Monthly Archives: February 2012

Sirc, Shipka, Summers

Note: This post is my response to Michael J. Faris’s call for a CCCarnival–individual bloggers responding to the same piece in CCC–on Geoffrey Sirc’s recent review essay “Resisting Entropy” (pdf). Check out Michael’s original post for links to other responses.

I guess I should respond to the most controversial points Sirc makes in his essay: his call that we reconsider “composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness” (510), his frustration with our preference for “savoring ideas” over “savoring prose,” his diss of “us[ing] student texts as the central content focus of a course” (516), and his surprising willingness to throw peer review out the window (518). I’m sure those are the things the other CCCarnival writers will be writing about, so I ought to as well. (I haven’t read anyone else’s responses yet, on purpose.)

But really, I’m thinking about Buffy. Namely, this video that made the rounds a while back:

(And ooh! A pop-up video version!) It’s been discussed to death a million times, but what makes this vid so important is that its creator Jonathan McIntosh wrote so much solid and public commentary on the rhetorical purposes he had in mind when he told this story of Buffy dusting Edward (which we might call meta in a fic/vid context). I.e. he wasn’t just playing around, but he wanted to alert people to the dangerous visions of masculinity and femininity built into the Twilight universe.

After reading Sirc’s piece, my guess is that  our pedagogical visions are most aligned when it comes to texts like “Buffy vs. Edward”: I suspect we both value classes that study texts that blur the boundaries between what counts as rhetoric or poetics and that happily include pop culture (even “literary” texts that tell stories instead of make heavy-handed points). So from that starting point, I felt myself aligned with Sirc on many of his points: his critique of Thomas Miller’s focus on political speeches at the expense of popular culture, his unabashed love for the prose of Henry James (enshrined in the #sircisms hashtag that Trent M. Kays has hilariously begun using), his praise of Byron Hawk’s and Jody Shipka’s moves to dismantle the rhetoric/poetic split, and his plea that we “shake off the gloom” of writing studies and writing itself.

Much of his advice seems to come back to a privileging of style as the heart of what we should be teaching in composition classes–style that is surprising, lively, gut-punchingly-dynamic. And on many days, I’m with him on that. When I turned extra attention to sentences themselves, rhetorical figures, and even They Say, I Say-derived templates in my last expository writing class, I started to feel that students were really learning writing in more concrete, beauty-infused ways than in any of my previous classes. And from Sirc’s glowing review, it sounds like Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole is about the best thing ever, partly because of its emphasis on surprise and effectiveness, but also partly because of her embrace of multimodality and her study of how composers actually compose. (Seriously, I’ve been telling people to pay more attention to composing processes for a while now; it feels affirming to hear that Shipka is helping us out with this needed gap in our knowledge.)

In the midst of all my gushing, though, I can sense myself avoiding the controversies I listed above. I suppose that’s partly because I don’t know what I think about all of them, but I admit that there’s also that bit of fear as a young scholar in the field who knows he hasn’t read everything everywhere; it’s hard to throw in your oar when you feel you might risk saying the wrong thing, annoying the wrong people. I mention that teardrop of fear not (just?) to gain a bit of sympathy, but to point out that these issues of literature in the classroom, the idea/prose split, the use of student texts, and peer review are all high-stakes issues that many have dedicated their hours to dissecting and discussing. It makes me wonder if the sheer bulk of scholarship our field has produced leads more often to the “gloom” that Sirc describes or more often to those discoveries of “the faintest hints of life” that renew our conversations and keep us going. That’s a study in itself: the attitudes and fears of young scholars who are inventing the university in their own ways.

But with that said, my one-sentence takes on some of the #sircisms that are sure to spark the most discussion:

  • Literature in the classroom: Let’s allow that lit can be useful for studies of style and the ways rhetorical points are blended with poetic surroundings (The Hunger Games, anyone?), but let’s always fight to keep class time from turning into a never-ending literature class that privileges the study of texts over their creation.
  • Ideas vs. prose: Let’s revive our interest in prose as Sirc (and Hawk?) promotes, but let’s not fall into the other trap (that Sirc is falling into) of dismissing the crucial work our field can do in areas of civic engagement and critical pedagogy.
  • Student texts: As someone who says that he values student writing so much in his classrooms (top of 516), I don’t understand why Sirc seems so hellbent on criticizing Harris, Miles, and Paine’s collection so thoroughly–especially since it seems hard for me to believe (having not read the book–or any of the four books Sirc reviews, by the way) that so many of the differently authored chapters take the “unnerving” (515) direction Sirc describes.
  • Peer review: I keep moving back and forth between Gut Reaction 1–“Sirc is simply transferring his own dislike of peer review to students, who can get seriously awesome writing instruction from a solid peer review session”–and Gut Reaction 2–“But even when I structure it well, peer review does so often seem to fail. . . .”

