God That Was Awful

Me, at the moment

I suppose there’s value in bad experiences, though?  Hopefully.

I am glad that I wrote a super shitty first draft of an introduction, because it taught me exactly what not to do in my actual project.  I know that might sound dramatic, but it’s the truth; I honestly am not sure that I could use a single sentence from that introduction in something that I would actually present to an audience.

Essentially, what I wrote was my condensed perspective on the situation in Detroit.  It was poorly organized, rambling, incompletely researched, and also highly opinionated.  As I was writing, I knew that I kind of hated the way I was saying the things I was saying; I disliked how condescending and sanctimonious it sounded, how unsympathetic it was to suburbanites, and how vague it was about my actual concerns for Detroit.  The issue was that I wasn’t acquainted enough to write about my topic in a way that didn’t feel over the top; I couldn’t sympathize with suburbanites because I haven’t yet investigated their beliefs (beyond cursory looks at Facebook statuses, which I always follow with a scowl), I couldn’t make specific points about my project because I haven’t yet found the stories to serve as evidence for my larger argument.

This is where I plan to go next.  I realized as I was writing that it would be so cool to use some sort of personal narrative, whether it’s my own, one I get from someone I know, or one I uncover through documents like newspapers and civic records (time to put those history research skills to work!), to capture all of the ideas that I was expressing in this introduction.  I don’t think that my feeling about Detroit’s ongoing transformation needs to be stated specifically; doing so would not only be less interesting than allowing stories to speak for themselves, but also might turn off people who don’t want to read a critique lambasting their worldview.  A story, I hope, would grab readers from the moment they approach my project, would make actually feel an interest in the stories of Detroiters.

I also see from this exercise that writing an introduction connecting the four essays in my project will probably be impossible right now.  I envision this introduction as a sort of skeleton for my project; it will hold together disparate elements, will ground them in common ideas about gentrification and urban change, and, because it will welcome readers to my webpage, it should make clear what is to come in my individual essays.  Because of that, I think it’s important that I tackle at least one of my essays first; my plan is that, by the time of my workshop after break, I will have a fairly complete draft about one of my topics.  My inclination at the moment is to write first about the QLINE rail; I probably know that topic better than any other, and I think exploring it now would give me the confidence to do well on my other sections.

Going forward, I’m still questioning how exactly I can keep this piece balanced and interesting to an audience that it is more or less criticizing.  I’ve actually thought about reaching out to Lorena Balic, from my blog group in Gateway, because she too did a project in which her target audience was not necessarily a sympathetic one (although her stakes were higher than mine).  What is the best way to get someone to hear something they might not want to?  Is it better to be blunt, or to lull them into thinking I’m on their side before I strike?  My natural inclination is to do the latter (I’ve watched too much Survivor, probably).  But again, I don’t want this to be a hostile project; I want to make people from the suburbs think, rather than criticize them, I suppose.  My guess is that this will prove to be the most difficult balancing act for me on this project; how can I rein in my own opinions to make a piece that will not exclude from its readership the very people who I’d like to see it most?  In order to solve this, I think it would be useful to look at some pieces in which the author had an opinion (or even agenda), but maintained a fairly unbiased writing style–I’m not really sure what one of these pieces might be, so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

 

Alright, Michael—Time to Let Things Be

Perfectionist is too mild a word to describe me.  I know that’s the sort of thing every type A person says about themselves, but trust me, I’m being serious—I really, really hate leaving anything in a less than pristine state.

My ePortfolio is no exception.  Overall, I like my finished project.  But those damn red lines on the homepage and on the “More” section are pissing me off.

My spirit animal, Liz Lemon

I just can’t seem to get those things to align cleanly with one another.  I’m actually a bit concerned that my computer might be haunted by a poltergeist or something, because I swear that whenever I think I’ve got them in the perfect spot and I look away, the lines start floating all over the page and are a mess again.

As you can tell, it bothers me very much when even the tiniest things are off.

It’s because of this that I’m having a hard time disengaging from my ePortfolio.  There are many things that I like about my page, but I tend to overlook the positive attributes of my piece the second I see even the smallest mistake.  And what’s really problematic about this is that, in my mind, there still are many mistakes in my ePortfolio.

No, these mistakes are not significant.  They’re mostly things like a text box being positioned slightly higher than it should be, or a color being half a shade off what I wanted.  They’re things that nobody other than the creator of the page would even notice.

But being the creator of the page, I do notice them.  I find myself again and again pressing the “Publish” button on Wix, feeling immensely satisfied, and then suddenly ruffled when I notice one of these insignificant mistakes.  I go back and fix the problem, publish my page again, and then moments later find some new issue.

Sick of dealing with this, I’ve officially decided that I will not look at my ePortfolio again until the semester has ended.  There’s no use in working myself up over tiny mistakes again and again, especially because I am pleased with the bulk of my project.

I feel that in my ePortfolio, I have arranged a cohesive narrative that guides readers through my work in a logical way.  I hoped to give readers the opportunity to read as much or as little of my process and reflection notes as they want, which is why I included the brackets and buttons features on most pages.  If someone wanted to travel through my thought process, learn about my prewriting and my ideas, then they could click the drafts and in-process notes; alternatively, if they were only interested in the finished projects, they could simply skip ahead to those.

