Prior to reading Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” we’re looking at some examples of poetry that may be unexpected. Like we turned literature on it’s head, so to speak, by reading a graphic novel, we’re going to cover poetry through a performative lens. I am not concerned here with celebrating the mystery of language or the special skill “required” to understand poetry, but rather the very practical, personally applicable function(s) of poetry in our everyday lives. Poetry is everywhere, in song lyrics, in advertising, in novels, in our minds, but poetry is also met with extreme resistance. We’ll discuss some of the reasons why. I hope to break down these barriers by turning our attention toward slam poetry; while these poems cover material that may be difficult to talk about, by bearing witness to these performances we can perhaps know more than we might otherwise have if we had read these stories in a traditional, paragraph-oriented text to be read in a quiet room, alone.
Prof. Lonsdale’s ENG 132 Poetry Playlist I’ve enabled the option that allows people to add videos to this playlist; if there are poems you want to see included that I can show students in future semesters, please contribute!
For within structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive. Kept around as unavoidable adjuncts or pleasant pastimes, feelings were meant to kneel to thought as we were meant to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already. We have hidden that fact in the same place where we have hidden our power. They lie in our dreams, and it is our dreams that point the way to freedom. They are made realizable through our poems that give us the strength and courage to see, to feel, to speak, and to dare.
If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core-the fountain-of our power, our womanness; we have give up the future of our worlds.
For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean (feel like) on Sunday morning at 7 AM, after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth; while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while tasting our new possibilities and strengths.
from “Sister Outsider: essays and speeches” page 36. Published by Crossing Press, 1985.
Given the hot mess that our country is in right now, a friend of mine thought to crowdsource via Facebook a list of books by and about immigrants. Her post reads, “Here’s your immigrant reading list (pick 2).”
On this list and in the comments on her post and mine are the following titles:
How do we “read” protests? Museums are collecting signs from the Women’s March on Washington as well as those from sister events all over the world, Facebook’s live video feature brings the chanting to your own device allowing you to watch from anywhere, news stations report on these events with headlines like this one from the Detroit Free Press: “Thousands gather at DTW, around Michigan to protest Voldemort’s* ban.” Our textbook, Everyone’s An Author, includes photos from a student-led protest against low wages paid to campus workers (7) and of a Black Lives Matter protest with a caption that reads “Protestors use posters, raised fists, and more to communicate their positions” (6). Here are my own photos from yesterday’s protest at DTW and two from the Women’s March on Lansing:
Yesterday, this image was circulating on Facebook:
I shared it. Because I do not yet have tenure, which means that I lack the protection that some of my colleagues who have fulfilled their duties to earn tenure can fall back on, I have to be especially judicious in what I choose to share in the classroom and how. Unfortunately, I can’t come in and say “fuck Trump.”*** Fortunately, I teach writing, and part of writing is reading, which means we can talk about how to read these events – the artifacts, the rhetoric, the process of organizing, the role that communication and new media plays in mobilizing individuals and communities, the grounds on which they form and what they respond to, and that allows us a platform to explore and critique the messages we are fed, and the opportunities we have to participate.**
In ENG 131, I’m working on revising our song analysis assignment to include a greater variety of media and to emphasize the people responsible for creating that media; in other words, who was that person, what did they do, and why was it effective? I want to bring protests into our work because they are rich for rhetorical analysis: how do people decide what to put on signs? Which signs are most effective (which signs make it into photographs? Which signs are most memorable? Do signs have an impact on elected officials? Who are the signs for?)? What makes a well-organized protest, rally, or other similar event? How do people choose to make their values and beliefs visible? Who has access to these events? Who participates? How are these events written about in the news? Does it differ depending on the news source and their bias or relationship to the event itself and/or its sponsors?
In ENG 132, we’re going to read Muriel Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead,” which was originally meant to be performed as a radio documentary. This unit is framed in two ways: one, as an example of the second use of literature we’re talking about (knowledge), and two, as a means of reading critically, making connections, and establishing context. For the workers in BOTD, silicosis literally took their voices away. Because they were black in 1930’s America, they had little authority in court, and their representatives were all white men. Students will have an assignment in two parts: an annotated section of the poem that branches outward to illustrate context, and a transmediation that pairs the poem with another text, song, work of art, or film and puts them in conversation. We’ll talk about witness, a term used here to refer to our obligation as individuals and as communities to respond (Rukeyser would say that poetry demands a “total response”) when we encounter predjudice or discrimination, acts of violence or hate crimes, and/or systemic issues that oppress a group of people – something that we encounter in real time now thanks to new media and how quickly footage circulates. What kind of response is owed? What does it look like? Is clicking “like” or “share” sufficient? What action is appropriate? What is sufficient? What do you do when you feel powerless? How do you learn more?
