Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Lil' Report on a Class Discussion...from MOODLE!!!

On February 26th, our group (The Hallster, Stephy, and myself), continued our slightly unfocussed but nevertheless highly interesting conversation about chapters 2 and 3 of Richard Haswell’s Gaining Ground in College Writing. Rather than examining a single question together, we chose to each look at a passage/area of interest and toss it into the group gumbo pot (yes, I just made a cheesy satura reference), which actually had some pretty interesting results. Sure, we didn’t quite reach the full-flu, cold-medicine-drenched level of brilliance that we have during previous discussions, but we were still able to dredge up some interesting points.

So, to the report!

The Hallster started off our group discussion with an exploration of the ways in which educators function based on unspoken, unexamined, implicit assumptions about what it means to teach and learn. He posited that in order for change in ideology and policy to take place, people must be able to first acknowledge and than lay bare and examine those sets of imprinted assumptions. Haswell’s interpretive tales, he argued, provide a narrative framework for that sort of meta-cultural examination. Erin chimed in with her take on those aforementioned implicit assumptions, based on her chosen topic focus (Ungrounded English Teacher Ways), and Stephy added input on degeneration, improvement/improvement, and the process of maturing as “generative change, at once nurturable and natural, toward cultural standards” (68).

The discussion, with the input of Dr. Stacey, then turned toward the much-touted-of-late-question, “were students really better writers a hundred years ago, and how could we tell?” We determined by overall consensus that any exploration of the topic would have to be rooted in a multi-textual, New Historicist, context-based examination of both actual documents and cultural realities of the given time period. The Hallster was able to bring his focused-on area of interest back into the mix with precision, looking at the interpretive tale template as a narrative framework for this sort of evolving, context-based history. Good stuff.

The presentation consisted of brief topic and discussion summaries by the Hallster, Stephy, and Erin, with a Dr. Stacey-led mention of the historical exploration of writing practices through interpretive tales. Good stuff.

Not to be all hyphy-modern, but I’m going to let myself fall prey to some meta-examination. Yep, I'm gonna talk about my FEELINGS. Overall, the discussion was interesting, but I really don’t feel content with it. Perhaps it is because the chapters we were focusing on were assigned so long ago that they felt stale and atrophied by the time we got to discuss them. It could also be because my exploration of my chosen topic was made obsolete by the sheer percentage of my classmates who focused on the exact same topic. Because my area of focus ended up being such a popular one, and because each member of our little group had his/her own topic to present, I felt that I had to keep my summary extremely brief. It just felt awkward.

Also, to be honest, I created my own little awkward scenario by being too darn paranoid. I didn’t realize during the presentation that Dr. Stacey’s nifty gadget was a digital recorder, so when he waved at me, I thought it was some kind of magical, futuristic timing device, and I interpreted his gesture to mean, “get on with it, kid, you’re running out of time!” As a result, I kind of stumbled over myself verbally and psychologically. Yeah, I’m a dork.

Oh, well, the next one will be better.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Drifting on a read in Michael Jarrett's "Drifting on a Read" : Obbligato and Surrealism

In the chapter entitled “Obbligato,” Jarrett spends about forty pages riffing on jazz and creation, adherence and invention, playing fun with the art of compost and popular binary conceptions of composition and improvisation. To be honest, this technically isn’t difficult text. Jarrett doesn’t indulge in an overly masturbatory love of scholarly language, nor does he fall prey to the sheet-throwing, snow-blinding rhetorical styles that seem almost obligatory in many compositions on theory and various incarnations of -ology. The reading can be tricky, though, because Jarrett adopts an approach to text-creation used most often by creative writers: he lets his rhetorical template mimic his topic, writing his way through sections of exploration, reiteration, and improvisation using the meandering swing, trumpeting solos, and unstructured (or destructured) structural sweep that typify (if one CAN typify) his subject matter: jazz. This makes for a rather surreal textbook-reading experience.

It is this sense of the surreal that interests and intrigues me. Maybe it’s because I consider myself an artist on multiple levels, a shaper (albeit a novice one) of visual, written, and ideological text, or maybe it’s just because I’m kind of a weird kid, but the section on pages 86-88 addressing Derrida, surrealism, and the thoughts of Robert Goffin and Krin Gabbard stood out on my interest radar like a lighthouse beacon. Goffin and Gabbard understand avant-garde jazz as vanguard art, a non-visual form of surrealism in which free creation and improvisation dance with borrowed pieces of canonical text (and by “text” I do not by any means imply only written material) in such a way that the resulting piece is imbued with a sense of the satirical. As Jarrett states,
Gabbard links ‘quotation’ – blowing a few bars of some ‘classic melody’ in the midst of an improvisation – to collage, and he argues it turns the modern jazz solo into an avant-garde strategy. Quotation enables artists to adopt a stance of ‘ironic detachment’…toward institutionalized music even as they ‘strive to gain legitimacy for themselves and their music’ (87).

