Tag Archives: future

From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

You don’t want to watch a movie with me. No, really. I consider it a test of true friendship if someone can sit through two hours of me constantly pausing, rewinding and talking over the figures on screen. It’s a bad habit I cannot break. After helping teach a film and media class this semester however, I don’t think I should.

While my near constant commentary might be distracting to say the least, it isn’t meaningless. I am often pointing out how camera angles, body language, costumes, set design, lighting all come together to hint at a future plot point or reveal some sort of narrative truth. I can often predict the ending to a movie, which never ceases to be a sort of useless party trick for my friends and family, but underneath that novelty however, lies real critical thinking. Continue reading From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

What Does This Mean: Unanswered Questions about the Evolution of ‘Performance’

During the Performance Seminar at NASSR 2011 Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave presentations which resulted in fervent discussion about performance in the Romantic period and the development and growth of Romanticism(s). As the seminar continued those in the room engaged in a conversation about where performance studies is going (in and out of Romanticism); ultimately, the question was posed about just how valuable ‘performance’ is as a term, but I could hardly re-present those perspectives here. So, I’m left with my own reflection on the conversation.

I left the seminar wondering about particular facets of the conversation and spent some time since the seminar questioning ‘performance’ as a term; as I continued to work through my summer reading list I found performance to be central to many authors’ arguments. The discussion at NASSR (and my reading since then) left me asking, “Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Has the term lost its value and poignancy precisely because the field of study has expanded beyond those literal performances of the stage?”

I assure you, I do not have an answer. Instead, my hope here is to leave you asking as well, to share some of this blogger’s thinking following a NASSR seminar, and perhaps to continue the conversation that began in Park City (as there are numerous other ways to define and theorize performance beyond what I mention below).

When I arrived home from Park City I read Donald Hall’s Reading Sexualities: Hermeneutic theory and the future of queer studies; in his introduction, Hall summarizes Judith Butler’s “implication of individual agency in changing sexual and gender norms through disruptive performances” (10). He writes,

In [Gender Trouble], Butler argues famously that the specific critical and political task that her politically engaged readers should assume is to locate sites for subversion, ‘to affirm the local possibilities of intervention through participating in precisely those practices of repetition that constitute identity and, therefore, present the immanent possibility of contesting them’ (Butler 1999:188). She issued a call to arms, suggesting that gender parodies (such as drag) and other disruptive social performances might work to create a better world for queers. (Hall 11)

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone @ the 2011 VMAs: Image from Getty Images at MTV.com

In other words, by removing the theater from ‘performance,’ Butler linked activism and the academy—she made an intellectual “call to action” which resounded beyond (and simultaneously within) the academic community, including within “social-action groups such as Queer Nation” (Hall 11). (Though, as Hall points out, Butler “backtracked quickly” just three years later in Bodies that Matter, disclaiming the political potency of parody and subversive performance [12].) No matter where Butler stands on the usefulness of her theorization, what is most valuable is Butler’s definition of ‘performance’ locatable in the every day—the unconscious and involuntary. I’ve found that thinking about and teaching social constructivism through performance—by discussing everyday life as a form of theater, by expanding the definition of ‘audience’ to those with whom we interact within our educational institutions, workplaces, and shopping malls—is quite useful for me and particularly accessible for my students. I do wonder if I could teach social constructivism without talking about performance in this way. Even if I could, would my students or I benefit from it? Why does this approach seem to resonate with students? To some degree, this notion of ‘performance’ is individually empowering.  Knowing that the way one acts out one’s life has an immediate effect on the ‘audience’ can lead to a shift in thinking about interpersonal communication—even if one accepts that these performances are involuntary and never has the idea or intention of purposefully manipulating self-performance.  This type of ‘performance’ helps some students understand that they can have agency over their performances and, to some degree, the ways that audiences receive those performances. For example, if they want to be perceived as a hard-worker they begin to act like a hard-worker, which is difficult to do without actually working hard. I think my students are willing to consider social constructivism this way because it helps them understand something more about themselves and the way they are seen in the world. (It also resonates with the materialist culture they are familiar with; after teaching  Susan Alexander’s “Stylish Hard Bodies: Branded Masculinity in Men’s Health Magazine  it became clear that the students in my Popular American culture course fully grasp this “You are what you buy” definition of ‘performance.’) However, in many ways this definition is limitless. It becomes possible to think of everything and anything as a performance. If everything is performance we (literary and cultural studies communities, those of us at the NASSR Performance Seminar) begin to question just how useful performance is, and for good reason, I think.

