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CRC Field Report – Promoting Interdisciplinary Teaching Ventures – 3rd Annual Teaching & Learning Showcase – Research Academy for University Learning – Montclair State University – May 2, 2012 – by Neil Baldwin

As our followers around the globe already know, The Creative Research Center is resolutely virtual. That said, we still have not quite [to our satisfaction] met the challenge of serving as the rapporteur for this generous, iconoclastic conference, unable to clone ourselves so that we could be in more than one session at a time.  What follows is an anecdotal account of one transcendent day in the life, with a link to all the concurrent sessions beyond those we were able to visit, as a tribute to the pioneering pedagogues who presented last month at University Hall.

A quick note on the concept of interdisciplinarity and its supposed expansion in the past few years. The term has certainly become more widely-known and used — but is the practice really as pervasive in higher education? The mind, in and of itself, is already an interdisciplinary cognitive landscape; perhaps academia needs to catch up with its own human nature.

Cigdem Talgar, Acting Director of RAUL, set the tone in her Welcoming Remarks when she spoke of “best practices,” another key term worth re-evaluating, because as interdisciplinarity becomes integrated into our work of teaching, albeit incrementally, the wider the reach will be of best practices when they morph from codified lists to internalized modes of behavior conditioned by every unique classroom situation.

In her session on A Collaborative Approach to Online Course Design, Kristin Curry alluded humbly to the “adjustment issues” experienced as she put together her first course for the launch of MSU’s nascent online program in Arts Management. It is one thing to know your subject, as all  scholarly and professional content-providers want to do; it is another to cross the digital Rubicon and become comfortable with the newest methods of delivery.

Kirk McDermid spoke animatedly of his new tactic Using Semantic MediaWiki to Power Constructive Learning and Collaboration Among Students.  So doing, he has tapped into the paradigm-shift away from the distanced lecturer engaged in one-way delegation of information to masses of students, and toward assembling course content along with these students, hoping to empower them, through the Facebook-fuelled propensity to “like” , to learn more effectively, enthusiastically and permanently.

In How I Picture It: Teaching Mythology with Visual Aids, Joanna Madloch jumped in with bravado, invoking the dictum of Roland Barthes that “myth is a type of speech,” followed by John Berger’s noted “reading images” and “theatricalization of reality,” topped off by Jean Baudrillard’s subversive “simulacrum.”  Her dense semiology was refreshing, penetrating and inspiring, especially to those of us who love theory but shy away from imposing it upon undergraduates. Au contraire!

Down the hall, Ting Ho and Christine Magee spoke of Adjusting to Teaching Online as requiring clear “rules of engagement” established through presenting real-life curricular analogies to our students. How many times has the classroom resounded with pleas to make topics more “relatable.”  In past generations, we ourselves as students often spoke of being “relevant.”  If we cannot figure out ways to harness technology to our advantage — and stop the tail from wagging the dog — we shall never make progress as teachers.

Innovative Experiential Education and Community Engagement was the focus for Lenore Molee’s presentation. What could be more quintessentially interdisciplinary from an environmental standpoint than taking students out of their comfort zones and into the institutions of our society that need them most — in this case, public schools? Montclair State is already an acknowledged leader in this area; every time this University reaches beyond ivy-covered walls it is a plus-sign toward a socially-integrated society.     

David Lee Keiser ruminated eloquently in advocating for Mindful Teaching for Excellence and [what he called “the sweet taste of”] Equanimity. His two collaborators in this enterprise were The Self and Silence; his muted hiatus from the hurlyburly of the conference day was a treasure.  The Tree of Contemplative Practices, its roots and branches extending into realms of the spirit, stood as the perfect symbol for the ideals of education — and a reminder of the imperative need to stop, breathe, and ponder why we do what we do in the classroom, and how we can do it better. 

Introducing the day’s Keynote Speaker — Rhonda Roland Shearer, founder [with her late husband, Stephen Jay Gould] and director of the Art Science Research Laboratory in NYC — Provost Willard Gingerich praised the core mission of the MSU Research Academy, referencing its “deep DNA of instruction and learning.”  This apt metaphor brought to mind the spiral spatial structure of the molecule and an idealized three-dimensional image of interdisciplinarity combining elemental substances and extended through space in multiple directions with  variety and persistence.   

Committed to the creation of an intellectual environment advocating interdisciplinary study encompassing research, collections and publishing, Ms. Shearer explainted that ASRL provides a unique setting wherein art historians, scientists, artists, designers, and programmers work side by side, encouraged to contribute ideas, participate in a dynamic environment, and challenge the “outdated but still prominent structures of practices” in the arts, sciences, and humanities. The ambitious goal of ASRL is to promote and facilitate fast, thorough, and efficient global exchange of knowledge in fields ranging from art and science and journalism ethics to the cyberBOOK+ system, all aiming to build a network of people sharing knowledge and research methodologies for mutual understanding of cultures and histories.

Ms. Shearer’s leading assertion was well-received by the conference audience: By virtue of its infinitely-permeable structure, she insisted, the internet gives greater facility to doing interdisciplinarity. Such techno-intellectual free-association, when working properly, feeds upon itself, giving rise, [again, hopefully], to a healthy dissipation of distinctions.  To some in Academe, this accelerated process will appear as a threat; to others, it is an invitation to cast more widely: “Disciplines are conventions,” Ms. Shearer said, and so it naturally follows that late-adapters will resist peremptory invasions of their boundaries.

“Disciplines are mental constructions that become difficult to change,” Ms. Shearer continued; and then, in another unerring metaphor of the day,  she reminded us that “a square bowl creates square water… thus, we need to think about ways to disaggregate and reformulate our vested areas of interest — to defeat categories. ”    Ms. Shearer’s own imaginative artwork and the brave trajectory of her multifaceted research over several decades demonstrate her commitment of thought and feeling to these encouragements. 

[The question leapt to mind: Do we at MSU have the courage of our convictions; and, if so, what intellectual and pragmatic actions will be necessary to help further institutionalize interdisciplinarity?]

Milton Fuentes, in his afternoon session, provided one viable answer: Motivational Interviewing to Improve Academic Performance. Our inherently conservative — or, let’s say, intellectually hesitant — first-generation college students here at MSU often need to be jump-started into inquisitiveness, and then require continued guidance to stick to their forward motion.  Inspiring motivation can lead to a commitment to  change in a young life heretofore victimized by educational stasis.  Motivation demands other-directedness and collaboration on the part of the teacher, i.e., “You and I can do this together,” s/he says to the student.

Bryan Murdock and Christine Lemesianou — seasoned veterans of service-learning — invited their audience to Envision the Possibilities [through] Innovations in Service-Learning and Community Engagement, sounding a theme that had resonated throughout the day. Their campaign in close collaboration with Soyoung Lee and Deborah Ragin and the students and staff of the Rosa Parks School in Orange NJ was an inspirational tribute to the effectiveness of learning outside  conventional parameters. This reminder that the world is the best classroom of all was underscored by Elizabeth McPherson’s session on Embodying Folk Dances from Around the World, where everyone was on their feet and thoroughly enjoying themselves.   

What was my so-called takeaway from this densely-packed day of exploration into Digital Learning, Pedagogies of Engagement, Creativity, Promoting Teaching & Learning, Active Learning In & Out of the Classroom, and Contemplative Pedagogy?

As I write these words, I am more resolved that representative enactments of interdisciplinarity require the kinds of collaboration that I witnessed throughout the conference.  However, we must keep in mind that the May 2nd RAUL symposium was a series of demonstrations by colleagues who were already like-minded; hence the term “Showcase.”

Let’s take the clarity of the conference content as a mandate to transcend preaching to the choir — and go out and find the unconverted.  

 

 

 

 

Danthropology: A New Interdisciplinary After-School Project in Structured Play – by Kelly Vaghenas

          

[Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to devote this month’s ‘iteration’ of the CRC Director’s essay space to Kelly Vaghenas, MSU sophomore double-major in BFA dance and BA anthropology.  Ms. Vaghenas is also a member of the Danceaturgy Seminar.  This essay was awarded the undergraduate first place University-wide award in the Sixth Annual MSU Student Research Symposium, “Promoting Collaboration Across Disciplines,” April 22, 2012.]

                  Danthropology.  Grammatically speaking, it is a portmanteau, or blend or combination, of the words dance and anthropology.  Personally speaking, it is my academic passion.  I often get puzzled expressions from people who learn I am double majoring in BFA Dance and BA Anthropology, and the question, “How are those two related?”  I assert that they are inextricably linked.  In her essay, “Dance in Anthropological Perspective,” Adrienne Kaeppler defines dance as “a cultural form that results from creative processes which manipulate human bodies in time and space.  The cultural form produced, though transient, has structured content…[It] is a visual manifestation of social relations.”1  And just like kinship, or religion, dance can be analyzed through systematic observations and analyses.   One can understand the structures of society in a culture through dance.  In her “Address on Career of Dance Anthropologist,” Judith Hanna said, “Dance, conventionally conceived, is a visually perceived ephemeral plastic art in motion.  But…dance translates selected stimuli from the intrapsychic and social environments into meaningful expressions.”2

I extract this kind of meaning and value from the expressional dancing of the children at Mercy Center, an urban community center located in a predominantly Hispanic area of the South Bronx.  Every Friday, I commute there to teach dance classes for two hours to children ages four to fourteen, through the House of the Roses Volunteer Dance Company.  I became a member, or “teaching artist,” in September of 2010, during my freshman year here at MSU.  The kids are divided into three age groups, and each group has a fun 40-minute dance class.  All House of the Roses volunteers meet inManhattan for two to four hours one Sunday per month to collaborate, and Rebecca, Debra, and I – the MercyCenter volunteers – e-mail one another to organize each week’s lesson plan.

Anthropologists gain their essential “insider perspectives” by living with populations for extended periods of time.  I see my dance students once per week; as such, I observe only a fraction of their lives.  Still, there is regularity in our Friday afternoon meetings.  This is important because the children atMercyCenter are economically underprivileged; in their world, there is much uncertainty and instability.  Friday afternoon House of the Roses classes are a guaranteed occurrence, a promise; they yield familiarity and comfort.