Finally, a note on the review’s medium and mode: after watching that Buffy video above, I can’t help but imagine what a live acted video review would look like, and what its strengths and weaknesses might be. I see Sirc in the Buffy (or Angel?) role, walking down a dark street in Sunnydale, Sex Pistols in the background. Thomas Miller, a vamp, leaps out and starts spouting his history of literary and literacy studies, but Sirc (because this is Sirc’s video, his review of these four books) stakes him. Hawk and Shipka approach, and Sirc gives them each a high five; maybe they make small talk about Hawk’s counter-history or Shipka’s pedagogies. But eventually, they make it to their destination: a large catacomb guarded by Harris, Miles, Paine, and all the authors of their collection, and a battle begins. Every time someone throws a punch, they make a claim: “Student [umph] texts [ugh] should be [POW!] the center of [arrgh!] our classes!” “No! [KAZAM!] They shouldn’t!”

There’s an obvious reason this is a bad (even mean) analogy: Buffy was fighting the minions of evil, staking demons and vampires who were hellbent on killing. Our conversations are much more even, with both sides having valid points that deserve attention. And I applaud work that moves us away from the agonistic model of scholarly discourse. Really, I do. But still, I dream of a review essay genre that tells a story, makes its points through a blend of the discursive and nondiscursive, and leaves audiences both entertained and thinking about the issues long after the review is over–much like Buffy vs. Edward.

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Billy Elliot: Crafted, Lovely

A while back, I was talking about The Great Gatsby with a couple of friends. One had recently read it (on my strong recommendation) and felt a bit let down; another remembered reading it in high school and feeling like the teacher was forcing a bunch of invented symbolism down his throat.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t mean anything that the sky is blue!” he said. “Sometimes it’s just blue.”

I thought, “But the author said it was blue. He didn’t have to make it blue. Everything that’s in a crafted piece of art is there because of a decision.” But I didn’t say it.

I was reminded of that conversation last night, when I was honored to see the traveling production of Billy Elliot here in Orlando. (Matt Palm’s review for the Orlando Sentinel gives a good plot overview.) It was pretty astounding stuff; summary videos can’t quite give the same impression as the effect of seeing dozens of bodies move in sync on stage:

I came in knowing that the play (and the film it was based on–and yes, that’s Mrs. Weasley in the trailer) is about a boy who wants to be a ballet dancer, but I wasn’t sure why the 1984 British mining strike was the context.

That’s when I thought of my friend’s comment about reading symbolism into Gatsby. I thought, “Look, someone made a decision to set this story in this context; it’s not like it was random, just as it wasn’t random that the sky was blue in the book.” And for a little while, I couldn’t figure out why this setting was chosen–but the process of wondering was meaningful, adding an extra layer of interest to what I was watching. That nagging question–why this strike?–made me an active watcher, not a passive one. And of course, it didn’t take long to begin understanding the answer–or perhaps it’s better to say that it didn’t take long for me to start making meanings, as I don’t think I was understanding the absolute, complete truth of what the show wanted to tell me. 

It started during the long number “Solidarity,” which was easily one of my favorite parts of the show. To mark the passage of many days, as Billy learns more and more about ballet and as the strikers’ confrontations with police grow in intensity, “Solidarity” blends passages of singing and dialogue in both the ballet class and on the strike line. What makes it so striking (accidental pun, I promise) is that these different characters are occupying the same spaces on the stage, moving in sync with each other, with girls in tutus passing between the gaps between the police officers with increased complexity, all while singing in harmony–even though we understand that they’re not really occupying the same narrative space.

The lyrics of the song–“Solidarity! Solidarity forever!”–have their surface level meaning, applying to the solidarity needed to stay on the strike line, on the police line, or to dance together in ballet. But increasingly, as we hear the word solidarity over and over, we realize that solidarity is both physical and emotional, that this production wants us to consider the ways that people group together and isolate themselves.

And that’s the answer to my question about why this story was set in this place: it offers a setting where the emotional parallels between Billy’s life and the lives of his family and friends crop up all over the place. The individual is honored: Billy’s decision to dance is shown to answer his dead mother’s request that he be himself even when it’s hard, and his father has to make a hard individual decision that costs him solidarity with his peers, a decision that is definitely honored by the production, as it leads to good things. (I’m clearly trying to walk around spoilers carefully here.) But the individual also seems to function best, paradoxically, when in the context of community. Billy’s father’s act of individuality leads to new levels of solidarity between the miners; Billy’s path toward fulfilling his individuality is only possible because of the people who join him; even Billy’s decision to dance alone at night shows him joined by an adult version of himself who echoes his every movement and eventually dances in harmony with him, suggesting that Billy functions best as an individual when the different parts of himself are acting in concert with each other, as in dance, or the trinity.

One of my favorite quotes about music and rhetoric is from Gregory Clark’s “Virtuous and Ensembles: Rhetorical Lessons from Jazz” (from this book). He says that improvisation “offers a starting point for thinking about resolving the conflict of individual and community in ways that conventional terms of rhetoric don’t allow” (44). That is, the ways that a jazz musician improvises both allows his individuality to shine, but only because he’s doing so in a context of community, where everyone supports each other, feeds off each other, and follows the same chart. Surely Billy Elliot has something similar to say.

