Category Archives: Teaching

Upcoming Course: “Sound and Vision”

Next Fall, I’ll be teaching a new ENGL 1101 course at Georgia Tech. The assignment description follows:

Sound and Vision

In this class, we’ll explore what James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus called the “ineluctable modality of the audible” and the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” Sound and vision have historically been emphasized as the two major sites of perception and have competed with each other for metaphorical primacy in the language of philosophers. In this class, we’ll do our best to move beyond the idea of sound and vision as subordinate vehicles for content that actually matters—rather, we’ll consider sound as sound and image as image. Discussion will be situated in recent debates in sound studies and visual culture studies, and students will work to make projects that reflect on sound, silence, sight, and image. We’ll ask what we find when we really listen and really look. As the late David Bowie asked in the song from which the course draws its name, “Don’t you wonder sometimes / ‘Bout sound and vision?”

Pecha-Kucha on Pentametron

In the last six months, I’ve been working the Twitter Bot Pentametron, which finds tweets incidentally written in iambic pentameter, pairs them into rhymed couplets, and retweets them into followers’ feeds. I’m interested in Pentametron because of the way it finds poetry in the language of digital culture, invents a crowdsourced form of algorithmic authorship,  and overlaps with the concerns of conceptual poetry and Flarf.

I presented on Pentametron at the Textual Machines Symposium at the University of Georgia last spring and at the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present conference in Greenville, SC this fall.

My students are presenting pecha kuchas this semester in my course on Digital Culture, and I put together this sample pecha kucha that distills some of my ideas on Pentametron into a 20-slide, 6:40 presentation. The presentation can be viewed below.


Modernisms: A Pecha-Kucha Compendium

Screenshot 2013-12-19 14.48.20

I’ve set up a simple web site that brings together the pecha-kuchas from my American Modernisms course this semester. My hope is that other students will be able to add to the videos posted on the site in semesters come and that eventually the compendium can become a resource for beginning students of modernism. The collection hosted at the site now has a few of the concepts, events, and isms that shaped modernism, but I hope that in time its coverage will be more widespread. The site is hosted here.


Student Pecha-Kucha on the Armory Show

My-Anh Nguyen, a student in my modernisms course this semester, put together this terrific pecha-kucha on the Armory Show. Other students, who presented on impressionism, primitivism, surrealism, decadence, ragtime, and cubism, will be uploading their videos soon, and I’ll begin to incorporate them into a separate web site. For the time being, though, I’ll post them here.

Pecha Kucha Compendium Assignment and Sample Pecha Kucha on Dada

My upper-level “American Modernisms” course is in the midst of an assignment that tries to use pecha-kucha presentations productively in a literature classroom, an idea I initially thought about last spring. Each student has selected a modernism-related term and will develop a pecha-kucha about that term and its relation to the course content.

Once all the students have presented, they’ll record them and add them to a compendium of pecha-kuchas about modernism-related terms. There are only seven students in my class this Fall, so it’s a small group, but I’m looking forward to their p-ks on impressionism, decadence, cubism, surrealism, primitivism, the Armory Show, and ragtime.

To show them how the assignment would work, I prepared this pecha kucha on Dada:

Pecha-kuchas in the writing (and maybe literature) classroom

This fall, in the midst of an ordinary writing-classroom presentation assignment, I gave my students the option of giving pecha-kucha presentations. The presentations were so successful that in my Spring courses, I asked all students to do p-k, and the results were again so excellent, even from some of my weakest students, that I expect I’ll be trying to incorporate a p-k assignment into most of my syllabi in the future.

My p-k assignment was inspired by a Profhacker post by Jason B. Jones, a blog post by Mark Sample, and an example p-k by Daniel Pink, The basic idea of a pecha-kucha is simple. Students make a Powerpoint made up of 20 image-heavy slides that display for 20 seconds each. As the slides display for 6 minutes and 40 seconds, the students make an argument that relates clearly to the visual content of the slides throughout.