Cultural anthropology is a social science that explores human lifeways using a holistic perspective.  According to Jon Van Willigen, “Applied anthropology is a complex of related, research-based instrumental activities done by anthropologists, which produce change or stability in specific cultural systems through provision of data, initiation of direct action, and/or the formulation of policy.”3 I see my actions as a House of the Roses teaching artist as instrumental in providing the children at MercyCenter with an outlet for creative self-expression and empowerment.  The positive change produced is directly observable in the kids’ improved attitudes and increased participation in class, week to week.  In the teaching moments, I observe increasingly improved conditions in the children – and afterward, as any applied anthropologist does after conducting fieldwork, I reflect upon my actions and the responses they generated to assign meaning to my cause.

The dancing we conduct is deemed “structured play.”   And as we all know, playtime is an essential component of childhood.  We lead fun and enjoyable sessions in the classes but use pedagogical tactics to keep the activity controlled.  The class sequence specific to House of the Roses can be revised, as need be; the classic order is:Welcome Circle, Warm-up, Game, Choreography,Success Circle.

To start the Welcome Circle, kids and volunteers sit Indian-style in a circle.  A circle is an unending line.  Each person in the Welcome Circle is point along that line, so we are all connected to one another, unified.  This is the time for each person to introduce him or herself, and a call-and-response format is followed.  To the rhythm of a patting and clapping pattern we make with our hands, each person says, “My name is [blank].”  In return, the rest of the group says in unison, “His/Her name is [blank].”  The echoing of every name affirms each person’s identity and acknowledges his or her presence in the group.  Kids realize that they are not alone, that the classroom system is not “every man for himself.”  They are surrounded by supportive teachers and peers, and respect for one another is cultivated.

Warm-up is the time when the children come through as our “informants.”  House of the Roses class warm-up is more interactive than the standard dance class warm-up.  When leading it, I always pose a question to students and use responses to create movement.  For example, I recently addressed one student by asking, “What did you have for lunch today?”  The answer was “Pizza, from the cafeteria,” so I announced that we should all make personal pizzas.  I talked the kids through the pantomime of tossing the pizza dough, ladling the sauce, sprinkling the cheese, etc.  Another question was, “What do you love most about springtime?”  After the kids responded, my generated choreography included moving as if to trace the colors of the rainbow (ROY G BIV) and shooting hoops at the community basketball court across the street from Mercy Center.  Sometimes, I present a “special challenge” or occasionally an “extra special challenge” for the kids to conquer during warm-up.  From balancing on one foot, for example, I might challenge them to relevé, or lift the heel of the standing foot off the floor.  Such a challenge becomes more than a dance step; the accomplishment of the goal is not regarded by the kids as a gain in dance technique but rather as overcoming an obstacle.

My fellow volunteer, Rebecca, suggested that we play Spanish music during warm-up one class.  We had the kids do basic Latin ballroom dance steps of salsa, meringue, bachata, and more.  Not surprisingly, they knew more that we did, and they thrilled to correct our steps and style.  The students showed love of their Hispanic culture by displaying knowledge and enjoyment of the dancing fastened  to their ethnic background and prevalent in their community.

House of the Roses teaching artists receive binders with information to help us lead successful classes.  Included in each binder is a packet with brief descriptions of various games to play after the warm-up.  Most of them induce movement exploration by creating a scenario that allows the students to explore a given concept, with guided instructions.  For example, the “Elevator Game” is one of the kids’ favorites.  To play it, students must make a box formation, as if to fit inside the confines of an elevator, request to be sent to a certain level, and jump to get there.  Jumping five times, for example, takes dancers to the fifth level.  Because imagination is a key concept in House of the Roses pedagogy, what awaits on each floor is never an office setting but something outrageous.  Our imagination may bring us to the jungle, to outer space, and under the sea.  The children are let out at the destination level and dance around the room in a manner that suits the new environment.   We encouraged our students to “swim” when they were under the sea.  Students danced the dive, the breaststroke, the backstroke, and more.  Some pretended they were sea creatures, and this fostered interactions between all participants, as dancers pretending to be fish had to swim away from the lurking sharks!  This game gives the kids a chance to invent choreography entirely of their own, to claim a voice and speak through dance.

The next part of class is Choreography.  Students self-choreograph alone or in groups when volunteers give them situations from which they create short dances drawing upon their life experiences.  Sometimes we present students with a short, foundational combination and then invite them to manipulate it.  To prompt them, we might ask, “How can this move be more exciting?” or “Do you think this would look neater if it traveled across the floor?”  To help the kids remember movements, we ask the students to give them names.  In a recent class, one student suggested that a movement involving flipping her hands be called “salt and pepper shakers!”  When students label their movements, they are better able to understand and embody them, so that they become less abstract and more personally meaningful.   The choreography section sparks the kids’ constructive creativity; they build upon the combination in personal ways.  The final product is the original movement phrase polished and embellished by the crucial input of the children.  It is a representation of joint effort and teamwork between teachers and students.

As we practice the final movement phrase, I often compliment specific students who take directions and important considerations to heart and apply them.  If the choreography calls for marching with high knees, I single out the student who has the highest knees and ask him or her to demonstrate for the rest of the class.   In a community where gangs are prevalent and acting in groups might mean acceptance and protection, individual action is ambitious and daring and deserves verbal recognition.

The class concludes with the Success Circle.  In coordination with the Welcome Circle, it is convened when everyone once more sits together, Indian-style.  It is a safe space for sharing ideas.  We ask the students what they thought was successful about the day’s class and, by a show of hands, to articulate those thoughts to the group.  Especially with the youngest children, a common answer at Mercy Center is, “Everything.”  To refine their thoughts, we try to receive more detail-oriented answers by also posing the questions, “What was your favorite part of class?” and “What were you most proud of today?”  Kids note the good in themselves and in those around them and assume their roles as our anthropological “informants” once again.  Exchanges in the Success Circle provide feedback which volunteers can utilize in planning future classes, trying to incorporate more of what the kids like or want into the lesson plans.

House of the Roses presents a culminating end-of-the-school-year performance at the Miller Theatre of Columbia University every May.  Each of the five partner outreach facilities has its own time to show its dance onstage, and then everyone packs the stage to dance the finale.  The material performed at the show is choreographed with the input of the children and practiced starting in January during the Choreography section of each class.  The performance is a big deal for the kids, and they are recognized for their creativity and talent.  They feel proud to showcase all that they have worked for to a “real” audience.

In conclusion, I have realized that as a volunteer teaching artist, I am also serving as an applied anthropologist – an agent of change, because the classes coordinated by the House of the Roses Volunteer Dance Company empower students and give them healthy and creative ways to express themselves physically.  I conduct inductive research by qualitative analysis, i.e., I reflect upon my weekly observations and interpret them to better understand my students and to determine the best courses of action for the future regarding dance “structured play” pedagogy.

Dorothy Sluss, professor of early childhood education at EastTennesseeStateUniversity, said, “We don’t value play in our society.  It has become a four-letter word.”4  I personally believe that play cannot be understated or undermined for young people, most especially in impoverished urban areas like the South Bronx.  For underprivileged children like those at Mercy Center, artistic after-school programs and recreation are invaluable and essential.  The dance classes contribute a necessary balance between discipline and freedom, unity and autonomy.  My students experience creative journeys throughout the year and as a final celebration and validation, travel from the streets to the stage, showing us that inner peace can be found – even in the inner city.

End Notes

1                 Kaeppler, Adrienne, “Dance in Anthropological Perspective” Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 7: 31-49, 1978.

2                 Hanna, Judith L., “Address on Career of Dance Anthropologist” Congress on Research in Dance Vol. 5, No. 1: 35, 1973.

                   3                 Van Willigen, John, Applied Anthropology: An Introduction, (Westport,CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002), 10.

                   4                  Cole, Wendy and Walter Kirn, “What Ever Happened to Play?” Personal Growth and Behavior (McGraw-Hill,2002), 78.

 

In Celebration of National Poetry Month – April 2012 – Nineteen Poems by Student Authors – Guest-edited by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

[Guest-editor’s note:  I am proud to feature at the Montclair State University Creative Research Center / Virtual Student Center nineteen poems written by present and former students at Montclair State University, all of whom have passed through the ranks of our creative writing concentration or newly-established creative writing minor. Their voices represent the range and depth of poetry being practiced today, ranging from quietly interior to in-your-face, from metered sonnets to free narrative poems, from comedic verse to poems documenting the Occupy Wall Street movement. For many of these students, writing these lines marks the beginning of their entry into the world of poetry, and their practice is proof that poetry can be both timeless and timely, but never expired. In its contemporary reception, poetry can be the child that outlives us. To use the words of one of the poets featured here, Glenn A. Patterson, who writes of a fruit fly’s fatal encounter with a library book: “How tragically perfect, to die in an instant, crushed upon the face of a poem.” – Susan B.A. Somers-Willett – April 2012]

* * * *

Drew Ciccolo

New York  1888

You are coffee, potatoes, and pickles.

You are fifteen dollars a month to sleep in a horse stable.

You are a group of children gathered around a horse, starved, that dropped dead in the street.

You are a colony of blind beggars selling pencils on a street corner.

You are an Arab selling dirt gathered in the Battery as a direct importation fromJerusalem.

You are a Chinaman, wifeless, inviting little girls into his laundry.

You are an Italian contracting out your rag-picking, then praying under a picture of the Madonna santissima for the strength to stab the thief sharing your room with a jack-knife.

You are steamy sunshine falling down through laundry lines onto men perched on the railings of Bandit’s Roost.

You are ten hour days in a steaming laundry and two hours at night school five nights a week in a crowded class of fifty, with a teacher so busy with her class that she has no time to notice you.

You are rats, typhus, small pox, and cholera.

You are police hunting river thieves in a wooden row boat.

You are mustached toughs smirking in bowler hats with half-closed eyes.

You are prayer-time in the nursery.

You are a Jew, with your pants hanging low, peddling suspenders in the Pig-market.

You are a police club, made of Black locust, dangling in the cold October wind.

You are a half-naked German woman, whose husband has vanished, bent over a sewing machine at a tenement window.

You are clouds, balled up in fists, churning above tenements.

You are a schizophrenic woman wandering the courtyard on Blackwell’sIslandunder a dark blue sky, dazed and sick, wishing she had a knife.

You’re cross-eyed, catching fireflies in the park.

 

* * * *

 

Drew Ciccolo

Through the Golden Door

 “I  lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-Emma Lazarus (engraved on the Statue of Liberty)

A man throws his son’s colorful hat in

to the sea where it floats with the others,

while downtown, girls empty the ash-cans,

looking for coal to bring to their mothers.