If you’re wondering “So what?” this is the heart of why I’m writing this at all: I increasingly have trouble seeing the lines between literary analysis and rhetorical analysis. Here’s what I mean: because messages are crafted, because decisions are made by artists/communicators/rhetors/whomever, it’s worth asking ourselves why any text is the way it is. That means that if the sky is blue in Gatsby, let’s ask ourselves why that might be; if Billy Elliot is set in the 1984 mining strike, let’s ask ourselves why it was crafted that way. That’s also the heart of any more traditional rhetorical analysis: why is this political ad using these colors? These words? Why was this speech, this essay, this X organized in this way, using this and that detail or this and that order? After all, someone decided to make them that way; let’s not assume they weren’t and just let people affect us however they want without some critical thinking defense plates mounted solidly around our vulnerable heads.

No, the answers to all those questions won’t necessarily tell us what the creators had in mind, but that’s not the point. The point is find meanings, I think. Meanings that matter. Meanings that make me leave Billy Elliot both amazed at the technical skill I saw, but also at the complexity of what it said to me.

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Transcribing Sound

I’ve gone back and forth a few times about how to present transcribed interviews in my work on music composition practices, essentially going one way in one chapter and another way elsewhere. I want to use this post to present some options and get some opinions.

I’ve written before about Laurel Richardson’s decision to present interviews as poetry, including some of her reasoning. Since then, I’ve browsed through some of the (surprisingly common) scholarship on the method, and I’ve found some intriguingly resonant connections to my work on music. For instance, here are some great lines from Garance Maréchal and Stephen Linstead’s “Metropoems: Poetic Method and Ethnographic Experience” (Qualitative Inquiry 16.1 (2010): 66-77; abstract):

[I]t seems important that research poems develop the ability to take a position that neither turns exclusively inward toward the ethnographer’s self nor exclusively outward toward an empathic relation with the ethnographic other, but is focused in the moment, in place, and in motion. . . . [S]uch a poetry in the moment could perhaps deploy a discipline that is very much derived from a specific activity and seeks to embody the rhythms, time, and space of that activity, which would contrast with poetry that recollects or represents. (70)

What musical purposes! We can use poetic transcriptions to draw attention to present moments, places, motions, rhythms–all issues I write about when discussing the epistemologies and ontologies of music. So by transcribing words about music in poetry, those words would become like music, in that they echo its ways of being.

So after all that reading, I’ve come to two simultaneous conclusions: 1) Wow, that’s something I must must do. 2) Um, do my readers really want to have their reading jolted by all this verse?

Here’s an example of what the differences might look like. The first quote is a prose transcription that removes uh and um and imposes a fairly standard set of punctuation (a typical practice in many fields, though of course the degree of “fixing up” that is acceptable varies considerably; I’ve taken the liberty to use quite a strong clean-up brush here, for emphasis):

I’m definitely freer with my music. With my music, I always consider my audience to be somebody who has empathy, who can relate to the music in a sense. It’s like I write unto myself.

Especially for this album that I’m recording now, it’s like I want this album to be for people who can relate to a lot of situations, topics that are like self doubt, and a lot of insecurities, and stuff like that, so people could relate to it in that level. And I would hope that it would be a way that they could listen to my music and be like, “Oh, I’m not alone in this.” So usually I write in that emotional level for an audience that is like me.

So now contrast that with the following verse transcript, which attempts to include each word and sound exactly as my participant said them (presented as a screenshot of Word, to preserve line-breaks as I crafted them):

An image of a transcript presented in verse

With this example especially, there’s a pretty clear (yet subtle) statement being made by the transcriber (me). Just as this participant is describing the uncertainties of others, whom she wants to comfort with her music, her own language seems to betray an uncertainty of her own, and the verse draws attention to some of that–the repeated words, noticeable um‘s, etc. It’s a move that I think some would think unfair to the participant while others would appreciate it. (This moves us to the really important move: what the participant herself thinks. I plan to show her a draft of the chapter quite soon to find out, which might change this entire discussion.)

So, I’m finally left with the question of what it would mean to present two imbalanced sets of participants in a larger work.

  • On one hand are my two chapters full of quotations from professional and amateur composers I interviewed who (naturally) want their names to be shared publicly, and whose words are thus presented on equal footing with those of published interviews with professional composers. In other words, I quote from published work and my own participants equally, presenting them as on the same plane. These transcriptions are all clearly in the same genre: they tend to be clean and readable, without verbal bumps like uh and like included unless it changes the meaning of the sentence. And everything they say is in prose.
  • But then in another chapter are the results from five student composers, all of whom are protected with complete anonymity, including pseudonyms. (Not all of them requested this, but some did, so it seemed that the best way to protect the identity of some was to hide the identity of all.) These participants are then quoted in verse, as shown above.

Does this award a discursive power to the non-students? Or does it honor the students that their words are presented as having the social umph/capital of poetic verse? What about the fact that the verse draws attention to my transcribing activity–does this lessen the relative power of the students when I represent their words in a way that blends them with my imposed form? Of course, my non-students’ words are blended with my own imposed form just as well, but in a prose form that hides my involvement. Thoughts?

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