I also think that my ePortfolio does a decent job of balancing a professional outlook with a personable tone.  Ideally, employers will look at my ePortfolio and be blown away, call me, and offer me a job on the spot.  But while I wanted to impress professionals seeing my page, I still wanted it to reflect who I am—a simultaneously weird and serious soul.  I didn’t want to come across as a robot, someone who tailors what he says to the textbook definition of what employers look for in applicants.  At first I was a bit concerned that being personable might not be appropriate, but I decided that my professional skills and my personality are a package deal—one isn’t going to come without the other, so I might as well let the world know who they’re getting in bed with.

Hire me!

I’m proud of my ePortfolio, along with all of the work that I’ve done in the gateway course, and I refuse to let my persnickety nature destroy what should be a happy moment for me.  As readers venture through my ePortfolio, I hope they look not to the tiny details that bug me so, but rather pay attention to the overarching narrative and design of the project.

Sad as I am to leave the gateway course (I really am—this way far and away my favorite class this semester), I am glad to leave it with a piece evidencing the way I have grown as a writer in the past few months.

Ugh, I Hate Listening

Keep an open ear and an open mind.  Be responsive.  Don’t assume that you know everything–sometimes listening to other people can be a good thing.

Everyone always makes it seem like those are such simple things, but let’s be honest: that shit is hard to do.

Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog” is something of a new century twist on George Orwell and Joan Didion’s “Why I Write” essays.  Sullivan is still speaking to the importance of writing.  He’s still fusing his personal ideas and experiences about writing with the greater, societal responsibilities that are incumbent on writers, much like Orwell and Didion do in their pieces.  But Sullivan’s essay is set in the digital age, a time when the Internet has greatly affected (though not entirely changed) the way we go about writing.

And the way we go about listening to what people have to say about that writing.

Sullivan makes clear that a blog post is not authored solely by its author.  In fact, he says that the audience makes up an entire third of the perspective and content of the piece.  Blogging, unlike the forms of writing that Orwell and Didion use, is immediately and directly accountable to the opinions of the public.  It is not removed by revisions and publication processes from its audience in the same way that novels or even print journalism are–and it therefore is much more intimately influenced by the ideas of people reading it.

The title of this post is a bit dramatic.  I actually like to think of myself as a rather good listener, and saying that I hate doing it is just my little attempt to make myself seem more rebellious than I really am.  Like when Alison Hendrix drove her soccer mom van through her perfect suburb, belting out Meredith Brooks (go watch Orphan Black if you haven’t).

But even if I can listen, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I always want to.  I’m a stubborn person.  I like my worldview, and for better or for worse, I like to stick to it when possible.

All of us, getting notes on a piece we think is perfect.

Sometimes when I make a piece of writing, I just really love it.  I know that it would benefit from being read by someone else and from some constructive criticism, but I’m protective of it.  I want to keep it the way it is.  Orwell, Didion, and Sullivan all agree that writing involves a certain level of egoism, and this is where that seems to manifest for me.  Sometimes, I think my way of saying something is better than anyone else’s way of saying it, and I don’t want to open myself up to outside critiques or criticism.  Now before you start judging me for being so narcissistic, take a second to reflect on your own writing process.  I feel like most people think this way to some extent.  It’s hard to admit that you might be wrong, and that someone else can help make your ideas better.  We owe it to ourselves to be frank about that.

So it’s scary to confront the blog, which, as Sullivan says, is one of the most vulnerable forms of writing there is.  But it’s also important to blog; it’s important to see the way that our audience responds to our piece, and the way that our work can be made better because of it.

And that proximity to our audience extends, indirectly, into other forms of writing that allow for more development and time.  By knowing how our readers respond when we blog, we can better gauge how they will respond when we put out an article, or an essay, or a book.  Whether we hear them or not, our audience is there.  Readers will have an opinion on our work, even if they don’t aggressively email us about everything we did wrong.  Blogging gives us practice in engaging with our readers, in knowing what works with them and what doesn’t.

And it’s something that we should continue throughout our careers.  I don’t plan on giving up on blogging when this class is over.  I want to keep going, not only to have a place to vent my thoughts and feelings, but also to practice identifying how to listen to voices other than my own.

We will never be perfect writers.  There are always ways to improve, and blogging can help us find those ways.  So it’s important to push on with blogging even when it seems we’d be okay abandoning it.  Blogging makes us better able to see our strengths and weaknesses as writers, and understand how we can address those things.  It helps us learn the skills that will improve our prose, our poetry, even the personal reflections we keep to ourselves.  It makes us better writers.

Yeah, I’m Talking to You

Sure, drafting is important.  Drafting helps make writing better, brighter, bolder—it’s a rare thing to find a rough draft that isn’t improved by careful thought and revision.  But before any of that, before writing a rough draft and getting feedback and fixing things up and crying when nothing is working the way it should be, comes something else: figuring out what you want to say and who you want to say it to.