If students follow them faithfully, the constraints of p-k solve some common problems I’ve encountered with student presentations:

  • Presentations that are too short that undercut assignment requirements and have too little content
  • Presentations that ramble on far too long, take up too much class time, bore students (and the instructor), and simply rehash an argument over and over
  • Powerpoint slides or videos disconnected from the content of a student’s oral presentation
  • Flashy, empty presentations full of Powerpoint transitions or Prezi whiz-bang zooming animation
  • A series of repetitive images all collected on a single slide
  • Students staring at the screen and reading off it instead of engaging the class
  • Repetitive introductions featuring stock questions (“Have you ever thought about the dangers of smoking?”)
  • Long, boring lists of bullet points (irony noted) that simply repeat visually what a student is saying verbally
  • Students getting bogged down in detail and missing the core components of an argument (which, in my writing classes, is the entire point of the course).

Now, Sample has noted that the 20 x 20 format of a p-k presentation does not ensure that students actually use their slides wisely. (He imposes the additional constraint of the 1/1/5 rule–students must have at least one image per slide, each individual image may be used only once, and each slide can contain 5 words maximum). I haven’t yet felt the need to impose such rules, though, because my students embraced the image-heavy, word-light, argument-heavy spirit of p-k so immediately.

In the Fall, my students produced excellent presentations in my course, themed “Giving and Taking Offense.” Topics included the question of when it’s “too soon” to joke about a tragedy, with special reference to 9/11; a comparison of controversial representations of Mohammad by South Park and Danish cartoonists; and the perceived offensiveness of Greek Life on University campuses. A few of these presentations truly represented the best student work I’ve seen as a teacher, and I was sad that I didn’t have a digital copy of them to show students in the future.  And one of my colleagues noted that it’s hard to find solid examples of student p-ks on the web.

So this semester, I gave students the option of recording their p-ks and giving me permission to post them for a small amount of extra credit, and many obliged. One student recorded a p-k from the fall, on the choices companies face when taking on controversial topics with potential to offend in their advertising:

Most of my students, however, recorded their p-ks from this semester, in which my course theme was “College Culture.” Students took on a wide range of topics, and they again produced a strong batch of presentations, covering topics from University admissions practices, to the dual life of a student athlete, to the consequences of UVA students’ obsession with Thomas Jefferson. One student considered the problem of how art students can learn to depart from the styles of their instructors:

The p-k assignment also encouraged some students to experiment a bit. I appreciated, for example, the way this student took a playful approach that still made a clear argument by arguing for a restaurant as a microcosm of UVA life:

I’m consistently impressed with how well suited pecha-kucha can be to a wide variety of topics, including many which don’t initially seem to lend themselves to visuals. Students find inventive ways to use the visuals to illustrate, exemplify, and amplify their points.

Other presentations for which students supplied recordings addressed the drinking age, the problems of UVA’s honor system and its “single sanction.” Several student presentations addressed hazing and Greek Life, including this one. Students also talked about accuracy of admissions visits, the traditions of “streaking the lawn” and “guys in ties, girls in pearls” at football games. One student’s skeptical assessment of UVA’s Thomas-Jefferson obsession found its answer in another student’s praise of the continuing Jeffersonian legacy, and another student argued that UVA should do more to memorialize the contributions of enslaved people in the University’s past. While not every presentation is mind-blowing all of them are, in their own way, successful.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the student work that emerges from these presentations strikes me as so good. Some part of it may be that the time constraint means students must spend a fair bit of time prepping their presentations, or that the risk of public embarrassment encourages them to excel. As much of the credit, however, is due to the pecha-kucha format, which helps students who think visually express their points visually, segments an argument into 20 straightforward chunks (and thereby encourages clear claims and evidence), and gets students excited about sharing their arguments with classmates. Whatever the reason for my students’ success with these presentations, the success has been widespread enough that I’m hoping to have students do these presentations in semesters ahead.

I haven’t tried it yet, but I also hope to explore how p-k could work in the literature classroom. I suspect, for example, that using pecha-kucha could help students make energetic but thoughtful close-readings of poetry. I think pecha-kucha would be a great way to have students introduce new authors and new concepts at the beginning of class (after I do the same a few times to give them a clear sense of how it works). Translating P-K to the literature classroom might well be a failed experiment, but if my student’s experience with p-k this year is any indication, I doubt it.

Teaching with Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word

Ascent of the A-Word Cover

In my writing class last week, students read a section from Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, which came out just in time to be included on the syllabus. In an earlier themed writing class on Comedy and Culture, my students had been interested in discussions of humor and bad language (George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television works well as a text for that discussion), a conversation distinct in some ways from our discussions of slurs, offensive gendered language, etc.

