Saturday, February 18, 2012

Photography for Writers

Those who know me well know that I have two real artistic passions in life. The first one is obvious: writing. The second one is photography. What I've learned is that I can cross-pollinate my interests. I learn a lot about one subject from using the theories and lenses of another (you'll see this, for example, in my post about DJ/producer David Guetta and academics). In this case, I can use my knowledge of photography to improve my writing, even if it is only amateur.

My first SLR camera-- a Nikon 35mm N65
In this article, "10 Top Photography Composition Rules" from PhotographyMad's website, the (sadly) unnamed author reflects on the common notions of composition that help to create great photographs. The ten are:

  • the rule of thirds
  • balancing elements
  • leading lines
  • symmetry and patterns
  • viewpoint
  • background
  • depth
  • framing
  • cropping
  • experimentation
One can take these rules of photographic composition and apply them to writing.

The rule of thirds: In photography, it relates to top, center, and bottom, left, right, and middle. It breaks the picture into a grid of 9 spaces. A good photographer knows where these things are being placed on the grid to help create the best shot. A good writer can perhaps think about this grid of 9 in a different way: beginning, middle, end. Where do you want the most and the least information to lie?

This image is enhanced by the
balance of light and dark elements
Balancing elements: In photography, it's about balancing images, colors, and space. In academic writing, this could mean not overloading one paragraph and underdeveloping another. In creative writing, such as poetry, when the visual rhetoric is just as important as the writing, this could refer to the balance of the words on the space.

Leading lines: This is perhaps the hardest on to apply. The definition give by PhotographyMad is this: "When we look at a photo our eye is naturally drawn along lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey "through" the scene. There are many different types of line - straight, diagonal, curvy, zigzag, radial etc - and each can be used to enhance our photo's composition." In writing, one could consider this the focus of the paper, pulling the thread of an idea through, whether it be directly or indirectly. It should, however, be a conscious choice.

Symmetry and patterns: In creative writing, patterns are especially important because they add to the meaning of the piece. In academic writing, symmetry and patterns are tools for analysis.

Getting up close and personal
with Cluck via macro lens
Viewpoint: Photographers call it viewpoint; writers call it perspective or voice. The way a person sees an object is different depending on where they view it from. This can be literal-- a student sitting at the back of the class sees the classroom differently than the teaching behind the desk-- or figurative, more akin to a wordview-- a Green individual or a racist, for example. This plays into the way that we write characters, the way we describe things, and the way that we analyze ideas. 

Background: Background is important because it can emphasize a subject or, if the background is too busy, we can lose the subject all together. The same happens in writing. In academic writing, if we get lost in too much background explanation, our focus can become unclear. On the other hand, the right amount of background can help illuminate historical issues, illustrate theoretical foundations, or clarify the use of a term, changing the way a reader interprets an argument. In creative writing, too much background can make the story lag and lose our readers' interests, while the right amount can endear us to characters, create suspense, or paint a scene.

Depth: Considering how far we must pry into something for it to have an impact is important to consider for photographers and writers alike. In academic writing, depth tends to be the goal. We want to keep a narrow focus, but really "dig in deep." In creative writing (and I know keep making this binary for conversation purposes, but really I don't think the line is so black-and-white), we want to make sure to add depth only where it's needed. I don't need to have an in-depth analysis of every character in a novel, or I become overwhelmed. 

Framing: In photography, this refers to surrounding something so that it is emphasized. In writing, we refer to frames all of the time: frame of reference, frame narration, framing the scene. It is much the same as the framing photographers think about. 

Cropping: Photographers consider very carefully what should and should not be in a scene, what should be the focus and what should be cut out. This is the job of the writer, as well. We have to think about what information is necessary and what is fluff. We have to think about the parameters of argument, how much space we have to fill (you cannot say the same in 500 words that you can in 50,000), and how to focus in on the most important material.

Boring leather table + foam glowstick
+ slow shutter speed = cool picture
Experimentation: Aside from balance, this seems like the most important rule of composition to me. I think many of us fear trying something new. Think of how many novice photographers, for instance, take the same already-been-done picture of the butterfly landing on a flower and believe it to be their best work. The same is true of writers. We fear stepping outside the box, especially in academic situations, but many times, risk-taking leads us to our best work. New forms, odd angles, tapping into theories outside of discipline, talking about taboo subjects-- these can make great pieces of art, both in photography and writing.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Price of Scholarship: A Reality Check

I love what I do. I love teaching. I love researching. I love reading student papers. I love tutoring. I love literature. I am an English major-- heart, soul, and brain. There isn't much I wouldn't do to stay in this field forever.

