Happy new year to my readers! I begin a new semester looking forward to City College of San Francisco’s imminent release from academic death row of de-accreditation (hopefully via a court judgement against the ACCJC). No news yet though.
Many months have gone by since I last posted on this blog. I have entered into a new phase of my life where multiple family responsibilities leave little time for writing. I am not always sure I can carry on this writing as I would like.
Yet I am always looking for unexpected openings; this one is provided by an episode of insomnia (the starting point for several of my posts), and my recent rediscovery of Masha Zackheim’s Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art. I had obtained a copy of the book (half scholarly history of the Coit Tower murals, half beautiful coffee table photo book) at a memorial for the author in the Diego Rivera Theater of CCSF. This wonderful event had completely dropped out of my consciousness.
It was one of those events where large turnout and an accidental confluence of a theme in multiple remarks by unrelated people manifested the spirit of the honored personage despite her absence. It was also an event that in the past would have inspired me to write a blog post, maybe too long, recounting how I slowly and indirectly learned that Masha Zackheim’s scholarship and activism saved Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity from closeted obscurity.
I was not able to do this writing last August when the event was fresh in my mind. This Christmas break, without intention, I was thumbing through books on a shelf, when I pulled out Coit Tower and remembered the event. I could not help myself from reading the whole thing, and later taking my family there. Despite the blustery weather, the Tower was crowded with hundreds of tourists and locals, and the murals looked better than ever after a recent restoration, including an important panel painted by Masha’s father, Bernard Zackheim.
The best I can do these months later to give a sense of what transpired at the memorial is to reprint a letter I wrote to the principal organizers of the event, CCSF Humanities Professor Bill McGuire (a close colleague of Masha’s) and Will Maynez, mural scholar and prime mover in the Diego Rivera Mural Project at CCSF.
“Dear Bill and Will,
“I wanted to express my appreciation to you both (and unnamed others?) for the Memorial celebration for Masha Zackheim. I use her monograph on the [Diego Rivera Pan American Unity] mural as a main reading in my 9293 Rivera assignment, and it has slowly dawned on me that most of the content of both the [CCSF] brochure and the web site are due to the work of this one person. I have wanted to meet her, but never had the chance, and I was happy to be introduced to Masha, at some distance, at the event.
“I had no idea how beautifully it would come off. How much was your efforts, and how much was the magic of Masha‘s influence? The particulars of her life were plentiful and significant, taking me beyond her mural scholarship: her brother’s account of her visits to his Sebastopol ranch, bringing both Bach and a stabilizing influence to his life, the El Cerrito house with modern Swedish furniture, the grammar corrections, the kind attention she paid to her accountant, and all the testimonials to her parties and her cooking.
“Whatever happens with City College in the coming years (Bill’s phrase about the ‘wrecking crew’ is coming to me), an event like this helps me keep a sense of purpose as we continue to search for a way out of the maze.
This is not enough, but it will have to do.
I first assigned McCloud’s chapter 6 of Understanding Comics in a basic writing class, but I did not know how to teach it, and my students did not know how to read it. The freshman comp anthologies using semiotic ideas, notably Signs of Life, were all at the university level. There was no textbook to tell me how to teach it. I began by leading discussions on chapter 6, and quizzing students on the terms there, for example realistic vs. iconic.
I first tried quizzing students about vocabulary in the normal way (fill in the blank) and was surprised to find that a couple of go-rounds were not sufficient. There had to be discussions of pictures mixed with abstract ideas. I had little experience discussing the amount of shadowing in a drawing of a face, much less the distinction between cartoon-style and abstraction in how they omit visual detail. I began teaching the conceptual words supplemented by McCloud’s graphic representations of the concept.
It was more complicated than I realized: I used McCloud’s renderings of famous paleolithic cave paintings in order to teach the “easy” concepts of “realistic” and “iconic” (more cartoon-like) representation. What I thought of as a realistic rendering of a horse’s head was not seen as realistic by some students raised in a culture of photography and video. They did not see the horse’s head as realistic but iconic, and did not understand that other cave paintings, squiggles suggestive of men with spears, which did not render the shape of their bodies, could be understood as “iconic” next to the horse picture, which showed the shape of the horse’s head, eyes and nose specific to a horse in motion. This relates back to McCloud’s continuum of representation.
