Today I came across this recording of the spoken word piece by Bonafide Rojas called “In Front of the Class.” In it, he describes a group of youth who, at first glance, may seem hopeless. He says to the young people:
Let the page be a doctor.
Let the page be a therapist.
Let the page be a lover.
Let the page be your enemy, punch it in the face.
Let the page be your best friend
who will never stab you in the back.
Let the page be your Prozac.
Let the page be your hip hop.
Let the page be your rock and roll.
Let the page be that fancy ride you’re always talking about.
Let the page be that bling, bling on your wrist.
Let the page be the underground beat you’re about to rip.
Let the page be your autobiography.
This week I will be speaking with the NYU’s ELL (English Language Learners) Think Tank, a consortium of teachers from across New York City. One of the first things I am going to do is ask us to (re)think the typical definition of writing that we see at work in our schools, and particularly the limited ways we talk about writing when working with those who are learning English. What do we “let the page be”?
For the young men I got to know while researching how young men develop as writers, “the page” was all of the things Bonafide Rojas listed, and more. At some point during the two years that I traced their writing practices, each of the young men dealt with particular social tensions like for one young man, trying to make sense of having an abusive father, and for another young man, being considered by some to be “too White” and by others as being “too Latino.” To make sense of these social tensions, each of the young men independently turned these literal issues into figurative literary tropes through writing.
Sometimes while I am reading, I am so struck by the ideas and the prose that I sheepishly begin live-tweeting. On even rarer occasions, when the text is one I can’t get out of my mind, I collect the tweets and recommend the text to you. This time it was David Kirkland‘s A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men. Highly recommended.
He was working on his newest project, a mosaic realization of the appliquéd series of public art that runs along the businesses from 104th to 105th in East Harlem (featured in the NY Times). In the renovation of the building at 105th and Lexington, the art there had been removed in pieces, and the folks at 7173 Associates, LLC, and the owner of the long-standing neighborhood perfumerie, Exotic Fragrances, had decided this was not a loss they would let the neighborhood feel. Expected to run 20 feet long and 7 feet high, Espiritu: A Visual Prayer in Glass and Stone for the Here and Now, is Vega’s gift for the streets of East Harlem. It will be unveiled October 6th at 3:00 p.m.
The theme is a celebration of moments in my life where spirit has been the vehicle for living. It has been an amazing experience to share these images with everyone as folks have provided even more meaning to this project with their own association with my art and the realm of the spirit. -Manny Vega
And if I wasn’t already lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with such a vibrant art community, Manny Vega has been kind enough to take me on as an unofficial, part-time mosaic apprentice. We had met at East Harlem Cafe, where a commissioned piece hangs announcing their name. We began to talk technique and tools, and pretty soon, I had my first assignments. I studied, up close and personal, the mosaics throughout the subways stations in NYC (and got a more than a few weird looks as I stood nose to tile) and then on a trip to Russia, the Byzantine style that Vega practices. With pieces of construction paper and scissors, I drew then places tiles in channels, a Byzantine-style technique that creates the movement, depth and life seen in Vega’s creations.
It was a Saturday, and I had a long to-do list awaiting me, but I did what any sane person would do with your mosaic mentor working on a landmark piece. I dropped everything and went to get my pieces and tools. I returned and we worked alongside each other with a stereo blasting the local flavor for hours. Manny showed me a new fastening technique, and let me use a new clipper tool to practice making curved pieces that “fastened” into the next stone. (You can see magnified sections of some of his work here by running the mouse over the image. Watch for the channels and how pieces are cut to fasten into each other.) He told me that as tile and glass becomes malleable and the pieces begin to run as you intend in the channels, the therapy sets in. The mind and body and the creation become one. And, as usual, he was right. I was transfixed and healed. I tweeted and an old student of mine responded brilliantly:
Part of Manny Vega’s mosaic mural Espiritu will be a piece that features The Trickster, a mythical creature that shows up across time and cultures. As a mosaic, Vega is afforded the ability to insert actual dominos and dice in his rendition of a modern-day Trickster, who gets around via skateboard. The dominos and dice are physical manifestations of the hustle, of the gamble, of the games today’s Trickster uses to entrap us. This physically-realized aesthetic and referent would not be possible in any other medium.
I think this is the approach we need to take when thinking about digital literacies. What are the affordances of the medium that—if we took advantage of—would result in compositions that could do and be things otherwise not possible? A few of my grad students took to defining contemporary literacies last semester. Some of the results are here. Doug Belshaw, of the Mozilla Foundation, is writing a white paper on web literacies right now, and he is looking for input. What do you think these affordances are that we should be attending to in schools today?