 

Ladies uptown curl into crocheted sheets,

dreaming of hills, rivers and train rides west,

while a growler gang corrals a lost sheep

to take to the slaughterhouse with the rest.

 

Steel ruckus from an elevated train

causes a suicide’s soul to ascend.

Tramps drink stale beer, brewed to kill at long range,

from tomato cans at dives in the Bend.

Clouds plump with rain sit in the sky and grin;

the first drops fall on a ship pulling in. 

 

Drew Ciccolo (CHSS English, 2012) starts work on an MFA in fiction next fall, though he’s not sure where yet.  His favorite poets include E.E. Cummings, Antonin Artaud, and Charles Bukowski.

 

* * * *

 

Anthony Cirilo

Police Report

He had me when I was ambling off the N train,

Not long off when his hands tugged me to the ground

Like news of my father’s death – prying on the service ramp

A NIKE duffel and the coat off my back.

All this hell in the tunnel’s twilight gas glow

Couldn’t see his black face, but his hands, Jesus,

They could tear God from a man’s faith.

Here, see the bruise he left on my right arm

Where his fingers pinched me to a wet wall

And wordless, worked me over with the other,

The yellow stink of the wind and the pissed streets

That’d stained his Carhartt turned my stomach.

He’d spent enough and shook me free of the remaining sleeve

With a punch to the gut, tore off toward the surface,

The coat trailing him into obscurity.

He took what he could, a phone, my wallet, my name;

But now every naked street is an alley

the names of the saints and avenues

refuse me; strange faces stare back from the coinage.

Bread sinks in my stomach like stones.

And no one stopped: two fairies in the underground

Grown men in the throes, Who would drive an axe

Through this modern love?

 

* * * * 

 

Anthony Cirilo

Sari

Morning’s light

 Gold bangles of hammered light

Shingles of sun

Jasper dawned off the low clouded rim

 

Wherein as fletched guitars, feather downed strings

Gulls spread their godless cries

 

In the rippling tide.

 

Let life free from its cages again

 

Parole raw orange

Red’s flustered wings,

   That have waited in an ice of years

 

I’ll watch the pitted gap where the sun should be

Wait and wait for your dyed fingers to lift the latch

 

For the arc of rubbed brass

For encircled violet

   To try their terrible span overhead

 

To blind me in clear day. 

 

Anthony Cirilo (CHSS English, 2010) is an Adjunct Professor of English at Essex County College and an adult ESL instructor at Global Academy of America. He is currently at work on his first collection of poems and his writing influences include Agha Shahid Ali, Carolyn Forché, and Arthur Rimbaud. 

 

* * * *

 

Steven Criscuolo

Ya’aburnee

 For Joey, Now Joseph

 I was empty when my brother told me

all those big ideas he had

about the little things he noticed –

starting with Lincoln, sitting

without a chair on the back

of his birth-year penny.

I sometimes still imagine him,

tucked away at our different schools,

hiding from the blacktop hopscotch

and double-dutch queens,

hoping to be a ghost,

who could escape the burnt-grass-field

until the backyard battles

were whistled in.

I’ve learned how thoughts

work against you when

you don’t know

what you think you do.

How wrong I was,

to think that he was lonely

because he was alone –

then he told me sometimes together

is tough. 

During the nights I can’t sleep,

I think about the people

who really get me.  I hear them rattle

like pennies in my head

as I count them downwards,

until I reach him

hiding in that jungle gym tunnel

with his eyes circling

the coral screws that hold

those slivers of plastic

together, while his ideas

leak through the crevice-joints

like bathwater.

When the day rises, I wonder where

his thoughts will go

when we grow up tomorrow

after tomorrow until we discover

the day where he cannot

speak, or I cannot listen.

 

* * * *

 

Steven Criscuolo

Toska

 During lunch, I thought about

asking you if you wanted to go for a walk

so we could split a coca cola

and talk about the nice parts of our day.

 

Since I’ve been thinking too much

about Frank’s blood on theFire Island dune buggy

 

and even more about Jeff Buckley in his day-clothes,

washing up in that slack water channel

after the Wolf River stole his last chorus.

 

I’ve been waiting so long

for someone to tell me that this has all been wrong

 

because I have sudden moments

where I remember being 13 and looking up that webpage

on how to shave since my dad was long gone by then –

 

and in that searing sensation, I still feel

the first time I cut myself shaving

as loud as the sound that accompanies

the look of lightning down my face. 

 

Steven Criscuolo is a senior English and Secondary Education double-major. He is a future English educator and a member of ALAN (Assembly on Literature for Adolescents) and the NJCTE (The New Jersey Council of Teachers of English). His studies and writing influences include young adult literature and contemporary poets such as Matthew Dickman and Matthew Zapruder. 

[Note: These two poems are part of a larger series of poems about the displacement of language, focusing on words that have either gone extinct or do not have an English equivalent.  Ya’aburnee is an Arabic word literally meaning ‘you bury me’. This is the hope that a loved one will outlive you as to spare yourself the pain of living without that person. Toska is a Russian word describing a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause.]

 

* * * *

 

Katie Demeski

Paprika 

In the Florida house laundry room,

Oma used to dry her own peppers:

they hung against the sterile white cabinets

from kitchen twine, dark and wrinkled

like a blood stain on an old undershirt.

 

She ground them to a fine powder

that sloppily hennaed her hands

as she funneled it into jars.

 

The flecks were stirred into the evening’s

chicken consomme with angel hair

spinning into shadowy sweet red pepper swirls

before dissolving to pin-dots in our bowls.

 

* * * *

 

Katie Demeski

Late August 

is basil fresh-torn from its stems,

bare feet sliding through dew,

rusted wrought-iron one foot high

around vegetable patches,

evening sun cresting over the top of the hill,

and Dad’s garden clogs soled with mud

on the brick back porch steps. 

 

Katie Demeski is a senior English major and the president of the Earth Spirituality Union at MSU. Her influences include Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, and her family.

 

* * * *

 

Josh English

because of the rain and some lines by verlaine

because of the water that drips off the petal
because of the horse eating the rose of sharon
because of the grackles in the chinaberry tree
because of the rooster
because of all the roosters
because of the ghosts, the jesters, the single blade of grass up close
because of the dusky river’s ballad
because of the white sheet and the trail of lime
because of the cow with the mournful tongue
because of the nose that turned into a heart
because of the still heart in the breast of the girl with darting eyes
because of the two drill-bit holes in the dead mother’s face
because of the duality of the moon king
because the celestial kingdom is underwater
because love is a pimp in a fire station
because love is an invisible larva eating a rose
because love is a mother sawing at her child’s neck
because of every catastrophic personality
because of the beet-red sand bed veiled in the bones of horses
because of the zombie-self that startles awake with rotten eyes
because of the child who taped a knife to a chair and charged
because of the diamond-cut cane that beat blood from his black head
because he could only scream as loud as an ocean
because he spent thirty years atop a pillar praying
because the baptism demanded blood before it demanded water
because of the woman waiting inside the wallpaper
because of the savagery of pink
because of the rain i sit squinting out a grey window
because of the rain

 

* * * *

 

Josh English

The Poem Defines Itself  

just as sunset defines itself.

just as ice growing on a river defines itself.

Ultimately, we’re lucky.

  Every seed does not grow.

    Every bugle does not forward blow

some notes sour and wither.

       I love and leave you behind, soured and withered notes.

 

just as heat from fire defines itself.

just as the lingering cool of twilight defines itself.

Ultimately, we’re lustful.

  Every breath aches.

    Every finger straightened

points towards a want.

       I love that drops of water in proximity always run towards each other.

 

just as a breeze on a window defines itself.

just as the color of night defines itself.

Ultimately, we’re alone.

  Every darkness is a blanket.

    Every bright light brings cold

by forcing dreams into hiding.

        I love the severed limbs of Osiris.

 

just as a new moon defines itself.

just as the depth of a raindrop’s dive defines itself.

Ultimately, we’re echoes.

  Everyone imagines

    every boundary’s solid

(as if a wall isn’t mostly air.)

       I love that men once sought to sail to the edge of the earth.

 

just as a well tuned gusle defines itself.

 just as the weight of a flying kite defines itself.

Ultimately, we’re rippling.

  Every impossible happens;

    every statistician knows

it only requires forever.

       I love this promise made by new grass.                                                                                      

 

Josh English is a graduating senior in English, and a New Jersey native who will begin an MFA program to study poetry this fall. His work has been previously published in The Stillwater Review and he has self-released three albums of original contemporary folk music.

 

* * * *

 

Melissa Gregoli

Jane Doe

 Carcasses littered across Route 15

like an unburied graveyard.

A new body lies in the emergency lane.

She was probably

 

stunned.  Startled.  Stopped.

Caught in a blinding light

by the vibration of black tread,

by the hum of a bigger beast.

 

Fallen to black beaks that

wrestle scraps of pink skin from her body.

She spoils in the sun.

Melts like plastic into the concrete.

With intestines sprawled out

 

Where white maggots muster.

She lies against the street,

next to her shadow that lingers.

 

It’s a road hazard,

all of her bones that become brittle

could puncture tires.

 

Someone will come

to pick up her body and

toss it in the back of a truck

with more roadkill, or

the rains will wash away

the remains, a little at a time.

 

Mornings will pass and

eventually, it will be as if

she was never here.

 

She was not Joan of Arc,

not Neda Soltan,

not Saint Cecilia ,

but was a daughter,

and possibly a mother.

 

* * * * 

 

Melissa Gregoli

Thanks for Breaking Up with that Whore 2.5 Years Ago 

When you called me that morning at 2 am, spilling out drunken fears of being alone,

when you met me at New York Penn Station that cold morning to walk to a convention full of 

comic books, video games, and superhero impersonators,

when you complimented me on my black Batman gloves with yellow beaded grips,

when you bonded with my dad over a love for both Star Wars and Star Trek,

 

that time when you attempted to see if your fingers fit between mine,

when you nervously kissed me while trying to say goodnight,

when we were in Boston at the same time,

when you ran through the rain with me after dancing all night to guilty pleasures

            of Destiny’s Child and Hanson,

 

when you built me a tent with bright orange bed sheets because I’d never been camping,

when you refused to leave my side as I got to know your toilet more intimately,

            after we figured out that I’m allergic to whiskey,

when you changed my clothes that same night after I passed out,

when you first told me you love me the next morning,

 

when you make me Taylor ham, egg, and cheese on a bagel for dinner,

when you don’t make fun of my love for fruity beers,

when you gently kiss my forehead while you think I’m sleeping,

when we wear similar plaid shirts and black jeans without intentionally trying to match,

when we compare thoughts on our favorite episodes of Battlestar Galactica,

 

when you drive 104 miles every other weekend to see me,

when we watch the sun set and the moon rise,

when you talk on the phone with me until I fall asleep,

and when I am willing to be on a 5-hour trip, on 3 different trains towards Philadelphia,

 

that is why I said yes.

