Monthly Archives: December 2010

Home Alone 2

A quick post: watching Home Alone 2 as a literacy scholar is a bit different than watching it as a child. Random points:

  • Kevin (McCauley Culkin’s character) has almost no personality, as far as I can tell. He generally walks around with an abnormally straight face, talking like an adult. Even when he’s overwhelmed with the huge toy store in Manhattan, he gapes a bit but doesn’t rush to grab anything, doesn’t play much, and tells the owner that it’s a “fine establishment” or something.
  • In fact, Kevin’s use of language seems to be almost entirely parroted from sources he’s heard–to the extent that I started wondering if the film is meant to be a commentary on how media shapes our ways of seeing and speaking in the world. He tells one character, “I’m 10 years old. TV is my life,” and it’s easy to believe. He finds the fancy hotel because of a commercial he saw, he constantly uses big words that surely come from watching bevies of adult dramas, and he mouths the words to the noir thriller along with the original speaker, erasing the distance between himself and the tommy-gun-toting murderer: “Merry Christmas, you filthy animal. [Shots] And a happy new year.”
  • His talkboy is a symbol of this need to repeat the world around him, and his inability to speak without audio recording and reproduction. We first hear Kevin speak when his mother is asking him if he’s all packed, and twice he answers a simple “Yes” by saying it into the talkboy and then playing back the recording for his mom, a mechanical echo of his voice that complicates the idea of Kevin’s “real voice,” whatever that is.
  • Issues of class are bizarrely alluded to and ignored. Kevin’s family is crazily well-off: for 2 years in a row, all 14 people fly away from their massive Chicago house to a “Destination Christmas” location, adults in first class, all on Kevin’s dad’s tab (as the uncle tells us in Home Alone 2). This sheltered, rich-kid life leads Kevin to initially be freaked out by the homeless folks he encounters in New York, though he eventually befriends a nameless, homeless bird woman, promising her that he’ll remember her forever, despite her hints that she’ll soon be forgotten (as seems likely). But then on Christmas day, Kevin sneaks away from the massive pile of free toys in their massive hotel room (both of which were comped) to find his homeless friend outside and offer her . . . a Christmas ornament. Not food, shelter, an offer to come inside, an offer to help her find her financial feet again, or to help her find a job (perhaps from his new friends at Duncan’s Toy’s?)–but a Christmas ornament. Apparently, Kevin’s new “class consciousness” doesn’t run very deep. Oops?
  • The violence against the crooks stressed me out more as an adult than I expected, and more than it did as a kid. Marv takes like 4 bricks in a row to the head, thrown from 3 stories up; surely one would knock him dead. And of course, that’s the beginning. We’re reminded that this is supposed to be cartoon violence by one of my favorite shots, Marv being electrocuted, with his hair getting bigger and bigger until finally they literally film a skeleton standing there screaming–a move that I read as a “Look, this is Road-Runner kind of violence, so don’t worry about it.” But still . . . those guys got really bashed up, and I admit I was a bit uncomfortable with it, in a way I can’t quite explain.

With all that said, I admit I loved rewatching this, snuggled up with some grown-up eggnog and laughing out loud more than once. Tim Curry was the most remarkable casting choice ever, and I always love a good Catherine O’Hara movie. And yes, that was the older Pete as one of the cousins!

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What is Expository Writing?

I’m not sure I know, and I don’t think you do either.

Let’s look at some definitions of expository writing, all from .edu sites. First, a site that is, oddly enough, hosted at Stanford’s website but updated by people with umich.edu emails, “Information about Expository Writing“:

Exposition is a type of oral or written discourse that is used to explain, describe, give information or inform. The creator of an expository text can not assume that the reader or listener has prior knowledge or prior understanding of the topic that is being discussed. One important point to keep in mind for the author is to try to use words that clearly show what they are talking about rather then blatantly telling the reader what is being discussed. Since clarity requires strong organization, one of the most important mechanisms that can be used to improve our skills in exposition is to provide directions to improve the organization of the text.

The first sentence stops me with a bit of a “Huh?” (This will be a continuing pattern.) I suppose this definition is trying to carve out a space for exposition that is different than persuasion, but the more I think about, the less I buy it. When are we not explaining/informing? There’s lots of explaining in persuasive discourse. We could even make a case that there is a sort of “explaining” that happens in nondiscursive forms, like music and visual art.

But what makes this definition stand out is its focus on what all this explaining means for a writer: that you focus really, really hard on having clear organization. So exposition is all about clarity, which seems to say, “Do you want to make turns toward the creative, toward the beautiful, toward the purposefully roundabout, toward the non-Western? Well, this isn’t the place, buster!” (Am I being too harsh?)