I also assigned McCloud as independent reading with periodic journal entries due every week or two. At the beginning many students dutifully tried to summarize chapters, but didn’t understand very much. Later in the semester only 2 or 3 students read the book, and eventually even they stopped submitting journal writing when the homework got more intense. Then I get the feeling that students think that they can ignore the book and do fine in the class. Yes, why should they buy the book? So I have to make reading the book count with quizzes and I have to teach it more.
I decided to order the whole book (used copies were cheap) rather than only using a middle chapter. McCloud is enough of a teacher that he introduces more basic concepts in early chapters, gives several different examples, and then picks up terms like realistic/ iconic again in later chapters. Early chapters introduce the basic vocabulary, such as media/ medium, icon/ symbol versus referent, modes such as photo-realism, cartoon-like icons, more abstract symbols, and the interface between visuals and linguistic symbols.
I began to experiment with using graphic illustrations of terms from chapter 2, like realistic / iconic. The book’s genius is that its comic form is used to explain visual theory by “showing” them graphically. McCloud constantly mixes previously used symbols and metaphors with new ones to reinforce basic concepts like a brilliant textbook or lecture.
So I’ve photo-copied a large amount of graphics from the book and have given students classroom time to arrange them with peers to show their understanding of the realistic / iconic continuum, by arranging graphics on a continuum line. These are more clearly in contrast than the cave painting examples I mentioned above; I use a lot of facial portraits from the book. The continuum is not just mentioned—it is drawn. After that work, I quiz them. I have also continued to assign homework, classroom review, and quizzes around fundamental vocabulary: medium / media, realism, icon, abstract , and so on. This is working better. Students have a sense of what they are supposed to learn.
However, I can only spend so much time teaching this stuff because I am a composition teacher, not an art history or archeology teacher. These tasks still are very much in the realm of “exposure” and not of “mastery”. My students don’t complain about being assigned a theoretical comic book text, and I don’t allot many grade points to this work. But I haven’t yet figured out how to teach writing with it, so that my students widely distinguish between realistic and cartoony-iconic styles when they are writing essays analyzing advertisements.
MORE TO COME
(first of a series)
I first ran into McCloud’s Understanding Comics in the visually-oriented Freshman English anthology Seeing and Writing. The book reproduced McCloud’s chapter 6 “Show and Tell” : a humorous and brilliant comic book introduction to representation—how a visual resembles a real thing but is conventionalized into a symbol representing ideas, different than language, where the idea is converted into abstract form: a sound and a symbol representing a sound not the thing. Not the normal stuff of comics!
Normally, I would never have considered McCloud’s work for a basic writing class. Then my wife Diana and I bought a copy for our son’s 12th birthday. He was going through a phase with Japanese Manga. He never got interested in McCloud’s meta-comics book. But I did, as it combined my childhood and adolescent delight in comics (from Peanuts to underground Zap “comix”), with my adult interest in semiotics. So I began to experiment, assigning the book as independent reading in a basic writing class that I taught with an emphasis on visual communication.
Semiotics is a marginal sub-field in academia, devoted to applying the systematic approach in linguistics to all human symbol-making . I have always held onto that visual media interest, and semiotics seemed the necessary theoretical link between the worlds of orderly rhetoric and the delirious pleasures of iconic screen imagery. Though Understanding Comics is an argument for comics as a medium that encompasses high art, as well as pre-literate fun and games, chapter 6 can be seen as an introduction to the semiotics, an esoteric subject mostly confined to film schools, “cultural studies” and philosophy departments, which is sometimes taught in a “lite” version in university level composition classes. It can be seen as too “big” of a topic for students who are struggling with the mystery of the thesis statement. In 2009, I photocopied “Show and Tell” and put it into my own edited anthology.
I assigned McCloud in one class, and some of the students probably read it, but I didn’t want test for full understanding. Students were curious, at ease with McCloud’s conventional and versatile comic style, but mystified by his non-narrative academic approach. We discussed it , and later I quizzed them on key terms like “pictorial representation” and “linguistic representation”. I was disappointed with the results. It was not satisfying when they wrote down answers like “pictures” and “words”. I was learning my first lesson with teaching McCloud: it seemed much more simple than it actually was. The vocabulary meant very little unless I taught McCloud’s concept that words and pictures were part of a continuum of representation; students already know words and pictures are different, but find it difficult to work with McCloud’s assumption that they are part of one human impulse to symbolize.
