Teaching about San Francisco Community Murals

text by Jeff Goldthorpe
photographs by David Yu

Here I am with my students, walking down 24th Street past South Van Ness toward Balmy Alley, San Francisco’s first outdoor mural gallery. I am lucky this semester to have David Yu as a student, a professional photographer. He decides to take photos as we do the mural tour. I am also lucky to be in my old neighborhood, where I lived from age 18 to my late twenties. Here on this very corner, I fell in love with my first outdoor mural by Mujeres Muralistas, where Paco’s Tacos once stood. The mural overlooked the parking places for the drive-in. As a semi-native, I feel at home.

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I am a composition teacher by trade. Compositions are written in classrooms. How did I end up on this road? I began teaching about a Diego Rivera mural on City College’s campus in 2008, saw the power of the local, as well as the obvious influence of Rivera on local muralism, and found Tim Drescher’s essay about how two Mission District “mural alleys” represented a larger shift in politics and style. By 2011, I had a compare/contrast assignment on my hands.

The Mission is a few miles from the campus where my class meets. No problem. There are thousands of images, and several web sites of varying quality about Mission murals on the web, which I have posted on the class Moodle page. But to not visit these murals seemed ridiculous, given the importance of cultural context and site-specific meanings. So here I am at Balmy Alley, introducing Josue Rojas’ “Enrique’s Journey,” a beautiful rendering of the true story of about a boy who jumps trains from Mexico to find his Mom in the U.S. I don’t talk about how I ended up in the Mission to escape my mom.

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Balmy Alley is in the heart of the mainly-Latino neighborhood, and wears its forty years of social realist muralism proudly (there are at least 20 murals in the block-long alley). The day is sunny, the alley is fairly clean and there is no sign of the gang bangers that the Mission is notorious for, so even students who are new to the Mission soon feel at ease. As in any gallery, students at first listen to my lecture, and then drift apart to browse, then bunching up together again unpredictably. I consider the drifting to be a sign of engagement, rather than of boredom.

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Soon we run out of time, and walk back through the alley and back up 24th Street to hop on the BART train to 16th and Mission to nearby Clarion Alley. I once lived in this more hipster / skid-rowish side of the Mission as well, so the wilder, pop-and -hip-hop, and graffiti influences here are familiar to me, but sometimes disconcerting to students who prefer the comprehensibility of social realism. Drescher’s essay describes the greater diversity and pluralism of Clarion to be “post modern,” as opposed to the more rational, political, realist style of Balmy. Having read Drescher before our tour, students are on the lookout for hypodermic needles and human waste. Usually the scent of urine is all I notice. Clarion as well has been uplifted, if not gentrified by the art tourists, my class included.

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Despite Clarion’s reputation for stylistic anarchy, their mural process is overseen by the Clarion Alley Mural Project. CAMP has audaciously attempted to ride the wave of graffiti-style spray can art while maintaining the traditional boundaries of art making (“good fences make good neighbors”). Nonetheless in two years of mural tours, I have occasionally been rendered speechless by the destruction of my favorite pieces, not to mention the relentless tagging, which I assume is periodically wiped clean by mural guardians. Chuy Campusano’s 20 year old political cubist piece and Jet Martinez’s almost 10 year old “Lo Llevas Por Dentro” are carefully tended by someone’s loving hands. Martinez’s introspective/ geometric nature painting is good marker of how far from social realism paintings can drift at Clarion.

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The pleasures of walking outside aside, ending the tour is sobering, mostly due to the desperate decay of the street scene, if not for all the graffiti-devastation on the Mission Street side of Clarion.

The mural comparison assignment this tour leads to is still too difficult. I am still working to structure its contrastive analysis while keeping its choice and chance. The final assignment– analyzing two panels of Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity”– also leads students out of the classroom, but not off campus. One of the early assignments requires two students to describe and interpret one panel (of ten panels) to the rest of the class. We visit the mural site itself, but its enormity and the awkwardness of the architecture, which precludes a single panoramic view, has led me to schedule the panel talks at a campus restaurant where a large scale replica allows both close-up and panoramic viewing. The student talks reduce the intimidation factor in facing the work of a master.

