Tag Archives: eng132

On Points

Moreso this semester than any other semester I’ve taught, I’ve been asked questions like, “How many points do I get for coming to class?” I’m getting similar questions about other process-based stuff, too, like the first-day survey, or an iconic self-portrait, or class notes. It’s interesting to see this shift from doing something because it has practical value (i.e. I go to derby practice because I’ll become a better skater if I practice certain skills), to needing a set number of points attached to every task to make it worth spending time on.

I tend to be pretty casual when it comes to points: there are essays that have points attached, and there’s a participation grade that is collaboratively determined, but I have no interest in having to enter numbers for every student, every day, simply because they showed up. And it could never be that simple – it would have to be broken down into types of showing up, right? Like, showing up but being on your phone the whole time isn’t worth the same amount of points as showing up and actively participating. Or, showing up but sleeping through class because you wanted the attendance points but haven’t slept in two days because of work – at that point, you’d really be better off staying home and resting and catching up with me later.

As a parent, I try to use logical consequences, and that carries over into my teaching. If you don’t come to class, you’re going to miss important information. Sure, we can meet during office hours, but I am not your only teacher. There are 20+ other people in the class that you can learn from, if you are willing to give them a chance. That said, sometimes, you’re going to miss class. Sometimes, I’m going to miss class. The important piece here is learning how to make choices that take into consideration your immediate needs alongside your short and long-term goals, and the consequences of whatever options you’re considering.

PSA #1: Sometimes you’re going to mess that up. PSA #2: Coffee gets me out of bed every morning, but that’s probably one of the only extrinsic rewards that I rely on. I’m not likely to do something unless I can see why it’s beneficial. Sometimes, I have to trust that even though I can’t see an immediate impact, there’s value in what I’m being asked to do. Points didn’t motivate me to show up, as a student. Attendance credit doesn’t (usually) motivate me to go to practice. That isn’t to say that grades have no impact – if I want an A in a class, I’m going to show up, but I’m also very aware that I can’t bullshit my way to an A, so merely showing up isn’t going to be enough.

What about that low stakes work, then? Well, I generally expect that if I give my students something to do that is not given a grade (instead it receives credit/no credit, if I collect it at all), they are going to do it not because they want the points, but because (or and because) they understand that what we’re doing is going to help them succeed with higher stakes assignments. Sometimes, it takes a little while for that to make sense, especially if students are coming into my classes having done a lot of grammar worksheets or other busy work that was disconnected from or unrelated to the major assignments they were doing.

This brings me to PSA #3: Getting all the points isn’t going to make you a better writer. (Un?)fortunately, writing is a thing you’ll have to do in every single class you take, so becoming a better writer should probably be one of your goals. Moreover, the work that we do in composition courses can be applied to non-writing situations as well, like the cognitive processes involved in analytical thinking, or even the concept of process in general. Understanding writing as a process taught me to be patient with myself as an athlete, and it taught me to be aware of my own habits – some of which are good and helpful, others not so much.

So here’s one piece of advice for my current and future students: let go of the idea that everything must have points. Find reasons to do the work outside of the points or the grade. Let that be what motivates you on the days you really don’t want to do it (because let’s be honest, you’re going to find yourself in that place of “I can’t/I don’t want to /I’m tired/I don’t care/I don’t see the point” more than once this term). On the other days, do the work because you want to grow. Do the work because you’ll get some feedback on your writing, and your ideas, from an actual human who believes that you are totally capable. Show up because how often do you get to hang out with 20 other people and hear about their experiences, their knowledge, their beliefs, their curiosities? Show up because you can learn from one another, not just me. Show up because you have no idea what doors might open. And stay home when you need to stay home.

 

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What is Stamina? Transmediation Example

Muriel Rukeyser, at the young age of 22, wrote the documentary poem “The Book of the Dead” which chronicles the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. This event, which took place in the 1930’s, has been called America’s worst industrial disaster, but it is not well-known to most American citizens. Rukeyser’s poem features transcripts from court hearings and meetings of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor, as well as testimony from men who worked in the tunnels and their families. While it is unclear to me at this time whether or not she actually spoke with these individuals in their homes or worked from documents that were provided to her, Rukeyser’s take on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster sheds a necessary light on the desperate persistence of the tunnel workers despite fatal conditions. Sia, an Australian music artist, released the song “The Greatest” in 2016. The song, according to the website Genius which provides annotated song lyrics, was written as an anthem for LGBT individuals after the shooting at the Orlando Pulse nightclub. Both Rukeyser’s poem and Sia’s song speak to the experiences of marginalized people.

