In preparing to teach CW 110–an advanced nonfiction writing class I teach at UC Berkeley–I glanced over an old syllabus and decided I needed to change it in large part because since I last taught the class three years ago, I’ve begun to use a lot more digital media. And as much as I love Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, I didn’t want to use that book again (I’ve used it every time I’ve taught the class since I created it in 1998!). I’d recently purchased Dinty W. Moore’s Flash Nonfiction but wasn’t sure I wanted to require it as a text for the course. I began poking around on Brevity, thinking that students would enjoy many of the wonderful, very short essays published there. I not only found the essays I wanted to begin the semester with and bookmarked them in the class group on Diigo, but I also found the first assignment: Essay Contest Mystery and Memory.
As much as they eventually enjoy it, students at Berkeley often resist the narrative assignment. Most of them haven’t written narrative since the early years of high school, unless you count the restrictive, formulaic (by design) personal statements they write when they apply to college and grad school. But they’ve read plenty of them and can talk about their favorites and what they’ve learned from reading them, how certain images have stayed with them, how the voices of some writers still resonate with them. We talk about why narratives are so often assigned for them to read but seldom elicited from them as pieces of writing, a topic I spoke about in a recent panel for the American Cultures program at Berkeley– Justice Stories, Resistance Stories and Just Good Stories: Narrative and storytelling as critical pedagogy where I argued for a place at the University for our students’ stories.
Accustomed to reading the stories of important people with important stories, students don’t readily see the significance of their own. Until they begin writing them and reading their classmates’ drafts. At the end of the second draft session, I asked each student to choose a very short passage–no more than two sentences or so–from their draft partner’s essay to read aloud, without comment, to not even say why they had chosen the passage. Just read the title, the author’s name, the passage. As students read aloud, they gasped. The language was stunning, the experiences poignant, moving, humorous. When they heard even these brief excerpts of their own writing in someone else’s voice, their story came alive for them in a new way. More than one student commented that she wanted to read everyone’s narrative.
So they are blogging their narratives along with a brief reflective essay on the experience of writing the narrative. Students who submitted their essays to the Brevity contest will post them later, once a winner has been announced. Though I’m turning mine in late (the deadline was the 14th), I have finally posted it: 1979 almost ’80.
When we were talking about the assignment on the first day or so of class–before they had begun to write–one student expressed his concern that writing his story, sharing it with others, might reduce its significance to him as a special, valued moment in his life. I asked him to reserve judgment on that until after he had written it. As we moved through the draft stages and talked about the process of writing narrative, students spoke frequently about how they understood their stories in a different light as they wrote and revised them, how in writing the narrative, they understood things they hadn’t even thought about before putting the experience into words. They learned something about themselves from the experience.
Several years ago a young man who had taken the advanced writing class–a student who had struggled with his narrative, come to many office hours to look at drafts, avoided the writing–dropped in to my office hours to talk. A medical student at UCSF, he wanted to tell me the story of applying to medical school. He had interviewed at every school he wanted to attend, and that year he was the only Berkeley student to be accepted by all. He knew many of the other Berkeley students had better grades, more impressive internships and research positions. But he knew that during the interviews they were uncomfortable, wanted to impress, didn’t know what to emphasize as they responded to questions. What was different about him? His theory: he had learned to tell his story.
I teach a variety of writing classes at UC Berkeley–two that fulfill the University’s Reading and Composition Requirement, an intermediate and an advanced writing class. The intermediate class–CW 105: Finding Your Voice with Others–is one in which students read current articles–academic and journalism–as well as a little theory–Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, David Post, Lawrence Lessig, Sherry Turkle, Anne Wysocki, etc–about new media and technology. Multimodal forms of expression are required, and students write reflective journals with each project submitted, thinking about how the use of technology affects the language we use. And they also think about design related issues: color, shape, image, platform.
One purpose of the course is to help students who have fulfilled the R&C Requirement continue to develop academic reading and writing strategies as they learn to hear, appreciate and deploy their own voices. Voice is a slippery concept. Most writing books and manuals take a kind of Grammar Girl approach, which is fine. It’s useful as a starting place. But students enrolled in 105 have read something like this already. Probably more than once.