As silly as it may sound, reading “Drafting and Revising Your Project” reminded me of that.  The chapter brought back a lot of the guidelines that were present at the beginning of the book (and class), which made me step back and reevaluate the big picture.  As I begin constructing my ePortfolio, working out what pieces to include, how to sharpen my re-purposing and re-mediation projects, and how to format those in a digital profile, I need to keep in mind my audience and the impression that I want to give them.

I’m loving the confidence, Jenna, but I’d probably dial it back like 70 notches.

At the moment, I’m trying to figure out what exactly I want my ePortfolio to be—and that depends largely on who I intend to view it. On the one hand, I could make the project into something personal, a way to record the work that I’ve done as a writer and evaluate the progress I have made over time.  In that case, my audience would be primarily myself, but also anyone interested in my work as a writer (like family, friends, colleagues in the Minor in Writing).

Perhaps the more compelling goal for my ePortfolio, however, is for it to serve as a professional representation of my work.  I’d like a job after I graduate, and unfortunately a degree in history won’t guarantee me one.  But with the ePortfolio, which I would include on my resume, there might be hope; I could prove to employers my ability to write, to produce creative pieces and arguments.  And on top of that, I don’t think that creating my ePortfolio with the intention of marketing myself would alter the goals I currently have for my projects.  My re-purposing piece (and my idealized re-mediation piece) is the kind of thing that I would want to be read by a lot of people interested in politics or the media, so I wouldn’t be straying from the original audience of that project by directing the ePortfolio at employers in those areas.

The reason that I’m thinking about my audience so much is because it will have a massive effect on the way that I make (and then revise, again and again) my ePortfolio.  As I’m accumulating reflective notes about the projects we’re creating in class, I’m wondering how I will include those in my ePortfolio.  In a personal page, it seems that it would make more sense to feature these notes prominently, describing my thought process (almost like a journal entry); in a professional page, however, where should they go?  Will potential employers want to see these notes right next to a completed piece, or does it make more sense to include them in a separate section (where they can still be found but aren’t in the way)?  How visible should the reflective process be?

Please teach me how to organize my work (and my life), councilwoman.

As I write this, I realize that I’ve probably talked myself into making employers or professionals my audience.  Yay!  But I still need to figure out what choices to make about my ePortfolio’s content and layout to appeal to this group.  In the chapter, feedback was a prominent subject.  It’s just occurring to me that it might be useful to talk to some sort of employer (not even a particular person/company, just someone who hires people in general) and find out the sort of things that they would look for in an applicant’s portfolio (and maybe even show them mine to get comments about what is and what isn’t working).

Knowing that, I would be able to more effectively draft and revise my ePortfolio.  I would have a better idea of how to initially construct my pages for coming projects, and how I might change my re-purposing project’s page to make it more appealing for my audience.

It’s easier to draft and revise when there’s a goal in mind.  If I end up changing my mind and deciding to address a different audience with my ePortfolio, great.  I can fix things up from there.  But for now, I think it makes sense to adjust my design and my content to suit the audience I have in mind.  I love writing for the sake of writing, but I would also like to use the skills I’m learning in the minor in my professional life.  I’d like to get into a field where writing is important and I can continue to improve, so the ePortfolio is a really crucial project.  If I continue to rework my pieces and figure out how to present them well, I just might be able to make that professional dream possible.

Imma be Famous!

The title says it all.  I’m going to make a kick-ass podcast about Hillary Clinton.  Then, my extraordinary gifts as a broadcast journalist will be discovered by some media conglomerate, and I’ll be offered my own radio show.  Gradually I’ll climb my way to the top of the podcast ladder, interviewing celebrities, politicians, and (most importantly, of course) reality stars.

It’s only 66 million dollars.  I want to stay realistic.

Yes, in just five to seven years, I will have parlayed my re-mediation project into a glamorous life at the peak of the publishing world.  And though I’ll have a fat paycheck deposited into my bank account every month and a bomb penthouse overlooking Manhattan, I won’t forget my roots.  I’ll remember fondly that first project, the one that launched me to superstardom.  I’ll laugh at my youthful naïveté and awkwardness in the recording booth.  I’ll wonder how I ever could have fretted about finding people to speak with me, especially now that President Hillary calls incessantly, begging to appear on the show.

As you can probably tell, delusions of grandeur are kind of my thing.

I’m really not as arrogant as I seem. I swear on my future yacht.

I’m actually rather nervous about my re-mediation project.  But it’s good nervousness.  It’s not that twisted, dead anxiety you get before taking a midterm or while doing an icebreaker at the beginning of the semester.  No, instead it’s excitement about experimenting with new forms of communication mixed with a dash of fear that my idealized project won’t turn out anything like I hope.

While it would be great to make a podcast that’s spectacular and launches a fantastic media career (is that really even my dream?  I have no idea), my real hope for my re-mediation project is to learn how to use aural communication to open a space for conversation about my re-purposing project’s topic.  One thing that is lacking in my re-purposing piece (which I’m still trying to incorporate more) is the voices of others.  Part of this is due simply to the genre of my piece; an online magazine article’s content and voice are largely directed by the author.  As much as I try to incorporate the ideas and opinions of others into my piece, it is still controlled largely by my biases, my values, and my perspective.