Even if we wanted to, could we go back to a pre-Butler definition of performance? I’m not sure that we could, though we can certainly limit the ways that we use the term to understand the histories and cultures which interest us. Kristina Straub employs a definition of performance which bridges the space between the performances of the theater and the every day. In Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Straub “draws from performance theory, as developed by critics such as Joseph Roach” (111); her analysis in the chapter “Performing the Manservant, 1730 to 1760” includes “performances of masculinity” that “occur on both the London stage—in the dramatic characters of footmen—and in the theater audience’s sometime violent contention between these servants and their ‘betters’” (112).  Straub’s theorization of ‘performance’ “stresses the social formation of masculine gender and sexuality through repeated, publicly visible behaviors in the theater, ones that resonate with changing power relations that were more broadly played out in society” (Straub 111). This definition articulates a critical link between the stage and Main Street (so to speak); it organically connects the performances of both locations and again emphasizes the stage as a way of reading and understanding part(s) of the culture at large. It doesn’t limit the stage to a re-presentation of what is going on within larger cultural systems but makes cultural phenomena more visible to the audience/reader.

Straub’s definition offers a way of seeing the connection between the beginnings of ‘performance’ and its evolution into a concept that shapes a large number of identity fields.  With this evolution in mind, I find it difficult to restrict ‘performance’ to the study of drama. The performances taking place on the stage at my local theater are certainly not the same as those taking place in my classroom; however, understanding one paradigm has helped me to understand the other. Through its expanded purview, performance theory leads to tangible shifts in the discourse(s) of identity politics and births intellectual work that expands the fields of literary and cultural studies in productive ways. Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Perhaps it has, but I speculate that this broadness is a reflection of theoretical usefulness. ‘Performance’ isn’t a term devoid of value and poignancy; on and off the stage it has reshaped the ways that we think about identities, bodies, languages, and rituals for (at least) the last twenty years.

*Thank you to presenters Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood, moderator Angela Esterhammer, and all of the audience members who contributed to such a thought-provoking conversation!

Bankrolling Education

I began my first post as a member of this blogging community as a reflection on course organization, but as the week progressed it has been impossible to ignore some of the larger issues facing higher education—Romanticists and non-Romanticists, faculty and students, graduate and undergraduate students alike. Public institutions around the nation are asking if they will have state support next year—support that (although less substantive than it was in the past) most state colleges and universities rely on.

Faculty members at various state institutions have made a stand this week, protesting the massive state budget cuts affecting education. For example, as reported by Slippery Rock University’s newspaper, The Rocket , students and faculty at Pennsylvania State School of Higher Education’s Slippery Rock University rallied together in protest of the proposed 51.4% budget cut. Meanwhile, in New York, thirty-three people were arrested during a non-violent protest. The proposed budget cuts in New York will reduce the budget of CUNY’s senior colleges by $95.1 million and community colleges by $17.5 million. Why should we all be concerned with the finances of these state institutions, you ask? Well, because these seemingly isolated incidents help to create a narrative about the importance of education in America. Educational funding is often framed as party politics or treated as an investment in some imagined future (raising/teaching the next generation, forming a future America). Perhaps those are both true but as a graduate student who learns with and teaches nearly 150 students a year, I’m most interested in how such changes dictate who is and is not able to attend college. State (and federal) funding opens or closes the doors of higher education for many Americans. If states’ education budgets are slashed in the ways proposed, universities must find a way to stay in the black. Who will bear the burden? How will our classrooms be affected by such changes, if at all?

I was recently asked a set of questions meant to provoke interesting material for a banquet introduction. One of the questions asked, “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” I thought through all of the typical answers: violence, bigotry, misogyny, hunger and disease. I even considered the entirely selfish answers: deadlines and comprehensive exams. In the end I decided my answer was college debt. Not only because I’d love to relieve my credit report of this particular burden but because I believe that education should be accessible for those of us who would like to learn. Education should come at a price—the loss of ignorance, some serious intellectual exercise– but it seems unjust that the cost of education should be a lifetime of debt. Many of us excuse such debt by calling it “good debt,” but deep down we know there is no such thing. If college loan debt were good debt then it wouldn’t prevent my cousin from qualifying for a home loan, especially since he works a full-time job that he is qualified for because of his college education; but that isn’t the case, he cannot buy his first home because his educational debts make it impossible for him to do so (and he attended a relatively low-cost state institution). The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on the Pell program, which provides “need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education” (which means that unlike loans, they do not have to be repaid). Even though the Pell program, through Congress’s continued support, has been able to

keep up with both inflation and a surge of new college students…low-income undergraduates are actually much worse off than equivalent students were 30 years ago. A student without a Pell Grant in 1980 paid less out of pocket to attend a public four-year university than a student with a Pell Grant pays today. That’s because between then and now, the cost of higher education has grown far faster than inflation. As a result, the federal government has gone from bit player to major investor in the educational part of higher education, to the point that it’s starting to rival states in the magnitude of support.

