Go West, Mainstream Media!

I was flipping through channels as I ate lunch today (which may explain why I have to clean my television remote quite often). As I wandered through the variety of home improvement shows, weekly news roundups, and The Barefoot Contessa making scones, I happened across the film Silverado, which I haven’t seen since I was a kid.

The film, which features such 80’s heavyweights as Kevin Kline (such a good actor; why is it none of his films except A Fish Called Wanda ever hit it big?), Scott Glenn, Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, and a very young Kevin Costner, was, in my 11 year old expert opinion, the best Western ever made. It was funny, it dealt with racism in the Old West, it was funny… My cineaste criteria at the time weren’t all that complex. I think in large measure the film fell out of the public eye when Tombstone came along eight year later. No small shakes itself, Tombstone was quite an impressive piece of Western filmmaking; it was compelling enough even to supercede its most clunky lines. (At one point, an injured Sam Elliot is informed that his arm will have to be amputated. As his wife breaks into tears he tells her—and I’m paraphrasing: “It’s all right darlin’, at least I’ll still have one good arm to hold you with!” Perhaps some wine to go with that cheese?)

This trip to Nostalgia-ville by way of Westerns of the 80’s and 90’s led me to this burning question: why has the Western dropped out of the extant group of genres currently on tap in popular culture? God knows were in the middle (hopefully late middle) of some sort of horror renaissance; I’ve seen in a few places that film critics are drawing connections between the revived genre’s fascination with torture and our current political discussions of the role of torture in interrogation. [Go here for Naomi Klein’s latest discussion of the Jose Padilla case, courtesy of The Nation Magazine.] So, if current fascinations with genres allow us to reflect and question our current fears and fascinations, what is it that the Western no longer does for us? Why has it, as a genre, lost its power to speak to contemporary culture?

Is it the Western’s fixation with the frontier, which no longer lays open? Is it its pitting of the domestic sphere against men’s freedom (think: The Searchers)? Is it its inability to imagine multiple cultures as central to the nation’s development? Has Brokeback Mountain placed the heterosexuality of any two men on horseback into question? And would that be such a bad thing?

That’s enough unanwered queries and pop culture musings for one day.

Represent! Race and Media

Today, I found myself revisiting some of the issues I worked on in my dissertation, as I came across to very curious YouTube videos. In a nutshell, my diss looked at the popularization of Asian-themed aesthetics (in food, in fashion, in media) and the material effects of that popularization on Asian Americans. I argued that the contemporary desire for “true” representations of Asian otherness (e.g., Memoirs of a Geisha) eclipsed the evidence of American qualities in Asian Americans. [Any Asian American can tell you a story about being asked “where are you really from” or how he/she might say something in his/her “native language” etc.]. Finally, I looked at contemporary works by Asian American authors, filmmakers, performance artists and the like who took up this prioritization of their supposed “otherness” and used aesthetic means to insist upon their place within the nation.

Whew.

The point of this background information is that a few days ago, my friend Neil sent me a clip to a YouTube video of Margaret Cho. Surfing the blogosphere this morning, I came across a recent George Takei faux-PSA, courtesy of belledame at fetch me my axe. Two prominent Asian Americans in their own videos come across my screen in the same week?! Hot diggety! Even more surprising, however, was the thematic and structural similarity in the two videos. Takei filmed the “PSA” in response to the now-infamous Tim Hardaway comments about hating gay people. Cho’s rap video is, on the surface, a paean to her vagina. Wait, what do these two have in common?!!

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The Perils of Theory (Syllabi)

Here I am, wandering in the desert of teaching the required course in literary theory for the English majors (which I’m loving!), only to find that I’m far from being alone. I fretted about the design of this course for much of the fall semester and throughout the winter break; I asked everyone I knew who had taught one of these before for their ideas; I performed a close reading of my colleague’s syllabus for the same course to discern her logic and pedagogical choices, in order to figure out what might work for me.

