The “Real” and the “True”

I’m currently in the sixth week, or a third of the way (!) through, my contemporary narrative class.  I’ve drafted my students into the service of my current obsessions, and so we’re tracking the ways that a select set of contemporary narratives thematize reading/interpretive processes as methods of evaluating truth.  My intrepid students are going great guns, of course, and are finding all sorts of examples and avenues that never would have occurred to me.  Case in point: how to do we articulate the complex relationship between realism and the truth in any given narrative?  How does the former shape our expectations of the latter, and to what extend does the ambiguity of the latter force us to question the former?

To fully understand that question, you’d need to have an idea of the kind of texts that I’ve been asking them to endure.  To some extent, whether they are novels or television serials, they have largely cohered, thus far, to the genre pithily described as “mind-fuck,” or, in more genteel language, what Thomas Elsaesser calls the “mind-game.”  In essence, I’ve asked students to dig into narratives (Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, Heidi Julavits’s The Uses of Enchantment, and now Moffatt and Gatiss’s Sherlock) that actively present a series of internal questions about which of many narratives or perspectives is true, OR real, or both.  Still confused?  (So are we.)  In Mr. Peanut, for example, we begin with a compelling and horrifyingly ambiguous image of a woman who has died from anaphylactic shock: death by peanut.  Her husband is present, with a bloody hand.  The question: did he shove the peanut down her throat, or did he try to prevent her from swallowing it?   The novel goes on to consider the complexities of married life, the emotional weight of a desire for freedom, and along the way, retells one of the famous American uxoricide cases, that of the Sheppard murder made famous in the television series and film The Fugitive.  Thus, the details of the protagonist’s daily life and the “ripped from the headlines,” crime scene evidence of the Sheppard case accumulate, attempting to verify these tales of matrimonial mayhem. It doesn’t take much to see how the status “the real” serves to support “the true,” until the processes of interpretation and abstraction are brought to bear: how do law enforcement officials assess guilt?; to what extent does the desire to kill one’s wife differ from the actual act?; in what ways does the indecipherability of one case reflect on another?  (And just when you think you’ve got a handle on those in this novel, we move on to the next one.)

The class, thus far, has enthusiastically assessed these narrative strands in each text, weighing them against each other in order to argue for the one that seems believable (we also like the word “possible,” along with “plausible”).   We marshal our evidence to make claims about where we stand as readers when we close the covers; we integrate the evidence that others provide to alter our own readings.  What we have yet to be able to do, however, is to consider the ways that the conventions of realism enter into the conversation.  Or to put this another way: it’s all we can do to get a handle on what is “the real story” of the text; identifying the mechanisms that get us there is beyond the pale.  Who designed this class, anyway?

And yet, the question remains.  For all of the retro-postmodern ambiguity these narratives possess, they also rest on a 200 year history (give or take) of a realist tradition: a painstakingly-constructed, historically and culturally situated, ideologically-rife set of conventions that registers to readers as “real.”  Where does our current cultural fascination with reality—our own dissonant belief, for instance, that “reality tv” is both a constructed falsity, and yet somehow also true—stand in relation to that history?

Stay tuned, true believers.  We’ve still got 12 weeks to figure this stuff out.

Voting via Video

With election fever in the air, I’ve been holding on to Errol Morris’s Op Ed video “11 Excellent Reasons Not to Vote?“, waiting for a time when I could give it my full attention.  Thank you, Friday morning!

Morris’s piece interests me for two reasons that will be familiar to literary types: form and content.  As many readers will know, Morris is an award-winning director and author (who keeps a vibrant website that corrals all of his various projects).  For me, however, Morris is most notable for his documentaries: films like The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line not only take up some of the most fascinating and complex questions that we have as a society (war, justice, ethics, belief), but do so in a visually compelling way.  [I’ll just come right out and say this now, so as to reveal my prejudices: I dearly wish that more documentary filmmmakers, working both in short and long form, would pay more attention to aesthetics.  Realism can be a trap; dependence on interviews, static camera, and archival footage can be flat. I’m looking at you, Ken Burns.]  His recent piece for the NYTimes, then, is actually labeled an “Op-Doc”: an neologism that I assume brings together the ideas of “Op-Ed” (a term that I assumed grew out of “opinion-editorial,” and certainly fulfills that role, although Wikipedia tells me that it actually comes from “opposite the editorial page” to indicate its difference from the editorials penned by newspaper staff themselves.  Huh.  You learn something new every day.) and “Documentary.”