Texts are not the only media we read. We read video, we read action, we read advertisements, we read music. Reading, as we’ve discussed pretty extensively in ENG 131, is a rhetorical act. It is purposeful, it varies depending on genre and use, and it is an active process that now more than ever requires you to dig in and around and beyond the initial document. I’m looking forward to working on these assignments this semester; I’ve done them before (or variations of them), but I think the current social and political climate in our country will make for an interesting next few months. That feels like a gross understatement, actually, but I’m being smart here and also trying to keep my head above water.
*I installed the Chrome extension called Trump To Voldemort because I can’t bring myself to use his name. My daughter calls him Turd, I’ve heard people use “45,” and “President Electoral,” but I just…I’m not there. Voldemort gives me some hope, because I know from the Harry Potter seriesthat good triumphs over evil, and that there is power even among divided houses (Gryffindor couldn’t have won the Battle of Hogwarts without Slytherin!).
**In the middle of writing this, my next-door office neighbor met with his Honors student; they are working on a project that provides a historical overview of protest music, and I’ve jumped on board. So excited to see what comes out of it! All the playlists! I loaned her my copy of Of Poetry and Protest, it’s a book I picked up last semester that I have yet to sit down and read all the way through.
***I also want to reiterate here that I am not in the business of pushing anybody toward any political platform. All views get space so long as those views a) do not oppress or attack anyone, and b) can be backed up with evidence. This is a big part of what we do in composition courses. We talk about argument. We analyze texts. We evaluate evidence and learn to be media literate. We also LISTEN to one another (we covered this on Day 2 of ENG 131) before making judgments. We do not treat argument as war. We make sure to practice inclusive, intentional position-taking, including positions of resistance. Language can be violent. I am not in the business of violence. I am, however, in the business of teaching young people to step up when needed, step back when it’s someone else’s turn, and most importantly, to challenge and critique the systems that we participate in. On that note, I probably shouldn’t say “fuck Trump,” but we’re talking about the meme, here. Also, Pioneers Press makes good stuff.
Prior to the start of classes this semester, our teachers’ union (AFT Local 1650) organized a Professional Issues Conference (PIC) that all full-time faculty were required to attend. This year’s speaker was Thomas Tobin, who talked to us about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept that aims to make educational materials accessible for people with disabilities and for people who might be accessing information on-the-go, i.e.: let’s talk about not just how people access information via screen readers, but let’s also talk about when and where and why they access information in the ways that they do.
Colleges and universities are facing significant pressure in regard to ADA compliance, and rightfully so. But accessibility for people with disabilities isn’t the only issue in need of addressing. Here is a link to an infographic illustrating demographic information for today’s college students, from the Lumina Foundation (you can read this article about the Lumina Foundation’s foundation if you’re interested; I think the infographic is still useful despite this criticism). In sum, college students are NOT always white, middle-to-upper class, fresh out of high school with lofty dreams and parents footing the bill. We can probably agree on that much: anyone who has walked the halls of a public university, and especially anyone who has been on a community college campus, can attest to the range of ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and expressions of personal identity. However, there are less visible but still apparent differences in lifestyle: some people might be raising children (or siblings), others might be working multiple jobs, some may have arrived in the United States just a few months ago, others might be in temporary housing situations. UDL takes these factors into consideration in addition to making materials accessible for those relying on technology or other assistance because of disability. It’s about reducing barriers. Here’s a video to illustrate:
One thing I was able to do for this semester was to check my syllabus and calendar for accessibility using Word 2016. I also chose an accessible theme on WordPress, meaning that it is flexible and can be viewed on both desktop and mobile devices. I’ve also tested the screen reader on my iPhone (Settings>General>Accessibility>Speech>Speak Screen) by having it read posts to me out loud, which was especially useful. After making sure that my electronic materials were accessible (I am still learning, so if you find something that needs fixing, please let me know!), I created a Google calendar for each class nd embedded it into a page on my site. I’m not sure how accessible these are on mobile devices, but it’s certainly useful to pull up quickly if the paper document isn’t available. One student told me they really appreciated the calendar, so I’m hoping that it’s actually going to be used; if it’s not accessible easily by phone, I’m not sure I’ll put the time and effort into making them in the future.
Despite my best efforts to make these materials accessible, it occurred to me this weekend that traditional text is fairly easy to adapt to devices like screen readers, but texts that rely heavily on images are not so easily translated. We have apps like Audible, or even audio books through the library, that can do the work of seeing words on a page for us and speak them out loud so that we can get information or follow a story. But comics, even when digitized, pair words with images in order to communicate, and the images can be especially significant. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, illustrates several types of word/image combinations that writers and illustrators use.
A friend of mine sent me a link to a comic that uses texture to tell a story, and the creator’s hope is that storytelling could happen by way of tactile exploration. This is ultimately what got me thinking about Blankets, by Craig Thompson, which students in my ENG 132 classes read. For traditional novels, a person who is visually impaired or blind would perhaps use the audio book or VoiceOver/other text-to-speech features to listen to the story. With a graphic novel, that doesn’t quite work. There are a number of wordless panels in Blankets, and plenty of panels that use both words and pictures to convey information, particularly subjective information about the characters. How is this information delivered to somebody who is not relying on sight to see and interpret what is on the page? Here’s an example:
You can see my caption below the image. Is that how you would have described the image? What details led you to see Craig and Raina in the way that you did? Can you think of any experiences from your own life that allowed you to relate to the image? Do you see yourself in Thompson’s story (think about recognition as one use of literature we are exploring)? It’s likely that our descriptions of this image would be similar, though they may differ depending on how descriptive we chose to be, or what details stood out to us. If this panel did have words, we’d need to include in our image description whether those words were narration, dialogue, or thoughts that were not said aloud.