Come to find out, this practice may be a widespread scholarly dis-ease. Over at Acephalous, Scott Eric Kaufman has a post about a theory syllabus designed in 1994 by Jeffrey Williams, based on the idea of the professionalization of theory. This post and the comment string attached give a good sense of the multiple considerations that go into designing a course like this. Commenters question professionalization as a viable theme, the makeup of the class population and their specific interests and needs, the necessity of including continental philosophers, the compulsion to assign newer theory rock stars (e.g., Judith Butler) vs. the critique that this inclusion is an indication of how their theories have become “ossified”…and the comments continue.

For my part, I’m still stuck on Kaufman’s original question: “What would I teach and why?” As I put together my own theory syllabus, I was constantly trying to balance a couple of ideas:

  • What will students need to know later in order to be successful in our English program?
  • What ideas should they be introduced to that might serve them later in life, regardless of major?
  • What were the pieces that I had read that really changed the way that I looked at texts and the world?
  • What was appropriately challenging, but not so tough that they’d just give up?
  • How could I group texts to create coherence and “handholds” on relevant ideas that many theorists engage?

That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s the short set of the questions that I checked each and every piece against as I put the syllabus together. Some pieces (e.g., Butler) easily fit a couple of categories (useful for both English studies and life), but defied others (more than “appropriately challenging”). Others defied many categories (e.g., the rhizome chapter of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus), but as theory goes, I think are important enough to make exceptions. [If you’re dying to know what the final choices were, you can look here. Gentle critiques are happily accepted.]

On some level, what becomes clear is that the history and canon of literary theory is as contested as that of literature itself. The criteria we create and the rationales we deliver are indicative of the kinds of critics we are, complete with the traces (insert Derrida joke here) of our indoctrinations and rebellions against those, our idealism and our despair over the futures of literary study. The process of developing and defending a single 16 week introduction to theory is a practice of theory itself.

At the successful conclusion to a theory class, perhaps students should be writing their own syllabi?

Straight Outta NCTE

You know, I was sort of hoping that the title to this post would invoke N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, but looking at it, I realize it does no such thing. Sigh.

I’m unsure how I ever got on the mailing list for the NCTE inbox, but I’ve never been sad that I did. In addition to its usual mix of educationally relevant news and alerts to recent studies and such, today’s inbox featured this assignment by Lisa Storm Fink, which asks students to design a soundtrack for a novel or short story. Reading it, I was immediately struck by the desire to thump myself in the skull. Of course!! Why didn’t I ever think of that! This is not to denigrate the work that Fink does here, or that of the book that the assignment is based on (Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom). Rather, it’s to mark the ways that you can have a bunch of information at your disposal and not know how to harness it.

I’ve taught two courses in the last year that are solely devoted to media (both in American Studies. Hurrah for interdisciplinary frameworks!). In both, I used novels, films, television, and online media like blogs and wikis. In the first course, we began with a “media fast,” where students were required to go the 3 days between class meetings without media of any kind. Let the panic commence! Their very first question was: “does music count?” At the end of the fast, those who survived identified music as the medium that was the hardest to go without. They couldn’t sleep, do homework, drive the car (!). It was clear from the jump that when we talk about the deep interpenetration of media into everyday life, we have to think about music. Of course, I had designed a syllabus that was entirely music free. Sigh.

I learned my lesson in the second class, but also made a crucial mistake here. As a class on the cultural history of American individualism, I chose Seattle grunge as a particular manifestation of this phenomenon. The unit was slated to occur right after some intensive work investigating the 60’s; what could be better than to assess Kurt Cobain’s rejection of all of the tenets of that period? [Famously, Kobain said that he would only wear tie dye if it were created with Jerry Garcia’s blood.] In the end, we had to cut the entire unit to allow room for student projects, but the class was far more excited to move on to Fight Club than it was to work through 90’s music.