Ascent of the A-Word gives students a language with which to discuss some of their intuitions about swear words/curse words/vulgarities/obscenities. I like it a lot as a teaching text, both because it models the style of academic argument we teach at UVA well and because it introduces students to a surprisingly wide variety of linguistic and cultural concepts through an exploration of a word most students would knee-jerkingly assume is merely “dirty.”

Notably, Nunberg’s book avoids the word asshole in its title—“A-Word” and “assholism” are deemed acceptable for bookstore shelves, apparently (although the choice is more complicated, as Nunberg explains in a Fresh Air interview). I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of the book, and I assigned my students a section from the second chapter, “The Uses of Vulgarity.”

Some of the “big ideas” that Nunberg’s book introduced my students to through its exploration of one “bad” word:

  • Language is not fixed, but changes over time: Nunberg’s book offered occasion for me to pull up the OED on the screen in our classroom. Students shared their childhood experiences of looking up dirty words in the dictionary as children, and they marveled at the vast amounts of information contained in the OED. They were astounded when I told them how long it took to make the first edition. Of course, looking up bad words in the dictionary isn’t the most sophisticated form of scholarship—but it did foster the students’ awareness of a really remarkable reference work that’s available to them. And they were truly fascinated by the idea that certain bad words have been around for a really, really long time (but not, of course, asshole, which Nunberg mostly dates to World War II).
  • Denotation alone does not constitute the meaning of language: Nunberg speaks eloquently of the ways in which the connotations and force of a word impact its meaning. Nunberg elegantly shows how a word like asshole can carry a similar denotative meaning to words like lout, bastard, and jerk but have its own distinctive meanings.
  • The words that name concepts can also create and/or shape those concepts: One section in Nunberg, “How to Do Things With Bad Words,” refers to J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words and its understanding of the performative utterance. In the context of Nunberg, this means that the concept of “assholism” couldn’t exist quite in the way it does until after the word asshole had become commonplace.
  • We take complicated cultural assumptions  for granted when we use language: Here, I mostly mean that Nunberg does a great job of showing and describing how we can instinctively identify situations in which asshole would do better than any other alternative, even if we can’t quite describe why. One example is that someone who cheats on a test, exam, or paper isn’t by nature an “asshole,” but someone who cheats on a spouse or partner is. Students liked thinking about the built-in instincts they possessed about the applicability of certain curse words to certain people and situations.

It’s a good book, and it has more interesting things to say about language than its ostensibly degraded topic might suggest. And the book proved useful for introducing some first-year students to a casual awareness of some big ideas about language in a way that struck them as intuitively fun and interesting.

DigiWriMo Scorecard: this post, 684 words; month-to-date 7,100.

Flawed Problem Statements

The theme for my writing classes this semester is “Giving and Taking Offense.” Students have written on a variety of interesting topics of their choosing, including the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake “nipplegate” scandal, Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments, the value of violence in video games, and the uproar over offensive Facebook groups. For the most part, I’ve convinced students to avoid claims that say “X is/is not offensive.” The go-to student impulse has been “X should/should not be banned,” a tangible claim that is pretty flawed but can be pushed toward a more productive place.

One of my favorite teaching strategies, simple though it may be, is to show students two examples of writing side by side and to pick the ones they think would yield a stronger paper. A goofus and gallant approach to writing pedagogy, I guess, but one that seems to yield good results. At the beginning of the semester, when our focus is on main claims, I distribute a list of claims and ask students to rank them in a classic exercise of the writing program at UVA. Students might not always be able to say what they like most about the claims they choose, but their intuitions about what works and what doesn’t are usually pretty dependable.

One of my favorite exercises of the semester, though, involves asking students to write better versions of flawed problem statements. A problem statement is just what it sounds like: a way to convincingly state a problem and a preliminary solution. In UVA’s writing program, we usually teach these in the context of paper introductions, but they show up all over good writing.

The basic parts of a conceptual problem statement are:

  • status quo that states some belief held by the reader, society, or some specific target;
  • destabilizing condition that addresses some aspect of the status quo that is incomplete, flawed, or incorrect;
  • Costs and consequences that state what we lose by not thinking about the destabilizing condition—further questions that addressing the problem can answer, things that doing so can help us understand, and eventually, perhaps, tangible outcomes that the conceptual outcomes might help us achieve;
  • and a solution or promise of a solution that can help address the problem brought up in the destabilizing condition and consequences. In the context of a student introduction, this solution usually becomes the paper’s main claim.