My intentions were good: to use the medium of comics to introduce a semiotic discourse that students might find useful, providing only a rudimentary conceptual framework for more specific visual writing topics like advertisements, billboards, murals and sculptures, without attempting to teach a comprehensive theory. McCloud presents the “simple” notion that visual representation is more than resemblance—that it is a systematic field of communication that is what Gabriel Salomon calls “replete”– full of fuzzy, individual, idiosyncratic details whose meanings are hard to pin down.
The problem with my good intentions is that in a basic writing class, I am already busy, to put it mildly, with other things like topic sentences, motivation issues, absenteeism, subject-verb agreement, lab hours, and distinguishing the teenager who can’t stop texting from the teen mother who keeps walking out to talk on her phone because her child care arrangement fell through. I began to teach McCloud a little bit, students read it a little bit, and most of them forgot about it as the compositions became more demanding. It was independent reading, so students saw no need to read it. No one spoke up when I would stop teaching it late in the semester. The strongest students sometimes return a year later and say: “I never understood what that ‘comics’ book was all about. Does it really mean something important?”
by Jeff Goldthorpe
MORE TO COME
City College is an enormous multi-campus community college (100,000 students in the past, 60,000 now) that is slated to lose its accreditation about four months from now. Its essentially sitting on academic death row, yet unlike a convicted murderer, it continues to function, holding classes, serving lunch in the cafeteria, revising its on-line classes, holding interminable meetings, teaching English, math and science, as well as auto mechanics, swimming and queer studies.
Teachers like me are always planning, looking ahead at the next week and month, till the end of the semester, and looking backwards and assessing yesterday’s lesson, and grading last week’s essay. I’m in a composition level committee trying to implement a new curriculum of intensive 6-unit classes. I attend other department and committee meetings that are proposing new programs to build “pathways” for student development to encourage them to define goals, and go through a more coherent curriculum and minimize the “attrition” (students that drop out) that community colleges are famous for. So we go on working, planning, arguing, deciding to go this way or that, and it feels natural, feels right.
But somewhere in the middle of a discussion of the professional development workshops that we’ll have to do to implement the intensive classes, folks begin to debate whether we should do workshops mid-semester or pre-semester, or summer, so-and-so is saying that the professional development funds should be released soon. New money is floating around California; schools with equity programs can compete for new state funds….
I ask myself, what school will exist to do these things in six months?
Everyone says (even I say) that City College will not close. The new, not really “permanent” chancellor says it. The Super-Trustee appointed by the local Board of Trustees before the state pulled the plug on them says CCSF will endure. Activists chant it, and call for the ouster of the Super-Trustee. Congresswoman Jackie Speer, and finally Nancy Pelosi say CCSF cannot die. My union, AFT 2121 has run a remarkable campaign of local and statewide public good will and solidarity to save CCSF. The California State Community College Chancellor says City College will stay open no matter what. In January, the San Francisco City Attorney’s office filed asked a judge to issue an injunction against the Accrediting Commission (known by its acronym ACCJC) claiming that they broke rules of fairness and due process. This case will come to trial in the next few months.
Only one party says City College will close: the ACCJC, which has the power in the situation. As the public outrage reaches an ever higher decibel level, ACCJC seems to digging in behind its private fortifications, refusing to acknowledge its errors, the bad publicity, political pressure, and judicial review. ACCJC President Barbara Beno said we are getting the death penalty in July.
Behind the ACCJC and CCSF is the state community college system. If CCSF loses its accreditation, only the state has the money and the muscle to step in. But what new order do they want?
So at City College, we scribble our lesson plans and fiddle with our reforms, but we know nothing of the “man behind the curtain” who’ll be running the show in a few months, or whether the show will have a new name on the marquee of a new theater.