Before we even get out of the gate with Morris’s piece, then, we’re already talking about a new genre: what is an “Op-Doc”?  What are its components?  Are the expectations for it different than they would be for an op-ed piece?  What happens when you move the requirements for an op-ed into a video form?  And for that matter, what happens when a short documentary becomes an opinion?

I’m overly concerned about these formal questions right now because they’re the questions that my first-year composition students are wrestling with as they move into their final research project for the course.  Up until now, they’ve crafted essays in print and moved them into digital text (by uploading them into an online portfolio); they’ve also composed a remix video, and thus worked with visual and audio sources (with a bit of text sprinkled throughout).  But as we move toward the end of the semester, I’ve asked them to think about how to use the best of both formats: digital text, along with visual and audio sources, to help their audience to understand a complex question and their attempts to answer it with their original research.  Piece of cake, right?  (If you’re interested, you can follow their good-natured discussion about this and other class issues on Twitter at #DEW1: a hashtag that grows out of the name for the class—Digital Expository Writing.)
On Monday, I think I’ll ask them to look at the ways that Morris does just this in his Op-Doc: his question, as you might note from the title of the piece, is manifold:

It made me wonder: What’s stopping us? Do we have reasons not to vote? How can we hear so much about the election, and not participate? If hope isn’t doing it, isn’t the fear of the other guy winning enough to brave the roads, the long lines?

To answer that question, he interviewed a series of young people who actually DID intend to vote (a characteristic that makes them unusual by national standards) and asked them to engage his questions before explaining their own motivations.  I love this approach: it sets his subjects up to think beyond themselves from the very beginning, which may very well help them to imagine their initial motivations very differently.  But before I jump fully into the recognition of the content of Morris’s piece, I want to finish up this assessment of the form: how does this position his audience?  If you are a reader first, then you know what’s up with the video—he reveals his methodology in the fourth paragraph.  You would know, then, by the time you double back to watch (assuming that you do), that the interviewees don’t endorse the “11 reasons not to vote” that they’re articulating.  But if you’re a viewer first and a reader second, you’d be at least a minute and 30 seconds into the video before you began to see the speakers questioning the arguments that they provide against voting.  And perhaps this is at least part of the work that the video achieves: if your assumption is that these are young people who are apathetic/confused/slackers, then you need to take a closer look at them.  It’s a clever, and subtle, rhetorical move on the part of the filmmaker, who might be calling out the readers/viewers of the Times on their willingness to castigate a generation for their unfathomable lack of civic pride.

On the question of content, which has already managed to slide into the conversation here, Morris quickly runs through, and largely dispels, I think some of the more popular reasons for not voting (e.g., one vote won’t matter; confusion and complexity; no candidate is good; “it’s just a way to make yourself happy”; “awkward family dinners”), before listing some very serious reasons to vote (i.e., Florida in 2000; the legacy of the Voting Act of 1965) with some less serious ones (e.g., spite voting).  Along with some chipper music and Morris’s own good-natured hectoring from behind the camera (“How much would you sell your vote for?”), it makes for an incitement to vote that is free of the hectoring, guilt-inducing messages of some “get out the vote” messages.

As a side note, however, I’d like to point out one of the themes that emerges from the interviews.  At the end of the written portion of Morris’s Op-Doc, he says this: “Voting is a leap of faith. Calling it a civic duty is not enough. Either you believe that the system is both changeable and worth changing, or you don’t — and most new voters are not convinced.”  Very probably true; and as someone who is particularly interested in the ways that language works, I’d venture a guess that “civic duty” is not a term that lands with very many young people nowadays.  It barely lands with me, and I’m almost 20 years beyond many of the people interviewed in this piece.

The theme that the interviewees DO pick up, however, is the dismissal of the individual and the pleasures of joining a group.  The video begins with the argument against voting that hinges on the acknowledgment that a single vote could matter; five minutes in, a participant reminds us that “it’s not about you, it’s about all of us…Get off Twitter, stop talking to your friends about how great you are,  go down to vote and throw your lot into the sea with everyone else.”  The next person talks about the “on the other side” experience of having voted, a kind of shared practice that should inspire people to go and get a drink.  We later see a very pregnant mother whose vote is now “twice as important,” along with a newly-naturalized citizen who will vote for the first time.  It’s a bit of a vexed message (what’s up with the Twitter hate?), and yet seems to suggest that dedicated voters in a demographic notorious for NOT voting imagine themselves and their motivations as being distinctly communal; they’re in a group who vote right now, in this election, and/or they’re in a group that prizes voting in a historical trajectory.  Everyone else is in the sea, or getting a drink after having voted, or voting in honor of those who couldn’t vote before him.  This is what we all do; you should do it too.  Is it going to far to say that individualism, here, is shunted aside for the priorities and pleasures of the generation as a whole?  Where does the rationale for voting as a mode of belonging fit in the rhetoric of civics, of responsibility, and in the description of the millennial generation(s) as individualistic and navel-gazers?  If Morris’s interviewees are representative of young people who DO vote, how do we use these insights to capture and incite more of them to “throw their lot into the sea”?

