February 2012 Archives

Race & Sound

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"How could the folks be 'civilized' when wasn't nobody writing nothin down?"
-Gil Scott Heron, "Black History / The World"

Today was an exciting class; through the work of Gil Scott Heron, I got to share with students one of my motivations for focusing on sound and literature in the course, challenging the equation between writing and civilization that has served as a justification for colonialism and slavery, and denigrated the status of oral history and storytelling.

Last class we had looked at the intersection of music and poetry in Langston Hughes' poem "The Weary Blues" and Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool." I assigned a few of my favorite Memphis Minnie tunes so that we could compare the lyric structure of classic country blues with that of Hughes' poem. 5-05 I'm A Bad Luck Woman.m4a

I started by alerting the class that we'd be jumping forward in time from the 1920s to the 1970s, from looking at blues' influence on poetic form, to a poet's role in the inauguration of a new musical form: hip hop.

We listened to Heron's "Black History / The World" (courtesy of Black Media Archive) and watched a Youtube video of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" (the recent video helps illustrate the song lyrics for students unfamiliar with 1960s/70s pop culture references like Spiro Agnew and Natalie Wood).

We talked about the last lines of the former:

if interpreting were left up to me
I'd be sure every time folks knew this version wasn't mine
which is why it is called 'His story'.

Specifically, we considered the consequences of Heron's pun on "history."
Since we'd talked about enjambment in "We Real Cool" last time, students were prepped to discuss the effects of inserting a visual or aural space between words or lines. In this case, the possessive pronoun "his" emphasizes that who tells the story determines what is told.

Linked to Heron's emphasis on different versions of history is the idea--prominent in LeRoi Jones's music criticism--that "reference determines value." I wrote this sentence on the board, reminded students that we'd be discussing Jones's perspective later in class, and asked them how this idea relates to Heron's satiric voice in "Black History / The World." (Heron takes on the voice of white "discoverers" of Africa who "couldn't have been robbing nobody" because "there was nobody there.")

Students presenting their podcast script on "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" did a good job of articulating the split Heron sees between mainstream media and social change. I intervened to remind students that Heron was performing before the era of Internet, cell phones, facebook, and Twitter. I showed a minute or two of a lackluster "tribute" to Heron, called "The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized," in order to provoke student responses to the question, "Does Heron's media critique hold true today?" Students cited corporate control of television and radio to support his message's continued relevance, and freedom of information on the internet to challenge it. SOPA came up in the discussion, as well as the role of Twitter in the Arab Spring.

Finally, with far too little time left to do them justice, I gave students a set of quotes from the reading they'd done by LeRoi Jones and Ralph Ellison. I'd chosen excerpts from LeRoi Jones' Blues People arguing for a strong connection between Africa and African American music, identity, and history, and Ellison's critique of what he sees as Jones' focus on politics at the expense of poetry. I listed opposing points of view in two columns and offered prizes (candy) for the group that could identify which quotes were Jones, and which Ellison. I ended up summarizing key points and pelting my students with the chocolates as the clock ticked down to zero.

Student Podcasting Project (continued)

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What kind of podcasts do I want students to create?

Well, literary criticism is often described as a "conversation." Too often this is a dead metaphor, obscuring the isolation, insularity and exclusivity of much critical inquiry.

But literary conversation can be exciting, fulfilling, and even adventurous!
I feel this in the best moments of teaching.

As a model, I chose the New Yorker Fiction podcast of Junot Diaz reading Edwidge Danticat's story "Water Child." Junot Diaz reads Edwidge Danticat.mp3
Following this magnificent story, Diaz and editor Deborah Treisman have a ten-minute discussion about it. They weigh Danticat's choices as an author, and the effects her choices have on readers. They speak with a warmth and depth of emotion that demonstrates keen analysis need not preclude the personal.

Following this model, I present students with the nuts and bolts of their project:

-Working in groups of 3, they script a dialog responding to an assigned work of literature. Students can follow the reader/editor/critic model, or get creative in speaking from the perspectives of characters or authors.

-Students turn in a draft of their script 3-5 days in advance of the class day their work of literature appears on the syllabus. I make comments and suggestions.

-They then perform their conversation in class, spurring discussion and responses from peers.

-After the in-class performance (which serves as a kind of workshop), students record an edited version of their script and upload it to the course podcast.

-Other students can listen to their peers' podcasts as inspiration for their own work and preparation for final exams.

To get students comfortable with the (free) recording software and process of uploading files to the podcast, I assign short individual pieces titled "This Is My Voice" and "A Sound of my Roots." These brief expressive pieces also help students get acquainted and hear diverse perspectives in the first weeks of class.

Why Student Podcasts?

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Today class met in Walter Library SMART Learning Commons, where Media Outreach Librarian Scott Spicer demonstrated the voice recording software, equipment, and support available to students creating their own podcasts.

That's right: as a technophobe, I decided not only to teach a class drawing on preexisting podcasts, but also to help students create new podcasts: a process about which I knew, up until this semester, approximately nothing.

Here is my rationale:

In a class that draws comparisons between the literal voices of storytellers and poets in audio recordings and the figurative power of individual and collective voices to speak "from the margins," it is important that students are empowered to broadcast their own voices.

Podcasting is an exciting medium because it bypasses corporate conglomerate radio and allows individuals to publicize their voices without access to a recording studio, start-up capital, censors, cultural gatekeepers, or any of the typical barriers that keep much of our current radio (not to mention television) bland, one-dimensional, and guided by profits rather than people.

Culminating the course with student-produced podcasts equips them
not only with the tools of savvy consumers, but also with the tools of cultural producers...so they can not only analyze and critique media (literary or otherwise) but also take action and be responsible for creating new content.

Tools for Analyzing Spoken Word

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elements.jpg

It's my job as a literature professor to arm my students with the tools of literary analysis. Clearly stated on the syllabus is the course goal that they will hone their ability to identify elements such as plot, character, setting, style, tone, and point of view.

Early in the semester I usually assign small groups of students one literary element each. Guided by some explanation of the element, along with questions attuned to a particular story, the groups work privately before reporting to the whole class. When this activity works well, it demonstrates both the particularity of each element--its capacity to serve as an analytic lens--and the interconnection of all elements in forming an artistic whole (as when a discussion of character segues into a consideration of point of view, which in turn raises questions of style, and so on).

After my first approach to spoken word performances left me feeling a bit "flummoxed" (see previous post), I decided to pose the question to my students: What are the elements of spoken word? What kinds of choices does an author/performer make, and how can we, the audience, classify those choices to aid our understanding?

We'd yet to work with a story, play, or poem, so I knew I was taking a risk; presenting the Elements of Fiction and Drama (in the slide above) could seem hopelessly abstract. After a bit of explanation and discussion, I asked the students to compose lists of Elements of Spoken Word, drawing on their experience listening to five assigned pieces and creating one of their own.

I mapped their responses on the board, and snapped a photo, as we we out of time. I also collected the lists individual groups had worked on. Before our next class, I compiled their answers into the following:

elementsspoken.jpg

At the start of the next class, I presented students with their collective Elements of Spoken Word, and assigned each group an element, as I had in other courses with the Elements of Fiction.

Working with the students' elements worked even better than I'd expected! I felt grounded in familiar literary territory, but also stretched to think about what sound and performance add. Moreover, working from the students' lists showed that their opinions matter, and have real consequences in shaping the class.

Next stop: Bedford/St.Martin's?

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2012 listed from newest to oldest.

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