In something like a podcast, however, others have more freedom to speak for themselves.  I’m hoping to bring in a couple different people who can weigh in their opinions about Hillary Clinton’s use of motherhood in her campaign, especially because it seems that my topic is something best understood when it is discussed.  I have already contacted one of my friends, Claire, a student in the Ford School who has done research on the role of women in government, about speaking on the podcast (and she said yes!).  I also would like to interview either a professor with historical and political insights on the topic, or a mother (perhaps my own), who could shed light on the public’s reaction to Clinton’s campaign.

But while I’m excited to start my re-mediation project and have a general plan of how I want to go about doing it, I’m still struggling with some major issues.

First, I’m concerned that by relying a good deal on the voices and opinions of others, I’m sort of skimping out on work and writing for the project.  Is it okay for me to simply facilitate a conversation, or should I be engaging actively in it as well?  I feel my two cents have been put into the re-purposing piece, so is it time for me to clear out of the way?

I’m also worried about time.  Right now, I’m only planning on making the podcast about 15 minutes.  Is it too much to try squeezing two guests into the program in that time?  Would it seem that I’m rushing one person out the door so I can talk to the next one?  Should they appear together?  Or does it make sense to record each of them separately and then edit the show to make it one, coherent piece?  I really would like to allow at least a couple distinct perspectives to engage in this conversation, but I worry that I won’t give enough time to develop each of their voices.

Hopefully, as I do a bit more research into the genre (I was originally planning on doing something else, so I’m still lacking in a deep of knowledge of podcasts), I can get a better idea of how to organize my piece.  I also really just want to get working, figuring out who to speak with and what questions to ask them, which will hopefully guide me further.

Don’t judge a guy for dreaming, Kanye.

So no, without experience or much of an idea of what I’m doing, this re-mediation project probably won’t set me up for the rest of my life.  I probably won’t be living in a Tribeca paradise or hanging out with Diane Sawyer anytime soon, thanks to the brilliance of this project.

What I do think this assignment will do, however, is give me a chance to learn about a genre I’ve never used.  I’m really looking forward to challenging myself with this project–the genre I chose for re-purposing is something that I felt a bit more familiar with, but this one is entirely new to me.  It’s scary but it’s good.  It’s a chance to experiment and become a better writer, which is just as valuable as anything else the project might bring.

 

Getting Better by Getting Messy

I never thought I would be getting down and dirty with Hillary Clinton.

No, not like that.  Get your mind out of the gutter.

Don of the Pantsuit Mafia, one could say.

Alas, here I am, ready to charge into the thicket that is Clinton’s life.  I’m ready to navigate through her ever-changing image, to trudge through her muddled past, to try to make some sense of the complicated woman who lurks behind the Blackberry and sunglasses.

As I wrote the first draft of my re-purposing project, I was concerned (to put it lightly) that people wouldn’t understand what I was saying.  My argument made so much sense to me, but I was afraid that it would be convoluted and bizarre to others.  I’m a neat person; I don’t leave dishes in the sink, and I don’t like leaving messes in my writing either.

And as it turns out, I did a good job of keeping my draft nice and tidy.  People seemed to hear what I was saying loud and clear, and I was glad for that.  But I still couldn’t help feeling that my job hadn’t been done as well as I would have liked.  Maybe the reason that I expected people not to understand my piece was because the topic really is confusing and sloppy, and maybe it made sense to people only because I had oversimplified it.  Maybe readers should be a little bit puzzled by what they were reading.

And then Professor Manis put it perfectly: “Hillary is such a messy person–why don’t you get messy with her?”

Now, this is a bit of a novel concept for me.  It wasn’t so much the getting messy part that posed a challenge; as Type A as I might be, I can let loose my inhibitions once in a while and muddying my writing with the best of them.  No, what will be more of a struggle for me will be finding a balance between complexity and composure, finding a way to really make readers think critically about the confusing concepts they’re reading while not letting them get lost in the process.  I want to strike a balance, to find a way to make Clinton’s use of motherhood in her campaign both nuanced and approachable to readers.

Sounds easy enough.

Yeah, or not.

Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to expand my piece so it more broadly addresses some of the gender issues around why using motherhood was/is necessary to both female abolitionists and Hillary Clinton.  I think that doing so will complicate the piece in all of the right ways, making it more thought-provoking while keeping the language and argument clear.  Like I said, this will probably be a bit of a struggle for me; I wouldn’t call myself the most subtle writer, and I tend to like telling readers exactly what is on my mind and leave little to choice (this is kind of a bad thing, I know.  I sound like a dictator).  Hopefully practicing this sort of writing in my re-purposing project will make for both a better piece and a better writer.

Additionally, I’m really grateful for the feedback I received in the class on Monday, because I think it’s helped me see some of the flaws (and also some of the good things) in my piece.  One of the best points that a few people (I think specifically Cole) brought up is that Clinton’s voice seems to be missing from my piece.  In a story where she’s the protagonist, some quotes and soundbites from her are absolutely necessary.  It was also nice to hear people’s ideas about how those quotes could be creatively integrated into the piece (like by putting Clinton and abolitionists’ language side by side), and I’m really excited to start a Wix page and begin playing around with layout.

