There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding Micah White’s new book: The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution. White is one of the founding provocateurs behind Occupy Wall Street. On this 30th episode of Lehigh Valley Vanguard LIVE ON AIR (!!!) Lauren, Wes and I discuss White’s intention for writing the book: innovation to our existing forms of protest and strengthening communities.
This week my students had a thesis statement due for their first written assignment. As a primer for their argumentative experiments we read Catherine Savini’s “Looking For Trouble: Finding Your Way Into a Writing Assignment.”
Savini offers many example prompts in her texts, and one of them (though slightly modified) became my students’ first assignment in our course:
Identify and examine a human rights topic about which you would like to know more. You should use internet, library, and other sources to gather information on this topic; this is not a full-scale research paper, so you need to find a small number of adequately comprehensive sources. Your essay should (1) identify the issue; (2) describe its scope and frequency in geographic, regime-type, temporal, socio-demographic, or other terms, as appropriate; (3) identify the sense in which it is a human rights violation (of what article of what covenant, or with respect to what norm); (4) tell us what you have been able to learn about its causes, and (5) identify political, social, cultural, economic or other factors that appear to contribute to its increase or decrease. You should critically assess biases or shortcomings in the information sources you used to research your topic.
In order to answer their prompt, students are required to present a clear, original thesis, 6 sources (2 book, 3 journal, 1 article). I encouraged them to visit the Human Rights Watch website for ideas: https://www.hrw.org/topics.
This prompt was good for discussion and promoted thoughtfulness among students: how many policies are created in support of human rights versus the support of non-human entities: the economy, corporations.
With Savini we were also able to discuss leadership competencies. Savini brings out that leaders need to practice integrative thinking: holding multiple thoughts at once in order to discover solutions. For instance, a college will have certain lines of thought carried over from family, friends, former teachers. Their job, as integrative thinkers, is to examine those long-held ideas, look at the new ideas, and discover the answers for themselves based on their own research. Leaders do this and act accordingly, but it is a way of thinking that is learned. I remember grappling with this set of practices when I was a college student. This is why college is a valuable experience.
Song: Bjork, “Human Behavior”
Students examined Bjork’s “Human Behavior” and picked out: the elements of fairy tale storytelling (Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks), ecocriticism, Biblical references (to Jonah and the Whale), and imaginative style. They also cited a lot of lyrics in the song finding significance there.
Song: Earth, Wind & Fire, “That’s the Way of the World”
Earth, Wind & Fire was comparatively a relaxed analysis, compared to Bjork, in some ways. Some of the students pointed out the deep message of the song was obscured by accompanying music that lulled many of them into submission. We also looked at the glyphs on the single’s cover art: eye of Horos, an ankh, Saturn, a manora, Jupiter, a crucifix, a caduceus, and the star of David. As I learn more about my Jewish ancestry I had fun explaining the “evil eye” and why people wear symbols of protection in Jewish lore.
Savini asks students to “locate a problem” to get interested in an assignment. She listed the problems students face every day and showed them, whether they realize it or not, they are always negotiating problems.
She suggests these steps:
2. Articulating a problem and its details;
3. Posing fruitful questions;
4. Identifying what is at stake. (56)
These are skills students will use every day in any personal problem or career–certainly for the rest of their college career.
Savini also suggests:
1. Juxtapose texts from the same genre or on the same topic and identify tensions or contradictions in terms of their ideas and/ or definitions of key concepts.
2. Identify conflict between your own experiences and the theories or arguments offered by the text.
3. Identify troubling assumptions that underlie the central arguments/ideas of a text.
4. Note a gap or something relevant the text overlooks.
Though this was a longer read for a Composition II class, Savini will be invaluable to students moving forward. I’ve learned from her as well: always a good sign when selecting a text. One of my favorite parts about Savini’s text was her strategy of asking students: “What’s your problem?!” As in: why does your project matter?
I can’t wait to read the final drafts of my students for this assignment: they’ve picked nuanced arguments they care about. In terms of subject matter, it’s great to see them all concerned with what it means to be human, who is allowed to be more human than others, and how human beings interact within society, nature, and limitations.
This week in English Composition II we focused on evaluating source material and elements of argument.
When students are made to consider how they digest media, whether for school or for life, they must consider spectacle. To sift through this concept I thought we’d better read Roland Barthes “The World of Wrestling.” Barthes’ piece was also paired with two supplementary readings: “The Spectacle of Excess: Roland Barthes, Wrestling, and the Eucharist” and “On ‘The World of Wrestling’ by Roland Barthes (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Blog About Professional Wrestling).”
Song: Animal Collective, “What Would I Want? Sky”
In our song this week, students pointed out the dissonance in the song and how it’s similar to the myriad of messages they receive every day. This song also shows a dichotomy between thought and pragmatism (which Barthes discusses in his piece).