As state budget cuts continue, the reliance on federal support—through programs like Pell, FAFSA, and so on—will increase (as will educational debt). Students will be forced to make difficult choices about the financial viability of education. Whether we are (graduate) students and/or teachers at state funded universities or not, it is important that we advocate for education’s financial accessibility. None of this is new to those of us who annually navigate(d) those annoying, tax-like FAFSA forms in order to pay tuition bills. Even more familiar and heartbreaking are the pleas from students, “I just need a B in your course or I lose my (often state or federally supported) scholarship!” Robert Reich’s recent article might best summarize the importance of education, “Over the long term, the only way we’re going to raise wages, grow the economy, and improve American competitiveness is by investing in our people — especially their educations.” The ways that our governments approach, support, and finance education does and will continue to shape our classrooms.

Finally, hello! I am Teresa Pershing, another new NGSC blogger. I’m a proud member of the Mountaineer (West Virginia University) community and am happy to spend the next several months learning with all of you!

Adult Swim & "The Future of the Book"

Last night I attended Johanna Drucker’s talk entitled “The Future of the Book.” Looking for the new Visual Arts Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I followed a line of people through a set of doors and thought I was there. As I held the door for an older gentleman who seemed to be following his grandson, I asked him if he was going to hear The Future of the Book lecture. He giggled and replied, “We’re going to young scholars’ night. You’re in the chemistry building, dear.” Whoops. Some zig-zagging later and I found the VAC, my academic-looking crowd, and my seat.

I had never heard Drucker talk before, and knew only generally about her work and her most recent book, SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing, but that was enough information to charm me to the presentation. Her presentation attracted a somewhat-diverse humanities crowd: I saw several of my peeps from the English department (among them a Chaucerian who also studies comics; a Renaissance scholar; a new media scholar; a postmodernist; and a poet), and detected groups also from the visual arts, history, education, media studies, and librarians and archivists. Individuals ranged from professors to grad students to elderly members of the public to sub-ten-year-old children accompanying their parent. One little girl came with a mini suitcase of organized markers and paper, and colored quietly and diligently for the entire talk.

The little girl coloring seemed to have her marker-smudged fingers on the pulse of Drucker’s talk, as did the Young Scholars’ Night crowd I accidentally joined. Though the speaker’s material presented a very serious look at the history of the book and used that information to make a prediction about its future (or rather how we humanists can shape its future), her style was playful and, in fact, provided a serious message of the importance of “play” to the evolution of authorship, readers, and texts.

Drucker folded examples of play, humor, entertainment, and recreation into her talk with a subtlety that seemed not to phase the scholarly vibe of the majority of the audience.

The first slide showed Keanu Reeves in The Matrix–in order to illustrate the fantasy of a disembodied virtual utopia. Juxtaposing the intelligent virtual and Keanu drew chuckles round the house, and Drucker was just getting started. She also showed slides of e-readers in different shapes, including the form of newspaper pages large enough to shield the privates of a guy on the john. She then addressed the history of print and dove backward in time to Gutenberg’s press and figures like Tyndale, where she made the requisite “he had a lot at stake” joke. We then saw slides of early playing cards and learned how printers were asked by the church to stop producing them, as the populace took too easily to gambling. After other examples, she ended with a vision of the way a “novel” of the future might work: Drucker describes a narrative that seems folded into news in realtime that reaches you through mobile devices and that changes as you make decisions about how to interact with the narrative. It is multimedia, multi-player, and multi-platform. It sounded a bit like the Michael Douglas movie The Game, and also a little bit like Stranger Than Fiction. Serious play, in which our concepts of fiction and real life blend and disrupt each other in new ways.

Maybe I’ve just been studying for comps for too long and neglecting proper recreation, but I couldn’t help but find the message of seriously play–or “adult swim”–in Drucker’s talk about the future of the book. Her presentation suggested to me that the meaning of play, play-ers, play media, and conversely the definition of “work” (noun and verb), have a giant impact on the way we treat reading technologies now and will treat new reading and authoring technologies in the future.