I know Junebug, I’m trying.

So I’m excited to start getting into the messiness of Hillary.  My hands aren’t used to being covered in dirt, so my digging might be a bit confused at first, but I think looking for the complexities of this topic will ultimately make for a more rewarding piece.  I really believe that this piece is unique.  The topic is little known but still relevant, and I would love to see if my article could find its way into some sort of online publication.  I know it’s ambitious, and I already feel sort of guilty about thinking so highly of my idealized, final piece, but that’s my goal.

And if there’s any non-enigmatic lesson I’ve learned from Hillary Clinton, it’s that goals should always be big.

Hillary is on SNL? Heck Yeah!

The greatest thing happened this morning.  I woke up, clicked on the computer, and found out that Hillary Clinton was on last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live.

Now, this isn’t the sort of thing that I would normally wet my pants over.  I don’t have a problem with Clinton, and I’m even considering voting for her in the primary (or should I go with Bernie?  Hmmm, it’s a tough choice), but I don’t actively follow her life activities or anything.  No, the reason that I was so excited about her appearance on SNL was because I saw in it another opportunity to analyze her campaign for my re-purposing project.

For my project, I am working to create an article for the website of a publication like The Atlantic or Time that assesses the role motherhood is playing in the ongoing presidential campaign.  This idea seems to be a strange one at first, probably because the idea of parenthood (especially motherhood) and politics seem so fundamentally separate.  In a gender history class I took last winter, however, I wrote a paper that helped me see these things really aren’t so irreconcilable.  In fact, nineteenth century female abolitionists frequently wrote about how slavery was a violation of motherhood, seeking to gain support for their cause by appealing to the familial sentiments of their audience.  Hillary Clinton’s recent use of motherhood as a way to soften her image and make her a more appealing candidate are not without precedent and should be taken seriously.  Slavery was abolished, due in part to the work of female abolitionists.  What’s to say that Clinton’s appeals won’t be similarly successful, and won’t catapult her to the Oval Office?

So when I leapt for joy this morning upon learning about this SNL sketch, it was because I want all the evidence about Clinton’s use of motherhood in her campaign as I can get.  The sketch did not disappoint.  Before even introducing herself as a politician, Clinton (or rather Kate McKinnon, who was playing her) called herself a grandmother.

Yes!  This is perfect!

Clinton’s self-portrayal as a motherly figure has been noted by the media, and I therefore have found a wealth of sources (like the SNL sketch) discussing how and why she has been doing this.  Partnered with my background knowledge on 1840s abolitionism, I hope to make a compelling argument about how Clinton is just the most recent inheritor in a long tradition of women using motherhood to advance their political agendas.  The evidence is all there, and now I just have to craft that into an argument.

Problematic, however, is that saying that is much easier than doing it.  While my argument is aligning in my head and makes sense to me, I worry that it comes across as confusing and esoteric to others.  That’s a problem.  My goal for this piece is to present to curious and politically aware readers a perspective they may have never considered previously.  I want to prove that motherhood is a rhetorical device that has been used in the past and continues to be utilized by female politicians today (albeit in a different form and for different reasons), but I worry that I won’t be able to create a piece that does so successfully.

Another thing I’m struggling with is figuring out a way to incorporate multimodality into my text.  The sources that I am using as models for my piece use images and sound and the like sparingly, almost suggesting that these things don’t have a place in my genre.  And while I hate to be the self-aggrandizing college kid who sees himself as more knowledgable than professional writers, I kind of disagree.  I think that, if incorporated in a way that complements the flow of the article, things like sound and images could help illustrate my point.

A tad tawdry? Yes. But The Liberty Bell books really are a fantastic way to see abolitionist politics in action.

Even with that resolve in my mind, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what I should include in my piece and how I should include it.  I think it would be great to put in a poem or short excerpt from The Liberty Bell books, which promoted abolitionism in the mid-nineteenth century, but I’m still struggling to see how I could do so in a way that isn’t distracting.  Similarly, I would like to include segments of a Clinton speech in which she discusses her life as a mother and grandmother, but I don’t know how to edit a video so it contains only those parts (or would it be better if I include the whole thing?).  These are sort of technical difficulties right now, but they could prove to be significant problems if I can’t think of or learn a way to solve them soon.

It is no longer enough to be content with finding new evidence that supports my claim.  Now I need to put those piece of evidence to work.  I’ll surely keep my eyes peeled for more sources like last night’s SNL sketch that can further illustrate my point, but the time has come to figure out what exactly I want to say and how I want to say it.

I just hope I can come up with a way to do that.

Confessions of an Academic Forty-Niner

The year was 1849.  I packed my bags, kissed my family goodbye, and left home in a hurry so I wouldn’t miss out on the action happening in California.  Gold was my goal, and I was ready to procure it by whatever means necessary.

Looking for the good stuff alongside my trusty ass, Jack.