 

Melissa Gregoli is a senior English major with a concentration in creative writing, but she really feels that her major is poetry, trying to take every poetry course available at MSU. Her influences include Walt Whitman, Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda, and Darth Vader.

 

* * * *

 

Heather Lockhart

The Deposition of Ouranos 

Freud would have had the time of his life if he could have felt

the weight of the sickle and seen the blood rain across Earth.

 

The ruminations circle his couch in the form of questions:

What does it mean to reject one’s children in such a way?

 

Is that what it takes to spark a murderous rage? Does

something as beautiful as Love emerge from all ill deeds?

 

Is the flesh of children as tender as that of veal?

—here he pauses to clip a cigar and look out across London.

 

Splayed upon the sofa, all muscle and malice: this is what he sees

when he imagines the Titan pulled through his own element.

 

And wily Kronos would say, “My mother, she begged, and I love her—

So I told her, ‘yes, I will do as you wish, and in such a clever way.’”

 

Smoke swirls on one side of the window; fog on the other.

The good doctor takes a mental note: phalluses everywhere

 

 * * *

 

Heather Lockhart

Disarticulated 

for Montclair 

It’s the pieces left behind that matter:

the veins that now belong to him,

the brain cells she’s claimed, the ambition

that roams the halls like a scruffy old cat.

It’s the index finger I slammed in the door,

the red sandals I forgot under the desk, the

glimmer from my eye that bled away so easily.

It’s the tether I wrapped around my spine

and knotted to his office doorknob.

It’s the him, the him, the her, and the her.

It’s the everyone, the faces I know and don’t,

the voices lodged in my bursting skull,

the laughter rattling against my rib cage.

It’s the hollow sensation of attachment,

the desire to linger and the inability

to do so, the urging for me to get the hell out.

It’s the life I can’t imagine, but they all can;

the assurance that I will “be okay,” and

the doubt that counters every compliment.

It’s the pile of pencils I’ve lost, the notes scribbled,

papers printed, comments yelled, ink drained.

It’s every thought, every anxiety, everything

born in and taken from these stifling rooms.

 

* * * *  

 

Heather Lockhart is a graduating senior English major, president of MSU’s Mythology Society, and a greeter at the Center for Writing Excellence. She is looking forward to graduating in May and plans to pursue an MFA in creative writing.

 

* * * *

 

Glenn A. Paterson

Connective Tissue  

Someone whistles

in the parking garage

and the echo

settles in the

spaces

between rows

of parked cars.

            … 

In one moment

she is

the world drowning

in rain.

In the next,

she is nothing more

than the candle

I am falling asleep by.

            … 

The words in my head

quiver with the sighs

of disappearing sparrows.

            … 

To be lonely today

is to be the sandwater

in the footprints

of what it was to be lonely

a hundred years ago.

… 

I dream of being as delicate

as the woman eating pearls

of white rice with chopsticks,

but my fork is heavy in my fist,

and I detest rice.

… 

First I was a globe,

inspiring conversation

and the weight of open palms.

 Today in the sunbeams

that melted over my hair,

I plowed twenty-four acres of restlessness

with the crescent moons of my fingernails. 

 

[“Connective Tissue” was originally published in the April 2010 issue of  Fogged Clarity.]

 

 * * * *

 

Glenn A. Paterson

Denouement 

I pulled a book from the high shelf today, listless and desperate for relief. I let the pages slip past the skin of my thumb like a flutter of wings until they stopped at one with the word Origin printed at the top just beneath a name I’d never heard before. Halfway down the page a spot of black caught my eye. As I brought the book closer to my face, I realized that this was not an indiscriminate blot of ink as I’d thought, but a small fruit fly, flattened against the ivory pages. I imagined his attempt to disguise  himself as the dot atop an “i” as the oblivious reader (probably myself) quickly closed the book. His iridescent wings embraced the “l” and “o” beneath him, a skyward parenthesis. I envied him, then. How tragically perfect, to die in an instant, crushed upon the face of a poem.

 

Glenn Ashley Paterson (CHSS English, 2010) has had work appear in The Normal Review, as well as Fogged Clarity and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. She draws inspiration from combining the written word with other art forms, such as photography, painting, and drawing, resulting in the largely visual nature of her poetry.

 

* * * *

 

Greg Riggio

Men 

I’ll never have Bob Dylan’s beard.

My hair started graying before I could taste what Dylan Thomas loved

as much as poetry. In four years I’ll be as old as Keats was when he died.

Eliot wrote Prufrock when he was only twenty-two,

and before long I’ll be approaching my Jesus Year.

Jeanne Calment, a French woman, lived to be one hundred-and-twenty-one,

while my father’s heart exploded at the age of forty-nine.

Death is breathing down my neck, and it’s the cold suspicion of a snowstorm;

it is sweet honey in frosted air, but sends a blade through my glass jaw.

Great men grow beards to wrap around their necks like scarves

to fight off this unforgiving breath, but all I have is a depression and

a manuscript of poems that will never send

Walt Whitman’s ghost to my bedside at night like the

Ghost of Christmas Future to whisper in my ear, “COME, and take my hand

and forget your reservations and feet. For you do not need them where we are,”

I would step from bed, leaving my legs behind, and of course take his hand,

fingers entwined, as we glide through haunted halls of great men—

past a gilded mosaic of the Buddha, past Martin Luther King

sipping tea beside a sculpted marble copy of himself,

past Plato thumb wrestling with Godard, and

Thoreau snacking on ginger snaps in a tea garden.

Somewhere in the museum, we will find Shakespeare

playing Chinese Checkers with Hemingway.

Allen Ginsberg will be looking on, waiting to play the winner, and

he’ll spot Walt and come over to say hello. When we’re introduced

I will stroke his beard as he kisses my forehead and calls me a sweet boy.

When we part, he tells I will see him again soon.

He will ask what gallery I will see next and I will joke,

“Whichever Whitman’s beard points to.” He’ll laugh before gathering

a stern look on his face because he knows which way his beard will be pointing.

And I’ll ask Allen, “When will he be here with you?” and he tells me, “Soon.”

And his heart will break when he sees me walk away towards the portrait of

my father’s goateed face, because we both know that I will not kiss his cheek

before his body burns into gas and his blood evaporates into incense.

I won’t have it in me.

 

* * * *

 

Greg Riggio

Cavities 

I am unattended ivy planted by my mother’s hands

in the shadow of my father’s home, beneath the kitchen window,

creeping up the brick, surrounding the windows, and rotting the wood

like the sea eroding the coasts of Normandy where my grandfather landed

after Francewas won to repair damaged tanks stuck on

the cobblestone alleyways teeming with townspeople repairing the cavities

in their country. In the crowd of dust he could sit on his helmet

while he lit a cigarette without worrying that a Wehrmacht sharpshooter

was setting his aim, ready to blow his skull out with a Karabiner rifle.

He was not one of the G.I.s slumped like a potato sack in the gutters,

a dog tag torn off, and their forehead a sunken hole. He went home

with a story of the war he didn’t see, and with no

Purple Heart or folded flag to pass down, with no empty helmet

sent to a waiting son inBrooklyn, my father became an accountant,

and bought a house for him to fight with my mother in every night.

They would go to bed angry and yet they still slept in the same bed,

but so far apart that the edges of the mattress became

worn down and sunken under the swollen leather of their bodies.

I used to fill the seams between the younger mass in the middle of the night

when I dreamt about dying. The space was just a crack then,

formed from tiny tremors, not yet the crevasse it is now,

a no-man’s land, occupied by not even the dog. 

 

Greg Riggio a senior English Education major earning minors in Creative Writing and Philosophy. He is influenced by Transcendentalism, Beat lit, and the realism of everyday life.

 

* * * *

 

Amanda Zuniga

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET 

We walked hand-in-hand and swerved through the crowd. At times I felt our hands tugging away

from one another but we both instinctively held even tighter. It was a nice day, the perfect

day to be outside. We had nowhere else to be with only 5 dollars in our pockets.

We had been spending every day and night here and would joke at night at

how we were nomads. We were drifters like Kerouac in The

Dharma Bums. We weren’t here because we had to, we

were here because we wanted to be. Finally, our

generation began to cry the sorrows we

believed in. Our generation seemed

to be less lazy and finally

inspired to act upon

the failures of

our country.

 

I met a woman

who hasn’t visited a

doctor in 4 years. She was a

recent college grad and still looking

for work. She looked sick: pale and moist

with dark smudges under her eyes. When her father

lost his job and her mother had to be put on disability for an

accident that happened on the job, the insurance she once took for

granted, was no longer available. Her teeth were a dark yellow. The kind

attached to college lettering. I felt so awful and sick. Not because of her

appearance but because of the “best country in the world” can’t even throw her a bone

and offer some health care. I wondered if I could pack all my things and head to Canada with her.

 

“We will have capitalism but also have socialism.” “A system that rewards hard work and

ambition but cares for its weakest child.” “And being called a “FEMINAZI” will be

considered “treasonous.” “We will simply combine capitalism and socialism

and call it “peopleism.” “…Or that God damn Ayn Rand book – That’s no

joke brother.” Wearing a Guy Fawkes mask does not make you an

anarchist. The reality is in front of you: It’s the pepper spray

blinding you, it’s the baton bruises on your arms, it’s

the rubber bullet welts,

It’s your first arrest.

 

I remember the

first day I walked

around the park. It was a

Saturday sometime in September. I

distinctly remember how nice it was that day.

I didn’t need a sweatshirt but I needed a long sleeve

shirt. My eyes welled up to the brim when I saw the first little boy

with his hand written and drawn sign. “I want to see my Mommy happy

again!” He incorporated some blurry drawings to the above phrase. After seeing all

types of people there, it really hit me that this doesn’t just affect my peers or adults in

general, it affects the children who have to witness their parents having a break down when they

need to eat dinner. Or when it’s time to pay rent. It’s the time when kids will start to

realize that their clothes are being purchased at a Goodwill shop and Salvation

army instead of the mall. Or when they start to notice the dirty looks they

receive from strangers at the grocery store when Mom and Dad pay

with their EBT cards for groceries.

