May 9, 2006

Look Ma! I'm Podcasting!

An archive of our Oral Memoirs is compiled here in mp3 format:

mitch.mp3 7:20 10.1 MB
megh.mp3 5:48 8.0 MB
katie.mp3 4:58 6.9 MB
cyndy.mp3 3:50 5.3 MB
aaron.mp3 4:08 5.7 MB
talia.mp3 3:59 5.5 MB
mikee.mp3 3:53 5.0 MB
joe.mp3 6:24 8.9 MB
carolyn.mp3 4:38 6.4 MB
tim.mp3 7:00 9.7 MB
renata.mp3 3:58 5.5 MB
mikec.mp3 7:27 10.3 MB
kristi.mp3 2:37 3.6 MB
sovanneary.mp3 4:33 6.3 MB
jena.mp3 4:05 5.7 MB
kelley.mp3 4:19 6.0 MB
blake.mp3 4:17 5.9 MB
miguel.mp3 4:42 6.5 MB

February 14, 2006

Project Blogroll

Entrance into a new technology necessitates exposure to jargon. To the extent that we can keep track of that jargon and remember what the host of acronyms, coinages, and technical appropriations mean, we can keep up with a technological discourse community. Today’s word is “blogroll.â€? I first thought it would be some sort of virtual marriage between blogging and lumberjacking, but I was dead wrong. A blogroll is simply a list of URLs (Uniform Resource Locators, aka web addresses) that you can post on your blog. It keeps favorite web haunts handy—for the blogger and her readers.

To facilitate the Public Project Support Community (PPSC) in our class, I’ve posted blog URLs for each student in my new blogroll. They appear in the right hand column below the "Recent Posts" heading (though I'd like to bump it towards the top if I can figure it out). Now it's easy to see what people are doing for their public projects and to keep ideas circulating. Slick.

February 9, 2006

A Public Project

I've asked you (EngL 3741 students) to set up a blog and to post your initial and tentative ideas for your public project this semester. I thought I might just muse on what I would do if I was in your position. Maybe it will help seed some ideas. Maybe it's just my way of indulging in my own assignment.

Oral Histories
Reading Kozol's chapter on oral histories reminds me of a project I began at the Jane Addams School for Democracy a few years ago. We designed an oral history project that gave youth the opportunity to collect oral histories from their parents, grandparents, or other community members they knew well. We tried a few in the summer of 2002, but the model needed adjustment and schedules fell apart before we could tinker. A great public project would be to work with one or two high school students who participate at Jane Addams and who are interested in oral histories. We could meet for a few minutes each week to check in. We could find transcribers and translators. We could make simple booklets first and then look for other publication opportunities.

Multipurpose Participant Narratives
Another great public project would be collecting anecdotes and narratives from the participants at my site. With permission from the contributors and the appropriate anonymity, those narratives could have lots of different uses. The organization could include them in their grants applications and annual reports to funders. Perhaps they could comprise a very personal orientation booklet to newcomers. Instead of reading just facts & figures and protocols & policies they could "meet the people" they'll be working with. To make it more accessible, I could also capture those anecdotes in audio format and make a CD. In any case, I could create a repository of such honest comments for the organization to use in a variety of ways.

I've noticed that a lot of literacy spaces have poor signage. Newcomers are quickly disoriented and disheartened. I've always been a wannabe graphic designer. A little well-designed signage could go a long way to welcoming and directing people, creating a stylish and appealing image, and dressing up otherwise drab spaces. Perhaps the organization has a modest budget for the signs—or perhaps I'd need to do a little fundraising. In any case, I'm not talking about magic marker on white posterboard. Nothing so ghetto as that. These need to be beautiful, professional quality signs that give respectability to a respectable organization. Thinking about issues of translation and literacy, I bet I could design iconic images to accompany the texts directing people to the different areas of the building and the different programs. These images could become part of the organization's "branding."