Here’s how expository writing is defined at WikiEd, a College of Education endeavor at the U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign:

Expository writing is the process of writing to communicate information to an audience. It is often an explanation or a process, and tends to emphasize well-organized and concise information.

Again, my first reaction is kind of a dumbfounded silence. “Okay,” I should ask myself when writing, “am I communicating information? Is it for an audience? I guess it’s expository writing, and I ought to be well-organized and concise!”

Professor Marilyn Ivanovici posts a pdf handout on “The Elements of Effective Expository Writing,” listing 12 of them. Here we learn that

The purpose of expository writing is to explain something, that is, to provide readers with information worth knowing and thinking about.

And by implication, other forms of writing/communication are of the kind that aren’t necessarily worth thinking about….? (I’m being harsh, I’ve decided.)

Finally, there’s a chart of possible organizational structures you can use in your expository writing over at Marla DeSoto’s page at Glendale Community College. I find I like this better, if only because of the way the page design emphasizes that there isn’t a single, rigid, 5-paragraph essay design that will give you the best expository writing. We’re told that organization matters because “one of the most important mechanisms to improve skills in exposition is to improve the organization of the text.”

That leads me to Big Question #1: In what ways, exactly, is this emphasis on clarity and organizational perfection different from professional writing? The answer: expository writing instruction seems to focus on making students better at the imaginary academic essay genre, while professional writing seems to focus on making students better at real professional writing genres that they’ll encounter in “the workplace” (whatever that is). I didn’t see any emphasis on these pages on using bullets, headings, extraordinarily clear first sentences. So why are we so dedicated to keeping up this front of artful, essayistic indirection when we tell students over and over to be clear?

Which leads to Big Question #2: If we want our students to use artful, essayistic indirection, to be perfect little Montaignes, why not use examples and techniques from creative writing? There’s plenty of amazing work going on in the creative nonfiction and memoir world right now, and there’s a lot that can be learned from the creative writing workshop model that would help our students find a more engaging style, more natural and beautiful forms of organization, and so on.

But here’s the thing: let’s not present students with the claim that they have to somehow find a middle ground between these professional and creative writing poles, that they must write ¬†stunningly, beautifully, and still with absolute clarity. Right? Wouldn’t some genres/situations demand more or less of this, not both at the same time?

So in the end, I’m not saying I know what expository writing is. I think I’d rather say that nonfiction writers choose from a variety of techniques, depending on the particular rhetorical situation they’re in, and that those situations may demand more or less clarity, more or less pizazz.

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How Much Guilt with that Pleasure, Sir?

There’s an interesting conversation-starter over at ProfHacker: “Open Thread Wednesday: Guilty Pleasures?” In a fun spirit, author George Williams asks us to write about the food, books, movies, or whatever that we indulge in occasionally, but that we’re kind of embarrassed about. It’s a nice little post, and I’m interested to see what comments show up. (Only one so far: young adult vampire novels. Classic.)

But: it’s interesting to consider this from two different perspectives: fandom and spirituality.

I think that a common experience of fans who interact online is a gradual lowering of any worry that outsiders see their fandom as overblown, too-geeky, out-of-touch, etc. It’s freeing to realize that I’m not the only one who reads books on Tolkien’s languages (I prefer Sindarin to Quenya, thank you very much), reads Lostpedia after every episode, and so on. I think this freeing of the self from an unfounded cultural consensus (“Star Trek fans are too geeky, except for the new movie) is a good thing.¬† So the concept of the “guilty pleasure,” from this perspective, seems kind of sad, like stepping back and saying, “Even though I really like this, I realize that I’m supposed to not like it too much, so I’ll say here that I don’t really like it too much, even though I really do like it and will continue liking it. Do you like it too?”

That’s my first reaction. But then a second reaction comes, from the spiritual part of me (in my case, Christian). When anyone says, “I purposefully decide to put worship and service to God above my other pursuits,” that inherently means that occasionally, if I choose to dive full-force into any kind of pleasure, it can be distracting me from what I claim is my primary purpose, and primary pleasure: knowing God. And in that sense, pleasures can indeed be “guilty,” if they draw us away too often from the divine.

Don’t read that the wrong way: I’m all in favor of seeing culture as a place where we learn more about humanity, spirit, and things like Truth that get capital letters. Like Mark Driscoll, I don’t advocate that people with religious views eschew fandom. Quite the opposite–my spirituality is the heart of why I like shows like Star Trek and Lost. What I am saying is that my thoughts about God caused me to second-guess my first reaction to the ProfHacker article: first I thought, “Guilty pleasures? Let’s be people who enjoy pleasures without the need to pretend we feel guilty about them!” But then my second thought was, “But wait, self, are there places in your life where you actually should feel guilty about any of the pleasures mentioned in that article?” It’s a moment of quick self-checkery, quiet introspection. And I like those moments.

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