 

“When the rain and snow start they’ll be gone.” “Totally. They won’t be so united once December

and January roll around.” “Were they still there when that freak snow storm happened in

October?” “I dunno but probably not.” “Yeah, they’re a bunch of pussies.” “Yeah.”

“Those people who are on government help-stealing our hard earned

money!” “Yes! What lazy bums! Why don’t they just go get a job?”

“If I can get a job after majoring in business at Yale, then

anyone can.” “ObviouslyAmerica is just full of

good-for-nothing immigrants.” “They

should all just continue being janitors

and landscapers.”

 

Then I realized,

we weren’t there for

my ulterior motives. We were

there to participate. We were there to

show our support and also our anger. So my

zine had to be put aside for the time being. Feminism

was not this fight. Not today. I was there for my mother who

survives off of her measly Disability check each month. I was there

for my father, originally from Chile but a citizen for 30 + years who is

forced to work in a factory. I was there for the taxes my family and all the families

across America has to pay. But most importantly, I was there for myself. After 4 years, the

realization that I will not have a job once I graduate is almost too much to stomach.

 

I went to bed that night and I stared at the ceiling for a while. I laid next to my lover, who has now

spent many days at OCCUPY when he is not at his graduate classes at CUNY. I wondered

what my life would look like in 8 months. I’d be graduating and hopefully been

accepted into some English program at some graduate school. I felt selfish

as we laid in his semi-comfortable bed while people were at

Zuccotti Park. I laid in his arms and drifted off to sleep, the

final thoughts of the couple who had been staying at

Occupy because they had no one where else

to be: the recent college grad with

daffodil-stained teeth, and of

the child with his sign.

 

Amanda Zuniga is a senior English major with minors in Creative Writing and Women’s and Gender Studies. When she is not focusing on writing or feminist theory, she is the editor and creator for the zine “Suggestion,” an anti-rape and anti-sexual violence publication which promotes a safe space for victims and supporters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Imperative New Work by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization – CRC “Must-Read” for Spring – by Neil Baldwin

Full disclosure: I am coming late to the formidable, omnivorous sensibility of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. However, as soon as I saw the title of this book in an advertisement for Harvard University Press, I had to read it. The release date was only two weeks ago but, contrary to the normal metabolism of publishing, a heightened sense of urgency drives me to write about it; and to say, in emphatic terms, that this is a singularly important book for all who care about the situation of education in this country and the world at large – especially those who (like me) may not have heretofore comfortably defined themselves as politically expert. 

I was thrilled to discover Spivak’s embracing inclusive message. “That literature and the arts can support an advanced nationalism is no secret…,” she writes, in the core essay, Nationalism and the Imagination [originally published in 2007].  “[T]he literary imagination can impact on transcendentalized nationalism…Nationalism is the product of a collective imagination constructed through rememoration.” 

As I have written elsewhere, my journey as an author began in American poetry and poetics.  For me, “the imagination” has been an omnipresent concept – hundreds of years of literary tradition enlivened countless times by the workings of an undefinable inner complex.  Most persistently, William Carlos Williams taught me that “Only the imagination is real,” and that dictum has propelled me along and will continue to do so.

 When I reference the “political” in the context of Spivak, like many, I turn to her seminal 1988 essay, Can the Subaltern Speak?  My takeaway from that piece has been with reference [via Foucault] to  “subjugated knowledge,” and the stigma that accompanies hierarchical disciplined systems of any kind – most pertinent, now, to me, being the Academy; but resonating beyond into Spivak’s rootedness in the Colonial mentality of her native India — those who have been dominant, and those who are The Others.

That dynamic helps explain why, until now, I did not think that Spivak — brilliant and innovative as she has always been — was for me. Because my life had been entrenched in the institutionalized mainstream culture industry, thus governed by a daily rhythm too preoccupied with survivalism to have time to consider the purely intellectual implications of my behavior. 

As a new citizen of the University, now I have cleared a mental space within which to linger over Spivak’s thoughts.  So that when she insists that “Higher education in the humanities should be strengthened so that the literary imagination can continue to de-transcendentalize the nation” I am empowered.  Indeed, she insists, “a literary training…is a very important thing today.”

Once one has accepted this liberating mandate, the question quickly arrives – how to pick up the gauntlet in praxis?  Spivak helps me in the subsequent essays of her new book. For example, Ethics and Politics says the teacher “must share the steps of the reading.”  Explication de texte is actually of use when brought to bear upon a room full of [subjugated?] teenagers whose inherent impulse is to shy away from the book, to be silent.   

Imperative to re-Imagine the Planet asks me to “answer…the call of the wholly other,” where the “others” are my students, for if I do not set the tone, who will?   In Reading with Stuart Hall in “Pure” Literary Terms, Spivak extends the demands of alterity by raising the point that Cultural Studies as such has overstayed its welcome;  this strikes me as a casualty of the disciplines,  segmentation of knowledge in the corporate University straying from organicism. In Terror: A Speech After 9/11, Spivak calls for re-engaging the “public sphere deeply hostile to the humanities,” taking the argument outside the Academy and proposing a moral stand in increasingly unpopular circles. 

In a mesmerizing promotional video for An Aesthetic Education, Spivak refers to the uselessness of the “old terms” of globalization no longer operant, advocating, in today’s vast and atomized social sphere where “everything is modern,” that we need to “rethink, retool, relocate.”  We need to start being more at home, she says, with a concept of world literature, a boundaryless celebration of cacophonous voices that “embraces all of us” [The Stakes of a World Literature]

To conclude with the penultimate essay – and then with an originating work: The illustrated piece Sign and Trace is a poetics of space grafted onto the massive topography of Anish Kapoor’s monumental steel sculptural work, Memory.  I saw Memory at the Guggenheim Museum four years ago, and I remember, all too well, extending my arm into the window-shaped aperture, feeling through the black expanse in search of a boundary to the thing itself – and the guard tapping me on the shoulder, forcing me to pull back – to withdraw. 

Any incursion into the unknown will be accompanied by prohibitions meant to be ignored. 

This redemptive action helps us come full circle, remembering that Spivak’s first major published work was a 1974 literary biography of W.B.Yeats, Myself Must I Remake.  Yeats, indeed! – the private man who sallied forth into public life, forging a new personality in his latter years to try to meet the madness of the times. 

Read in this spirit, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization sounds a clarion call to action.   

 

Mirta Ojito, Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist, to Speak at the Annual Latino/a Caucus Lecture – Thursday, March 8th at 2:30 – MSU Student Center Ballroom – A Preview/Conversation – by Ofelia Rodriguez-Srednicki

[Mirta Ojito is a professor at The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism as well as a writer for The New York Times and other publications.  She received the American Society of Newspaper Editors Award in 1999 and a shared Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for a series of articles about race in America.  In 2005, she published the critically-acclaimed Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus (The Penguin Press).   She will be discussing her book and her career as a writer at the Third Annual Latino/a Caucus at MSU on March 8th at 2:30 pm in the Student Center.  The CRC is pleased to share our Director’s Blog this month and post this new telephone interview with Ms. Ojito conducted by the President of the Latino/a Caucus,  Ofelia Rodriguez-Srednicki, Ph.D., Department of Psychology.]  

Ofelia Rodriguez-Srednicki: Can you share with our readers on the CRC Web site what it felt like for you to immigrate here as an adolescent? We know you will be discussing this in your lecture but just wanted to know a bit more about the story in advance. Mirta Ojito: It was an exciting and difficult period at the same time. On the one hand, we were finally in the United States– the place my parents, but particularly my father — had dreamed about for years.  On the other hand, I spoke no English.  I couldn’t communicate, didn’t understand what my teachers or peers were saying.  Couldn’t figure out the culture, the customs, the “rules” of high school.  It took a long time for me to feel comfortable in the U.S.A. And, of course, I missed Cuba a great deal.

ORS: When did you start writing? What inspired you to write your first book?  MO: I’ve been writing since I learned to write at age five, I imagine. The question is, when was it any good? I’m not sure. I’m still working at it… I decided to write my book because I had a lot of questions about my own immigration history. I had been writing about the stories of others for so long, I had neglected my own. I decided to change that and delve deeply into the history of the Mariel boatlift.

ORS: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a “professional writer”? MO: When I got my first $10 check for writing a story for The Atlantic Sun, the student newspaper of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

ORS:  Did you have a specific routine or method you used to write your book, Finding Mañana? MO: Yes, I wrote every weekday, from 9 am to 6 pm. No excuses. No days off. 

ORS: Many artists talk about their work as helping them to get through hard times emotionally. Would you say that writing is your “escape?”  MO: No, reading is my escape. Writing is my job. And it’s a really hard job. 

ORS: Who is your favorite writer — and why? And is there a special style or a special way of looking at the world that he or she has that inspires you? MO: My favorite writer changes all the time. It depends on what’s going on in my life and how I happen to connect with a particular work. Some writers I’ve enjoyed over the years are Amos Oz, Haruki Murakami, Guy de Maupassant, Edwidge Danticat, Kazuo Ishiguro, Esmeralda Santiago, Eva Hoffman, Isabel Allende. I’m an extremely eclectic reader with many interests and passions. I’m inspired by clarity of thought, precise and beautiful language and the perfect tone. Of course, it should also be a riveting story. For example, I like Ishiguro’s tone control and measured language in Never Let me Go. I’m stimulated by Murakami’s wild imagination in everything he writes. I’m a fan of short stories, and the master of that genre is Maupassant. I love the way Danticat writes about Haiti — with love, but also with open eyes, which the same thing Oz does with Israel. They take no short cuts. I’m hugely entertained by Allende. I learned a great deal from Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican, and I understood my own struggles with the language while reading Eva Hoffman’s masterful Lost in Translation.   

ORS: What is the most important life-lesson that you hope readers will learn from reading your works? MO: I don’t think I’m really transmitting ‘life-lessons’ in my work, but there is a theme that is recurrent in my writing, be it my journalism or my book, and that is the astonishing power that people have to change their personal circumstances, and, in doing so, change history. 

ORS: How do your family and friends feel about your success? MO: My friends are very proud. They tell me often and, frankly, are extremely nice and accommodating to me because they think I’m writing all the time, which is not true. With my family, on the other hand, I don’t think it’s made a difference. My 11-year-old son has read my book and liked it very much. That was a treat for me to see him reading the book day and night for a few hours. But for all three of my boys, I think I’m just “Mama,” the one who tells them to brush their teeth, sends them to their room to do the homework, and reads them books at night – other people’s books.  