Not to criticize. I work the same way each day, going through the motions, planning for the next day, proposing reforms, telling my daughter she’s going to college.
by Jeff Goldthorpe
Despite a blog post last October, the return of my muse was exceedingly brief, and its absence has weighed on me. Why have I been unable to gather my energy to write? A hard teaching semester? Too much committee work? (I do so much less than others—oh! And guilt!). Family responsibilities? The BART strike? Hanging over all this is the “Death Row” status of City College of San Francisco; the school where I teach reading and writing is threatened with the loss of its accreditation in July 2014.
In order to teach, I do my best to ignore this context, which disrupts teaching and learning (challenging under normal circumstances). I recall the fashionable phrase from the Brits, “Remain Calm and Carry On,” but periodically I am reminded of how awful the situation is.
For example: the new “permanent Chancellor” makes a first public appearance early this month for his “Convocation,” giving a vaguely worded, badly amplified speech, and leaves before the “ceremony” is over to attend a meeting in Sacramento, presumably with someone who has real power. We do not know who is in charge anymore—do not know who is running the ship or where it is headed.
At a fall Flex Day event, a newly hired Dean (almost all of the previous ones have been fired) tells about a conversation with Barbara Beno, the head of the Accrediting Commission (known by its acronym ACCJC) when he worked at another local community college that was under a milder “Show Cause” sanction. She told him “We hated to do this to you guys, but you were so befuddled about your true state of affairs, we just had to hit you over the head with a two by four to make you wake up.” This is who we are dealing with! To continue with the martial metaphor, she must have thought that the point of ACCJC denying accreditation to City College was to throw a blanket over our heads and work us over with a baseball bat, either leaving us for dead or inducing pay rapt attention to her wisdom.
But my intention in this blog post was not to explain the City College drama, or comment on the growing political support for City College and criticism of the ACCJC (see my wonderful union’s website http://www.aft2121.org/ or http://www.saveccsf.org/ ) I merely want to say that I will no longer try to keep this blog’s focus on only on the pedagogy and politics of media-conscious teaching. I work inside of community college district that is in shock– on the brink of death or unpredictable disruption and tumult. This is where I live now. This is what I will write about, in addition to media-conscious teaching.
by Jeff Goldthorpe
by Jeff Goldthorpe
It is September 7 today, almost a month into City College of San Francisco’s surreal semester. I have hopeful students to teach, reports to write, and papers to grade. I have no more time to fiddle around with an account of my attendance of the NAMLE conference (National Association of Media Literacy Educators). I have tried different tones—witty and ironic, cute and humorous, sober and analytical. None of it felt right.
Let’s just say that the slow growth of media conscious teaching was in evidence, but it provides little immediate sustenance for a teacher whose school is on the academic equivalent of death row: slated for execution in July 2014, living with routines, but surrounded now by feverish petitions and arguments by lawyers and politicians appealing the conviction.
The hundreds of people who came to the NAMLE meeting, from K-12 teachers and librarians, to internet-era film makers and producers, to recent graduates and founders of new PhD programs in media studies, to directors of after school youth video programs, to the media literate nuns, seemed to find common ground with the term “critical thinking.” I am sure they define this term differently, but it does set us apart from those who see the internet only as a marvelous tool: the transmitter of correct educational content, rather than as a multi-media platform exuding an infinite variety of entertainment, educational content and propaganda that shapes rather than just transmitting communication, which must be skeptically questioned and understood.
Consider these unlikely allies: film director Tiffany Schlain, inventive in blending meta-media films and lovely animation, but blind to limits of her Marin hippy/ Internet glamour girl / Daddy’s girl persona in her new movie Connected. She spoke at the first plenary session, and is certain to remain a presence because of her web site that customizes short films for educators. On the other hand, a traditional academic like Chris Sperry of Project Look Sharp, showed me decades of lesson plans and visual materials that are in large part available for free on line. They are mostly packaged for social science teachers, but are rich and clear enough to be useful in any number of teaching situations. Past NAMLE President Renee Hobbs was a strong presence in the conference, chatting in hallways, popping into workshops, and leading an Oprah-style plenary session about the future of NAMLE, most of which I missed. She and her grad students were publicizing the first or one of the first, large media literacy programs in the U.S., the Harrington School of Communication and Media at University of Rhode Island. However I did not ever meet the nuns—you can’t be everywhere at once.