These are just a few project ideas that immediately struck me. They all need shaping and scaling to make them purposeful and feasible for the time and resources available. This is just one way you might start to describe possible projects. You might create longer lists with less detail. You might make a list elsewhere—offline—and elaborate on the most promising idea at length. Choose the format that helps you move towards a sound idea.

An Exam In Sight

My incompletes were resolved in December. I started shaping my reading list immediately. Now I have a tentative exam date: April 25. The oral exam will follow on May 12. Four of five committee members have confirmed. Here's hoping for the fifth.

Although my reading list is still in formation, I have been diligently reading for several weeks now. My Mondays and Fridays are completely clear and completely dedicated to reading and notetaking. I didn't think I would really enjoy this preparation, but to my surprise, it's really satisfying. It stands to reason: I've selected the texts and shaped the purpose behind reading them. It is far more gratifying than reading for seminars. I found myself—week after week—just plowing through books for the sake of completion. I didn't establish an objective or purpose for reading. The process was arduous.

Now that I think of it, I bet my students (who may be reading this) feel the same way. They are assigned readings that come seemingly out of left field. What are they reading for? For some vague class discussion, the direction of which is unknown prior to the moment it takes place? That's hardly motivating. Once again my experiences as a student help to inform my decisions as a teacher. I need to give more direction and purpose for my students' reading.

Here's to impending candidacy—and improved pedagogy.

November 9, 2005

Course Description: Literacy and American Cultural Diversity

Although we practice literacy on a constant, recurring basis (I am doing it now. You are too.), we generally neglect a serious investigation of it. Literacy is tacitly assumed for (and practiced by) the intended audience of this course description. Illiteracy is cast as a problem that is remote from a world class American university—the problem of the "third world"—and its far-reaching politics and its proximity to our everyday lives are ignored. This course contemplates "literacy" with its manifold definitions and metaphorical analogues (e.g. "computer literacy" and "visual literacy") and attempts to reconcile the disjunction between the literacies we know and practice, the literacies we teach and are taught, and the literacies social systems and institutions demand.

We will take up our serious investigation of literacy through texts that demonstrate its complexity and importance theoretically, aesthetically, and personally. Our public literacy work (the service learning component) will be a central experiential "text" that we read/write over and over again to understand literacy in particularly poignant ways. We will acquaint ourselves with diverse literacy practices in diverse cultural contexts that include race, religion, immigration, technology, language, vocation, gender, education, politics, and place (the wilderness, the farm, the suburbs, the city).

We will write a literacy autoanalysis, a brief public work memoir (to be read aloud), and a hypertextual weblog (blog). We will collect a literacy commonplace/scrap book. We will create individualized final projects that respond to our personal interests and investments in literacy. We will contribute 30 hours of literacy work with/in a local community organization. We will finally live our literacy.

October 26, 2005

Teaching Assignments: Like Christmas

Twice a year we graduate students get giddy. It happens sometime in October and April each year when our teaching assignments are released. The most recent reveal has just occurred and I admit I am a bit distracted from other, more pressing matters by the prospects of my upcoming course. I know we're hardly halfway through this semester—and I'm not at all bored with it—but it's terribly exciting to think about setting up and designing another course. It glimmers like a brand new pair of sneakers when your current kicks are a bit beat up.

In the Spring Semester I'll be teaching "Literacy and American Cultural Diversity" (EngL 3741). It's a radical kind of course that integrates public, community work—usually literacy related—with academic study and discussion. It gives a rare chance for students to deeply consider the origins of their own literacy and the deployment of literacy in myriad contexts.

So while I ought to be preparing for class tomorrow or working on my incompletes, I am browsing articles and books that have been accumulating on my desk for years to find stimulating texts for a class two and a half months away. Teaching semester-long classes is a great vocation for the perpetually restless.

October 19, 2005

IWCA Paper Done

These many months later I have just finished my presentation/paper for the IWCA conference in Minneapolis tomorrow. Given the fact that my incompletes still dangle and my reading list exists only as the flicker of an idea, I begrudge having had to prepare this presentation. I had meant to complete it at the end of August (along with my incompletes), but my life's pattern holds true: I do nothing early.