This career path has cost me quite a bit though, and on my long commute yesterday, I began to think about just how much I have paid for my profession. Aside from the thousands spent on my education over the past eight years, the costs really add up. People tell you that grad school is expensive and that becoming an academic is no guarantee for success, but I don't think I took a moment to consider what that would really mean when I started out on this journey. I'm sure we all remember this delightful clip:

I think it's important that those of us in academic continue to talk about the reality of it. Politicians would have you believe that every college professor in America lives in a mansion and drives a Jaguar as a weekend car while corrupting the impressionable undergrads that worship the ground we walk on (and then we "poison" them with our "liberal mindedness" of course). You would also think that graduate students are living in the lap of luxury, that all they have to do is go to school and party, that they are breezing through life while others work hard in "the real world." Oh how I wish that was the truth! It's important that these images are shattered if we are to continue to push for positive changes in education and in the profession.

The Truth Is... I Work Three Jobs and Still Have No Money

During my week, without major traffic incidents, I spend an average of 11 hours commuting to my jobs at two universities. I also work a third non-academic job doing nightlife photography, which requires another 2 hours of commuting late at night. 

Though my trusty Subaru Forester has decent gas mileage, I still spend about $100 and just under $60 in tolls a week just to get to my jobs. You can throw in an additional $24 for parking and $15 for food a week while you're at it.

For those of us who are not Math-minded, that breaks down to $200 and 13 hours a week spent on simply going to work. This does not include conferences, which are costly yet nearly mandatory if you hope to have a future in academia.

As an adjunct, I make less money to teach one class than it would cost me to take one class at the graduate level at the same university where I teach. As a part-time employee, I receive no benefits from either job.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

The Truth Is... Being in School During Your Post-College-Aged Adult Life is Frustrating

Aside from the obvious lack of financial incentive for becoming a lifelong academic, being a college student when you're at a point in your life when all of your friends are moving up can be a painful experience. I constantly feel like I'm missing milestones. While my friends are starting their careers and getting promotions at work, I am still studying for exams and working part-time jobs just to get by. While they are buying new cars and houses, I am paying for classes and books, driving a 2002 hand-me-down, and had to move back home after two years on my own. While they are getting married and having babies, well, you get the point... 

It can extremely disheartening, even depressing at times. In American terms of success, it can begin to feel like I have achieved nothing. There are days when I really feel stuck, when I'd like to quit. I would like to have the stability (or at least the appearance of it) that many people my own age have acquired. I'd like to know where I'll be spending the next 10 years of my life, but for the graduate student, the future is all but clear.

The Truth Is... I Choose This, But That Doesn't Give You the Right to Exploit That Choice

Yes, it's true. I chose this lifestyle. I have a B.A. in English and Communications with a minor in Photography, an M.A. in English, and experiencing working a different capacities. I'm charismatic, organized, and have a strong sense of personal integrity. I take pride in my work. I act morally even if punishment is not being dangled before me. I live within commuting distance of New York City and have connections to people in the business world. With some effort, probably less than it takes me to do what I do now, I could find a corporate job if I wanted one, and I could have the stability that I crave.

It makes me angry, however, that people will say "you chose this" or "gosh, I wish I were still in school instead of working full time" as if it were an easier path. It isn't.

On the other hand, it makes me equally angry when people say, "if it were easy, everyone would do it." Yes, I realize that I chose a tough path and the obstacles that make this lifestyle so difficult to maintain are part of the reason why professors are considered elite scholars. But these are also the reasons why brilliant people who enjoy school end up in jobs that they hate instead of academia. They are the reason why universities feel the need to hire adjuncts with little training at nominal costs (because who else but the struggling academic would accept those terms), why they overload courses to the detriment of students and teachers, and why they demand teachers publish more while teaching a full course load. It is the reason why graduate students are expected to work (sometimes full time), teach, go to class, publish, be actively involved in everything possible, have a social life, and still maintain a 4.0 GPA.

Walk a mile in my shoes, please, Mr. Politician, or you, Ms. CEO. I assure you, you would not find them very comfortable.

The Truth Is... I Must Be A Glutton for Punishment

Broke, exhausted, and occasionally depressed, I would still choose this path any and every day of my life. I believe that I have chosen a career than enables me to change lives and to seek truth, and that, to me, is more valuable than all of the things that I am missing. I know that someday, I will get to enjoy the stability that my friends have achieved, and along my journey, I will have had the opportunity to do more good than most.