As a visual artist, I can’t help but appreciate this elucidation of “quotation” in jazz as a form of collage, an artistic genre in which myriad bits and pieces of preexisting realities (words, pictures, newspaper clippings, photos, organic materials, fabrics of various prints and textures, etc.) are arranged by an artist to create an original and self-standing composition nevertheless permeated (often with an eye for irony, satire, or social critique) with references to the wider culture in which it exists/ with which it coexists. Beyond the realm of collage, I’m reminded of surrealist art (obviously), as well pop art. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup prints, which function both as original, vanguard art and as an appropriation of, reference to, and commentary on American post-war pop culture mass market consumerism, come to mind.

As a writer – no, make that a creative writer – I am compelled to take the art/jazz surrealism metaphor even further, and apply it to written text. What sorts of genres could be said to resemble jazz, as Gabbard understands it? Parody and satire, obviously, a pair of conjoined textual twins notable for the fact that they take the figures, ideologies, politics, images, and events from popular culture and reimagine them through the critically humorous lens of (mostly) fiction. Poetry, beat and neo-beat in particular, a realm of creative wordsmithing in which popular conical concepts pop in and out and are reworked with tongue-in-cheek lyricism. Surrealistic classics, like James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” in which the author plays with the reader’s conception of reality. And, of course, modern experimental prose, a coming-into-its-own genre in which multiple media and deliberate surrealism are woven together to create texts that are as exploratory and fantastical as the most avant-garde jazz.

So, where am I going with all this? To be honest, I’m not really sure. I’m improvising, fooling around and riffing along a strain of thought, playing it into different areas, and dancing in and out with my own little cultural and canonical references.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Binary Opposites and the Maturing Process: A Few More Thoughts on Haswell's "Gaining Ground in College Writing"

Nature vs. Nurture. On one side of the ring, wearing black shorts: the concept that human development takes place as a result of biologically determined factors. It’s all genetic. On the other side, decked out in the white trunks: the belief that all human development is environmentally determined. We’re all culturally constructed, kiddo, so get used to it! Who will win the age-old debate? And who will die trying?

For years, sociologists, biologists, learning theorists, humanities devotees, and random guys in coffee shops the world over have struggled valiantly trying to win the debate between Nature and Nurture, attempting at all turns to create a sense of truth and permanence from a set of culturally-conceived binary opposites. Good/evil, right/wrong, light/dark, male/female…like it or not, western thought sure does have the handle on the concept of reality as a system of opposites. Which brings us to where we are right now, in front row seats, just inches from the ring. The smell of sweat is heavy in the arena. The crowd is deafening. The opponents are pumped. The beer is warm.

Quite frankly, I don’t see this match ever really getting anywhere.

I’m not the only one. Over the past several decades, people in a variety of different fields have discarded the restricting binary of Nature vs. Nurture, looking instead for a middle ground, a place on the continuum with room for recognition of both biological and cultural influences as determining factors in the (constantly shifting, reevaluating, reforming) development of the individual. This focus on intertextuality and continuous change (as opposed to identity as stagnant end-product) has been an aspect of feminist criticism, queer theories, and socio-cultural critique for a while now, and, as we can see by the theories proposed by Richard Haswell in "Gaining Ground in College Writing," is earning a place within the lore, theory, and methodology of composition instruction.

In "Gaining Ground," Haswell sets up a basic Nature/Nurture scenario in his description of Learning (an environmental and cultural process with no attachment to genetics) and maturation (a genetic and biologically-dictated model with no attachment to environment), then grounds his binary imagery by describing the act of Maturing. “Maturing,” the title Haswell has allocated to the shifting, middle-of-the-continuum process in which biological and cultural/environmental influences are constantly converging, recreating, and reinventing, is defined as “ a social arena where growth may take place with the help of both inner and outer promptings” (Haswell 67).

In the world of composition, Maturing occupies a gray area in which a student writer’s skill and development is evaluated not in terms of measurement against idealized concepts of perfection, but in terms of the student’s own generative changes and improvements as measured against real work by real student writers at various skill and development levels. The student’s writing, rather than being held up against the concept of Perfect Writing (as often happens when one stringently embraces the Learning/Nurture concept), is instead laid out in an interpretive frame of Maturing characterized by the superimposition of two minds, one less and one more experienced. This concept provides, Haswell argues, “a new working definition for a conception of human growth appropriate for writing instruction: maturing is generative change, at once nurturable and natural, towards cultural standards” (Haswell 68).

Nature vs. Nurture. Maturation vs. Learning. By utilizing concepts such as Maturing - and by exploring human development theories not reliant on a system of strict and limited binary opposites - educators, writers, and students have the opportunity to engage the learning process in a generative, structure-building, constantly evolving mode.

In this corner, Nature in the black trunks. In this corner, Nurture in white. The heat is on! Who will win the Battle Royal? Before the audience can blink, Nature comes in with a left-handed blow, but Nurture saw it coming and is one step ahead with a block. Nature recovers just in time to sidestep a swift right jab, and both opponents circle back to opposite sides of the ring. The tension is palpable.