President’s Day 2011: Technology and the Teaching Learning Process

What better occasion to return to the blog than a spring semester President’s Day devoted to “Technology and the Teaching Learning Process”?  Below are a few links that I’ll discuss bright and early tomorrow in the Lally Forum with my colleague Michael Brannigan.

The New York Times on Digital Humanities: “Digital Keys for Unlocking Humanities’ Riches

The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project “Teens, Video Games and Civics

The It Gets Better Project on YouTube, and on its own site

And while I won’t get a chance to talk about these, they’re also great examples of smart people thinking in sophisticated ways about the learning potential of new media technologies:

USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism: Project New Media Literacies

HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory

MacArthur Foundation Spotlight: Digital Media and Learning

The Times on “Teaching”

Reading the New York Times Magazine’s College Life issue this morning was nothing if not a reminder that representations of cultures are seldom analogous to the material realities of those who live in them.  I’ve written here before about popular representations of professors (and how those resemble approximately 2% of my colleagues), but the Times today expands its reach to include not just professors, but teaching and writing as well.

It begins with an article titled “Those Who Write, Teach.”  The title suggested to me, as it would to many in the profession (particularly those of us at teaching institutions), the long-standing conversation about the connections between scholarly work and teaching.  In essence, how does your research inform what you do in the classroom, and vice versa?  How might you address the very real difficulties of carving out time to stay current in your field while attending to your students’ learning processes?

Instead, “Those Who Write” is a first person piece by David Gessner, in which he describes the plight of the writer “in captivity”—i.e., trapped by an academic job that slowly sucks the wildness out of him and his writing.  To be fair to Gessner, there’s not a teacher alive who doesn’t fantasize about what she could be doing if she weren’t grading papers, fielding student questions, preparing for class.  But I can’t help getting my feathers ruffled by two things here: first, the ambivalence of the title worries me.  Is it referencing the old inspiring saw “those who CAN, teach,” and thus making writing (here strictly defined as creative writing) the equivalent of ability?  Or is it more insidious, calling to mind instead the insult “those who CAN’T, teach” and thereby insinuating that writing within the confines of the academy eventually leads to a lack of ability?

Second, Gessner’s image of the work of teaching troubles me.  Even as he critiques an earlier era of creative writing pedagogy (“learn by osmosis” from the “great man or woman”), he cites his love for teaching as one that’s grounded in sharing his work, in being a great entertainer, in being surrounded by people committed to writing.  On top of this, the job provides a stable daily structure, a “badge” of legitimacy, and the aggregate of all of this moves toward balancing the ways in which he must trade “reading great literature and communing with writers of the past” for “apprentice writing.”

There’s something crucial that’s missing from Gessner’s description of teaching, and that is arguably it’s most important characteristic: the one where you learn from your students, and learn to teach them to learn.  I’m in deep cliched water here, I have no doubt, but it’s very simply true: there is great joy and daily reward from the surprise of what students see that you’ve missed; in experimenting with various approaches to connect what they already know with what you hope they’ll take away from any given text.

The innate reciprocity of teaching is also missing from the Times’ second article: Virginia Heffernan’s study of professors on YouTube.  I’ll spare you the close textual analysis here, but suffice to say that as she ranks and assesses the available videos, she constructs a very particular equation:  virtuoso teaching=charismatic lecture=box-office gold.  I have no interest in rehashing ye olde lecture vs. seminar debate.  A great lecture is all of the things that Heffernan so closely observes in the videos she cites.  Yet I can’t help but flinch at such a medieval definition of teaching.  A “sage on the stage” is still that, even if the stage has become an international and digital one.  There’s a special irony here too, of using one of the most popular forms of Web 2.0 technology—a designation that highlights the interactivity of the medium—to relay content without reciprocity.