A workshop I attended on Pop Culture is probably representative of how many sessions went. Cathy Leogrande from Syracuse did a quick intro to Memes, which looked to me to be pictorial in-jokes circulated by young people in web conversations, and how they can be integrated into teaching and learning. I still don’t get it, but Cathy’s wise and witty talk assured me that I would get it eventually. Pamela Morris, from University of Wisconsin, gave a crisp, coherent account of teaching about reality TV that I found very useful. On the other end was a normal boring grad student presentation: on-line role playing game leading to more engagement with science curriculum. The stats were not interesting in this context. Bureaucrats may be need numbers but practitioners need more “how to,” and “how did it go?” My favorite part: Rutgers undergraduates politely listening, making impertinent comments about using cell phones during boring lectures, asking good questions about cell phone policies in class. Wish I’d taken notes…Idea: create assignments for appropriate use of smart phones.
Though I was disappointed to not meet even one community college teacher at the conference, there were CCSF students working at the “Remix-A-Thon,” where LA high school students produced a PSA about teen pregnancy that will go up on the NAMLE web site. We talked a bit—the CCSF students were more tied into the Bay Area Video Coalition than City College—more part of City College’s “Voc Ed” component than the basic education that preoccupies me most of the time. But it felt good to talk—there is some way this will lead back to my neighborhood.
I could go on but have begin my weekend paper grading routine. Let’s say this: I met a lot of good people, and while I did not “cement alliances” I did make contacts, and we can use the web to talk and exchange resources especially locally. When the right moment comes, I will weave these little bits and pieces into my work, and try to thank these colleagues for their useful work.My take is positive and open—let’s see where it goes.
This gallery contains 35 photos.
I’ve been doing an inventory this spring of the “Missing Student” statues and “Student Success Story” statues for City College of San Francisco’s Works of Art Committee (see my November 2012 posting for background on the statues). Leslie Smith, the … Continue reading
This last Wednesday July 3, after teaching my summer class, I was cleaning up my office, readying myself to head out into gridlocked traffic (the BART strike ongoing). Just then, on the afternoon of a holiday weekend, our Interim Chancellor sent out an e-mail announcing that the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges had announced that City College of San Francisco’s accreditation would be TERMINATED by July 2014.
If you want to read the whole turgid document from July 2012 that put us in this situation, you can see it on CCSF’s web site. I can summarize it this way: the report focuses on the finances, administration, governance, and facilities management of CCSF, and there is plenty to criticize there. Perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the report was concerned with “student learning outcomes,” faculty self-assessment of the success of instruction. That is what normal faculty have scrambled to improve in the last year. Never has the ACCJC claimed that CCSF’s retention rates, graduation rates, transfer rates are substantially different from other California community colleges. Their interest is less about quality of instruction than how the entire institution is run.
I was shocked. I had assumed that the hard work of faculty and staff, and more to the point, the enormous social disruption of displacing 85,000 or so students in the Bay Area would induce some moderation in the Accrediting Commission’s harsh judgment. Not so. So here we are, shuffling toward death row for community colleges.
Life at CCSF, which is always exciting and meaningful but close to exhausting and overwhelming (see my earlier post “The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves”), has gotten worse this past year– worse, worser, worsest?
It was always my intention to focus this blog on media conscious learning, but to reflect on that teaching and learning in relation to my culture, location, and individual experience. I never intended to write about my school situation as such. But this accreditation crisis is unavoidably bleeding into my entire life.
This post is my effort to think toward new writing to assemble these fragments. Should I begin to write media criticism about journalistic coverage of accreditation? Should I just write about this unprecedented crisis from the inside? Should I post links to valuable sources on CCSF?
Please post if you are so moved. I would love to hear from you.
I wrote an earlier post on this blog (November 2012) about two collections of statues at City College of San Francisco, portraying community college students, and about their uncertain future. I did not venture into the statue issue as an art teacher, or an art critic, but as a college composition teacher looking for a compelling topic for an end-of –semester assignment in a sub-transfer level class. How do I use these statues for a final exam topic?