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Teaching at a community college with world class piece of visual art is a privilege indeed. Composition teachers may wonder if I am teaching art history (see the power point presentation posted elsewhere on this blog). “Pan American Unity” is so densely historical that any writing that comes close to interpretation must use scholarship to get to point B. A second way that I consider myself highly privileged is that I am able to benefit from the decades of scholarship by Masha Zackheim, Julia Bergman, and Will Maynez among others, to present scholarly materials that give students the context and background to hang their own insights on. I always end my library tour with a visit to the Diego Rivera Archives, so they can feel the weight of this work, and know that if they want to pursue any question about the mural obsessively, there is probably an answer to it here. Below, David shows you an image of the unsinkable Julia Bergman welcoming my students to the Archive.

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Putting My Money Down

It is 5/3/13, middle of the night again.

I have just put down a pretty hefty sum to attend a national meeting of the National Association of Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE) in July, an organization I know very little about, even though I joined a few years ago. Given family responsibilities and my school’s accreditation crisis, I have wondered if this meeting is the right way for me to be spending my scarce money and time. Past experience did not inspire—conventions of English teachers were cold, impersonal affairs that my local colleagues rarely visited. If I were applying for a job, there would be a reason to go, but short of that…Let’s face it: teachers’ professional worlds center around schools, departments, maybe unions, but not professional associations.

My personal questioning leads back to questions about identity and disciplinary affiliation. I teach “English,” so what am I doing teaching about “media”? No, that’s too personal. The people who teach “media” (digital, TV, radio, film) have their own cubbyhole departments in colleges, primarily focused on craft: producing content in their respective media. NAMLE, and the media literacy networks that preceded it, have called for media literacy (what I like to call media-conscious education) to be considered a part of general education for all students (as it is in Britain, where it is largely taught within “English”). When I was a grad student, I was odd to composition scholars because I wanted to import visual (TV) content into English, not to transmit knowledge but to stimulate reflective critical viewing of medium and content. Now I am odd because I want to do something apparently similar with the internet. The problem is that people running American schools here are not convinced, and so media conscious teaching remains esoteric, marginal, a sideline.

Of course, what is “hot” in colleges is on-line education, and I have joined in, not to teach on-line classes (which to me are not an appropriate medium for most community college students), but to make “tech enhanced” content and activities a part of my classroom teaching. If I could throw myself whole-heartedly into that world, with its focus on how to deliver whatever content, (rather than the self-conscious use of and reflection about the media used), then I could go to meetings tied directly into the community college system of California, and have an internet “channel” to use. I talk with colleagues at school about tech teaching, but our concerns are disparate, and do not lead to the collaboration I am looking for.

To follow my visual interests I have gone local. Rather than pouring my energy into how to teach with and about YouTube, I have gotten most involved with teaching about, and working with colleagues on City College’s precious but overlooked Pan American Unity mural by Diego Rivera, which has led in turn to involvement with the campus’ visual art in general.  For some reason I cannot explain, there is a sufficiently shared sensibility and interest in the cross-disciplinary “Works of Art” committee, that my interest in visual culture is encouraged, and everyone understands that the internet lends itself to communication about that art through word, image, and sound.

So why attend a convention in L.A.? I guess I am still looking for that disciplinary context, where people who teach about and through internet media can exchange ideas and practices.  I’ve had occasional discussions with theorists and practitioners of media conscious education that spurred me to learn and create.  But it has only led to brief exchanges.  I’m looking for more, I’m not sure what. Yes I know I can “connect” with all these people through the internet, but without physical proximity and human presence, those possible collaborators are just pulsing stars on the other side of the galaxy, visible, but not able to exert any gravitational pull.

Posted in Sabbatical Report Tidbits, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through | Leave a comment

Hear The Voice Of The Bard: Celebrating Carlos Ramirez 1938-2013

I started this blog to bring together fragments of my writing and teaching life, but life keeps getting in the way.  I have been dwelling on what to do about a persistent fatigue lately, which is often worsened by occasional insomnia, and when I woke this morning at 4 am, and could not go back to sleep, I knew it was time to write about Carlos Ramirez.

Carlos meant many things to many people.  I first knew Carlos as “Santa Claus”—as this warm, friendly grey haired, bearded man who I used to see every year at Carole Raimondi’s Christmas Eve parties.  If it hadn’t been for this connection, I would’ve thought of him as “Walt Whitman,” but because Diana and I always took our two young children to these parties, Carlos was always “Santa” to us, and Santa only comes on Christmas.