The point of this (and again, the “duh” moment for me), is that students have a powerful connection and active expertise in the music that appeals to them. The beauty of this assignment is to use that connection/expertise as a way to think critically about literature and, as importantly, weave it into students’ own body of knowledge and meaning.

As powerful as this tool is, I have to admit that it’s a bit scary. As I get older, I’m finding that the first element of contemporary culture that is slipping out of my grasp is popular music. Really. And it’s happening in two equally embarrassing ways. The first: my taste is going retrograde. Not only do I keep downloading songs from the 80’s (like whatever iTunes will offer up of The Smiths), but I’m finding the golden hits of the 70’s pretty delightful too. Neil Diamond, anyone? The second: I’ll download super-popular current radio tracks…about 2 months after they hit it big. So, this fall, when everyone wanted to kill Rihanna, I was happily bopping along to S.O.S. (which is not only indicative of this second category, but also of the first, since the hook of the song is based on “Tainted Love”). What all of this means, of course, is that to enter into a conversation with students about music is to know practically nothing—and to endure a good deal of mockery for that. In the end, however, how do you pass up a beautiful pedagogical tool because of your own insecurity that you’re taste in music is pathetic?

I used to ask students how they would cast a movie version of particular novels. Now I’m going to ask about theme songs…

In Lieu of Real Content

Yesterday, Megan and I convened our ProVisions session: a lunch gathering of faculty devoted to specific issues of teaching and learning. We wanted to focus, this month, on the questions and concerns about teaching with technology. We were fortunate to have Jenn Marlow present, and she’s put up a digital version of her presentation.

At the discussion afterward, the participants brought up a number of issues that reflect our position as an institution working our way in to e-learning, but also individual faculty members’ deep dedication to face-to-face communication and tactile experience. Underpinning both of these is an question I want to think more about in the coming days: the psychic economies of faculty caught in an inevitable move into a convergence culture. One of the phrases I hear more and more is, simply: “I don’t want to give up what I know and like and value, even if the world is changing under my feet.” Sometimes this is whiny, and sometimes it’s earnest, sometimes it’s said out of the fear of becoming obsolete, sometimes it’s simply obstinate; more often than not, it’s conditioned by a desire to do right by our students—if only we could figure out what that will look like as the digital age moves forward. Will they need more experience with material human interaction or less? More training in navigating and critiquing a digital world or the “real” one? In all cases, there is deep ambivalence toward changing the patterns of what we do in the classroom. It’s not the case that we have to change everything we do—that much we can all agree on. What became clear at ProVisions yesterday was the need to discuss these concerns, framed by a couple of key questions: what do we value and continue to value in education? What new opportunities can technology actually offer us? Is there potential for those same opportunities to foreclose on some of our values? In essence, what are we holding on to for the sake of holding on, and what are we holding on to because they reflect our most deeply-held beliefs in the promise of (liberal arts) education?

There’s more to say and to think about with all of these questions, but for right now, I just want to store some links to a few “quick and dirty” teaching with technology start-up guides, both of which implicitly address the desire to integrate new media into educational settings in ways that hold to the integrity of existing pedagogy (or, in other words, that don’t just use technology for the sake of using it).

The first is a short essay by Bryan Alexander written for the American Library Association. The second is an article on the Educause Teaching and Learning site titled “Think Small!”

One Reason I Love the Internet

This post should be about the ways in which the internet enables sharing of information, restructures the prioritization of textual and visual literacies, allows for new modes of identity and community, etc. Instead, it’s actually about how I’m a terrible record keeper.