The “college life” issue is one of many recent representations of college life (see Smart People, Elegy, the movie College for god’s sakes).  Any more, and a careful cultural critic might begin to suspect that we’re hell-bent on representing a single professor and his/her well-wraught pedagogical urn in order to distract ourselves from all of the other types of college experiences out there.


If my theme for summer is “procrastinate until the point of panic,” then no single event typifies the theme better than my inability to order books for the fall.  I’ve hemmed and hawed about books for both the “fate of the novel” class as well as the asian-american studies course.  Tuesday, however, I awoke with the name of a book (Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, if you must know) clear and present in my mind, and figured it was a sign from the book fairies.  Order!  Order now!!  [The book fairies must be the fantastical creatures that do the bidding of our long suffering and truly wonderful bookstore manager, B.  It is a credit to him that these mystical beings are fairies and not devils.]

So I gamely sat down to make some hard decisions about what to order, in accordance with the secret logic of guiding each of these courses.  [The secret?  There is more than one logic, and it’s not always evident until I get into the course and students themselves begin to make connections that I never anticipated.  Wanna know why I love seminars?  That’s it in a nutshell.]  As I started to narrow the lists down, I logged onto Amazon in order to copy and paste ISBN numbers.  Horror of horrors: three of the books I was interested in were out of print!

This is a travesty in almost every case.  First off, it seems that any number of crucial texts in Asian American studies are out of print.  Throughout graduate school and most of my early teaching, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea was unavailable, which is a real pity.  As many critics have noted, Chu’s novel does some amazing work with mapping the bachelor society of New York’s Chinatown in the first half of the century.  The language is fantastic.  A quick google search seems to indicate that Lyle Stuart did a publication run in 2002, but that the book is, yet again, out of print.

I knew enough not to depend on Chu’s book, but I was surprised to find Cynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World unavailable as well.  Kadohata’s novel came out in 1989, and was a NY Times notable book.  It tells the story of a Japanese American family post-WWII, unable to settle anywhere due to lingering resentment and fear of the Japanese.  Kadohata has moved on to a successful career writing for young adults, and her skills there show through in this novel.  It’s very readable, and introduces some complex topics to students who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool lit fans.  In short, it’s great for an introductory Asian American class.  If you can find 25 copies of it used, that is.

If I was surprised about the fate of Kadohata’s book, I was shocked to find that David Wong Louie’s The Barbarians Are Coming is also out of print.  That novel came out in 2000.  2000!!  I wrote a big fat chapter of my dissertation on that novel!  Louie has a great sense of humor, a narrative style that both sympathizes and critiques his characters, and close eye on the morays of popular culture.  At the height of the Iron Chef craze, Louie gave us a Chinese American protagonist who wanted nothing more than to use his Cordon Bleu training, but was constantly asked to “cook Chinese.”  It’s a story about food, about masculinity, about generations and interracial relationships, about the effects of television on cultural identity and performativity…and now it’s unavailable.  There is no justice.

And on a completely different note (different course, after all), I’ve decided to brave the judgment of my senior seminar folk by teaching Gore Vidal’s scandalous Myra Breckinridge in the fall.  Because who can resist this opening paragraph:

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because’. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them as it does all men, unmanning them in the way King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

[For the record, I know the film was a hot mess—in true Christian Siriano form.  But the novel, oh, it is glorious!]

You can see where this is going, right?  OUT OF DAMNABLE PRINT!!  Like Myra, however, I will not be held back.  We WILL read this novel!  We WILL find copies!

The larger question, of course, is what economic and/or cultural restraints are causing these books to fall out of print runs, and in the case of the first two above, so quickly and regardless of their critical reception?

There has been academic attention to the crisis in scholarly publishing for sure, but I begin to wonder if we should be just as concerned about the longevity and health of the popular publishing market.

[!sevil aryM]

Fistful of Film Techniques

M. and I are hard at work on our summer workshop, which we’re privately thinking of as “Personal Essay Filmmaking, 2.0.”  Last year at this time, we were trying to guide our students through the incredibly complex task of crafting a short personal essay film in two weeks.  This was complicated by any number of factors: mis-advertised course times and dates and lack of lab space being two of the unexpected ones.  On top of that, there were all of the difficulties of teaching a class for the first time, and team-teaching for the first time, to boot.  In short, it’s amazing that we—and the students—made it out alive.