Audio Object: John Cena Prank Call (Good to get the students laughing. Life is hard.)
This piece, in addition to being silly, is an example of inundation of consumer culture. It’s important students know how to determine the stakes behind what they are absorbing and the constant bombardment they may not notice. There is a difference between passive observation of information and critical consideration. I learned about this clip from a former student when he insisted I listen to it. Barthes can be a heavy reading, so it was nice to break it up with some laughs. It fit nicely into our discussion.
For our activities we did an argument essay checklist. Students brought in four articles about the same topic. They broke into groups to figure out if the pieces fit our criteria.
Reading: Roland Barthes, “The World of Wrestling”
In Barthes, from a composition standpoint, we focused on: pointed vocabulary, taking pains to create prose, making sharp references, defining “the spectacle,” myth in society, and students used their theory cheat sheet to determine what school Barthes was working from. We determined he was a sturcturalist/post-structuralist and a predecessor to affect and queer theory.
Right now it’s hard for students and teachers alike to tackle all the daily events bombarding us. In wrestling people find comfort in the clear struggle between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Barthes says:
In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.
Our jobs are harder. We have to figure it out for ourselves.
This week in English Composition II we focused on “ad hominem.”
To start, students defined ad hominem:
An attack on a person’s characteristics, ones they sometimes have little control over, like physical appearance, rather than the position they are taking.
For this lesson I though it important to bring the discussion further with: how do our current modes of communication contribute to ad hominem attacks? That brought us to a brief exploration of post-humanism: specifically our communications through technological spaces.
Students were asked how technology, communication technology in particular, has made us approach our relationships with other human beings. We talked about how some theorists argue we are cyborgs now, hooked up with extensions: email, social media, vlogs, blogs, online picture albums, Google searches which precede us prior to any formal, human introduction.
Without the pressure of answering to someone face to face, sometimes it is easier to say things online. What is the impact?
Song: Gary Numan (Tubeway Army) “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”
Students reacted to “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” with a variety of insights. They noticed the choice of ‘Friends’ in quotes. What kind of “friends” are we talking about here? Are our friends online really our friends, or do friendships require more?
I pointed out the history in the song: when the song came out in the late 1970’s, people were first starting to consider how technology would change the way we interact with each other–how technology would alter our entire reality. Gray Numan as his anxious stage persona with the pancake makeup and tech color pallate, moving only slightly (along with his band members) to the repetitive, mechanical sounds presents a social commentary close to our current reality. Numan also presents the issue of technological isolationism (“Now I’m alone/ Now I can think for myself/ About little deals and issues/ And things that/ I just don’t understand/ Like a white lie that night/ Or a sly touch at times/ I don’t think it meant anything to you”): paranoia, loneliness.
Visual Art: Robert Hren “Caricature of Donald Trump”
Hren has a series of these caricatures. One of my students pointed out the image of Obama by Hren gives him large ears, which my student attributed to Obama’s good listening skills. We talked about the photo realism present in this caricature and how much it differs from a cartoonish drawing you might get down the shore. Here we see Trump has a giant mouth that looks like a wind tunnel, lips chapped from talking too much, hair whipped around from the force, and tiny eyes because he doesn’t see beyond his own world view. Hren’s art combines ad hominem with other forms of critique and the result is valuable.
Reading: Michael Eric Dyson, “The Ghost of Cornel West”
From our pre-lecture notes:
Ad hominem is one of the most popular logical fallacies meaning “against the person.” It occurs in many public arguments, and it can be hard to distinguish when someone is deploying it versus when a true criticism is highlighted.
In “The Ghost of Cornel West” Dyson argues that Cornel West, another prominent public intellectual and Dyson’s longtime colleague and friend, has suspect moral character.
How does Dyson do this? Use specific examples from the text.
You may stop reading the text when you have written down 5.
What are some recent articles that use ad hominem to discredit a person? Are they completely facile? Could they be construed as useful? Explain.
Dyson’s article was published at a publication he serves as contributing editor. His article is 23 pages long and looks to be editing lite. He criticizes West based on West’s issues with President Obama. West, after supporting Obama during his campaign, felt he was used by the campaign to gain followers until Obama was elected and became just another neoliberal president. Dyson claims this makes West less of a scholar, worse, less trustworthy in the Black community. He cites things like West’s gapped front teeth and Southern preacher style without actually addressing West’s concerns about the American presidency.
We discussed “rage posting” and online feuds, digital identity, and determining credibility.