While 105 is not a creative writing class (what kind of writing is not, in some sense, creative? question for another day), I do try to approach the concept of voice in a way that is about something more than style (while it is also, of course, related to style–see the concept begin to slip and slide?!). I use material that you might more often find in a creative writing course to get the discussion rolling. For example, I might use some passages from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (a book I love): “Your voice is actually a very ordinary thing. It is just who you are, projected artistically. It is often linked to your speaking voice, and your breath, and the rhythms and sense of pace that you draw on when you are too absorbed in what you are saying to listen to yourself from a distance. It is also linked to your body, the language or dialect you spoke in childhood, and whatever naturally interests you. Your voice is how you write when you don’t have time to be elegant” (5). And later from the same chapter: “A search for voice must always involve a willingness to experience what you already know in a new light” (7).
And in 105 that new light often shines from new media. Students are using tools they have, for the most part, never used. They are writing in public. They are taking risks. And so when a student says to me, can I try, can I use, can have an extension, can I use I (yes, dear god, please use I–use it wisely, don’t over use it, but do not let writing at the University rob you of I). I say yes. We might have a brief discussion (depending on the question), but usually I say yes, try it; yes, you can turn it in late; yes yes yes.
I’m not an easy teacher, but I try to be a generous one.
How is yes rewarded? (okay, I’ll confess, sometimes it’s not; sometimes I should have probably said no: live and learn)
Yesterday in class we were discussing Jo Kyung Ran’s amazing short story “Looking for the Elephant” and students were puzzled in a kind of urgent way about the elephant: who is the elephant what is the elephant is the elephant real. And I kind of blurted out (in a way we often don’t appreciate when our students do it), “Elephants are amazing. Do you know this? Do you know how amazing they are?”
There was a brief moment of silence. Then they all looked at their laptops and quietly started tapping away. “Are you googling elephants?” I couldn’t help but laugh. They laughed and nodded yes.
So we took about 20 minutes for some research time. Then we got back to the story: what is the elephant who is the elephant elephants ARE amazing.
Looking for the Elephant is in an anthology put together by the wonderful Words Without Borders.
I’m using a book of short stories, essays and poetry published by the wonderful Words Without Borders for the first time. We all read one story in common–the story in the Prezi–and then students chose one on their own to discuss in class tomorrow. My plan is to use the Prezi for the discussion of “Children of the Sky,” give them some time to make connections between their story and Space and Place by Yi-Fu Tuan, the book I’m using to support the Landscapes of the Imagination theme of the course.
Ok so I was always the student who did the assignment in some kind of wonky way. I guess I still am. I haven’t written an essay yet. But I did spend several hours making this Prezi called, yep, digital pedagogy for the digital age. In thinking about reading and writing digital texts, I wonder why I would write that essay (other than the fact that I said I would). But for my audience of teachers, the Prezi is more effective. I don’t need to demonstrate to them that I can do a close reading, and I have no use for them in any aspect of my life: reader (I seldom read those kinds of academic journals, though I do read a lot of critical book reviews, a kissing cousin, perhaps, to the close read); writer (don’t write’em), teacher of writing (I tend to read pragmatic articles on teaching). As Katherine Hayles notes in her book how we think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technologies, the close reading is largely an artifact of English Departments. I teach it because I used to believe that it was a useful thing for students to be able to do. Now I’m not so sure. I require students to write them because my department has a final portfolio requirement that one essay demonstrate close attention to text, a term that is vague in some ways but is meant to give a nod to the English Dept. type of “close reading,” while also freeing people (students and teachers) from the strict form of that essay. If close reading is still important for all college students to learn (and I’m not sure that it is), it has to be equally important that they learn to critically read electronic texts–from electronic literature (see two volumes collected by Electronic Literature) to various kinds of web pages and works produced on apps.
Yesterday I talked to 13 students about their drafts (one lucky student is in Japan with the women’s golf team, so we haven’t talked yet) for 20 minutes each. I hope I was making sense by the time Alberto sat down. Amazing variety in the approach to the topic which made them all interesting to read. The “final” (is any piece of writing ever final?) drafts are due tomorrow. Mine will be late. No excuses. Just a fact. I look forward to reading these essays, which students can revise when they are returned if they want.
Tomorrow we begin our second writing project in participation with the UCBerkeley’s On the Same Page project. This year we are using the book Fiat Lux, which is a facsimile edition of the book of photographs Ansel Adams took as the UC’s request in the mid 1960s (text by Nancy Newhall). I’m really interested in seeing students’ photographs and reading about their vision for UC Berkeley, especially in these difficult budgetary times. I’ve started a Flickr group for our photographs. Students have been taking and tweeting them #FiatLux but so far haven’t put any on Flickr yet (only mine are there), but I hope they’ll add some soon. I’ll add the essay topic . . . as soon as I’ve written it . . .