Nevertheless, it is good to be done. The presentation will be enjoyable. I will feel a certain measure of relief and have the time to really dive in and finish these silly papers. My family asks whether I am done with them (I asked them to do as much to help keep me accountable). I can't believe I am in my fifth year and not yet a candidate. I never thought I would be in this position.

I understand why the national average to complete a PhD in the humanities is pushing ten years. I wish I didn't.

August 5, 2005

Two A Day

Wrapping up a week that saw some progress on my incompletes, I'm feeling pretty satisfied with what I've done. I know, however, that I won't be completed with either paper before my brother gets off the plane tomorrow. He has some work to do while he's here next week, so I won't feel too bad about having to finish up while he's attending his conference.

The weekend starts now. Home to relax with my family.

Dangling Incompletes

The summer has rushed by. My primarily academic goal has been to finish two incompletes by completing two seminar papers. I have had plenty of time to do it, yet I'm not sure how close I am to finishing.

I'm working on a genealogy of transnationalism—a selective review of its origination, evolution, and application, especially in literary contexts. I thought this would yield a very contained paper, but I find it turns out to be just as limitless and complicated as everything else.

The other paper is an analysis of two plays written by Hmong women playwrights. Both engage domestic violence, particularly considering the extraordinary case of Khoua Her's filicide in 1998. I'm curious about how literature works in the discourse of such violence.

Today I really want to finish one of these papers. I'd like to finish the other early next week. Then I can move forward toward my preliminary exam.

I could have done more this summer, but now I'm just trying to accomplish what I can and avoid firing the torpedo of guilt. Onward, ever onward.

August 4, 2005

Journaling the Journey

Today, without notice, I decided I'd start to document my progress towards finishing my PhD in English at the University of Minnesota. My friend Dave just submitted his completed draft of his dissertation to his committee earlier this week and he told me he'd been keeping a journal of his academic work for a while. Ultimately, I may find I don't want it all to be public, and ultimately I may not find it efficient to blog it, but I'll try this for a while. I won't burden the world with detailed research notes or terrific sources I've found. Instead I'll probably just post a brief snapshot of each day—what I want to accomplish.

Here's hoping this is a ticket towards sure and steady progress towards completion.

December 16, 2004

Identity Activities

One of the primary modes/models of learning in our class has been the practice of reflecting in advance on a defined topic and then reflecting together in a small group in the classroom. Given how much time we spent in these conversations, it was evident that this learning style was being given a high priority.

This pedagogical approach is a distinct contrast to my seminar work in my home department and other departments. The topic of our course—literacy and identity—has been intentionally integrated into the culture and structure of the class. Our identity—or many facets of our identity—have been central to the conversations. In a sense, we have put our money where our mouth is: if identity is such an vital concept in learning, then our personal identities should be a part of our learning about identity as a sort of theoretical position. Often our courses are designed in such a way that leaves a tremendous gulf between the concept(s) and the pedagogy. For example, a seminar that explores Marxist ideals of labor and material may never stop to examine the kind of labor being produced in the seminar, the relationship between student and teacher, the materialistic trappings of the class and its members, the bourgeois values of the class and the university culture, and the irony in the terminology of meeting weekly in an exclusive, privileged “class” given the Marxist attention to class consciousness.

However, for all the focus and attention on our own identities throughout the semester, we have lacked a conscious dialogue about the fact that in studying identity and literacy we were practicing identity and literacy as a means to that study. For example, we never discussed how writing in these journals shaped our sense of identity. For me the intellectual and literate work of sitting down to write these—knowing that I would share them with a peer and an instructor and post them publicly, as well—did a great deal to shape and reshape my identity anew and in new ways. In many cases, I was writing for the first time about my experiences and identities. It was clear that this literate act was doing a lot of work. We also never discussed what it meant to write for a (semi)public audience rather than writing in a personal, confidential diary.