But somewhere around 2005, I started to see Carlos in the cafeteria at City College.  He was taking music classes at City when he wasn’t working as a substitute teacher for San Francisco Unified School District, and we would have these rollicking, unpredictable conversations that I began to look forward to.  He was active in different choruses, and was working on improving his singing voice, as well as regularly performing his poems at Sacred Grounds in the Haight.

Of course we would talk poetry, and I asked Carlos (or did he ask me?) to recite poems in my English 1B class (literature requirement), where the typical student has the assumption that poems are these dusty, dried out husks of life that normal mortals are not given to understanding.   Carlos SANG poetry, literally set them to melodies of his own invention. Carlos had a special affinity for the poetry of Langston Hughes, as well as some other African American poets. He brought precious, living poetry into my class in a way that I never could have.

One semester, our schedules did not match up.  So I asked Carlos if he would sing them for me while I videotaped him.  Carlos was happy to comply. As you can see from the video clip I am posting here, it was a beautiful day, and he was in top form.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEQF7GsRwFw

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The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Written 1/19/13

revised 3/24/13

Beginning a semester again at City College of San Francisco is like falling into a time warp: the eternal semester that is, has been,  and always will be.  Somewhere in the middle of the first week’s new faces, excitement, hope, chaos and stress, I asked myself if it was the first, second or third week. Am I just coping with the intolerable by living an illusion?

Because nothing is as it was, and my community college reverie kept being punched through by odd events: eclipses of the school’s web site and e-mail system, the disappearance of a car-sized photo-copy machine to ration faculty printing, the absence of the English department’s chair while multiple class cancellations are pending, and rumored firing of several deans.

The gradual descent of City College of San Francisco into the current  accreditation crisis has really been a crisis of acrimony, doubt, political double-cross, and anonymous irresponsibility. A long-rumored financial crisis exploded into the open about a year ago when classes were cut, and the Vice-Chancellor of Finances issued a YouTube video stating that cupboard was bare.

This would seem like enough to focus on during the spring of 2012, but the English Department needed more immediate drama: a long-criticized placement test (key to putting students in the right level composition class in a school where about 75% of new students test into levels below 1A– first year comp, university transferable credit) was attacked by a well-funded student reform group, some multicultural education advocates on staff (that I was once friends with), and the outgoing Chancellor.  He had been long frustrated by the placement tests and long course sequences of English and Math Departments, and before retiring to get a brain tumor operation, he resolved to do away with them.

As a teacher who understands little about placement tests, but works with many students that are ill-prepared for college writing, I found the critics to be obsessed with mere acceleration of students through basic skills classes.  Most of these students have been certified by high schools as being ready for college, yet the majority of them are reading and writing at 7th to 9th grade levels.  Urban schools’ apparent social promotion practices have resulted in the massive graduation of students who may desire to attend college but whose reading and writing have been stalled for many years.  Faculty learning processes are also strained: in the past ten years at CCSF, English course reform efforts have not yielded any clear-cut advances in student pass rates, graduation rates, transfer rates or persistence.  To me, the sound and fury around the “racist,” “demoralizing” placement test was strangely irrelevant to the issues real basic skills teachers have been dealing with.

I cannot begin to explain the cursing, moaning, sub-plotting, and hair-pulling that ensued when the College’s Board of Trustees held public hearings.

English teachers came out of the affair feeling abused.  I attended one of the hearings and my reward was to have a large photograph printed of myself in the student newspaper next to the department chair, under a red-ink headline that said “INJUSTICE!!”  The article about the dispute was actually fair-minded, but my transformation into an image of mean-spirited intransigence was creepy, but I have not suffered the worst of it. The College has a tenuous new placement system for math and English, and we will live with the results of this latest reform imposed by the Board of Trustees, elected officials who understand little about teaching or learning.

This was all promptly forgotten in a few weeks when City College received the worst possible rating short of school closure (“Show Cause”) from the accreditation committee.  Odd—the college is not really faulted for the education it provides (its graduation and pass rates are somewhere in the community college norm), but is condemned as an institution for its overall administration, governance and finances. While some say the faculty and its union have too much power, pay, and job security, the accreditation committee clearly focused its criticism on the leadership of the college. Now some of my multicultural education advocates are busy declaring their allegiance to the power-holders in state education.  They seem to be believe that equity can be attained through policies of austerity.