On Tuesday rough drafts were due, and late Monday night (uh-oh!!) I wrote mine. But I had been thinking about the topic a lot (oh dear, I am now imagining how I would respond to the student who said this to me: I have no draft, but I have some ideas; . . .). Anyway. I wrote the draft and I really have been thinking about both the electronic poem by J. R. Carpenter and how we read such texts. So we used my rough draft (at the end of this post if you’re interested) to work with the peer review questions I had prepared for the session. Students did a great job commenting, asking questions, and Rebecca pointed out what she thought to be my working thesis. I was grateful for this confirmation. It seemed clear to everyone that I was addressing the prompt but for a different audience than the one they had in mind and also that I was far more interested in the issue of reading electronic texts than they were. They are focused mainly on interpreting the poem, Entre Ville. They also commented on the fact that I have a lot of questions in the introductory paragraph. As I told them, this is pretty typical of my early stage writing when I have real questions about the topic I’m writing about. Most of them will probably be gone in later drafts (or maybe not; this is something I want to think about more).
On Thursday we looked at second stage drafts and then walked the main part of campus from Unit 2, the residence hall where our classroom is (don’t get me started)
In that workshop students read Entre Ville: This City Between Us, an essay by Carpenter on how and why she created Entre Ville. Students highlighted passages that helped them understand her poem and put “sticky notes” on sections they thought they might use in their essays. Next week: individual draft conferences. Then on to the next assignment!
J. R. Carpenter invites us into her neighborhood in her poem, “Entre Ville,” which is a work that she tells us in “Entre Ville: This City Between Us” has appeared in both print and as an electronic text. The work being read for the purposes of this essay is the electronic text. In it there are several pieces of writing, the main one being “Saint Urbain Street Heat.” While the reader might enjoy other aspects of the entire work more, Carpenter signals this is the main text by making it the most accessible and the most familiar. It is placed in the center of the site, and it is written in an easily recognizable spiral notebook. Any reader familiar with a scroll bar can easily read the entire text. But if this is the only part of the text we read, are we getting the full meaning of her poem? Does she make enough of a connectin in ths part of the larger work for us to get her full meaning? Or are readers more famiiar with reading electronic texts going to get more from the poem than those who aren’t? What does this say about the accessibility of electronic literature? For experienced readers of electronic literature, “Entre Ville” might, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s words, become a place, whereas it might remain a space for those who are not able to access its full meaning. But we might argue that this is true for any text. Readers practiced at reading lengthy complex print texts like the classic Don Quixote, for example, are likely to get more out of the novel than readers who generally read less challenging texts like contemporary magazines, newspapers and best selling novels (rethink–also consider WC’s comment about the value judgments involved in assessing level of literacy )
In his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Tuan tells us that “space . . .” while place ” . . .” (find quotes that clearly distinguish). There is no question that we begin to experience “Saint Urbani” more completely when we explore the sections of the poem, some of which appear in the windows of the sketched builidng we assume is Carpenter’s apartment building. From one we can hear the “French man” who waits “until dinner time, / to aim his trumpet” at Carpenter’s apartment. While it isn’t always safe to assume a piece of writing is autobiographical, Carpenter tells us in her essay that this one is. She spent “15 years learning the vocabulary of the nieghbourhood.” If we go to the fourth window, top row on the right hand side of the notebook, we can listen to the French man’s song which accompanies the a video of a sheet blowing in a breeze. The title of this part of the poem is “Rust Sheet Improv.” The more we have retained from reading the central poem, the easier it is to make connections to other sections of the larger work, “Entre Ville.” But how do we know to move the cursor over the building, clicking on the windows and other images on the page? Presumable the more familiar we become with electronic literature, we will know how to explore the page in the same way we learned to click on hyperlinks in web pages to move from one window to the next.
But as with the reading of any kind of text, this does not come instinctively. We need to be taught to read this way (ref Nadel interview & Hayles).
Develop paragraph on Tuan
Before she moved to Montreal, the city was a space (ref Carpenter’s essay), but in her years of living there she has gained intimate knowledge of the people and places; thus it has become a place.
Conclusion: (my audience teachers, so I want to reiterate my argument that we should be teaching students to read electronic texts and to navigate these texts as we do any other kind of literature–that digital literacy, or in Nadel’s words, transliteracy, is essential).
On Thursday class met, students talked in groups of 4-5 (14 students total in the class–yes, I know this is a heavenly number) about the freewriting they did after reading “Entre Ville” while I got the projector set up so that we could read it together.