In the concepts we have covered in the class, I am interested in considering classroom uses of the figured world idea put forward by Holland, et al. I think introducing students to that model would provide a useful tool to consider cultural, fictional, social, and political structures in a way that encourages critical distance that in turn promotes critical thinking. Inasmuch as I ask my students to read texts that are unfamiliar to them (19th century American or British writing, for example, as well as more contemporary “multicultural” literature) trying to frame the text in a description of a figured world could be a powerful way to begin an extended conversation about a particular work of literature. I will have to look elsewhere for an approachable text (the Holland text is probably a bit too expansive and complicated for first- and second-year students), but I think that students would readily grasp the idea and be able to apply it to a variety of contexts.

The research texts that we have read provide my first insight into empirical research methods of literacy and identity. While I doubt that I will embrace the methodologies of education research, I think that many of the lenses the authors develop in analyzing their data are very useful. The identification of narratives that informs Rymes’ study could obviously be useful to any teacher who can listen carefully to the conversations of students about the class, about their college experience, about the readings, or about their lives and identity that may extend beyond the academic environment. If I can identify some typical, repeated narratives of students it will be useful to evaluate some of the attitudes and learning of my classes and will also provide avenues of entry for discussion about topics that surface in their narrative construction.

The way that Kelly deals with popular media and the construction of (alternative) youth culture and identity is also useful, I think to my teaching. At the foundation of Kelly’s work is an intense attention paid to the actual pop culture/media forces at work in her students’ lives. If a teacher can always stay in touch to some degree with the “figured world” of her students, the possibility to have richer connections and conversations in class and class assignments is magnified many times over. The use of popular media, including films, music, web content, and television, can complement the more “traditional” literary texts and provide a springboard for students to engage with the literature. Her observations about “borrowed” identities might also provide a way to encourage the possibility of student readers being willing to “borrow” the cultural world of literary texts. This might be a stretch, but if Caribbean Canadians can “borrow” African American popular culture, than perhaps Minnesota college students can “borrow” Colonial Puritanism for a few weeks. Now that I actually write it down, it sounds like a potentially dangerous project that could encourage caricatures and stereotypes instead of more complete considering of the complexities of certain identities. On second thought, I think I’ll steer clear of that idea.

November 10, 2004

What I Talk About When I Talk About “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

I realize that all of my response are simply my way of talking about what I read. These thoughts come without excessive premeditation, and so they resemble Carver’s narrative in the ordinary, around-the-kitchen-table banter central to it. This is what I talk about when I talk about “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

This wasn’t my first time to read this story. In fact, my first time reading this story was this past summer when I assigned it to my “Introduction to American Literature” class. Like many things I teach, I assigned it without reading it in advance and I read it only shortly before we covered it in class. As I reread the story for our class I remembered that this was one of the stories (we often read three or four for a given day of class) that we never made our way to discussing. Our class discussions were designed to be organic, following the interests of the students and the questions and responses they have to the assigned texts. My first response to this text, then, was, “I’ve read this. If I remember right, although I found it reasonably interesting, we never ended up talking about it in class.”

My other responses are more directly aligned with the narrative and characters.

I relate to the shape of the narrative: sitting around the table and talking. That certainly seems like a familiar setting and the fluidity of the conversation seems “natural.” I’ve experienced conversations like this, in fact I quite enjoy them. So I can understand writing a short fictional piece that never leaves the table and that is consumed with the unplanned conversation of four characters, two couples.

Mel McGinnis is an odd character that I cannot quite figure out. He is assigned a certain respectability and intelligence by virtue of his profession as a physician, but he appears broken and, frankly, a bit off. It doesn’t seem to me that it is simply the booze that alters his speech and thinking. Mel has some fundamental anguish or sorrow that remains unresolved.

Terri is a fittingly mysterious match for Mel. She has her own shadowed past with her ex-husband, Ed. Her relationship to Mel seems strange and the terms in which they sometimes describe their love seems particularly pragmatic and unemotional. Terri is a kind soul—probably too forgiving and too accommodating, but these features probably qualify her to be a companion to Mel with his controlling tendencies.