Wait, what’s this!? This match is about to turn into a massacre, kiddos, because here comes Maturing in a surprise entrance! THE GRAY TRUNKS HAVE ENTERED THE RING!


I just can't get this lil' Satura out of my head...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Small Rant Inspired by Richard Haswell's Gaining Ground in College Writing

“My model…sees writing development as three-dimensional, perhaps best pictured as an ascending spiral. It is not just an inner, maturational growth, nor just an outer, social acculturation, nor even the interaction between the two, but an educational life-process or lifework composed of three main forces or vectors, all on the move. Where the developments of student, field of writing, and teacher meet and are furthered by the meeting, there genuine educational development takes place” (Haswell 5-6). Is it only me, or does Haswell seem to be overanalyzing and overcomplicating some very basic and simplistic concepts? Maybe I’m just being too critical, maybe I’ve become too used to donning the rainbow colored glasses of the overly-smug yet vainly insecure grad student stereotype, but it seems like the majority of what I read these days involving composition and educational theory leaves me muttering “duh” to myself.

The concepts, in this case the idea that real developmental teaching takes place when all three factors - the student, the teacher, and the state of the field - achieve development, just seems to be something so obvious that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned. The fact that it DOES need to be mentioned, and even argued for, simultaneously disgusts and frightens me. It also, when I bother to think about it, kind of explains the state of the educational system over the past few decades. Which scares the shit out of me. If reform is so simple, so basic, and so glaringly obvious, then why have “the powers that be” been doing it so damn wrong for so damn long?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

A Lil' Somethin' from the Ol' YouTube...

Crescendo and Diminuendo In Blue. Enjoy!

Riffing on Troping: A Brief Foray into Michael Jarrett's "Drifting on a Read"

Well, hello again, my imaginary or possibly not-so-imaginary readers! As you may already have inferred from my return, I have over the past evening violently consumed and voraciously consummated about 125 pages of assigned text. Now, with “all them strange idears” roiling around in my noggin, I guess I have no choice but to write, or perhaps I say should riff, about a bit of the mental maelstrom.

Despite the assignment’s short stature (a mere 23 pages, versus 94 in the other text), Drifting on a Read is fascinating to me for its exploration of the Law of Trope (5). Troping, jazz’s creative process of endlessly and constantly reconfiguring set pieces of existing music, is a concept that in Michael Jarrett’s hands slides itself almost seamlessly around the shoulders of composition and reading theory. When a musician is troping, he or she is playing both an instrument and a game, not just reinterpreting but actually reinventing the artistic reality around him or herself through the study and remolding of traditional elements into something new. Jarrett would argue that the same process can benefit writers, readers, critics, and theorists, all of whom can, by rereading and reconfiguring aberrant text, take part in the play of invention (5).

This image of troping, or “drifting on a read,” is a new one for me, at least as far as metaphors are concerned. The basic concepts involved, however, such as the reopening of a text, creative play, collaboration, heteroglossia, and reinvention, already compose a large portion of the vocabulary used in many modern academic conversations on composition theory. By clearly hypothesizing about the parallels (and connecting rods) inherent between the two seemingly separate forms of expression - jazz and writing – Jarrett is making what is in my opinion a very strong and supportable stance for the importance of fluid jazz concepts in reading and composition theory, and, perhaps, vice versa. I particularly appreciate the ways in which Jarrett himself embraces the art of troping, demonstrating his own commitment to play by exploring, rereading, and repeatedly reconfiguring jazz great Louis Armstrong’s famous (or infamous) much-quoted words, “Lady, if you gotta ask what it is, you’ll never know.” Interesting, sir. Quite interesting.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Well now, isn't that special?

Let me tell you, I would LOVE to write something fascinating and scintillating concerning rhetoric, something coherent and thought-provoking about the parallels between jazz and composition, something poignant and earth-rocking with critical theory as its main focal point, but the thing is…I can’t. At least, not at this very moment in time. Like many other average (read, “poor”) college students living, learning, and working in the contemporary reality of these United States, I once struggled to afford and now struggle to avoid the outrageous price mark-ups so delightfully embraced by the entire college bookstore industry. Which means, my dear, sentient, hopefully not imaginary readers, that I order my books online whenever possible. And herein lies the crux of my current delicious dilemma.

In a nutshell: Ordered the books online. Waited for them to arrive. Waited. Waited. Talked to self in angry and unflattering manner. Waited. Sent frustrated and apologetic email to Professor. Waited. Waited. Went to bookstore to buy outrageously overpriced shelf copies of already-ordered books. Purchased and began to read. Still waiting for already-ordered books to show up.

Anyway, as you, my possibly imaginary reader, might well imagine, I am still in the process of reading through the material I plan to write about in this week’s pseudo-intellectual blog. As a result, my inaugural post will be…


Because, deep down inside, everybody loves a dog who can play some sweet, sweet jazz. Even imaginary blog readers.