ORS:  As a successful Latina, what advice would you give to college students of color about the process of striving for their own success? MO: If you enjoy the journey, you’ll get to the destination, even if you haven’t defined the goal. As a student, and even after I had my first job, I never thought of the next step in my career. I always thought of what I was doing that day: get an A in the exam, graduate with honors, do well in my job – every day. And I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy the journey very much. The rest takes care of itself.

Visit www.mirtaojito.com  

 

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Essential New Book – Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future of the Academy. The CRC December 2011 Spotlight Review – by Neil Baldwin; and a Letter in Response from Gary Hall About a Revolutionary Open-Access e-Book Project

Raw metrics will never be enough to tell us about the success or failure of a piece of scholarship.” — Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence, p.193. 

A statement of fact, not self-aggrandizement:  Since 1978, I have been writing and publishing books in the ‘analog’ world – poetry, translations, nonfiction, biography, American history, art history, cultural anthropology.  Then, just last year, within two months of launching this CRC site, I published my first novel, a thriller — as an e-book.  

Like most of you reading these words, I am spending alot more time on the Web. But the situation of writing, in my mind, has not changed with the shift in medium. This is an electronic machine, not a typewriter; and so, admittedly, the impact is not direct from small-motor action to impression of ink on paper.  I realize, and accept, that each and every one of these letters has to go through an invisible coding process before it rematerializes in  decipherable visual form. However, I do not experience any self-conscious or interfering moment in acknowledgment of the medium. When I am writing, I am still making meaning, as I have always done, and it still feels like that.

Why, then, make the case for the legitimacy of these pixellated, atomized words?  Which is by roundabout way of announcing my deepest gratitude to Kathleen Fitzpatrick for having written Planned Obsolescence (New York and London: New York University Press, 2011.)   

Fitzpatrick’s reputation precedes her, as the founding editor of the digital scholarly network MediaCommons, and the author of The Anxiety of Obsolescence (2006); and now, on leave from her position as Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, she has taken on the timely position of Director of Scholarly Communication for the Modern Language Association

The narrative arc of Planned Obsolescence is tight, coherent, and eloquent — propulsively staking its territory from micro to macro, personal to global, as its impassioned author argues for “a new way of working,” advocating for “publishing on the Web [being] as valuable as publishing in print.”  Sensitivities in the academic arena run high when this volatile matter is broached.  Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick wants to see the ascendancy of a new kind of critique, “post-publication peer review” rather than the age-old, “entrenched” methods currently in place. We live in a far more “public place” than past generations, she reminds us;  our point of view on publication must likewise evolve.  Incremental blogs add up to book-length tracts before we realize it. Let us open up the entire process of generating ideas, putting them on the digital table, welcoming diverse attitudes toward them, selecting, shaping and reconfiguring them “curatorially” in imaginative response to freely-offered and serious opinions — and then, let us further expand and infuse energy and health into the notion of making words fixed and truly “public.”

Fitzpatrick’s mandate has the exciting potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy because there is strength in numbers. The more voices of “reputation and authority” step into the public mode of Web discourse and resolve to bridge the “theory-practice divide,” the more substantial the Web will become de facto.  Planned Obsolescence is a rallying-cry to intelligent writers who want to be communicators to come to the Web.  So doing, Fitzpatrick  rightly invokes Mark Poster’s “new historical constellation of authorship, one that [so far] is emergent, but seemingly more and more predominant.”

The denouement of Planned Obsolescence is vitally devoted to issues of stewardship, storage and preservation arising concomitant with explosions in new media.  Here, Fitpatrick brings in the imperative voice of another pioneer in the field, Laura Brown of Ithaka:  “Recognize that publishing is an integral part of the core mission and activities of universities, and take ownership of it.” It is time, Fitzpatrick agrees, for university libraries and ambitious scholar-faculty to join forces and revitalize the declining model of academic publishing. There is no practical way that inundated university presses in their current “unsustainable” [analog] structure can hope to continue as the exclusive, traditional-media initial offering-ground for young scholars’ monographs — nor should this inordinate burden be placed upon them.

Rather, the contemporary university press must  embrace its nonprofit imperative and focus upon the local as the universal;  slow down the race to emulate trade publishing, and return to a way of life that exists in service to “showcase” homegrown faculty and promote the riches of its 21st-century institution.

“Knowledge which is not public is not knowledge.”  Indeed,  I still remember my attitude, a mere five years ago, before I accepted my first university appointment, coming out of a world where I believed that knowledge was everyone’s purview. I had no experiential relationship to disciplines, departments, schools, or colleges.  And nowadays, even though I am “housed” in a department of a college in a major state university, I find my concept of interdisciplinarity expanded rather than inhibited.  I accept the necessity of separate modes of inquiry as being coexistent with the omnivorous desire to learn more and venture outside the subject of one’s choice and/or passion. 

Kathleen Fitzpatrick likewise reminds and encourages us that — whether we choose to live and work and think inside or outside the academy — special expertise is not a barrier, but, rather, serves as the gateway to freely-ranging thought — and that the Web can be a liberating, welcoming and altogether legitimate arena.   

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A letter in response from Gary Hall with news about an exciting new interdisciplinary open-access e-book project 

7 December 2011 

Dear Neil,

I just wanted to write to express my gratitude to you personally for this review of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence.

As you rightly say, the more voices of ‘reputation and authority’ – such as Fitzpatrick and yourself – that step into the mode of networked computing discourse and help to legitimate it, the closer we’ll hopefully get to opening up a space for re-engineering the university, so that’s it’s neither simply going along with the free-market economics that are endeavoring to transform it into an extension of the corporate world, nor looking nostalgically to return to the kind of paternalistic and class-bound ideas that previously dominated the institution.

Your efforts in this direction, with your blog, and with the Creative Research Centre generally, are much appreciated – I know it’s not always an easy step to take, as it requires not just creativity and imagination,  but a certain amount of courage too, for numerous institutional and professional reasons.

Certainly, far from this time of financial crisis being an unpromising moment to be taking such steps, or ‘for university libraries and ambitious scholar-faculty’ to be joining together in an effort to ‘revitalize the declining model of academic publishing’, I would argue that this is precisely the moment when we should be doing so. To quote two very different writers on the subject of courage:

‘Moments of crisis are also moments of opportunity – if we have the courage to act creatively and imaginatively’ (Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus, p13); ‘the courage to defend and practice our ideas and principles, to say what we think, what we want’ (Alain Badiou, The Communist Hypothesis, p.66).

Speaking of the process of generating ideas, putting them on the digital table, welcoming diverse attitudes toward them, selecting, shaping and reconfiguring them “curatorially”‘, we’ve just launched a new expanded interdisciplinary project that’s endeavoring to do just this.

It’s a series of 21 online open access books called Liquid Books About Life. You can find it at:

http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org

I’d very much welcome your thoughts and input on it. All the books in the series are open to being collaboratively written, edited and updated. So you are free to rewrite, remix, reinvent and reuse any or all of them – and in fact you’re expressly invited and encouraged to do so.

Gary

Gary Hallwww.GaryHall.info an early contributor to the Creative Research Center – is a London-based cultural and media theorist working on new media technologies, continental philosophy and cultural studies. He is Professor of Media and Performing Arts in the School of Art and Design at Coventry University, UK, author of Culture in Bits (Continuum, 2002) and Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now (Minnesota UP, 2008), and co-editor of New Cultural Studies: Adventures in Theory (Edinburgh UP, 2006) and Experimenting: Essays with Samuel Weber (Fordham UP, 2007). He is also founding co-editor of the open access journal Culture Machine.

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Who says the art object has to be original? And what do you mean by “original…”? – by Neil Baldwin

During the past six months – listed here in no particular order — I have felt compelled to visit the following art exhibitions:  El Museo del Barrio Biennial: The (S) Files 2011; Richard Serra Drawings, Cezanne’s Card Players,  and Rooms with a View, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Glenn Ligon, America, at the Whitney;  Rembrandt & His School at the Frick; The Making of Americans at the James Gallery of CUNY Graduate Center; Painters & Poets at Tibor de Nagy Gallery; Laurel Nakadate and Ryan Trecartin at MoMA PS1; and, in travels farther afield, Against the Grain: Modernism in the Midwest, at the Southern Ohio Museum, Portsmouth; and Inuit Modern at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I say compelled because, of late, these visits feel more urgent, necessary. They are beginning to go beyond my lifelong acculturated affection for and affinity with the visual arts, the kind of habitual gallery-going behavior you would expect from someone who grew up in Manhattan and has led an instinctively cosmopolitan existence.

My obsession has gotten to the point nowadays that as soon as the Weekend edition of The New York Times lands on my suburban doorstep I am feverishly, addictively, nervously flipping the Arts pages and hunting for what’s new, what’s on, what’s closing soon, what’s imminent (i.e., Ostalgia at the New Museum on the Bowery, my next goal, for sure – it’s in my calendar for Wednesday August 3rd).

On a parallel mental track, at first I assumed unconsciously, but now most likely not, I have devoted much of this same half-year to reading and re-reading everything I can get my hands on written by or about Walter Benjamin (1892-1940).  This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of the great cultural critic’s most popular, oft-cited, and yes, “branded” essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility; a piece that needs no introduction to most readers of the Creative Research Center and this monthly blog.

But – faithful and/or new reader — if you are not familiar with this wonderful essay, follow this link to read it — but don‘t forget to come back here afterwards.

To set the elegiac tone for the May, 1936, third version of the Work of Art piece, Benjamin introduced it with a prophetic quote from the French poet Paul Valery which I cite at some length:  “Our fine arts were developed,” Valery wrote in Pieces sur l’art, 1934, “their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts, there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power…We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

Astonishing.

It could have been written yesterday — or today, for that matter. Hold that thought as we turn our attention to the central motif of Benjamin’s essay, the concept of The Aura,  my inspiration for taking on this meditation in the first place.

By aura, Benjamin meant – and here, I am carefully selecting from among many and often contested implications — the singular status of the art work, its “authenticity,” its actuality, its essence within “a strange tissue of space and time,” its ineffable yet emotionally tangible beauty. The aura serves to attach the work to a specific tradition – a narrative, a history that becomes more remote as the thing itself is reproduced.