In Rukeyser’s poem, she tells of the workers who contracted silicosis after digging out a tunnel rich in silica to divert water for hydroelectric power for the Union Carbide Company. This tunnel was located in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, and the dam and tunnel entrance can be seen from the hiking trails along the New River Gorge. Silicosis is a lung disease; the dust fills the lungs of the individual affected, and that person eventually suffocates as they can no longer breathe. “I can’t breathe” is a well-known cry of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the deaths of unarmed black men in the hands of police, specifically Eric Garner who uttered these words prior to his death. Some have argued that these deaths should be considered murder. I believe some would argue the same about the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster. Most of the men working in the tunnel at that time were men of color, migrant workers from southern states. Sia’s song opens with similar words, “Uh-oh, runnin’ out of breath, but I/Oh, I, I got stamina/Uh-oh, running now, I close my eyes/Well, oh, I got stamina/And uh-oh, I see another mountain to climb/But I, I, I got stamina” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). While Sia’s lyrics speak specifically to the challenges that LGBT individuals face in this country, and her treatment of not being able to breathe is figurative (the mountain is a metaphor), it parallels the literal experiences of both the Hawk’s Nest victims as well as the black men who have lost their lives more recently.

Rukeyser includes the bill passed by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor in “The Book of the Dead,” under a section called The Bill. Toward the end of that section, there is a direct quote presented before the signed names of the representatives. It reads, “If by their suffering and death they will have made a future life safer for work beneath the earth, if they will have been able to establish a new and greater regard for human life in industry, their suffering may not have been in vain.” While this is an admirable statement to make, the struggle for human rights for non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people in this country is ongoing, and we cannot make martyrs out of those whose lives were taken. History cannot be erased, nor can these lives be brought back. Perhaps statements like this bring some comfort to the families of those whose loved ones have died, but it’s an embarrassment that as a country, America has not yet figured out how to ensure basic protections to all of its people. Sia’s song declares “I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive/I’m free to be the greatest here tonight,” and one annotation claims that “Redemption, self-preservation, perseverance, and finding inner-strength are all common themes in Sia’s music” (“Sia – The Greatest Lyrics”). I would argue that these qualities are common themes in American culture, but that these values unfairly place the burden on marginalized individuals to fight for what they should already have, rather than calling out the systemic issues that allow this cycle to continue.

For a version of this essay in MLA format with citations, please click here.

 

Comics and Accessibility

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:

blankets2
This is a wordless panel from the graphic novel Blankets. The image shows Craig and Raina laying together in bed in their pajamas, on top of the blanket that Raina made for Craig. Raina’s eyes are closed, and she is laying in Craig’s lap, holding on to his arm. Craig’s arms are wrapped around Raina, but his eyes are open and he looks uncertain or worried.

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!

“Digital Comics: Successful, Accessible, and Ruining How We Read Comics?” This article addresses the concept of time in comics, the individual reading experience, and how digital comics may fall short. The title is misleading; the only mention of accessibility is “anyone…anywhere.”

“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.

Accessible Comics for the Blind by Paths to Literacy links to Comics Empower, an online comic book shop that makes comics accessible using audio.

Upcoming Events

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. 

Uses of Literature: Knowledge

The second of the four uses of literature that Felski outlines in her book is Knowledge. The chapter begins by illustrating two schools of thought regarding what kind of knowledge, if any, can be obtained from literature:

  1. Literature is seen as a semblance, shadow, illusion, or even counterfeit/imitation, in relationship to the world. It is secondary: a representation of reality, but not reality itself. An untruth.
  2. Literature is a reflection: a mirror of reality.

The question of literature’s relationship to knowledge remains open; much will depend, of course, on how we define the act of knowing. In my first chapter, I focused on literature’s potential merits as a guide to self-interpretation and self-understanding. I now turn to what literature discloses about the world beyond the self, to what it reveals about people and things, mores and manners, symbolic meanings and social stratification. Not all texts, of course, lend themselves equally well to such an analytical rubric; my concluding chapter centers on works that actively defy or disrupt our frameworks of social reference. But one motive for reading is the hope of gaining a deeper sense of every day experiences and the shape of social life. Literature’s relationship to worldly knowledge is not only negative or adversarial; it can also expand, enlarge, or reorder out sense of how things are (Felski 83).