When researching, I often feel as though I’m living in the Wild West, hoping to stumble across a motherlode of information that will help me make my case.  More often, however, I find only nuggets of gold amongst pounds and pounds of useless sediment.  These nuggets are immensely useful; they have value and can help make for a richer argument.  But they are hard to find.  They require a great deal of sifting and patience, and can only help so much until another nugget is needed.

Even researching how to research can feel like gold mining.  As I read through “Craft of Research Reading,” I found a number of informative nuggets that helped refine my view of my role as a writer.  Most provocative of these was the idea that creating a research paper requires an inversion of the roles of student and teacher.  As a student, it’s nice to think that the teacher has all of the answers.  And most teachers have a lot of answers.  They’re the teacher for a reason.  But for a research assignment, when twenty students are each pursuing independent, complex topics, it’s improbable that the teacher knows everything about everyone’s topic.  Suddenly, the student is the expert, and the teacher is learning from them.

You should, however, accept that you will never be smart enough to impress Hermione.

I suppose this is something that I’ve always known, but it’s comforting to see it acknowledged by authors who seem to be both teachers and researchers.  I’m not a particularly bold person.  It has always felt strange to pronounce myself the supposed expert on a topic, and I’m sure that my insecurity about doing so shows in my writing.  That’s why reading that students should feel comfortable doing this felt like striking gold.  Sure, somewhere in the world there is almost definitely someone with views more profound than mine about the ethical implications of the British Museum owning the Parthenon Marbles.  But in the classroom, my research and analysis have likely made me the most knowledgable about the topic, just as each of my classmates is the most knowledgable about their own projects.  It’s helpful to know that it’s OK to speak with authority, and that the audience, including any teachers who might be part of it, want to learn.

Reading “Craft of Research Reading” had yielded some gold, and I was glad for it.  But as I continued to search through the text for more insights (and I absolutely found some), I also came across information that I didn’t find useful, and some ideas I found downright objectionable.  When I looked at the section on the different ways to read sources, I was frustrated.  The text classified three separate ways of doing this (“Reading for a Problem,” “Reading for an Argument,” and “Reading for Evidence”).  I understand the authors’ point that at different points in the research process, different information is most useful.  What I object to is the notion that this information can’t be gathered at once.  The authors contend, for example, that when looking for a topic, reading should be quick and shouldn’t involve detailed note-taking.

As much as I would love to read each of these books thrice, I would also love to, you know, sleep once in a while.

Why shouldn’t it?  Just because a topic hasn’t been picked yet doesn’t mean that there aren’t nuggets or facts that will be useful once it has been decided.  It makes sense to keep a record of any information that might be helpful.  The fact of the matter is, we’re undergraduates.  Perhaps if we were academics on sabbatical, sipping tea on a veranda with a view of some bucolic valley, we could spend our days perusing texts again and again looking for different things.  But we are not.  We have other classes, we have jobs, we have familial commitments that necessitate our working with both efficiency and vigilance.  Doing this is not “lazy” as the authors suggest; it simply means that, interesting as our research might be, we cannot devote our entire focus to it at all times.  We can look for inspiration, for argumentative structures, and for evidence all at once if we do so carefully.

Reading “Craft of Research Reading” mirrors reading actual research texts; when doing it, there is both gold and sediment will be found.  It is incumbent upon us, then, to sift out what is valuable from what is not.  In doing this, we can strike it rich.  We can make ourselves better informed and better able to articulate our arguments.  We can make our research into something that the world will find useful.

Writing Worth Reading

There’s some really bad writing out there.  That sounds mean, but it’s true.  We’ve all read books or articles and upon finishing, thought to ourselves, “Why on earth did I spend so much time on that?”

And what makes those experiences particularly frustrating is knowing that we missed out on reading one of the many really good pieces of writing that are also out there.  While there’s certainly value in seeing something that is not worth respecting, good writing is more fun to read than bad writing.  It makes us pause and think.  It forces us to consider how we would feel in the author’s position, or the ways our argument might diverge from theirs.  Some pieces might compel us to emulate their style, while others are simply to be admired for their beauty.  Either way, reading really good writing is a way to make us better writers, and we should do it frequently and carefully.


I’d like to get some use out of my history degree.  I might not become a historian, but I’d still like to think about the past critically and try to make sense of how it affects our lives today.  This is what makes writing that includes history so interesting to me.  I love seeing historical evidence back up an argument; not only does it makes the assertion more powerful, but it also validates my degree and helps me escape the feeling that there will be no use for it in the future.

I would love to write a piece like Timothy Egan’s “Paul Ryan’s Irish Amnesia.”   The past is inherently connected to the present; we inherit from history lessons that teach us how to avoid old mistakes.  Egan does this, in deliciously cutting language, to criticize Paul Ryan’s ironic pride in being Irish without realizing what that really means.

Egan illustrates this point frequently through juxtaposition.  Immediately after describing the historical context in which Irish people starved at the hands of the wealthy British during the Potato Famine, Egan describes Ryan’s willingness to let the poor in America starve at his own wealthy hands.  This makes obvious the lunacy of Ryan’s willingness to play the same role as the people who almost killed his bloodline a hundred and sixty odd years ago.  It draws parallels between the past and the present, which is a more effective way to illustrate Egan’s criticism than if he has simply said “Ryan should support the poor.”

