Thursday, October 27, 2011

Music as Activism: Sountracks to Student Projects

Each semester, I have made sure to spend at least one day talking about music and lyrics as forms of activism. I have my students read the lyrics of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Linkin Park's "Hands Held High," and Eminem's "Like Toy Soldiers." I also share YouTube videos of these songs, so that they can listen to the them as they read the lyrics. In class, we talk about which songs were effective at carrying across their message and do close readings, dissecting lyrics, talking about tone, and evaluating audience appeal.

Today, they also used this conversation about music to workshop their Writing as Activism projects, all of which are based upon very different topics. These are the instructions for the workshop:

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As far I have seen (some students took it home to complete), all of my students chose option # 1: the sountrack. While on the surface, the workshop might sound silly, students actually learn quite a bit about Composition by doing it. It requires students to:

  • consider the aspects of their topic that they wanted to highlight. 
  • perform close readings of songs to establish whether or not those songs actually represented the issues that they wished to highlight. 
  • figure out the best way to organize the soundtrack for an audience and how to use that organization to contribute to their message.
  • analyze their choices.

As students worked on this workshop, the classroom became vibrant. You could hear all different genres of music softly playing on laptops. Some of the students were giggling at the videos and lyrics. It was 35 minutes where every student was on-track, focused on the task at hand.

It was also a collaborative effort, though I didn't intentionally make it one. Students were talking to one another, sharing their iTunes libraries, and helping each other find songs on YouTube. They were asking "why that song?" and, though they may have just been curious, they were forcing their fellow students to consider their choices.

And of course, this workshop was also a great way for students to learn to use technology. I am super lucky to have a school that provides every student with a laptop and wireless access in every classroom. Since they are given these tools, I believe it is my job to make the most of them. This project required them to fine tune key words in order to search for songs and lyrics. Though this seems like an easy task on the surface, one of the most challenging tasks when it comes to academic research is finding the right search terms to use in the databases. Learning how to construct key words and how to find sources to help you complete your task are important skills.

In the end, I was impressed by the soundtracks that my students compiled. They put a good deal of thought into them. Even the students who had challenging topics, for which practically no songs directly addressed the issue, managed to figure out what they wanted to say about those topics and find songs to help them make sense of their activist projects. Some of them even shared links to the songs so that I could listen to them. All in all, I think this is a workshop I will be assigning in future courses.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I Write

Today is the National Day of Writing sponsored by the National Writing Project. My TweetDeck is full of #WhyIWrite tweets. As a student, a tutor, and a professor, I thought this was a good time to reflect on my own purposes for writing. This is what I came up with:

 Nicole Papaioannou 
 Sometimes, I write to connect with others, but often, I write to connect with myself.

I write all of the time. Every day.

I'm a social networking junkie. I log in to Facebook just about every day. I love keeping in touch with my college friends across the country. I am nearly as active on Twitter (@comPOSITIONblog), using it to reach out to other educators in a way that helps me fine-tune my craft and gives me the power to influence educational policy as a whole. I use, Google Plus, and LinkedIn to create a professional presence, so that people who choose to Google me learn more about who I as a professional rather than being linked to high school and college artifacts. 

I text like crazy. Some days, I send over one hundred texts.

I blog. Well, that one's obvious if you're reading this. I also have a course blog, though, and ask my students to create their own, which I read and comment on from time to time.

I write about my research. Annotated bibliographies are becoming a staple in my daily routine, but I also blog about what I read sometimes. My research makes its way into essays, presentations, lesson plans, and even fiction from time to time.

I do teacherly writing. I comment on papers. I write lesson plans and create assignments. I email students. I even get to write recommendation letters every once in a blue moon.

I write "creatively." Every day, I attempt to write fiction (it used to be poetry).

I take notes.

I make to-do lists.

I write to connect with others...
I tell my students all of the time that writing is a social transaction. It is a powerful tool that can help them communicate with others, record history and memories, and create positive changes in their worlds. Though I clearly feel that writing can be personal, as well, I think students have spent far too much time being told that writing is for evaluation. They forget all of the ways that they use writing to enhance their lives.

I speak from what I know. Looking at my list above, I see that most of my writing is not done without social influence. What people around me talk about and think about shape what I talk and think about. My own writing expresses a deep desire to connect with others through intertextuality, interactive digital mediums, and writing that inquires rather than dictates. 21st Century Writing happens in a network, not a garret.