This was an exciting discussion. Ultimately, students determined Dyson was looking for some of the energy given to West to be given his way. Students considered whether or not Dyson was paid to write the article by someone who wanted to slander West. Another student asked why West didn’t sue for libel. This brought us to another discussion: a student asked why, if West was saying slanderous things about Obama, was he not “sued by the government?” We then discussed that citizens are ALWAYS permitted to criticize the president. Anything else is fascism. This question concerned me because I worry Trump is making impressionable young citizens think they are not supposed to critique the president. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For a thesis building activity, I asked students to pick an element of Dyson’s prose to argue against. Our lesson built on the idea we touched on last week: just because it’s published doesn’t mean it’s infallible.
There were a few beloved students who could not get into my classes off the waitlist this semester. See, one of my course sections was switched at the last minute with a colleague who has seniority. I’ve decided to deal with this by blogging my weekly lessons in English Composition II for former students, peers, and curious friends.
English Composition II is a course in argumentation. Every week I’ve assigned one main reading along with two art objects: a song or visual art. The first ten minutes, we examine art objects using a criteria [“cheat”] sheet with ethos, pathos, logos, literary and critical theories (formalism, psychoanalysis [Jung, Freud, Lacan], Marxism, post-colonialism, deconstructionism, feminism, critical race theory, ecocriticism, affect theory, and queer theory), and elements of visual rhetoric. In the first week I gave the students an introductory lesson in the theories–ethos, pathos, logos and elements of visual rhetoric are review from the companion course they took last semester. Students are also practicing research skills because they are expected to research these art objects prior to class and have notes ready with sources.
I explained to my students, as a former aerobics instructor, I believe in warm ups. Critical thinking can be hard, just like exercise. In exercise we warm up the body to prevent injury and develop self-efficacy. Teaching composition and critical thinking requires the same considerations. We are also in a humanities course. To me, this means students should be connecting all types of things humans compose to send a message.
First we analyze our art objects. I write student observations on the board.
In subsequent weeks I hope to take pictures of my students’ observations because they are so exceptional, but I will outline the discussion instead.
Song: TV on the Radio, “Province”
“Province” is from TV on the Radio’s 2006 Return to Cookie Mountain. You can hear David Bowie featured on this track. Students pointed out the monochromatic colors, obvious ecocriticism and nature symbology, Vietnam military uniform, critical race perspectives (always the POC who save the militarized woman!). We also discussed the Prometheus reference “all the fire which you stole,” and the Gandhi quote used for the song’s rationale: “love is the province of the brave.” A few of my female students questioned the choice to make the military presence female. This was a fruitful warm-up.
Visual Art: Yayoi Kusama, “Mirror Room (Pumpkin)”
When we got to the discussion of one of Yayoi Kusama’s infinity dot spaces, I pulled up a few of her other pieces along with a photo of Kusama.
Kusama merges with her art and demonstrates how artists are a part of their work. We had a good discussion of this in one of my sections because I have a lot of theater majors in the class. Students had quotations from Kusama to determine the meaning of her polka dot pieces. They also focused on her use of color.
Reading: Slavoj Žižek, “The Missing Ink” from Welcome to the Desert of The Real!
Žižek borrows from, most recently, The Matrix, for the title of this book of essays post-9/11. Jean Baudrillard originally coined the phrase “welcome to the desert of the real” for his theory of simulation and simulacra.
I love this part of the class because we get in a circle and everyone can see each other.
In “The Missing Ink” students were asked to find Žižek’s main assertion. If you’ve read Žižek you know this can be a daunting undertaking as he has a roundabout way of getting to his point. We also discussed reading methods for challenging texts, one of them is reading the piece from the last paragraph to the first paragraph (reading it backwards) to increase comprehension.
I also asked students in their “Pre-lecture Sheet”:
What devices does Žižek deploy to support his point?
For instance: to start the essay, he uses an allegorical device, which is the story of “The Missing Ink” (the article’s namesake). He establishes: how can someone use the code of red ink to signify something as untrue if no red ink exists? He uses this to make his point about not having language to say the opposite of something is true.
For Žižek, restriction of choice is tantamount to “unfreedom.” I asked: “If you had to continue his argument, what could you use as some of your examples?”
One student used the example of walking by someone and saying “How are you?” The accepted answer is “good” or saying “How are you?” right back. No one wants to actually know how you are when they casually pass by. So are we all just “good” or is it we are not permitted to use the language that would signify otherwise?
It was important to discuss how writings become published: who publishes? Why was this writer’s writing chosen? Did the writer’s identity have anything to do with publication? How do we determine whether something published was (what I call) “editing lite” and could still use some revisions? This is where the “desert of the real” also becomes useful: we have to look behind the simulation. This brought us to a pertinent discussion of “fake news.” I suggested these critical thinking skills are required to suss out “fake news” and we shouldn’t think any administration should do it for us. Having multiple sources for information is preferable as long as we practice critical analysis.
We also watched this clip and students got to see my Žižek impression.
So there is the first week. Not the same as being in class with us, but it will have to do.
*Note: I will make these lesson posts 2 weeks after we’ve done them in class.