Egan uses historical facts frequently, but not so much so that they overwhelm the reader.  Instead, he grounds these facts in their relation to the present; never does he mention something that would not be interesting to today’s politically aware readers.  This is a balance that I hope I will be able to strike should I ever write about history’s relation to modern society.  Egan seems to understand that the public’s interest in the past is limited, and that accessible but significant information written in snappy rhetoric is the best way to maintain their attention and make a point.

Let’s be honest, this probably isn’t the source you’d like to learn history from.

History is important.  It has led us to where we are today and can help guide us through the future.  We should always consider the past when thinking about the present, which is what makes Egan’s article so effective.  It uses historical context to make a statement, and it proves that references to the past can be found in witty, opinionated pieces.  Although this type of historical writing doesn’t achieve the depth that the work of academics does, it reaches a broader audience than those pieces do.  It makes history relevant to people who otherwise wouldn’t care about it, and that makes it worthy of admiration and emulation.


As I’ve mentioned before, reality TV is one of my passions.  Unfortunately, most big thinkers of the world don’t seem to feel the same, so there’s seldom an engaging and thought-provoking piece about the genre.  That’s part of the reason I love Susie Meister’s “Confessions of a serial reality TV star.”  Meister may have appeared on seven seasons of MTV’s Road Rules and The Challenge, but her piece is frank and does not pander to the network.  It asks readers to consider both the downsides to reality TV and what makes it so addicting.

Is it just me, or does she look too respectable for reality TV?

Meister begins by drawing us into the world of MTV in much the same way that she was drawn into it at eighteen.  She is paradoxically cognizant and naive of her role on the show, just as any rookie to TV would be.  She knows that she is being typecast, but she still believes in the goodness of the social experiment.  She knows that the producers are pushing her and her castmates for interesting storylines, but she thinks it is being done for their own benefit, and not as a favor to network executives looking for ratings.  She is conscious of what is happening around her, but remains doe-eyed about the experience.

As the article progresses and Meister signs on for more and more shows, she becomes more critical.  Her time on MTV has helped her develop a more nuanced idea of how reality TV works, and her article accordingly becomes increasingly sophisticated.  She begins to speak unflinchingly of the exploitation of the genre, and the way that she and other cast members were mistreated.  Her language is precise and her examples clear; she speaks of how the experience of being on TV resembles being in a zoo with elegance and an awareness that the environment only seems real until you can see past your cage.

What’s interesting is that Meister does not end her article in righteous rage.  Instead, her language becomes softer and seems to be filled with doubt.  As terrible as some aspects of the show are, there’s something undeniably appealing about knowing that she is “still interesting and telegenic.” If there weren’t, she wouldn’t have done seven of these things.  She comments that she would like to break up with reality TV eventually, but implies through her reflective tone that she is still under its spell.  The end of Meister’s piece beautifully conveys the mixed feelings with which she regards reality TV.  Her writing captures that the genre is a beautiful beast, something that she knows she would be better off without but can’t seem to shake.  Her journey, both through MTV and through her article, are an emotional odyssey, forcing us to question how we would respond if placed in her situation.

Textbooks and TV and Tumblr, Oh My!

A photo of me, chilling at home, before my extensive plastic surgery last fall.

I’m a student.  I spend most of my time studying, or watching television, or on the internet.  I am truly a modern Renaissance Man.

I only say that with half of my tongue in my cheek, because whether I’m watching Netflix or reading about the Atlantic Slave Trade, I continually encounter new information taking various forms.  Sure, most of that information is processed subconsciously, but it still engages my mind and makes me consider what I’m learning from these sources.  They ultimately seek to do the same thing: tell me, as part of their audience, what I need to know about the topic being discussed.  And to do this, they utilize some or all of the five modes of communication: linguistic, visual, aural, spatial, and gestural.


 

I bet I could make bank if I weaved these and sold them on Etsy.

It seems an appropriate place to start is with an academic book.  When reading a collection of primary sources for my Colonial Latin American history class, I came across a section devoted to Incan tunics.  The information in this section was conveyed primarily through linguistic, visual, and spatial modes (as a book, aural and gestural modes would be difficult to use).

Linguistically, the text read as most textbooks do.  It provides an oversight of Incan weaving tradition, along with information about why wool tunics were made and how they differed across classes.  The linguistic mode also helped establish the text’s visual communication, by attaching captions to images.  If not for these, it would have been considerably more difficult to identify the differences between garments and the relevance of their patterns.  Still, the visual mode is important by itself.  It gives an idea of what tunics looked like and what designs adorned them, which accordingly can provide insights about the garments, such as the wealth of their wearer (opulent pieces were probably not worn by people who could barely feed themselves).