In other words, we’re moving from what we can learn about ourselves through literature, to what we can learn about the world. Felski seems to find both ideas above equally plausible, and offers an alternative way of seeing: “Once we relinquish the false picture of a reality ‘out there’ waiting to be found, we can think of literary conventions as devices for articulating truth rather than as obstacles to its discovery” (84). Here, she calls reality a false picture, but seems to favor truth – lower-case-t-truth (multiple truths?) versus capital-T-truth (one truth).

Felski uses the term mimesis, which is defined as imitation: you probably recognize the term “meme.” Memes are repeated images: sometimes the text changes, but because the core image is the same we recognize it and come to understand what it means, regardless of whether or not the text is present. Consider Success Kid. She invites her readers to imagine mimesis as a redescription, which makes sense. Every time a new meme is created with the Success Kid image, it is redescribed. It is not merely a copy, but an interpretive process. I like what she says about truth, quoting Ricoeur:

The world against which we measure the truth claims of the literary text is a world that is already mediated via stories, images, myths, jokes, commonsense assumptions, scraps of scientific knowledge, religious beliefs, popular aphorisms, and the like (84-85).

Put simply, my truth is not your truth, because we each experience the world differently, so we cannot argue for some universal truth or a single reality, as it doesn’t exist. Therefore, literature is by default both truth and untruth, both representation and reflection, both illusion and reality. No matter where it falls on the spectrum here, it can teach us.

Felski introduces metaphor (figurative language – a representation and a reinterpretation, yes?) to the argument next, pointing out that even our use of language is “tangled up with our embeddedness in the world” (86). Basically, language use depends on context, and it both creates and is used to create reality. In the same way, worlds create selves (we are defined by the constraints of the world we live in) and selves perceive and react to worlds (we change and adapt to the world we live in). Language creates us, just as we create it. Felski says next that “what metaphor and mimesis share is the capacity to generate new perspectives, to make possible other ways of seeing, to intensify meaning by dynamically recreating a world already mediated by language” (86).

One gift of literature is intersubjectivity: the ability to share experience across more than one conscious mind. Through literature, particularly through well-written characters, we can come to know specific societies or communities from the inside, as if we were truly a part of that group. We share their inner monologues, their actions, their conversations. At the same time, this can backfire, particularly when characters are not accurately portrayed, leading to misunderstanding and misrepresentation. This is why it is important that people tell their own stories, otherwise someone may speak for you, and they may not do you justice.

Felski uses one of my favorite poets as an example next, Pablo Neruda. She references his “Ode to Things” (one of my favorite poems is “Ode to My Socks”), reminding us that it isn’t just people, or places, or events that one can know as a result of literature; perhaps we should also know the inanimate objects we hold on to in our lives. Poetry, Felski argues, can do that.

Of course, literature can mislead us; it can even offend us. But as Felski says, “literature, by dint of it’s generic status as imaginative or fictional writing, cannot be automatically precluded from taking part in practices of knowing” (103). Though literature, and especially poetry, might be placed in the box or domain of creative writing, it is not without value: literature, according to Felski, is a “form of social knowledge…[texts] fictional and aesthetic dimensions, far from testifying to a failure of knowing, should be hailed as the source of their cognitive strength” (104).

Think about this as we read Rukeyser’s “Book of the Dead.” Felski is talking about literature, but I would argue that much of her argument in this section of her book could apply to poetry. What can poetry do, for us? What good is poetry? What might it accomplish?

Hawk’s Nest Videos

Here are a few videos on the Hawk’s Nest Mining Disaster:

Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy

West Virginia@150: Hawk’s Nest 1930

Witness at Hawk’s Nest (this one is dramatic; it is based on the novel of the same name and published by West Virginia University Public Health)

Two videos from the US Department of Labor: 2013 “Deadly Dust” Silica (“statistics are people with the tears washed off”) and “Stop Silicosis” (this opens with a report from the late 1930’s and testimony from a man in Woodhaven, MI). The original “Stop Silicosis” film from 1938 can be found here.

For further context, here’s an overview of 1930’s America. 