I write to connect with myself...
Life can be stressful, and writing is a great release. When I get in the zone, I forget about everything but my writing (at this point, my bunny starts thinking, "Mom, why are you ignoring me? Look how cute I am!!!!" and sits on the end of the rug grilling me). Sometimes, I just need to write. Over the years, this need for release has translated into song lyrics, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and even academic work.

Every piece of writing I've ever done is somehow a piece of me exposed. Whether I'm writing an entry in a diary or a public blog post, a scholarly article or a conference proposal, or even a piece of poetry or fiction, who I am is all over the pages. When I look over my writing, I begin to see who I was and who I am becoming. I can almost psychoanalyze myself. Perhaps, my interest in children's and YA literature reflects my own feelings of being caught between childhood and adulthood. I enjoy Victorian Literature because it speaks back to the clashes between the ways my conservative upbringing and my education dictate a woman should behave. I write about death often. I write about sexuality often. I don't even do these things consciously. They just leak out. Writing reminds me that these are the struggles I deal with, the issues that are important to me, the ones I need to challenge and deal with.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Face(less)book: Why Colleges Should NOT Use Facebook to Screen Applicants

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Today, Ryan Lytle of US News published an article titled "College Admission Officials Turn to Facebook to Research Students." The article reveals a growing trend of college admission officials using Facebook and other forms of media to check up on applicants. The consequences can be serious, as Lytle reveals:
In the Kaplan Test Prep survey, 12 percent of respondents who reported checking social media sites noted that posts—such as vulgar language in a status update or alcohol consumption in photos—negatively impacted a prospective student's admissions chances.
Some of the interviewees believe that Facebook is public access, and therefore, the school's right. While Florence Hines of McDaniel College was not one of them, she does say:
"I believe the reality that if this trend increases, students need to be very cautious of the fact that admissions offices will use this information."
As a student and someone hoping to join the ranks of professional academics in the near future, I think this is utterly ridiculous. Colleges screening applicants on Facebook? Really? Will we be installing Big Brother in college dorm rooms next?

When I was a high school student, I never smoked or drank or did anything completely appalling, but I also know I changed immensely throughout college, especially during my first year. And making mistakes is part of the process of adolescence. Who hasn't sworn to seem cool as a teenager at least once? Who didn't say or do something as a teenager that as an adult you would never do? I know, for instance, that I described things that I thought were stupid or silly as being "gay" when I was in high school. It took a friend in college to make me realize just how insensitive and offensive that was, and I have since given up using that term. Similarly, just because a student's profile has lyrics from some terribly profane hip hop song, it doesn't mean that the student is a "bad kid" or unworthy of college entrance. In many cases, high school students still haven't reached the level of awareness that college students are granted through their educations. They don't understand the politics or the power of the language that they use, and it takes people they admire, often college professors or well-educated peers, to show them why they need to change their ways. The more I learned, the better the person I became, more socially aware and socially just.

Furthermore, we have multiple identities, and we should be free to express them. The fact that employers and colleges are now tracking my every move online makes it difficult to do so, and I don't think that is healthy. I admit that while I never believed my personal Facebook account was inappropriate, I did eventually move to making it completely private and creating a public professional account. While I make it a point to avoid doing stupid things, drinking too much, or taking embarrassing photos, I go out often, and more particularly, I like to go to night clubs and dance. I love house music. Several of my friends enjoy the same music and dancing, and so, I often share music on my wall or post updates about our favorite djs being in town. From time to time, pictures also come up, and while none of them are inappropriate, a hiring board might see me in a mini dress with strobe lights in the background and make assumptions. I wanted to communicate with colleagues, and I knew I would be harshly judged. People would assume "oh, she's a partier," and that would be end of that.

But should I stop living at 25 because someone might decide that they want to stalk me online and make judgments based on incomplete information? It makes me angry that I could and probably will be judged on things that have nothing to do with my teaching. I am responsible. I show up to work early, I give good feedback and take time to work with my students, I enjoy collaborating wit my colleagues, and I constantly immerse myself in research. It makes me even more upset that some really amazing students who may have become greater thinkers and doers might never have a chance to sit in my classroom because somebody on the admissions board decided to check their Facebook page and make a judgment call.

