbook for my class. But at least now if they do decide not to do the reading, I know it is not because of the outrageous price of textbooks.

Teaching Queer Language/Queer Language Teaching

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 11.05.29 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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