Are the district leaders as incompetent as they pretend to be? You can now find a quotation in cyberspace from one the politicians on the Board of Trustees (fresh from a few years of verbally abusing math and English departments about how they don’t promote student success) admitting they were “clueless” about how to manage the funding and guide administration of the college.

But now, we have to rush to reform the college to the accreditation committee’s liking. We are working harder, in a more stressful environment for much less pay (8.8% less by my recollection). As we have our pay cut, our classes canceled and our colleagues laid off, I hope that CCSF staff does not involve itself in recriminations.

The trauma of fast-tracking multiple reforms, discouraging students with all the bad news, and then begging them to come back with teacher-led public outreach, is worthy of the novel I might write, if I weren’t living through it.

Posted in Living / Teaching, Local Politics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trying a Millennial Time Capsule with Basic Writing Students

I brought back an old time capsule assignment from the San Francisco State University Broadcasting Department (I never did it as student or taught as a teacher).  It is basically just Semiotics 101:  explain why something is a symbol of its time and culture.  I made it a low credit final because I didn’t know how well it would work.  The problem, from the standpoint of my more pragmatic teacher friend, is that I am asking my exhausted students to make do research which may not be exciting and compelling enough to inspire hard work following a major take-home essay. But the alternative is to require another essay test which further deadens. The original assignment was for college juniors or seniors, and I was trying to adapt it for community college freshmen in a basic writing class with a theme about how visuals create meaning.

Without attempting a genuine retrospective, I think the time capsule was a winner.  After I showed a few YouTube videos about time capsule burials and openings, students seemed intrigued and I asked them to fill in a grid sheet of possible millennial time capsule artifacts, decide on an area of interest, then join together with at least 2 other students, and quickly write up a narrowed list of several artifacts/ documents in that area. Outside class each student was to web search and read about one artifact by the next class meeting.

This was a class with middlin’ morale, and I was not sure if most students would arrive at the next meeting ready to “show and tell” about their artifacts. Although most of them did not post about their artifacts on the class’ Moodle page, enough did to model the process to others and they did work with their topic groups in the computer lab, enough to, by the last class meeting of the semester, practice presenting about their artifacts, displaying them physically or digitally if possible.  It worked so well that I was able to stand back and give minor feedback. Students owned their artifacts. The presenter had to answer questions from classmates, and the class took on dialogical character.

As a composition instructor, I felt self-conscious about organizing an exam based on a verbal presentation, so I had students write a one page justifying why the object should be part of the Millennial Time Capsule, and write a summary of a short reading about the millennial transition from printed page to screen, and from linguistic to visual dominance, and hand it in at the time of the exam.

Each of these tasks pushed students to the very edge of their abilities to generalize, explain, and abstract from item to culture.  Talking and writing fell short of what I had hoped for; the explanations of how an artifact represents a time and a culture were only occasionally asserted. But I had known it would be hard, and that I had never taught such an assignment before. I also knew that during the semester students had worked repeatedly on topics that engaged them to think critically on how images create meanings differently from language. But during the final exam, the class came together in dialogue and created fragmented but somehow cohesive notion of the culture of their childhoods.  I am encouraged to try this again.

EXCERPTS of assignment below: from 12/2/12

“Final Exam Assignment—Millennial Time Capsule:

Representing ‘Our Time’ in Artifacts and Documents”

(Creative adoption of assignment  by Berger 79-83.   Full MLA entry:

Berger, Arthur Asa.  Media Analysis Games: Simulations, Activities, Games, & Exercises.  San Francisco: 1986, Narcissus Press. Print.)

In the Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition, a time capsule is defined as “a receptacle containing  documents or objects typical of the current period, placed in the earth or in a cornerstone for discovery in the future.”  Implicit in the notion of the time capsule is the belief that objects, artifacts—what anthropologists often call “material culture” – reflect a given era accurately and that later generations, which open the time capsule at some future date, will get an idea of what life was like when the time capsule was filled and sealed.

The Task:  collect a series of artifacts and documents that reflect American culture and society at the beginning of a new millennium, from ten to fifteen years ago (roughly 1994-2004), to give future generations an idea of how we loved, entertained ourselves, what we wore, and what fads occupied our attention.

Popular Cultural Topics:  This time capsule will focus on representation of mass media culture, rather than political representation, or religious representation.  How do you select from millions of artifacts only the most important and representative examples and exclude material of minor significance?