In the article, it is also suggested that smart students can use their online presence to showcase themselves, but I would argue that that is capitalism at its worst. First of all, this means a great deal of self-censorship and that is not always a good thing. As we learn from M.L. Pratt, much can be learned in the contact zone, where niceties and consensus is no longer important. Furthermore, the "smart kids" who do this will inevitably be mostly white, upper-middle class students who have had access to computers all their lives and who have had teachers tell them how to shape themselves to fit the professional model. And while we're at it, let's be honest here: a Hispanic boy who enjoys hip hop is more likely to be "screened out" than some White girl who listens to country. White/white collar culture is shaped around professionalism and political correctness; other cultures are not. Inevitably, screening profiles will mean cookie cutter online identities. Like college admissions essays, profiles will all start to sound the same.

Worst of all, though, by screening applicants, rather than educating them, colleges do a disservice to young adults. They deny them the opportunity to interact with new, diverse groups of people who will challenge their hegemonic ideals and ideas. Think of all of the texts and the discussions about those texts that occur in college. I know that my coursework has shaped me, and I know that I am not alone in that sentiment. I would never have picked up Foucault's Discipline and Punish if not for my literary theory course. I would never have read Geneva Smitherman's Talkin and Testifyin, if I wasn't surrounded by Race Theorists, Postcolonialists, and Compositionist. I would think about the world differently. In short, I would not be the person I am today. A true democratic education would look past differences of personal expression and allow students to judge for themselves whose actions/views/beliefs are the ones they want to adopt.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Uncertainty or Possibility?

Ten years ago, when I was still in high school, I would have been appalled if someone told me that in my mid-twenties, I'd still have no idea where my life was headed. At 15, I knew what I wanted to do. I was going to train horses for the rest of my life. Duh! But the truth is, my life has taken turns that I never could have foreseen, and as Jobs reminded us in his 2005 Standford University Commencement speech, it is only now, after the fact, that I am able to connect the dots.

As a doctoral student, my future is far from settled. If my teachers' and mentors' constant reminders weren't enough, Occupy Wall Street has now made it clear that a job after graduation is not certain (or maybe even likely), though I will have three degrees by that time. I know my dissertation process is right around the corner, and I'm not sure what to write about. I know that, in a few years, when I am done, I'll have to decide where I am willing to live, and if I'm still prepared to commit myself to the adjunct's lifestyle, at least for a time. These things, among others (the cultural pressure to find a husband and have kids before my eggs die, for instance), are a constant source of panic. What if I fail? What if I graduate and never find a job? What if I never meet someone willing to put up with the instability of my life as a scholar? Ack! Start one bad thought, and it's guaranteed to turn into an avalanche.

My students are asking many of the same questions: Why am I in college? What is the value of a degree? What if I have no major? Will I ever get a job? Will I make my family proud? What if I fail? You can see the anxiety that is caused by uncertainty taking its toll on them, especially now, as the midterm process begins.

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What I'm slowly learning, or trying to convince myself, is that there is very little difference between the words uncertainty and possibility; both deal with an unpredictable future. The difference is that uncertainty incites fear, while possibility creates excitement. Rather than focusing on that uncertainty, I am retraining myself to think in terms of possibilities (and trying to keep them positive). I can be stunted by thinking, "Gosh. I don't know what will happen next. How can I plan if I don't know what's around the bend?" or I can say, "The future is undecided, but that means that I am left with choices." Possibility pushes me to accept the latter.

This uncertainty vs. possibility notion also plays into writing. Writing is a scary process. We never know where we will end up or how our audiences will react. These uncertainties can make us cautious, cause us to self-censor, or stop us from writing freely. Of course, taking a risk is part of the game. As a writer, I have to be willing to cut things, dramatically revise, and revisit ideas if I want to get the closest to the "truth" (whatever that is). I have to be willing to say things that may offend people. But I should also remember that the possibilities are infinite. Possibility allows for creativity. Somewhere in my imagination are stories that have yet to be told, forms that have yet to be tried, and ideas that have yet to be developed.

As a professor, I can use "possibility" to remind my students that the open-ended nature of writing is what makes it such a valuable thing. Though the task of getting started can be daunting or producing something without understanding a professor's evaluation process, writing helps us to learn, to think, and to grow as individuals. Often, the gems that are hidden in our brains surprise us.