I first encountered the Work of Art essay in 1968; and until 1995 (a date that will become clear in the next paragraph)  I had comfortably taken the aura to be a quality I could feel in the presence of an original in a gallery or a museum or a private collection. The late 1960s, when my mind was maturing, was a time when I wholeheartedly embraced the “eternal” value of an original work, and my accompanying feelings of legitimacy, discovery and even relief in bearing witness.

However, the Web spread its massive, enveloping wings, and the virtual also became real.  As a result, it is exponentially more difficult for me (and, I wager, for some of you) to keep hold upon and maintain the informing significance of the aura.

Thoughtful contemporary exegetes of Walter Benjamin’s work, most prominently Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Miriam Bratu Hansen, in recently published offerings, will not agree with my line of thinking that leads toward a “pollution” or “dissipation” of the quasi-religious aura as conceived by Benjamin and re-visioned in the digitized world.

But I did not set out to write this essay to pick a fight with critics – and colleagues – who say that by reasonable (obvious) extension the virtual possesses its own aura; and who assert that art does not require a concrete (one might even say retrograde) rooting in so-called “reality,” because now we inhabit an utterly different reality altogether.  How else could I include the links embedded in the piece you are reading right now?

Now that a rudimentary context has been laid down, I return to and elaborate upon the admission of compulsion with which I began.

When, in search of my art infusion “fix,”  I succumb to the magnetic field of NYC, I accept a heavy measure of nostalgia attached. I sit on the train nearing the City and I see a holographic image of myself an hour in the future, walking quietly and anonymously among beige walls, taking in the ambience, exchanging unspoken acknowledgement with other strollers, tourists, flaneurs, whomever; welcoming the immediate sensory taste of the thing on the wall in front of me, erotically anticipating the next aesthetic thing to come along nto view.

This compulsion — again, I insist — does not mean I am naively or crankily negating all the other forms of art work that have become manufactured out of the infinite digital wellspring of zeros and ones.

It means that, for me, in our present day, and in the current streaming mediatized sensory environment, I am driven to know art as it was once (not all that long ago) believed exclusively to be – and that I want to stand in the presence of it, and employ my imagination to conjure an emotional response, in a way that I cannot accomplish unless I am bodily there.

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Dear Neil: I want to send you some visuals inspired by your CRC essay. In July we went to Port Bou, on the Spanish coast, to honor Walter Benjamin. Attached below are the photographs I took there, including the official memorial (quite strong) and an unofficial one tucked away in the cemetery for people to pick up stones and place them on the rock. It was unbelievably moving to stand and look out over the mountains that WB had got through seventy years ago, and imagine him thinking he had to go back – and then, overwhelmed, taking his own life. Later, we went to La Jonquera, on the Spain/France border, where there is a Museum of Exile and Immigration. The first photo in this group is a detail of a color mural of Bosnian exiles, behind which is a black and white mural in which the Spanish Civil War exiles peer out. 

Click on each image to enlarge and view them properly.

With best wishes, Janet Sternburg [A writer (Phantom Limb) and photographer, Janet’s work can be seen and read at www.janetsternburg.com]

     

 

 

Various Delights of Learning and Teaching Across the Disciplines – by Neil Baldwin

It was a brisk September morning, soon after classes had begun, when an email arrived in my inbox from Ken Bain, founding director of The Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL) here at Montclair State University. The laconic subject-line read, simply, “A Proposal.” Ken informed me of the nascent plans for a “Big Event” on the MSU campus scheduled for May 4, 2011, “in which our faculty members will present posters and sessions (presentations, workshops, discussions) around learning issues. Our special theme will be the cultivation of creativity across the curriculum…Would you [The Creative Research Center] be interested in talking about some co-sponsorships of these events?” 

Flash-forward seven months: Ken and I are sitting in his conference room nestled into a corner of the hushed ground floor of MSU Sprague Library, two days before the imminent launch of what is now formally known as The Second Annual University Learning and Teaching Showcase; this year’s theme is, indeed, Fostering Creativity Across the Campus,” and more than one hundred members of our community  registered in advance to attend. The event is dedicated to exploring evidence-based practices used to understand and improve learning and teaching across disciplinary boundaries, meant to provide local scholars with the opportunity to share their projects, and build toward future collaborations. 

And, as Director of The Creative Research Center, I have been given the best responsibility of all: to cover the Showcase day as an on-site blogger and rapporteur. Toward that end, I am asking Ken to give me some insights into what we can expect to see and hear. “This whole enterprise has been put together by Cigdem Talgar and Julie Dalley of our staff,” he says proudly. “The goal is simple, and exemplifies the mission of RAUL – to encourage deeper reflection on the very nature of human learning. The underlying message,” he continues, “as it is with all of our RAUL efforts, is to show that good teachers and good scholars can ‘live in the same body.’”  

Donning his historian’s hat — in response to my question about whether there is a fully-fledged, transformative “Movement” running through the American higher educational system – Ken reminds me delicately that “movements, by nature, are not always smooth. They proceed in fits and starts, and, in that sense, Montclair State is definitely onto something. There’s something going on right now. You’ll see what I mean on Wednesday.”

 The glorious day – and, despite the inconsistent rain, it was quite glorious from an intellectual point of view – began appropriately with a brief plenary presentation by Ken Bain, accompanied by Jed Wheeler, Executive Director of Arts and Cultural Programming at MSU, in which they spoke of their new Creative Campus collaboration. Plans are underway, they revealed,  to develop an interdisciplinary, University-wide curriculum predicated upon the creative process, transcending the arts. The course promises to be a unique entrée to the imagination for all students. 

The ensuing day’s sessions were elegantly organized into four parallel, coterminous tracks: Student Engagement, Goal-Based Learning, Bringing the World In, and Creativity in Teaching. How I wish I could have cloned myself (now there’s a manifestation of creative thinking!) in order to have listened to all fifteen talks. But even so, the messages of a select number were great metaphors for the entire vision of this day.

 Psychology professor Valerie Sessa presented a model for academic engagement in college freshmen, the results of a study she conducted with support from the MSU Service Learning Department and the Charles Engelhard Foundation. Dr. Sessa scrutinized the crucial transition year from high school to college in the larger behavioral context of freshman “dis-orientation.” She reminded us that there is a learning curve for everyone coming in to higher education; and that we, as teachers, need to be mindful of it, because first-year students are not accustomed to the proper manner in which to interact with their mentors.

 Zoe Burkholder of the Department of Educational Foundations led us through an engrossing exercise predicated upon a film demonstrating American racial stereotyping during the 1940s. We were asked to describe our responses to the film from an observational standpoint as a way of rehearsing a powerful lesson suitable for pre-college age.  In the classroom setting, students would be asked to re-write the film as it relates to their world – the Zeitgeist of today, wherein racial bias to some degree has been supplanted by sexual and socio-economic prejudices. And she directed us to a Web site that was a revelation: www.understandingrace.org.  Dr. Burkholder’s book on the subject is coming from Oxford University Press this fall. 

Meanwhile, down the hall, Ashwin Vaidya and Mika Munakata from the College of Science and Math were holding forth on creativity in their respective disciplines.  Again there was a participatory ambience, as we were asked to define “creativity” in our respective fields. I wrote that “creativity is the use of the imagination.” I was struck by the commonalities among a varied group from departments across MSU. We then engaged in a series of (supposedly) simple mathematical and scientific exercises that succeeded in questioning our predispositions and long-held illusions about the physical world around us, from Euclid onward through the present day and into the uncertain future of the planet. “We are giving you permission to break your own paradigms,” Vaidya and Munakata told us. It was fun – and a little scary. 

Meredyth Appelbaum of Psychology and James Dyer of Chemistry and Biochemistry revealed their research into the “C.R.E.A.T.E.” [acronymic for Consider – Read – Elucidate Hypothesis – Analyze and interpret data – Think of the next – Experiment]  method of research role-playing for undergraduates. What an original and fascinating way to break down the buildup of pre-scholarship fear so prevalent among the younger generation – intimidating long papers, statistic-laden studies, complex methodologies. The presenters brought home the dangers of force-feeding information in today’s crowded media environment; stressing, rather, how to successfully indoctrinate students into the concept of research by projecting themselves as originators of the studies they are explicating. “There is not just one approach to scientific research,” said Dyer at one point; and I thought, “I just told my Play Script Interpretation students the very same thing about the nuances of literary criticism.” 

Speaking of “fear…” walking midway into the dense presentation by College of Business Professors Yam Limbu and Avinandan Mukherjee, I was gripped by the anxiety of incomprehension at first. But then, a wonderful phenomenon occurred: I allowed myself to relax into their statistical rhetoric — a study of marketing standards applied to student affect correlated with the degree of engagement of their professors —  and lo and behold, it was as if the scales dropped from my eyes. It felt like an immersion class in learning a new language, where, in order to survive, you had better start swimming. These two men possessed narrative skills such that they were able to convey the intrinsic meaning of data — because the data, in and of itself, was cogent. Student Engaged Techniques (“SET”) built upon cultivating a secure feeling of helpfulness and clarity invariably led to greater comprehension and pedagogical effectiveness. Yes, Limbu and Mukherjee were speaking of the focused realm of business marketing curriculum, but – yet again – the subject did not matter. 

After a chatter-filled, collegial lunch (I must add that the dessert brownies were the best I have tasted at any MSU function)  all the conference participants – there were, indeed, many more than one hundred people in the room — convened in University Hall 1070 for the highly-anticipated keynote talk by Nobel Prize winning Professor Dudley Herschbach of Harvard, Reflections: Achieving the Balance Between Research and Teaching.   

 Introducing Dr. Herschbach, Provost Willard Gingerich referred to teaching as “energy-transfer.” I wrote that down on my trusty legal pad to be certain I included the excellent analogy in my report. What a perfect metaphor for the process, and it needs to be reciprocal: I want my students to feel my commitment to the subject; and I know they are looking for signs of my passion, because that emotional engagement will help them learn in a more sustained way. 

“Nature speaks many tongues,” Dr. Herschbach began. An avuncular, genial octogenarian, he responded ably and humorously to Ken Bain’s questions and prompts and, after awhile, began to amble to and fro in the front of the room like a talk-show host who (refreshingly!) did not take himself too seriously. He seemed to relish the interchange with the audience arrayed in front of him.  His chemistry students write poetry, Herschbach told us, because, from the outset, he wants them to understand that the exactitude of science is over-rated. Just as in the arts, there are variables and subjectivities galore.