The Problem of Representation:  This is the main problem we face.  How do we give future generations an accurate idea of how we lived?  How do we avoid giving a partial and biased view?  In suggesting artifacts and documents for each category, try to distinguish between items for each category that may have been very popular, but were not important or representative, as opposed to items that were popular AND significant.

Sub-topics:  In some cases you will have to divide topics into sub-topics:  TV includes dramas, reality shows, situation comedies, and so on. These topics are all quite large and you may have to leave out items that are important because the time capsule is only so big and can take only a small number of objects (1 for each student for exam).  You will want to include artifacts that are from different sub-topics to have a certain breadth of cultural representation.

Ranking: After the presentations, one more task remains.  We will decide which 5 of the 20 or so items presented are the most important.  This ranking is not based on the student’s presentation, but on which items we feel best reflect and represent American society and culture at the turn of the millennium.

If there is argument on the artifacts and their ranking, that suggests some deeper issue is coming up that we’ll need to study in the future.  This is a classroom learning exercise, but as you know people actually do make time capsules and engage in fascinating and enjoyable arguments about what should go into them.

Posted in Greatest Hits, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Statuary of Community College Students?

Success and Missing Statues in Bungalow

(under construction—to be continued—comments welcomed)

City College of San Francisco houses two exceptional collections of statues, one displayed in the cafeteria, and the other stored in an ancient bungalow, periodically trundled out for display (see a quick video introduction on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpXuKBeuERU  ). The first collection, called the Missing Students, is made of fiberglass, and the other, called Student Success Stories, is made of soft canvas stuffed with a synthetic cottony substance.  Produced over the past decade by a statewide coalition of art students and community college staff to advocate for better state funding, these statues live out a ghostly existence akin to the students they represent: students who aspire toward scholarship and professionalism, but have largely missed the boat of the U.S.S. Meritocracy (not to condescend: I missed it myself, and attended community college in my mid-twenties).

The statues are awkward for community college students to observe and respond to because they materialize their downtrodden “loser” status in a supposedly classless society.  Whereas academically ambitious high school students and elite college undergraduates like to cheer and boast, strut their stuff, and indulge in various kinds of trophy-style self-representations, community college students rarely deem themselves worthy of the memorializing genre of the human statue.

The “Missing Students,” made of durable fiberglass, for the last couple of years have resided on carts in the cafeteria, off in the back, sometimes even stowed behind movable bulletin boards.  Between the Art department, the Hotel/ Restaurant faculty, and until recently, perhaps an administrator, there has been a quiet conspiracy to keep them on display, to not allow these statues to be trashed, sold, or given away.  But they are not displayed as art in a gallery, and have no signage explaining their presence.  The only other permanent display is the flags of a hundred or so nations hanging from the ceiling, obviously to symbolize the school’s commitment to multiculturalism.  The meaning of the Missing Students is more opaque.  They are clustered together in mute witness while the living students eat, talk, and study under them.  Faceless, they stoop forward slightly.  Many students don’t bother to inspect them, but sense that they are like mourners at a funeral, not there to either celebrate or encourage.

Posted in CCSF Student Statues, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through, Uncategorized, Visual Art On Campus | 1 Comment

Autistic Children Using i-Pads

Autistic Children Using the i-Pad—An English 1A Student’s Research Paper

My English 1A class has the lofty goal of using the digital medium to encourage written reflection (in the form of traditional composition) on the digital and print media.  This work proceeds glacially. I am interested in both visual communication and Internet culture in general, but have not yet figured out how to thoroughly combine these interests with teaching writing.

Lucy Thrupp, an inventive student in my spring 2012 class (who has been taking Child Development classes), wrote a research paper about the use that autistic children are making of the i-Pad’s visual and tactile qualities.  Lucy’s work exemplifies what I want to see: genuine exploration of the potentials and limitations of the digital medium, especially the visual.  Thank you Lucy!

To see her paper, click on “Autistic” title beneath the “header” visual, the unfinished mosaic at the top of the blog page.