Nick and Laura are the “regular” folks of the story. They are the people that we all imagine that we are. In the context of love, we like to see ourselves as they seem: in love with each other in a way that seems both romantic (magical) and practical (pragmatic). They seem to be well matched without seeming to be a fairy tale couple that gives us reason to feel incredulous or resentful. They are patient friends who know Mel well and put up with him without complaint. They are the “nice neighbors” that we all hope to have or to be.

My other responses include responses to the concepts and definitions of love that the two couples toss around the table in their conversations. Inasmuch as they present a number of different models of love, I find it is easy—and almost expected—to respond to each one in turn, deciding as I read whether or not I agree with it. I find the theories of love presented generally unacceptable, if a little uninteresting.

For some reason, I find this story pleasurable, or at least pleasant, without ever feeling very engaged. I find myself wondering why I enjoy it, when so little about it seems notable. I wonder why it appeared in the anthology I chose for class and I try to remember what arbitrary conditions led me to choose it for the class. And yet, I would be willing to defend the story on the basis that it is rather unpretentious and ordinary—that it seemingly seeks to be plain and unadorned, and that its “greatness,” if it aspires to that, is contained within it simplicity and everydayness.

My final response is a reaction to my responses. I find that I am drawn to evaluate the characters in this story as if they were people that came into my social circle, as if they were people that I would have to sort out in the social organization of my personal life. I therefore judge and assess the characters as people—not as literary characters—and I make statements that reveal who I would likely invite into my life and who I would keep a safe distance from.

Similarly, I respond to the plot (or the absence thereof) as a situation that I might experience in the routine of my own life. It becomes evident that my response is a process of drawing this text very close to me and making it a very personal experience, or an experience which is evaluated on very personal criteria. I wonder if it is the nature of the storytelling itself that causes me to respond in this way. If the story was more dramatic, the characters more spectacular, the plot more active, would I be forced to hold the text at a greater critical distance? Would it be more difficulty for me first to consider myself as a part of the narrative? I think that I do see the conversation around the kitchen table and imagine myself sitting there in ways that might be impossible if the setting and context where more spectacular or dramatic.

November 4, 2004

Indulging in the Reality of the Unreal

If there is a guilty pleasure in my media consumption, it is the reality TV shows that have been promulgated on prime time television over the past years. I’m talking about the shows that, while they share a certain ancestry with the first non-cable network reality show success, Survivor with its premise of physical challenges and resourceful innovation, are more directly descended from the Bachelor and its over-hyped and sensationalized romantic (melo)drama.

Shortly after getting married, my wife and I began to relax by indulging in Joe Millionaire (NBC), where, in addition to the normal intrigue of the romantic competition, deception and false appearances lie at the heart of the narrative (Joe was no millionaire catch at all, just a handsome construction worker scouted to introduce the essential twist necessary to distinguish one such romance reality show from another). This lead us to Average Joe (FOX), both the first and second versions, where the twist was that the typical model-esque female protagonist—the one who chooses the guy—was confronted by very ordinary guys to choose from. Some were too fat and some were too skinny and none of them, in a superficial Hollywood/Goldilocks way, were “just right.” The first twist, as if not distinguishing enough, was to then bring in a band of “hunks”—the more typical cast for such a reality show—to compete with the Average Joes for the heart of the girl.

We ate it up.

And we liked it for the simple reason that it was not us on the screen. Whereas Jane Greer’s readers confessed that “some of their stories [in confessional magazines] are like my life, I guess,” we were smugly pleased that these situations were so contrived and so decidedly awful that we couldn’t relate at all. While these shows purport to be reflections of “reality” they are instead distorted projections and fabrications of hyperfictions set forth as unconvincing façades of real life. The accommodations are palatial, the social interactions contrived, the decisions ludicrous (represented well byFor Love or Money), and the presentation—cunningly edited footage—equally unbelievable. Such incredible settings create a safe distance from “reality” so we can enjoy the parade of human sorrow and suffering all the time believing that our humanity is fully engaged and intact when, in fact, we have surrendered our humanity in the name of cheap entertainment.