Via digital means we are now easily able to compose in multiple modes and, with access to the Internet, to do so in response to and in collaboration with international others. Such practices are, in fact, increasingly viewed as central rather than peripheral to literacy (Andrews & Smith, 2011). Critical reading implies a reader’s active response, as Rosenblatt (1938/1995, 1978/1994) long ago taught us. The interpretation of written language and image resides at the intersection of text, the reader’s personal experiences with other texts, and the social world. In a digital age, a reader’s response can become manifest materially (cf. Coiro & Dobler, 2007). When readers engage with a blog, for instance, they are able, indeed expected, to click on links, add comments, and reblog or remix content. Such response is a customary, expected part of the reading experience. Thus, the reciprocal relationship between reading and writing becomes tighter in the digital sphere, making authorship more obviously tantamount to readership, and vice versa.
One way we could do this is change the DEAR program (Drop Everything and Read) and institute a DREAM program (DRop Everything and Make). As my old student Emily implied, this would include making meaning from existing texts, along with making new ones. I know from my Saturday afternoon with Manny, making is not just critical and creative, it can be healing.
(The #literacies chat also led us into another fascinating discussion of the boundaries of writing when considering contemporary digital composition. I’d love to continue the conversation on that topic that started here.)
I’d like to talk to you about the 468th episode of This American Life. Specifically, I want to hone in to 23 and 1/2 minutes that makes up Act Two: Forgive Us Our Press Passes. I don’t recommend many things, as a habit, but this is worth your time.
In producer Sarah Koenig’s story about a company called Journatic, which outsources local newspaper stories, be whisked away into deep contemplation about what constitutes journalism, authorship and attribution, news, consumerism, the local/the global, human rights, and the list goes on.
As I understand it, Journatic focuses on amassing large amounts of data from small towns across the United States—birth and death records, budgets, police blotters—and then outsources the writing of articles based on this data to people in other places—according to this story, a few in the US, and many in other countries such as the Philippines. Journatic sells these stories to newspaper outlets across the US and the stories are often printed with fake bylines or none at all. (Makes you take a second look at Jenny Smith’s article on last week’s town budget meeting. Do you know Jenny Smith?)
For this post, I am only going to focus on one aspect touched on in this episode, but it is the combination of these topics in one story that makes this worth a listen. So, even though this post will be focused on ‘writing,’ I am more than happy to discuss any and all of these other aspects in the comments below.
Let’s get to it. I encourage you to listen before reading on. In the embedded sound file below, Act Two begins at exactly 26 minutes. Here is a link to the episode on the This American Life website in case you want to go to the source for a listen.
A few weeks ago, after another fascinating #literacies chat on Twitter, I posed a follow-up tweet about the use of the word “literacy.” Kevin Hodgson (or @dogtrax on Twitter) posted a reply that I couldn’t get out of my head while I listened to this episode. Here’s our exchange:
We continued to exchange tweets, and in doing so took this idea forward, considering terms like composing and designing to capture the multiple modes with which we find ourselves composing in a digital age. In this episode of This American Life, however, I found myself thinking backward, reductionist, in fact. What can we strip away and still call the act writing?
In the following section of the episode, Sarah Koenig had interviewed the Brad Moore of The Chicago Sun-Times who had hired Journatic to fill the local sections of their papers with local news, and Brian Timpone who was a champion of Journatic as a company. Each of these gentlemen claimed that all local news stories—though they were not written locally—were ‘at least’ written in the United States. Sarah Koenig was pushing to find out what exactly was outsourced, specifically to the Philippines. (All added emphasis is mine.)
Brad Moore: Just to be clear, all of the writing and editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the US.
Sarah Koenig: I went around and around about this with both Brad Moore and Brian Timpone who insisted that Filipinos were not writing stories. They were more like typing information, assembling it in paragraph form, which sounds to me a lot like writing. Brian Timpone told me this was a semantic confusion I was having.
Brian Timpone: Really what they’re doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there’s a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It’s like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it’s written in the Philippines– I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.
Sarah Koenig: Timpone declined to put me in touch with any of his Filipino employees. But I reached out to half a dozen of them on my own.
Sarah Koenig: You yourself are writing those stories, right? You’re not just gathering the information and sending it along to an American writer or editor. You yourself are writing those.
As I write this blog post, I keep questioning: Am I writing? typing? copying and pasting? assembling? copy editing? drafting? developing context? adding analysis? I’d love to chat about these and other questions I am left pondering:
As we now have more user-friendly ways to remix media and content, are we ‘writing’ less often and ‘assembling and copy editing’ more often?
What does ‘context and analysis’ look like in a product that is not all words, but mostly image, sound, and quoted text?
When does ‘typing out’ something end and ‘writing’ begin?
This last week, I found out that I had been featured on YouTube for over a year and didn’t even know it. It is my initial foray on the YouTube scene, and I am pleased to report that it isn’t that embarrassing. In the video, I was reporting about the grant I received in 2008 to work with Richard Andrews, who was a visiting professor in 2007. In his course, I had conducted a review of research on the writing development of teens. I found three theoretical frameworks–all of which varied tremendously. Every single measure said that measuring development by age as problematic, but none attempted or provided an alternative. With insufficient measures of development, and a changing landscape of writing possibilities in the digital age, we began our work toward conceptualizing a theory that could guide our understanding of writing development.