Posted in Teaching Visuals: with, about, through, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rip Van Winkle Wanders Into Web 2.0

Attending the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication

By Jeff Goldthorpe

Once upon a time, a “youthful” thirty-four year old graduate student in composition worked on an edgy thesis on integrating visual media into writing classes.  Rip even gave a presentation at a 1992 4C’s  conference about students writing analytically about TV commercials. Dissecting TV commericials went beyond many teachers’ comfort zones, but intrigued them.  It was fun to be intriguing, but it did not win him favor in the world of hiring committees and English Department meetings. He consigned his edgy thesis to an “ad essay” assignment and went to work:  he had two young children to raise, and thousands of compositions to grade, (not just grade, but thoughtfully, individually respond to).  He read, and he graded, and he diapered year, after year, after year.  His fingers turned an inky blue, his knuckles grew gnarled;  his hair fell out and turned grey.  His most important media device became ear plugs, to shut out the noise of bickering children, video games, and their Lord of the Rings DVDs.

Twenty years later, at age fifty-four, Rip hobbled into the San Francisco Hilton to attend the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication.  He dreamed of clasping his old thesis, now a sabbatical topic, close to his heart and find that a new generation of Internet savvy teachers would congratulate him for coming. But when he attended his first convention workshop on “Streaming Media,” Rip found that what he had worked on was passé.  This new generation, instead of assigning students write through one medium (the word processor) about a separate visual medium (television), were assigning them to write “multi-modal compositions,” which combined graphics, sound effects, music, video clips, and podcasts. These were “papers” composed in the same medium that gave the students their subject matter.  Their writing was a single ingredient in a multi-media soup, where several other modes of communication bobbed around simultaneously. Rip, in dire need of new glasses, could barely decipher the Power Point characters on the screen, and moved to the front of the room. Though he could not help rubbing his eyes, he mustered up every bit of academic authority and objectivity he had, and asked the presenters how these teachers of Multi-Modal Composition prepared themselves to teach graphic design, musical selection and placement, recording and editing of video and audio, as well as expository writing.  This occasioned laughter from the audience, whose sympathies he could not discern, until a voice in the back asked, “Where have you been for the past twenty years, Grandpa?”  The three presenters solemnly conferred, and Rip was told that teachers and students already shared rudimentary skills in operating digital cameras with sound, manipulating graphics, editing video and audio documents, and inserting and accessing hyper-links.  Just a common proficiency, not expertise, was expected in these classes.  Students already lived in multi-media environments, and that multi-modal compositions did not lead to new anxiety, but excitement.  Most of the grade depended on their writing.

Rip began to tremble all over and to channel Dana Carvey’s Cranky Old Man character, who’d been channeling some old geezer from The Real McCoys on fifties television:  When I was a boy, and we wanted multi-media, we didn’t have any Garage Band  programs, just crappy musicians bothering the neighbors with their wretched noise!  We didn’t  have any You Tube, we had to make copies of copies of copies of Black Flag’s “TV Party” video!  We didn’t  have any Dance Dance Revolution!  We did our slam dancing while listening to Gang of Four and watching experimental video art school outrage spliced together with 1940’s health education films AND WE LIKED IT!!

Okay, maybe I exaggerate about Rip.  But why did these presentations leave me feeling like a stodgy old man, or worse, an uneducated hick, gaping at the sophisticates from the big city?  There I was, 35 miles from Silicon Valley, a San Francisco hick (ironically most of the presenters were from Ohio State University, and Purdue University in Indiana).  Many of them expressed no anxiety about whether or not their students wrote clearly, or interpreted multi-media messages perceptively.  One community college instructor gave a presentation about  using Wiki Spaces as a writing environment for a transfer level composition class.  When I asked her about the basic writing classes at her school, she said that they were part of a separate program, and that Wiki was not on their agenda; it was a whole different program. Transfer level classes were moving onto the “information superhighway,” to use a Clinton-era term, and basic writing classes were on a dirt track in the woods, writing on word processors, with Internet access tightly controlled.

I did find conference participants who shared my concerns with a new digital divide.  At one workshop, Ohio State graduate students talked about their study of the educational hierarchy and media access.  In the most well-endowed schools, all students have laptops,  most classrooms are wired for Internet use, and schools lend students digital recording equipment to do their multi-modal compositions. As you go down the educational hierarchy, these resources are less and less available. At City College there are those of us who use blogs in writing classes, or upload resources onto their web pages.  But instruction in multi-modal texts, or even the phrase multi-modal composition, has not arrived.  Maybe the right metaphor for us is not hillbilly but impoverished third world nation. The conference for me became a painful reminder that our world is divided, not merely between those who do and do not have access to the Internet, but also those who have the knowledge, skills, and equipment to use “Web 2.0”  proficiently, and those who don’t, despite access.