 

Contextualizing BotD, Part 3

Our second class on BotD covered a few shorter sections: Mearl Blankenship, Absalom, The Disease,  George Robinson: Blues. We also read The Doctors. To accompany these sections, two excerpts from a book on the Hawk’s Nest Disaster were provided, one of these is George Robinson’s statement to the court, and the the other is a short interview with the daughter-in-law of Dr. Harless, who treated many of the men who contracted silicosis before he was terminated by Union Carbide. These sections provide further human contact with the incident; in other words, we’re not just getting Rukeyser’s thoughts on what she observed here, but actual statements from the people who lived there, who worked in the tunnel, and in the case of Absalom, we hear from the mother of three boys, the youngest of whom (at age 18) asked that his body be used for research.

In these last sections (Arthur Peyton, Alloy, The Disease: After Effects, The Bill, and The Book of the Dead), we hear more about the court proceedings, and the relationship between water, power, corporations, and people. We are presented with law, with the consequences of a labor disaster carefully curated by a corporation, and a return to The Road in the last section (notice the repeating lines).

I’d like to investigate a few of the names mentioned in the poem, and you may choose to pursue any of these names further for your annotations: Dr. Hayhurst, Dr. Harless, Cecil Jones (and his family), Mr. Marcantonio, Dr. Goldwater, Mr. Griswold.

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A newspaper announcement found via a Google search. Note Marcantonio’s accusation.

In the last post, we saw a letter from Nancy Naumberg to Muriel Rukeyser, offering suggestions for what would become BotD. Here is a photograph she took of shacks along the railroad tracks in Vanetta, a community/coal town along the Gauley River. For perspective, here are some images from Google Maps:

This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that, Alloy to the west, and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.

map-of-new-river-and-gauley-bridge
This map depicts Gauley Bridge, where the Hawk’s Nest tunnel was dug, Kanawha Falls below that (mentioned in “West Virginia”), Alloy to the west (“Alloy” is a section of BotD), and the New River traveling southeast. The river heading north is Gauley River.
vanetta
Nancy Naumberg’s photograph is of a town in Vanetta. As you can see, Vanetta is just north of Gauley Bridge. Alloy, another town mentioned (we didn’t read that section) is to the west. Note the Gauley River National Recreation Area to the northeast, and Summersville above that. Summersville is where the gravesite and memorial is located, and where many of the bodies were taken and buried in unmarked graves prior to being moved to the memorial cemetery.
gauley-river-summersville-graves
This map shows the Gauley River traveling through the GRNRA, and to the north is Summersville. That small circle right before the road crosses the river is where the memorial is located.
While people flock to the area now for white water rafting, hiking, and rock climbing, the towns along Gauley River and New River were once coal-mining towns. In fact, you can hike the Kaymoor Trail (if you can handle the stairs) and head down into the mine where you’ll see the processing plant, coke ovens, and town site.

A few major themes we should address (in groups!) in regard to BotD now that we’ve read through the poem in its entirety (mostly):

  • Citizen journalism and authority: who has the authority to speak on an issue? Where does authority come from? Rukeyser was certainly no expert (by certain standards), and yet her work ensured that Union Carbide would be exposed for years to come, despite their efforts (and successes) in minimizing the incident. How do we see citizen journalism at play today? What obligation (if any) do citizens have in witnessing, documenting, and circulating information about events? Are their words just as valid as “experts?” Is there a place for both? Can you think of any examples?
  • Here’s another essay on the same subject. What do you make of this? Were the doctors victims of corruption (in other words, were they victims much like the men who died?), or were they willing participants in the problem? Why? On a similar note, you may recognize the saying, if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem. What obligation did the doctors have to the workers? To the company? What barriers did they experience to being on the side of the solution? 
  • How does this connect to our own obligation as individual readers, or viewers, of documentation like BotD or the news we encounter on our televisions and social media accounts? What does it take to be part of the solution? What obligation do we have once we have witnessed an event? What barriers do we experience to taking action and/or creating change?

 

Next time we meet, we’ll be discussing annotations. Here’s what you should be doing before then: think about the sections we read in class, or consider reading the sections we skipped. Look for areas that were especially interesting, moving, or even confusing. Look for places where you needed more information as a reader, and places that stirred a memory of something else (another text, an event, a personal connection) over places that required interpretation. You’ll need to choose one section of the poem that you can annotate. I will show you an example of an annotated poem, and you’ll have time to begin searching for information with my support.