While they were talking with each other, I did my usual teacher-eavesdropping and heard some great comments: I’m a visual learner, so this was perfect for me; I think she uses place like Tuan‘s definition because she really makes us experience her neighborhood; space is the internet, right, where she’s doing the writing?
There are a lot of things to like about those comments: students are using Tuan’s terminology, making interesting observations about how they read and asking good questions. What more could a teacher ask for? The assignment is a fairly complex one, I think, inasmuch as it requires students to both analyze J. R. Carpenter’s poem and to think about their process of reading the text as well. We’ll talk about various ways this piece of writing might be organized when we meet on Tuesday and they will have their first very rough drafts with them. I like to see what they’ve come up with (in terms of organization and the commentary on the poem) before we discuss things like development and organization.
In our larger discussion, students asked what we were considering to be the poem, which is a good question if you look at the electronic text. Most students had focused on Saint Urbain Street Heat, mainly because it was easily identifiable as a poem, it is centered on the page, and it is contained in a notebook. We discussed the ways in which the design invited us in with things we were familiar with. But then someone pointed out that the entire work is called Entre Ville. A couple of students had read only Saint Urbain, unsure why they hadn’t explored the page further. One student was bothered by the fact that he was supposed to analyze the poem, but he couldn’t use his usual annotation strategies: highlighting, underlining, writing in the margins, etc. In fact, these were all strategies they had just read about in an essay by Donald M. Murray called Reading as a Reader. In addition, however, we’d also read an interview with Ryan Nadel on transliteracy and talked about what it means to be a transliterate person. One student said that he had copied and pasted the text of Saint Urbain onto a doc so that he could work with it in that way. Another revealed that he had discovered that there were other places to go in Entre Ville when he by chance moved his mouse and the cursor landed on an image that opened up a video with sound, which drew a comment about Tuan’s use of the word Experience when he discusses how we use our five senses to know a place. Her comment elicited more comments about how students had played around with the poem to find more poems, a story about a dog, and many interesting sounds of the neighborhood.
The words play, experience, discover and explore are what interest me as a teacher (and also as a reader and writer). This is why we read, yes? And I like having this discussion in the first couple of meetings with a class whose goal it is to improve their reading and writing in an academic context. As the one student was concerned that he couldn’t analyze the poem the way he’d been taught, I expect there will be other concerns. But I assume (and hope) that each concern opens a door (like those in Entre Ville) into a new way of thinking about how we are reading and what kind(s) of analysis might result from these discoveries. Right, the essays they write might not look like essays they’ve written about Sylvia Plath poems or Tupac’s lyrics. Good, I say. All the better.
I’ve read several pieces by J. R. Carpenter whose work I really admire. I share with her an interest in uses of space and place and how we become attached to them. Entre Ville is one of my favorite pieces of hers.I think the design is interesting and it invites me to poke around on windows and doors and see what I can see. And much to my surprise also hear what I can hear. As we talked about in class today, texts like this put play back into reading. And too some extent it is also a collaborative experience. “Did you click the clothesline?” “Listen to the old man play his trumpet.” We want to share the parts of it that delight us.
While my students are going to be writing an analysis of the poem, I’m mostly trying to think abut the process of reading such texts (they’ll be doing that, too, and I’ll also be analyzing the poem, but I’ll probably put the emphasis in my essay on reading). How do we talk about reading such a text? Presumably we all start with the main poem, “Saint Urbain Street Heat,” in part because we easily recognize it: oh there’s the poem! The fact that it moves up and down guided by the red arrows is familiar as well to people who are accustomed to using a scroll bar. But then where do we go? I started with some of the windows and doors because they invite me to peek into them, like old-fashioned children’s books or an advent calendar–when you pull the tabs there is an image or a piece of chocolate behind them. And also it’s logical to open windows and doors.
It took me a while to get to the clothesline, and I clicked on the dog more than once before I found the story there. One of my favorite sections appears with the gloves. I like the way the poem there echoes via the repeated, shaded text and also the images that accompany the words.
Some questions I want to think about more have to do with reading in a nonlinear way. Does it matter that I didn’t see the dog story until the fourth or fifth reading? What would I be missing if I never located it? To some extent these are questions we ask with print texts as well. We may “miss” sections when we read because we don’t understand them or because we are distracted when we’re reading. But they are easier to recover, I suppose, because they are made up of words on a page. We don’t have to hunt for them, at least not by clicking to see what is behind a curtain, or what the bright flowers might deliver.
I am also really taken with the way the line changes directly underneath the title depending on what I click on.
I look forward to hearing what my students have to say.