Interestingly, the spatial mode plays a large part in the organization of information in this textbook.  The section about Incan tunics is clearly demarcated, making obvious that it is separate from the book’s other primary sources.  More intriguing, however, is that this document is divided into two sections: a first, which I have described, and a second, 148 pages later in the book, which features the described tunics in color images.  Visually, this section is stunning.  The images bring color and texture to the aforementioned photos.  Spatially, however, this break in information is frustrating.  It divides information and makes it less readily accessible (it took me a solid fifteen minutes to find this section.  I probably should have looked at the table of contents).  Although the second section adds visually to the text, that addition is difficult to access and appreciate.


 

I’m a huge fan of reality TV.  I don’t care if you say that it’s fake or stupid or immature.  I love it.  And there’s no show I love more than Survivor.  The new season’s introduction (or theme song, if you will) was released this week, and can be found above.  What I love about the introductions for Survivor is that they tell so much about the season without using an abundance of text.  In fact, the main use of the linguistic mode is simply to list the names of tribes and of contestants as their faces flash on the screen.  It is also used briefly at the very end of the introduction to show the name and the slogan of the season.

To give more information, the editors rely on other modes.  Through the spatial mode, we learn how players are organized into tribes.  We also see use of the gestural mode, which depicts facial expressions, like celebrations or looks of pain (contrast Jeremy and Tasha’s body language in this opening) that convey some idea of who the player is and what role they play.  This is particularly nuanced because the editors provide two shots of each contestant, showing perhaps one moment when they are excited and one when they are upset to prove the game’s imminent turbulence (look at the difference between Peih-Gee’s first and second shots).  The aural mode is clearly present, using a song that combines elements of Cambodian music and Survivor’s long time theme, “Ancient Voices.”  This fusion tells us that this season will continue many traditions of the show, while incorporating aspects of Cambodian culture that are new to viewers.

Probably the most dominant mode seen in the introduction, however, is the visual one.  First, can we just appreciate how beautiful all of these shots are?  Take a moment if you must.  It’s pretty incredible, right?  Aside from just telling us what the contestants look like this season, the visual mode also communicates the beauty of this season’s setting, Cambodia.  It shows natural and cultural life, including shots of monks and of Angkor Wat.  Even if you aren’t familiar with the ancient Khmers, their sophistication is made evident by the editors’ decision to show both small, intricate details and all encompassing shots of their temples.  Also, near the end of the video, we see the contestants walk through the ruins at Angkor, suggesting that culture will be immersed into the game, somehow, during the season.


“Tumblr, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” -Vladimir Nabokov, sort of.

I am not ashamed to admit that I have a Tumblr page devoted to Myers Briggs personality typing.  And while I won’t show you mine (at least not yet), I will talk about the multimodal uses of the website through one of my favorite blogs, Funky MBTI in Fiction, because it uses all five modes of communication.

Again, the linguistic mode is used in a fairly obvious way.  Charity, the moderator, writes detailed descriptions about the personality types of characters from fiction.  She is very organized when doing this; first she will talk about the most prominent feature of the character’s personality (their dominant function), and will then discuss their less obvious traits.  This also demonstrates part of the blog’s spatial organization.  In addition to clearly labelling sections within the posts themselves, Charity also has tabs on the top and the right side of the blog that tell visitors where they can find a particular character or how they can ask a question.

Visually, the blog is simple.  Unlike other pages on Tumblr, there are not wild colors all over the place or cursors that trail pixie dust behind them.  Soft shades of blue and purple add a touch of pop to the otherwise black and white page.  Aurally, the page is silent, making the deliberate decision not to play music like other blogs.  Together, this simplicity serves to draw attention to the words on the page.  These words pair with gifs, which use the gestural mode to show expressions or individuals suiting a particular type (for example, Charity depicts Lorelai Gilmore making a face when answering a question about her type).  Together, these words and gifs seek to illustrate the character; they discuss their experiences and approach to life while showing snapshots of how they behave visually.

You, wondering why this post hasn’t ended yet.

These three examples seem diverse, and they are.  Each takes on a different form and therefore must work within the parameters of that form.  For example, a textbook simply will not be able to utilize aural communication, unless it includes a CD or a link to audio material online.  Similarly, the minute long introduction to Survivor is too brief for the extensive use of words.

The texts are also each are meant for a different audience and therefore each has a different goal in mind.  While the textbook and Funky MBTI in Fiction both are educational (albeit at different levels of formality), the Survivor introduction is meant to make the show look interesting and attract viewers.  This, coupled with the introduction’s emphasis on visuals, makes it the most distinct of the group.  Although the textbook is the only text that does not make some use of all five modes of communication, it has a similar goal to Funky MBTI in Fiction.  Both of them seek to teach and to give shape to abstract ideas, and therefore put the greatest emphasis on linguistic communication.  Still, each text succeeds in conveying information to the audience about the topic at hand.  That this is done differently underscores the fact that information is flexible, and can be communicated in numerous, effective ways.

Next time you’re at home, watching E! or scrolling through Facebook, don’t fret about wasting time.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re processing information and sorting out how it is told.  By observing the work of others, you are learning the many ways you can make your message heard.  Just make sure to get up and create something at some point, because it would be a shame to let all of that painstaking research go to waste.