Some comp teachers avoid finals entirely, in favor of portfolios that involve reflection and extensive revision of earlier papers. Others argue that to prepare students for college writing, we need to teach students how to handle the high pressure situation of the essay test since they will be writing such essay tests in future classes.
I have tried both of these alternatives, and have settled in English 93 for a final that calls for a week of study and reflective note-taking, but also asks students to quickly organize their ideas from notes into an outline in a test situation. The preparation begins the day that they hand in their credit-heavy essay on Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural (see September 2012 post), when students are drowsy and weary. I take them on a cross-campus hike, visiting the Student Success Stories statues in a closed storage area, and the Missing Students statues in the very public and prosaic cafeteria.
The walk revivifies them, but more importantly confronts them with curious, spectral representations of themselves as they might be. Amidst all my verbiage about who made these statues, what they are made of and why they were made, the students are trying to puzzle out these odd statues, whose effects range from touching, to whimsical, to disturbing, to mysterious. I love to observe the students observing the statues, wondering about the unspoken thoughts and emotions in their minds about their own futures. Only slightly more than 50% of City College students transfer to four-year schools, so these questions are very personal, and tend to be unspoken.
The MS statues were first created to symbolize the 175,000 students predicted to be turned away by state budget cuts in 2004, but there are many ways for a community college students to go missing: they disappear or drop classes to take new jobs or keep old ones, they skip classes or wander in late after smoking weed, they get kicked out of the house by parents or lose arrangements for caring for their own children, they lose concentration while breaking up with spouses or lovers, they succumb to a legacy of weak student skills and confusion over goal setting, without ever finding a counselor or mentor to muddle through these difficulties. The multiple ways these statues are painted suggest these multiple ways of losing one’s way through this system.
The Success Statues also suggest the many paths to community college “success”. They include the better known stories of recovery and redemption: the teen mother who moves steadily toward her master’s degree, the Southeast Asian immigrant who moves from learning English to getting a license as a registered nurse, and the gang-banger who finds his way out of juvenile hall through studying economics. They also include the more idiosyncratic stories: art student Marlon Gomez’s statue above suggests his access to springs of creativity. Helen Carter tells about attending community college in tandem with her son and daughter. Susan Kitazawa speaks of going to CCSF to get her nursing degree in 1970, returning to study Spanish to improve her nursing work, and studying the arts after retiringto enrich her volunteer work.
I assign my students to briefly compare and contrast the Success Statues to the Missing Students statues. There are readings: past news stories on the statues, fuller personal narratives and photos on the Success statues ( http://www.ccsf.edu/Offices/Government_Affairs/StudentSuccessStories/) and photo documentation of the creation and deployment of the Missing statues on the CCSF Library web site ( http://www.ccsf.edu/Library/exhibits/missing_students.html). I assign notes to be taken on For those who are too tired to choose within five days, I provide images of a contrasting pair of statues.
The most important step in their preparation is to pick two statues, one from each group (roughly 75 in each group), to carefully describe and analyze in notes, using printed photos or web images. Here is where they can show how much they have learned during the semester about describing and analyzing visuals, and interpreting their messages.
I agree with my levelheaded office mate, that high-stakes assignments are best given before the end of the 17-week semester, and finals need to be practice in a known genre, not a ground-breaking new one. Another colleague, who I consider fount of blunt realism and human kindness, argues that students in pre-transfer classes like 93 often end the semester exhausted, barely capable of demonstrating what they have learned, much less outperforming their earlier work in a glorious sprint toward the finish line. I see her point, so I have chosen statues for students who don’t, and print the images, so they too can prepare for the exam. I give them structured note-taking forms, and insist that they prepare for the exam with note-taking and journal writing, which I let them use during the first half hour of the 2 hour exam period to write an outline based on a highly directive prompt. The compare and contrast writing on this final has been practiced in two major take-home essays that precede this one. They are practicing a known genre.
The writing is organized and clear to various degrees, and often shows growing competency in analysis, but it is not always pleasant to read. In the end, I feel most accomplished as a community college teacher while reading between the lines, sensing the drama of the students’ lives only alluded to: Can I do this academic thing or not? How am I going to make a living? Do I like schooling or hate it? Will my family display my graduation photo on the mantle or will they go silent? Am I going to feel proud of my accomplishments, or go missing?