Here’s a link to a WordPress page that gives tips for making blog content accessible; one strategy they mention is how to write descriptions for images like the one I’ve used above. WordPress suggests not just describing objectively what is in the image (i.e. two people laying in a bed) but to convey the feeling of the image as well, which I have tried to do in my caption above. However, this is complicated by the fact that interpretation of images is subjective, and unless the author/illustrator has contributed to the alternative text, it’s possible that the story could be lost in translation, or at least mixed up along the way. Think about all of the Bible translations! Scribes put their own twist on the material, and differences of interpretation (which is something Thompson gets at in his book) led to some pretty serious divisions within Christianity. Whose interpretation should we trust? Would my descriptions of the images in Blankets do the story justice? Would my own experiences color my retelling? I imagine they would, just as they influence my teaching.
I will be the first to admit that I am not well-versed in accessibility; I don’t teach online, and I rely on pretty simple and easy to find methods to assist me when I need it. I’ve never had a student who needed accommodations, but I would like to become more knowledgeable so that I can provide that support should the need ever come up. I’d also like to assign material that can demonstrate these needs for other students who may take their sight, or even their ability to access material without logistical complications (language! time! money! patience!), for granted. We’ll spend some time working on writing rich descriptions with some panels from Blankets together to experiment.
Below are links to a few sites regarding comics and accessibility; I’d love to know if you have any feedback or resources to share!
“Enhancing the Accessibility for All of Digital Comic Books” This is an article from a Belgian publication that argues comics “[do] not completely fulfill the needs of a large segment of public such as mobile users, motor-impaired people, and low-sighted people.” The article highlights the physical nature of comic books (they are distributed primarily as paper copies), and in regard to sight only addresses how to make the images viewable to users who have low-sight, not those who are completely unable to see.
In ENG 094 we’re talking about networks as one non-cognitive issue that has an impact on college success. You’ve probably heard the phrase “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” To an extent, this is true. While both knowledge and networks matter, if you have knowledge but no network, you’re at a disadvantage compared to your peers. Here’s a link to the Michigan Radio documentary, “Connections: The Power of Networks,” that we listened to in class.
If you want to read more about networks, I’ve included some links below.
To expand your network, you might look for organizations within your field of study; professional organizations sometimes have reduced cost memberships for students. See if your community or neighborhood has town hall meetings if local politics interest you. Use social media to your advantage; you can search for events nearby as well. Meetup.com is another good resource. Make it your goal for the semester to find at least one person who can help you get closer to your dreams, whatever they might be.
I want to draw your attention to two events that you may be interested in attending:
On Monday, January 16, 2017, poet Claudia Rankine will be speaking at the University of Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium. Here’s a link to the Facebook event page. The event is free and tickets are not needed; however, it may be crowded so you may want to arrive early and plan for parking (which is not free in downtown Ann Arbor).
On April 4, 2017, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will be speaking at the University of Detroit-Mercy. Tickets for this event are $10 (free to U of D students and faculty). Here is a link to the event website.
In ENG 132, our framing question deals with the role of the humanities in our academic, professional, and personal lives. While it is easy for teachers like me to defend the humanities as an essential part of a college education (and courses in the humanities are included as general education requirements), many have questioned the purpose of such courses for students who are pursuing careers outside of the field. Students sometimes come to this course with reservations; after studying literature since grade school, they are certain that more literary analysis is not what they need to be a successful surgical technician or engineer. When funding is tight, classes or extracurricular activities in the arts and the humanities are the first to meet the chopping block. Why is this? What role, if any, might courses in the humanities play in our lives? Should courses in the humanities be required for all students? Why or why not? What can these courses teach us? What might be lost if these courses were let go?
Your first in-class essay asks you to respond to this prompt. While no research or source work is required to write a successful essay, you may find it useful to review some of these links:
You can find further reading by conducting a simple Google search, but again, no research is needed to complete the essay, your opinion supported with examples or even personal experience is sufficient!
Over the course of our semester, we’ll be exploring two uses of literature as one way into this conversation. We’ll look at why storytelling can be so powerful, and why certain media (in this case, comics and poetry) are so effective. We’ll inquire as to why we document events and experiences, and how social media has changed the landscape of documentary work. We’ll ask what counts as literature. And, if literature is one frame for the human experience, how can we, as writers, ask good questions in order to conduct and present ethical research about various identities and interests?
You’ll revisit this prompt again at the end of the semester as a final assignment. Hopefully, through engagement with our course materials and your own research, your ideas will develop further.