As real as this picture of “Digital Divide 2.0” generally is, it is so inadequate.  Our students are obviously on Web 2.0, often more fully and deeply than we are. “Facebook addiction” was the most popular writing topic among my students this last fall, obviously because so many students are on it. Or there is older problem: while community colleges have probably always had a sizeable contingent of monosyllabic young men, many of them I meet today are caught up in the worlds of on-line gaming or gambling. Or try this exercise in observation: walk through the LAC computer lab on any given day, and I predict you will find 25% of those students will be watching Japanese anime, You Tube, or some other visual treats. Let’s get more immediate: what is the latest form of diversion at the back of the community college classroom?  Students are checking their I-Phones, with this tell-tale posture: faces downward, staring into their laps.  Our students are clearly highly proficient in some kinds of Internet use, and woefully deficient in others.  Teachers, this one included, have to consider that we often know much less about the medium and its mechanisms than do our students.   And for the foreseeable future, they will always know more, and learn it faster, than we will.  What will our teaching stance be toward our students’ involvement in Internet culture?  I’m not ready to make a general statement on that, but I’m sure we don’t want to reduce our position to a restrictive and prescriptive police action.

Neither do I want to imply that we all need to jump on the Multi-Modal Bandwagon.  You may wonder if I exaggerate the influence of one tendency in a large conference.  It is true that many workshops and plenary sessions went on with little reference to the Bandwagon.  But its rhetoric is ascendant:  in the 2010 CCCC Convention Call, the official theme is “The Remix” a music industry derived term referring to serious audio reconstruction of old, often classic recording.  This call is phrased to attract a new generation of teachers and grad students:  “From mashups to CLUSTERF*%#!s and all the wikis, flashbacks, multimodalities, and mapping in between, the presentations for this year’s conference promise to push our discussions further.  They might even tell us if Aristotle is in the DJ booth or on Twitter.”

The medium is not the only message, nor will that medium resolve any of the issues we face in the classroom. I recoiled at the insistence by some at the 2009 CCCC that teachers had to keep up with the multi-modal wave, when the advocates had not thought carefully about what new skills and competencies were involved, or how the new media was reshaping the message. Here we are, witnessing the money-driven rush to put California’s textbooks on line,  and move to deposit the entire literary inheritance of humankind into the benign embrace of Google.  In such a world, there is merit to the traditional linguistic conservatism of English teachers— “Slow down now.  What does this mean?”

And yet…these presenters were saying that the ground of discourse on which we are teaching and reading and writing is shaky ground.   Look at this blog, with its graphics, hyperlinked videos, texts, and who knows what other bells and whistles that I have not noticed.  This is now a normal text.  Even in The New York “All the News That’s Fit to Print” Times, photos and illustrations are ballooning, the sports page is growing, and who knows if comics are far behind.  In Orality and Literacy Walter Ong stated that when a new technology reshapes discourse, it does not eliminate the prior form, but assimilates and integrates the old forms into the new discourse. The Multi-Modalists have gotten me to thinking:  if writing is less and less used as a discrete, separate symbol system, whether in handwriting, print, or electronic media, will teaching writing as a separate mode of communication become archaic in my lifetime?

Further Reading and bibliography: http://homepages.findlay.edu/tulley/whatisMMC.htm

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Teaching Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” Mural

Rivera Powerpoint

Steven Mayers and I presented this slide show with a  (lecture not available here) to share our experience teaching about Diego Rivera’s “Pan American Unity” located on the City College of San Francisco main campus, and to encourage other English teachers to try teaching about the mural, using the voluminous resources that the campus has.

Posted in Greatest Hits, Rivera's "Pan American Unity", San Francisco Murals, Teaching Visuals: with, about, through, Visual Art On Campus | 1 Comment

A Teacher’s Family Christmas Letter, by Jeff Goldthorpe

Another family Christmas letter, supposed to show you, show me really, I do have it all

But it’s January 5, 2012, and I can’t finish grading those compositions—

Fell behind my usual end of semester’s behindness,

Caught a cold day after Thanksgiving, never caught up, but not a “Comp-Slave”

I can shop– a little– go to meetings—a meeting– help bake Christmas bread,
Coach son on college application essays, and spend whole day portfolio scoring

Last sad horse loping in at end of race.