This time around, however, we’ve streamlined the class considerably.  Based on our recent research, we’re also actively thinking about YouTube as a space in which personal essay films already exist, in a variety of manifestations.  For the last two days, we’ve been reading personal essays with the class, and using the written text as a starting place to discuss genre, and then we’ve moved on to examining a number of YouTube videos.  We’re keeping Jenkins and Juhasz in mind here, but we’re also asking our students to take seriously the potential to produce a personal film with larger societal/cultural meaning.  As if that isn’t setting the bar, try this one: they only have two weeks to do it.  (!)

My job in class tomorrow is to provide for them a handful of filmmaking techniques that will spur their creative process, and give them some ideas about the visual and aural possibilities available to them.  I’ve been assembling clips for the past hour, trying to decide which might be the most relevant to the types of stories they want to tell, but let’s face it: the language of film is infinite, and our time in class is shockingly limited.  The task of giving them an abbreviated toolbox of film techniques (and by this, I’m thinking particularly about shots, editing effects, etc.) is a bit like asking someone to build a house, but being told that they can only have three tools with which to do it.  A hammer, nails, and a saw?  A wrench, pliers, and PVC pipe?  Point of view camera, or low angle shot?  Non-diegetic sound, or discontinuity editing?

I can’t help but be reminded of the advice of dissertation advisors everywhere: you should have three different versions of your project on tap at any given moment—the 500 word version, the 200 word version, and the 25 word version.  Tomorrow, by necessity, we’ll be going with the 25 word version of film techniques.  Perhaps there will be time at the end of the week for a longer version.

Excuses, Excuses

Why the light blogging here of late? Could it be the looming article deadline, quickly approaching? Or perhaps the conference paper on the horizon?

Could very well be. Could be both.

Between these two projects, I find that I’m running low on words. You know those days of writing where you’re just rearranging your five favorite terms over and over again? Epistemology + digital video + pedagogy + YouTube = conclusion to section. Add a verb or two. Move on.

When I can get out of my head a little, I’m noting some curious observations about writing process. Here’s the deal: I am co-writing this article. Which is due in a week. Not “about a week”, mind you, an actual week. The two of us have been diligent for sure, meeting weekly since January, reading, writing, discussion, drafting, revising, etc. Despite our plans to finish this thing by the first week in March, however, we find ourselves looking at the upcoming deadline like deer in headlights. Part of this could be that neither of us is a person who tends to get things done far in advance. But I prefer to think that it also tells us something about the process of collaborative writing: it takes longer. You would think that I’d have known that going in, but it didn’t really occur to me. What I’ve discovered is that when you’re writing with someone, you’re negotiating and discussing all the time. Which secondary sources to use and why; how much space a particular piece of the argument should occupy; the particular ways that data should be interpreted; style; etc. And that’s all the stuff that we actually articulate. I’d venture that there is also always a secondary level of negotiation going on non-verbally: should I just take the lead on this part?; am I slowing us down?; is my expertise relevant here?. Essentially, there are all of the interpersonal elements to negotiate as well. Is it any wonder that it takes longer than writing an article alone?

Meanwhile, note to self: next time I assign a group project to students (I’m looking at you, film class!), I need to give them ample time to work through not just content, but interpersonal stuff as well. It would probably also help if I could get them to move across the street from one another, and assign one person per group to be the baker who provides snacks for each meeting. And then someone to do the group’s laundry and grocery shopping while they get their article written—I mean project done.

So what’s the collaborative writing payoff, if it creates deadline problems? Well, there’s the obvious: two sets of expertise, two readers, two thinkers. If you can truly work collaboratively, you can pool your ideas, which ideally become greater than the sum of your two parts. [I’m not necessarily making this claim for our work, you understand, I’m simply saying that it’s possible.] It is certainly the case that I know more now than I ever would have about the history of composition and rhetoric as a field than I would have if I had not worked with my present co-author. Less obvious: knowledge about your own process, by way of watching someone else’s. I’ve always known that I’m a balky writer; it takes any number of rewards and punishments to get me off the starting blocks. [Embarrassing confession: once, as an undergrad, I wrote a 20 page paper on Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse in a single day by tying my leg to my desk chair. Sad, but true. There was much cursing involved, and gnashing of teeth. And if we see our own sins at the time of our death, that paper is coming back to haunt me.] My co-writer seemingly has none of these problems—she’s happy to produce reams of text as a way of figuring out her ideas. Why has this never occurred to me as an option? Writing as process of thinking rather than as record of perfectly formed idea?! Preposterous!

I suppose the response to the article will be our litmus test for the success of our collaborative process. Regardless of the editor’s view, however, I’ve got a whole new bag of tricks to experiment with when writing my conference paper. Carnivalesque discourse + interpellation + new media = …