So many moments in these weekly dramas are embarrassing, even humiliating, and while we cringe at their suffering (like typical reactions to a much earlier form of “reality” TV America’s Funniest Home Videos ala the ever present “kid accidentally hits father in the groin with a baseball bat/baseball/umbrella/watering can” incident), we were really just grateful that we had never done anything that stupid before, at least not on national television.

The pleasure of “I’m glad it’s not me” voyeurism is right in line, I think, with the general appeal that makes these shows both so successful and so utterly addicting: the exhilaration of the comfortable spectator of uncomfortable human drama. On the surface, we think we are connecting with our humanity by choosing the “real” (as represented in the Bachelorette) over the “false” (as represented by Friends) and are spending our TV time watching and learning from “real” people rather than the constructed characters depicted in fictional sitcoms or dramas. The depth of that appeal is non-existent. Neither show presents a “reality,” at least so far as that term means a genuine human experience, and one simply hires amateur “actors” at a fraction of the price they would pay for Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. The producers’ aim in both cases is the same: lure advertisers and audiences.

I never watched the first wave of reality shows; I only came on board once the producers felt compelled to introduce the multiple twists that would make their shows stand out amidst the abundant preview hype. That those twists deeply undercut the legitimacy of the “reality” designation and made the whole project a farce, on one level or another, made it possible for me to enjoy the shows given my academic identity of a critical and selective television viewer with overtones of an aspiring academic. Such an identity makes it difficult for me to buy into a phenomenon that seems to sell itself to the public so seriously as the first wave of reality TV shows did. Once the genre established itself as a surefire ratings success, it could afford to relax and indulge in a playful twist. For me, this brought the previews and the promotions to the level of the ludicrous—and it held the appeal of films that fall in the class of “dumb comedies” (Dumb and Dumber as the quintessential example). I could enjoy something that was obviously aware of how over-the-top it was, whereas I shunned the melodramas that seemed oblivious to their melo- quality.

As a white, middle class man, I think that the whiteness of the shows made it easy for me to watch them without thinking very deeply about them. Reflecting on the participants, the homogeneity is striking. The discourse and figured world of white, middle class, American, young dating were familiar and unchallenging to me. Those features certainly limit the demographic of likely viewers, excluding many who do not share these identities, or who do not desire to identify with them or their values.

November 2, 2004

Challenging America

It is the first election in which I find myself a father.

I brought my boy, together with my wife, to our local polling place at the Tuttle School in Minneapolis. It was probably the first public, civic moment of his young life. He was his usual impressive self—charming all the election officials in sight—but he seemed generally unimpressed by the significance of the event. I’ll cut him some slack. He’s only four months.

We arrived at 8:30 AM and were greeted immediately by a poised poll volunteer who directed us to the registration table. It was there that I saw The Challenger: a woman in a black business suit, perched on the edge of her chair next to the registration table. I’ve been attuned to the discussion about challengers at the polls during the past few weeks as accusations of fraud, intimidation, and other improprieties have been bandied about. My mother-in-law, an attorney, is stationed at a polling place today as a voter advocate—The Challenger’s challenger.

Given what I saw today, we need advocates like my mother-in-law around. An Asian American woman was registering to vote with her white roommate, a registered voter, vouching for her residence in the precinct. I watched The Challenger. She was looking this Asian American woman over very carefully. The Challenger didn’t say a word. The volunteers collected all of the necessary paper work and directed the newly-registered voter towards the ballot room.

When the woman was out of earshot, The Challenger spoke, addressing the registration volunteer at her side, “I wasn’t sure about that Asian girl. I wonder if she is a citizen. You know, a lot of University students aren’t citizens.” My body tensed and I felt the blood rise into my face. International students—most of whom are, in fact, non-citizens—comprise a mere five percent of students at the University of Minnesota (approximately 2,500 of 51,000, according to Fall Semester registration statistics). That hardly seems an overwhelming threat to Minnesota or to America. And it hardly seems grounds to raise a question about this voter.