“There needs to be much more accommodation to different points of view in science, as there always has been in poetry!” Dr. Herschbach declaimed. “We need to take a liberal arts approach to science…and furthermore, none of it makes sense outside the perspective of history, and so we must remember to maintain our grounding in that area as well.”  He reminisced of his required undergraduate course in The History of Western Civilization and how that changed his mind forever. 

Dr. Herschbach spoke with eloquence about why he teaches Freshman Chemistry at Harvard to this very day: “Teaching that requires you to meet new students forces you thereby to think from their point of view and to deal with the basics – the fundamentals of learning – those are the most important.” [“I agree!” I wrote in the margins of my legal pad.] 

“Science offers so many opportunities for personal exercise of the imagination!” he exulted, “Every child begins as a scientist and an artist. We must remember this fact, and let our students take ownership of the subject-matter. Kids cannot go on thinking of teachers as judges. Rather, we must appear to them as coaches – therein lies the hope for our future.” 

By this time, Dr. Herschbach had the audience in the palm of his hand, and I realized it was because of his unflappable and innate command of story telling. I thought, how pleasant it would be, to just sit there jotting down his bon mots for the rest of the day, letting his vignettes wash over me, one after another, on and on into the afternoon, each quote more illustrative than the previous one: “I hate to be taught, but I love to learn,” he said, quoting Winston Churchill, of all people; and “learning a subject is like learning a language…it doesn’t matter what you study – it’s how you apply what you learn to your life!” 

The room was abuzz with energy and excitement as Dr. Herschbach slowly and deliberately (and I sensed reluctantly) concluded, to appreciative applause. 

I unfurled my umbrella and headed out into the grey day and thought about the roots for my exultation. There were so many brilliant and interesting teachers at MSU whom I had not met until this conference, and there were undoubtedly many others. At first, this realization made me sad, but then I consoled myself that the embarrassment of riches surely was the ultimate meaning of  “The University.” 

I reflected upon the common denominator of every talk I had heard, every conversation I had overheard (or eavesdropped upon) during lunch: they were all about the students. 

Scholars in our special disciplines — this is the essential base from which we ideally progress and grow. Then, we must seek to apply such rigorously-cultivated knowledge to the art and craft of teaching, a humanistic pursuit at the vital core of The Research Academy for University Learning.

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Save the DateSymposium on The Uses of the Imagination in the Post-9/11 World. Wednesday, 10/12/11 at 2:30 pm, Memorial Auditorium, Montclair State University. Free and Open to the Public.

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Cognitive Science and the Performing Arts: Recent Conversations with Philip Barnard – by Neil Baldwin

[Thanks to a competitive, major grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters “Creative Campus” Innovations Grant Program, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and received recently by the Montclair State University Office of Arts and Cultural Programming, the MSU community was privileged to experience the visionary Brainstorm Symposium on Creative Thinking in the Alexander Kasser Theater on April 12, 2011.   The following afternoon, before a rapt audience of theatre and dance students and faculty in the Life Hall Dance Studio, I engaged in a spirited Q&A and dialogue with Dr. Philip Barnard, co-creator of Choreographic Thinking Tools and other innovations developed since 2003 with R-Research/Random Dance; until recently, Dr. Barnard was program leader at the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge (UK).]    

In a pre-interview in the ACP offices — with Scott deLahunta, R-Research DirectorDavid Kirsh, Professor in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego (another Random Dance collaborator); and Carrie Urbanic and Sarah Bishop-Stone of ACP in attendance — I sat with Phil and made my way through a thick dossier of his published and draft research papers, attempting to sort out, from the density of information, the ultimate trajectory for our forthcoming public presentation.

My own brand of “choreographic thinking,” through danceaturgy work in the studios here at MSU, has been spent observing and writing about and talking to our undergraduate BFA dancers as they move through the paces of the annual classical and modernist repertory.  I approach this relationship with dance via a textual, authorial, pedagogical and “poetics” tradition; whereas Phil Barnard is a research scientist who studies clinical issues involving human cognition and emotion, and how the mind processes meaning. His exhaustive interdisciplinary research projects with Random Dance are designed to develop productive synergies between choreographic processes and cognitive neuroscience.  

[NOTE: Any time you — the reader of this post — need to refresh your perception of this dance dynamic, all you have to do is toggle between Phil’s new CRC Guest Essay blog and this text!] 

Our coffee-chat was an unerring metaphor for the event to come.  After ten minutes of awkward interrogation, I realized I was in the presence of a formidably-sentient fellow unfazed by jet-lag, his nerve-endings well-exposed, gaze lucid, and disposition quiet — a quintessential listener and watcher par excellence.  Then again, I said to myself, he would have to be a person with finely-honed perceptions in order to have spent the last eight years with the likes of Scott and Wayne .

On that basis, I shifted gears, simply asking Phil what he was “most comfortable” talking about; from that instant the time passing in the room accelerated. He spoke — and this is with no pretense at order — of himself as an admittedly-creative thinker, nonetheless one who “does not do Art.” I could hear the word capitalized. Invited into the Random Dance studios by Wayne McGregor, and exercising his facilities of observation, Phil became drawn into wonderment about the “magic” of what the dancers were doing as they proceeded to execute tasks. Through an evolving series of perceptual exercises and calculated interventions, Phil told me, he discovered discrepancies between what the dancers thought they were doing and the words they sought in order to conceptualize their physical actions.  

“How do artists make things; how do they work with materials?” Phil asked, with the underlying assumption, at first disconcerting, that “creativity is not free,” because it drives the artist back into his own mind —  a reflexive dynamic.  Iit might seem to the uninitiated that there is an inherent contradiction between the creative process, in and of itself, and the drive to “explain” it. But that opposition is dissipated when one realizes that although the artist is coming at the craft from one direction and the scientist from another, their goal of elucidation is prelude to allowing the artist (in our case, the dancer) to find greater depth and meaning, leading to a more fulfilling execution of the work in process.

Phil and I also spoke about the dancer’s concept of his or her own movement as depicted in his mind, and that commensurate relationship to kinaesthetic intelligence. The painter knows his way around the terrain of the canvas propped up in front of him, so that, if we stand by and watch  in the studio, it can look intuitive; in the same way, the dancer devises a movement, perhaps based upon a “prompt” by the choregrapher, that will utilize a learned vocabulary, and become muscle-memory. Indeed,  those muscles still have to be deliberately exercised.

“In the end,” Phil insisted, “the work that comes out of the practice is Wayne’s piece. He has a job to do and he does it consummately well.” To which I responded that the implication seemed that at a certain juncture Phil steps away, after having stepped in, stopped and interrupted the flow of work. He agreed, advancing the analogy I was hoping for  — between the clinician who pursues a course of therapy up to the borderline of the psyche where the patient (read “dancer,” and “choreographer,” instead of clinical practitioner) must proceed alone down the path to art — or a semblance of self-knowledge and, perhaps, healing.     

“It all comes down to language,” Phil said, with a deliberate smile on my behalf. “We give the dancers permission to explore a task and then we try to translate what they describe into applied methodologies for others to come.”

Our talk for the students and faculty picked up where this one left off, as if we had not had two days between. Phil traced his rich and varied path through the sciences, the broad aims of his cognitive and clinical work, and the major driving themes and areas of research, prior to meeting Wayne McGregor and Scott deLahunta in 2003, insofar as his interest in “how meaning systems work” set the scene for working with Random Dance — “how and why [Phil] was in the room” when it all began. We discovered as we talked that there is a conceptual dialectic between “self” and ”world” that needs to be figured out by the objective practitioner, no matter what the field.

There were also instructive parallels and mutual illuminations between communication behaviorally [i.e., in “real life”]; and communication of the dancer with the audience – and other dancers. Hence,  Bridging Representations, as per this chart in Phil’s Guest Essay, starts out as a schematic visual construct, the dancer placed in a position to absorb multimodal information before being asked to externalize/perform it for the purpose of trying to understand and articulate how information and particularized thought is synthesized into movement.

The complications and obstructions that arise at this point, when the Choreographic Thinking Tools are actually being built, include figuring out how to re-enter the reflective findings and the feedback taken from one group of highly-imaginative and very professional dancers into a larger, more expansive model to be further amplified and applied.

By the end of our two conversations, one private and one public, I realized that Choreographic Thinking Tools are rippling and omnidirectional.

They are being built out of inspiration in order to inspire.

The Imminent Convergence of Cognitions at MSU – by Scott deLahunta, R-Research/Random Dance

Berlin, 3/15/11

Dear Neil: 

As you know from the conversations and meetings we have shared at Montclair State University during the past year, choreographer Wayne McGregor and I have been working together for a number of years researching the choreographic process with cognitive scientists. One of our aims has been to gain insight from their knowledge of the workings of the embodied mind that we might apply to the creative process of dance making. This collaborative research now follows three lines of enquiry (see the R-Research current projects; one of these is the Choreographic Thinking Tools (CTT) developed collaboratively with Dr. Phil Barnard

(Phil and I are actually sitting here right now, as I type this, putting the final touches on a jointly authored paper, Points in Mental Space, in which we are publishing some of the more experimental results of the CTT project in Dance Research Electronic.) 

Our first step with the Tools was to use them in the context of Wayne’s creative work with Wayne McGregor|Random Dance. The current step is to refine them so that they can be shared with others, and that’s why Jasmine Wilson, Antoine Vereecken and I are coming back to Montclair in the week of 11 April, to follow up on the pilot workshops we did in February this year. 

As you and I discussed in February, the relationship with Montclair State University and its Office of Arts and Cultural Programming is an essential part of our continuing and evolving research. We learned a lot during the sessions in February and will arrive with some new exercises to try out. It will be great to have another opportunity to work with the dance and acting students and exchange ideas with Lori Katterhenry, director of the College of the Arts Dance Program, and Debbie Saivetz, coordinator of the BA Theatre Studies Program.

Phil Barnard will be joining us that whole week and is looking forward to his chat with you on Wednesday 13 April at 2:30 in Life Hall for all of the Theatre and Dance students and faculty. 

We also will have the opportunity that week to interact with mathematicians and MFA visual artists at MSU to see how some of the same ideas of working with imagery might impact problem solving and creating thinking in other domains. And another of our collaborating science colleagues, Professor David Kirsh, will be sharing the research he has done with us on distributed choreographic creativity during the Brainstorm symposium on 12 April in the Kasser Theater. 

All the best to everyone at Montclair State, & looking forward to seeing you soon. 

Scott