Here’s an example of a solidly formed problem statement, my paraphrase of the problem statement of a Slate article about Sacha Baron Cohen by Christopher Hitchens:

Defenders of Sacha Baron Cohen praise his humor for its ability to bring out the worst in people. When Cohen’s Borat character was able to get an audience from the American southwest to sing along with a song containing the lyrics, “Throw the Jew down the well,” for example, people thought Cohen was exposing a latent anti-semitism in that audience. These defenders, however, ignore many of the ways Cohen gets people to do and say offensive things. His targets want to be nice to a confused foreigner more than they want to attack Jews. Defenders of Cohen misunderstand what his humor actually shows: not that Americans are reprehensible bigots, but that Americans are polite to a fault.

I show my students solid problem statements, but I also show them problem statements that I view as flawed. I enjoy writing these, because they let me both channel the problems I’ve already seen in students’ writing and to try to channel the voices of students. In class, I have them break up into groups. I assign each group a problem statement or two to work on. They diagnose the problem with the problem statement in their own terms, then try to write a better one. The flawed problem statements we’ll be working with in class today:

  1. Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat” character seems offensive. But Borat also shows stereotypes. The Borat character is useful and good. People should respect Cohen for what he has done with the Borat character.
  2. In “Cartoon Wars Parts 1 and 2,” South Park makes fun of Family Guy’s comedy, asserting that the show uses random combinations of pop-cultural references to make jokes that do not fit with the show’s meager plots. Family Guy’s humor, while it does follow some of the conventions South Park describes, actually works in the context of that show and helps develop its characters. If people believe South Park’s mockery, they will miss the opportunity to watch Family Guy, and Family Guy will almost certainly be taken off the air. South Park’s creators should offer a public apology and publicly repudiate their over-hasty dismissal of Family Guy’s quality.
  3. Free speech is something we all live with. But free speech can be offensive. People get hurt by offensive language. We should keep free speech but ban truly offensive speech.
  4. People say Family Guy is just stupid humor, but I really love Family Guy. I love the stupid humor, and I think it’s really funny. If people don’t like Family Guy, they’ll miss an opportunity to watch a really awesome show. These people should watch Family Guy because it’s really funny.
  5. Lots of people say that hip-hop music is offensive. But you know what’s actually offensive? Those people! They keep attacking music they don’t listen to, and they’re probably racist. I think they should just shut up and listen to their own stupid music. They’re wrong, and they just don’t get it. They should pay more attention and listen to hip hop music because it’s good.
  6. In “Gay Witch Hunt,” an episode of The Office, Michael learns that his underling Oscar is gay and ends up telling everyone in the office. Michael thinks he is doing Oscar a service, but when Oscar finds out everyone knows he is gay, he is very angry. He thinks that his right to privacy has been violated and that his personal life is none of his coworkers’ business. Michael calls a meeting of the entire office staff, but his attempt at understanding only exacerbates the problem. The episode is hilarious but sad.
  7. Almost everybody believes that all offensive music should be banned. But lots of people like offensive music, and offensive music has value. Clearly people are getting something out of offensive music. Offensive music should not be banned at all.
  8. People say the N-word is bad, but then it’s all over the place in hip-hop music and popular culture. Since it’s around so much, how bad can it really be? Nobody really gets hurt by the N-word. People should just chill out and not worry so much about language, in particular about the N-word.

Some of these statements take problems I’ve seen in student papers to an extreme—I’ve rarely seen a problem statement as grouchy and dismissive as number 5. But these flawed statements do a good job of capturing at least some of the ways problem statements go wrong. Some are vague or wishy-washy. Some are not specific enough. Some present a problem that doesn’t actually get addressed in the claim. Some simply repeat the same claim over and over. Some simply summarize a work of art. And some simply reverse the status quo unthoughtfully.

It’s not the most radical form of pedagogy, but once students have diagnosed the problems in these problem statements, they have a language with which to diagnose the flaws of their own problem statements and those of their classmates. At the end of class, we’ll workshop the problem statements for their next paper—and hopefully the students will be better equipped to do so once they’ve thought hard about these sometimes more obviously flawed ones.

DigiWriMo scorecard: this post 1,273 words; month-to-date 6,417.