As the registration volunteer explained—plainly and patiently—the process of challenging a voter’s legitimacy, it was evident that The Challenger wasn’t trained. She hadn’t seen the forms for submitting challenges (challenges must be submitted in writing) and she didn’t seem versed in the basic requirements for asserting a challenge (personal knowledge or a reasonable belief that the would-be voter doesn’t qualify). To her credit, The Challenger took no action, she seemed to be thinking out loud, but the arbitrary and prejudicial grounds for her question were unsettling.

I almost addressed The Challenger to remind her that a lot of University students are American born with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth who were born in exotic, far off places like Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. I refrained from comment. I was impressed at my restraint.

As I was moving toward the ballot room, another Asian American woman approached the registration table. I saw The Challenger, who never relaxed for a moment, peer at her driver’s license, looking her up and down. I wouldn’t say that The Challenger posed a menacing threat, but she was conspicuous. If I noticed her behavior, then certainly other voters would too. While that might deter a few dishonest folks who had intended to register fraudulently, I fear that her presence—and her impertinent remarks—have a much greater chance to do harm, disenfranchising legitimate voters. What would a non-white voter think to hear The Challenger question “that Asian girl”? Who wants to get tangled up in some bureaucratic process to defend themselves against a baseless accusation? Maybe it would just be easier to skip voting this time than to mess with all of that. Is it really worth it?

It struck me once again how vulnerable our American polling place—and American voters—are. They are staffed by very ordinary—but dedicated—citizens who receive no compensation for their time and energy. I voted in an elementary school, for crying out loud. There were no security guards, no police officers, no metal detectors, no military personnel. Americans have voted in the simplest and most ordinary spaces in their neighborhoods and communities for generations. Now during this election, more than any other, these spaces are suddenly inhabited by challengers and lawyers. Threatening confrontation—with unmistakably partisan battle lines—looms large. My voting experience today was different from all of my previous trips to the polls. I’m worried that the practice of voting itself will become a “contest,” in the most aggressive sense of the word.

What first-time voter isn’t a little like my infant son, vulnerable and innocent? Who isn’t a bit intimidated at the regulations, restrictions, and rules and worried that they might embarrass themselves—or worse, undermine the integrity of America’s democracy—by unknowingly violating them? Why are the election volunteers, who have been monitoring and regulating our elections in Minnesota for years, suddenly unreliable and untrustworthy?

As my son grows into an active citizen, he and his generation will face untold challenges to America. I wonder what the role of The Challenger will be.

October 28, 2004

The Mai Neng Moua Case Study

Since the beginning of the term I have been certain that I wanted to devote my case study to Mai Neng Moua. Mai Neng is the founder and long-time editor of Paj Ntaub Voice, the only literary arts journal for Hmong writers. She has been at it for ten years and has been responsible for a dozen issues of the magazine, an anthology (Bamboo Among the Oaks), and the sponsorship of 135 writers to date. She is a primary force in the emerging movement of Hmong (American) literature; she is a potent visionary with unswerving determination.

Mai Neng is also a poem and memoirist. She is preparing to take a year to return more purposefully to her craft through the Bush Fellowship. For the better part of her adult life, Mai Neng has been an activist and an advocate for literacy and literary arts in a community that has been otherwise occupied by the demands of being refugees and immigrants in America.

Mai Neng is bilingual but experiences distinct tensions between her linguistic abilities—specifically the disparity between her English fluency and flagging Hmong ability. She speaks often of her desire to record and translate Hmong language rituals and orature, but she also expresses the dismay of her linguistic limitations. She feels that she is missing something, that something is in danger of being lost. When she addresses these concerns, she is clearly referring to the communal and cultural losses, but it is also apparent that she harbors certain personal anxieties about what such losses will entail for her own identity.

She and I are very close friends and have worked together for more than four years on a wide variety of projects. This case study provides the opportunity for us to focus our conversation—and to record its outcomes—and incentive for both of us to return to the transcript and analyze its content. As a key figure in the world of Hmong (American) literature, I would be pleased to see a chapter of my dissertation develop from these focused conversations.