Can have a party in reading class w/ hot spaghetti from Carmen’s mom,
Photos that get me “friended” by Peggy Zhang,

So I get to hear what my students eat for Christmas, and who gets sick

Grade the 1A research papers, to return at final exam on

Genome ethics for the 13 students left in the one-time 31 student class

But relief that classes do end! Drive my mom to the doctor for a patch up,
Diana’s mom slows down to anemic crawl

Pick myself up again to proctor more finals, get up and crawl, if not getupandgo

Can’t OCCUPY, too preoccupied with launching

Number one Son into “the one percent”

Learning FAFSA and tax-sheltered annuity
Figure out where to move the paychecks, I mean the debt, to

Spare change? Hippie-hating Son wants to getupandgo

To ivy-covered brick buildings where he will learn

How to say hello, make eye contact, learn to trust, ask for help, when to flush.

Postpone grading the mini-research essays on Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural

Best assignment so far, I do like my job!
Like the papers about mural that makes students unfurl and flap in the breeze,

Taking them by the hand listen to artist, listen to critics, listen to themselves

Makes me want to duck out of important meetings.

Not too much plagiarism. And relief that exams do end!

Not just Comp-Slave! Have new cats, creatures for kids to lavish with love–

Not beaten out of them by High School callousness classes!

Number one Daughter newly inspired

Escapee from Mom’s Home-Schooling Academy

Now enjoying real school, guys copying her answers (Advanced Biology),

Seniors tossing eggs at freshmen, Brother who won’t say hi in the hallway

Screechy brilliant teacher who wants them to learn Beauty of Math—what a weirdo! Now free to lose sleep playing Orchestra zero period,
Free to sit next to boy that made his yogurt stick to the  ceiling in Jazz I,
LOOK she plays BOTH tenor sax and bassoon, Son plays trumpet, Diana plays flute

Fulfilling my old fantasy of living in a house of musicians.

More plagiarism than I thought: ambitious ESL students recording the true knowledge, Ghost writing for athletes, Good Ol’ American cheaters losing faith at last minute,

Just duck it, throw them into the special pile

Throw self into Christmas Revels, bread deliveries, visiting old friends.

Who remind me I’ve gotten through recession—hell, this life! pretty much unscathed
So far

Shocked by Son’s college-age tantrum shaking the house,

Shocked by my own push back,  own rage from where?

Calmed just in time for their Godmother’s Christmas Eve party,

To my brother’s for Christmas Day

This must be what they call a balanced lifestyle.

Next day finish the Diego Rivera papers, then for relaxation score multiple choice exams

Back to English 1A Finals on ethics of pregnancy termination with testing on genetic disorders—Merry Christmas you lucky 13!  Done!  Oh here’s this late paper, that unchecked exercise, those unchecked lab hour documents, that late paper never graded,
Fruit flies of composition buzzing around my rotting cabbage head

Can’t call back Carlos for his thank you on the message machine.

Then calendar says we must visit with Claudia and Bill who wine and dine us

Bill beseeching me to let go– “I’ll stamp them all ‘A’ for you!”

Next day I am copying counting correcting grading adding averaging

Diana shepherding Son through last college applications,  last essays

Happy New Year!  Disco party at Wilma’s, my first in a generation at least

“I’m old but I can still do it!” an ex-lover used to say

Son carousing with buddies, Daughter refuses to go to adult party,

Diana and I rush back home at midnight to ring in new year with her.

New Year’s Day up early to re-read the plagiarism cases: who is misusing sources,

Who is hiring a professional, and who is experiencing an intellectual breakthrough and

When I’ll give up and stamp them all “A.”

Seeking relief, I switch back to the math, counting and averaging

Or read the odd late papers, the problems I pushed off the stack.

High school about to begin again, so family stroll downtown to see Tin Tin

Then back to  copying  counting  sorting

Daughter finally gets her cold,

Son up too late doing vacation homework,

And I am wooing Diana to help me with final grade averaging and judgment calls

Deadline for final grades is here

Christmas cards, thank you notes, family Christmas letters forgotten,  along with

Planning next semester, trimming rose bush, uploading photos, folding laundry,
Having that talk, getting that hair cut.

Can’t have it all TILL grades are done, can’t understand why trash bin is stolen,
Why rain doesn’t fall, why children grow strange, why loved ones die,
Why grades aren’t done, why letters don’t get finished

Posted in Living / Teaching, Uncategorized | 1 Comment