A month ago, my colleague M. and I attended the annual conference for the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or ISSOTL, for short. In many ways, it was a great conference, if a bit uneven. On the whole, it’s an enormous gathering place for people to discuss what they do in the classroom and institutionally, practically and philosophically. There aren’t many conferences with this particular focus, and so it’s a cavalcade of new ideas, from electronic portfolios to teaching in virtual worlds. And to top it off, the refreshments at the conference were GREAT. [This is no small achievement; at the American Studies Association conference last year, I had to stare down a panel attender for the last glass of water. At ISSOTL, there were liquids aplenty, as well as snacks. Hooray for snacks!] Apparently, you pay for those snacks in the long run. The registration for the conference was over $300, and when you add that to the room rate, travel, and meals, you have a hefty conference bill at the end of the weekend.

Luckily, we attended the conference as part of an experiment in teaching and learning that we’re trying to institute here at Saint Rose. Thus, we simply had to submit our receipts in order to be reiumbursed for the conference charges.

And, as Bill S. would say, therein lies the rub.

I am not a good keeper of receipts and records. After years of missteps, I have finally learned to take an envelope with me to conferences and to assiduously place each and every receipt in that envelope. I did so at ISSOTL, and when I returned, I totalled up the receipts, stuck them in a new envelope, and sent them off to the Provost’s Office via inter-campus mail. Now, anyone who knows anything about this process will immediately identify two major errors in my actions above. Note that nowhere do I say I “photocopied receipts so I’d have a backup,” nor do I say that I “walked the receipts over to the Provost’s Office and placed them in the hands of the secretary.”

To make a long story shorter than it could be, I waited three months for a check before calling the office to double check. Surprise, surprise: they’d never received the receipts. I’d need to resubmit them. I did get a bruise on my head from fainting forward on to my desk, but when I came to, I began to reconstruct my time at the conference. I’d registered online, and received a confirmation–and I still had that email. Now, time at the conference itself: well, both my bank account and my credit card allow you to search and reprint past statements. Done and done!

All in all, I’m missing receipts for about $40 from the original batch. Not bad for a batch of receipts recovered 3 months after the fact.

Thank you, internet, for being my own searchable file folder.

Form and Function?

Via the brilliant resource jill/txt comes this video from anthropology professor Michael Wesch:

Now, for the record, I COULD have just posted a link to Jill’s website, but then I wouldn’t have had any motivation to experiment with embedding video in the blog, right? So, there it is.

Jill’s post calls this video “(almost) everything I teach in a three minute video.” I’d take on that phrase with a slight modification: it’s everything I’d like to be teaching! Wesch’s video, it seems to me, encapsulates a number of important ideas, from the most mundane (what’s the difference between html and xml?) to the most idealistic (what will the onset of digital text mean?). In so doing, it represents one of the significant challenges that occurs with new media pedagogy: the need to teach both the entry-level practices of web 2.0 as well as (and in order to get to) teaching the philosophical and social possibilities and implications brought about by such technologies. In this way, the video does what a great montage should do: inspire you by representing the hours of difficult labor needed to pull of a great feat (see Rocky, Vision Quest, Real Genius, and the I-can’t-believe-I’m-saying-this -all-right-fine-I’m-going-to-have-to-own-it archetypal South Park film.)

From a film studies perspective (oooh, going all old school!), Wesch’s video also employs the point-of-view technique to great effect. In essence, we see the web and its tools from the perspective of the filmmaker, as if we were him. Thus, the video also models a version of web interaction that shows us how someone invested in the medium navigates it. In some ways, this is what I find most fascinating: how do different people navigate/loll around in the internet? [Strangely, I just went from the pedagogical perspective to the voyeuristic one. From teacher to stalker in one short step!] What could we learn from watching each other? This might be akin to the experience of observing a tech person remotely operating your computer—a new possibility for IT at Saint Rose. It feels a bit like your computer is possessed, even as you see new ways of accessing information that you’ve never tried before.

So, all in all, well-played, Michael Wesch. Many reasons to view and re-view your video.

***Note: while browsing for this video, I happened to use “web 2.0” as a search term on YouTube. It will surprise no one but me, I suppose, that there are several instructive videos posted expressly designed for teachers. Who knew?