I have scheduled three one-hour conversations with Mai Neng that I will transcribe and share with her for her corrections, clarifications, comments, and for further conversation.


You have spent ten years creating and sustaining a literary arts movement. How has this shaped your own identity? To what extent does this work define how you conceive of yourself?

In the beginning you seem to think of yourself as a writer. Now you write less, organize and administer more. How have your changes purposes for your literacy (writing poetry versus writing grants) affected your identity?

Your own writing has waned in the past years. Now you are preparing to take leave on a fellowship. How will you structure your writing? What writing tasks will you tackle first?

What are your writing goals for your fellowship? How will you measure those goals? What mechanisms have you built to facilitate achieving those goals?

When you write, how do you write? What tools/technologies do you use? How do you structure your time? What process do you take? How does it differ between different purposes/genres?

What are the connections between basic literacy skills and literary production?

You have written often about your mother. What can you tell me about her literacy practices? How has she been a literacy teacher to you? How has she facilitated your writing? How has she impeded it?

You have written about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. Think about inscription, memory, and memorializing. What is the significance of the names in that wall? Comment on the Hmong Veterans Memorial that has more recently been erected.

Writers assume a certain role in society. What is your role as a writer? Do you define that role within a Hmong society, or society more generally? Why one over the other? How do writers function differently in the Hmong community now? What role will they play in the future?

Much of your work has been focused on building up Hmong writers and giving them opportunities to succeed. You are impressively positive. Are there any ways in which Hmong writers are failing themselves and their community at this time?

Trace your own basic literacy--in each of the relevant languages. How did that literacy develop? Describe the tools, spaces, programs, people, and institutions that contributed to (or impeded) that development.

Consider a hypothetical (albeit impossible): If you had to choose between reading and writing—meaning that you would completely lose the skill not chosen—which would you choose? Would you produce texts or consume texts? Why? How does your answer relate to your sense of your identity?

Who are you? Who do you write yourself to be (in a poem or in a grant, for example)? How does the self that you write shape the self that you are?

[The interview guide that follows was a tool I developed for a literacy study I developed for a previous class. The project was influenced profoundly by my exposure to Deb Brandt’s Literacy in American Lives. I set out to write the beginnings of Literacy in Hmong American Lives. I may use these questions—or forms of them—in the current case study.]


What is your name? (this question is strictly to identify the respondent and will not be used in any report. All names will be altered and the principle investigator will have sole access to the key.)

Where were you born?

When were you born?

Where have you lived since then and how long have you lived there?

When did you arrive in the United States?

What languages do you speak?

What was the first language that you learned to speak (L1)?

Can you read and write in L1?

If not:
Have you ever tried to learn?
What were the experiences of trying to learn?
Why do you feel you have not been successful at learning to read and write L1?

If so:
Please explain how you learned to read and write L1.
What was difficult about learning to read and write L1?
What impressed you about learning to read and write L1?
How have you used your literacy in L1?
Would you like to improve upon your skills in L1? If so, in what ways would you like to improve them?

What was the second language that you learned to speak (L2)?

Can you read and write in L2?

If not:
Have you ever tried to learn?
What were the experiences of trying to learn?
Why do you feel you have not been successful at learning to read and write L2?

If so:
Please explain how you learned to read and write L2.
What was difficult about learning to read and write L2?
What impressed you about learning to read and write L2?
How have you used your literacy in L2?
Would you like to improve upon your skills in L2? If so, in what ways would you like to improve them?


How is reading and writing, in any language, important to you? To the Hmong community?

How is reading and writing in Hmong important to you? To the Hmong community?

How is reading and writing in English important to you? To the Hmong community?

What is the most important thing about being able to read and write in any language and in any particular language?

How does the ability to read and write in a language affect your speaking and listening abilities in that same language?

How does the ability to read and write in a language affect your speaking and listening abilities in another language?

How do you use your literacy on a day-to-day basis?