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Looking Back to Move Forward: Staging Antony Tudor’s Continuo (1971) – by Elizabeth McPherson

Ribbon step-Continuo In the Fall of 2014, for the Dance Program here at Montclair State University, I staged Antony Tudor’s Continuo (1971), from the Labanotation score (a written form for documenting dance). The staging of Continuo was a meaningful experience for me on many levels. It connected my past, in terms of research and dance training, to my current students, who will be carrying dance into the future. It reconnected with my ballet background, even though I spend more time in the world of modern dancers today. And it was an opportunity to work closely with Lynne Grossman (a fellow Montclair State faculty member who served as rehearsal director) and our wonderful cast of student dancers.

Antony Tudor (1908-1987) is considered to be one of the choreographic geniuses of the 20th century. Born in England, he did not start studying dance until his teen years, eventually finding his way to Marie Rambert’s school in London and joining her company, The Ballet Club, in 1929. It was here that he choreographed two of his most enduring and revered works, Jardin aux Lilas (1936) and Dark Elegies (1937). The New York City-based Ballet Theatre, later called American Ballet Theatre, contracted Tudor to set three ballets for their 1939 season. He set sail for the USA a few weeks after Britain entered World War II, in one of the last civilian boats allowed to cross the Atlantic in normal passenger service. This began his long association with American Ballet Theatre. Tudor also spent many years teaching at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and The Juilliard School.

Often called the master of the psychological ballet, his style also extends beyond the psychological, which one can see in the more abstract Continuo. Tudor created his own steps, and ways of doing steps, that fall within the parameters of ballet but that do not quite precisely follow the traditional ballet lexicon. He was also known for not giving preparations for turns, lifts, and jumps, so that they seem to come from nowhere, creating fluid phrasing. His choreography is very difficult, but should look effortless.

Antony Tudor has fascinated me since my years as a student at Juilliard. He had been a colleague and/or teacher of many of my teachers there, including Alfredo Corvino, Laura Glenn, Linda Kent, Daniel Lewis, and Risa Steinberg. He died during my first year, and was often spoken about with great reverence and awe. As I gave thought to what I might want to stage at Montclair State for the Fall 2014 repertory season, my mind kept returning to Continuo. Originally choreographed for students at Juilliard, I first saw it performed by ABT’s Studio Company in 2008 at the 100th anniversary celebration of Tudor’s birth. Before the dance began that afternoon, I did not have high expectations; I thought it might be trite, given the music of Pachelbel’s overplayed Canon in D. Much to my delight, however, it was sheer poetry from beginning to end, as if the music had been composed for this dance alone.

I suggested Continuo as possible repertory to other Montclair State faculty, and all were intrigued but understandably concerned because the dance is onpointe, and we had never before done a pointe ballet at Montclair State. We had never even seen our students on pointe. I asked Lynne Grossman if she would help me with rehearsals as she had much experience dancing professionally on pointe. To begin with, we created a list of female Montclair State dancers whom we thought would be most likely to have strong enough pointe work, and sent an email to them over the summer, suggesting that they practice their pointe work if they would be interested in auditioning for the piece in September. The dance calls for a cast of three women and three men, and we were hoping to double cast.

September rolled around, and it was time to audition. Lynne and I ran the auditions during two of the slots for ballet classes, and students who wished to audition came to one of those two classes. Lynne and I began with a regular ballet barre to warm the students up and then asked the women to put on pointe shoes. We taught excerpts from the ballet, and began to see who would be most capable, best with partnering, and best able to embody the style and convey the expression of the dance. After the audition, Lynne and I had many lengthy discussions. We looked at heights of dancers and which men and women might work best together. There were a couple of issues with academic classes conflicting with rehearsals. We ended up with two full casts and three understudies (two women and one man), the cast members ranging from freshmen to seniors. They were all enthusiastic and dedicated throughout the process, remembering the details of choreography and timing with the precision of professional dancers. We generally only had one two-hour rehearsal a week, so quick learning and remembering was essential.

At the first rehearsal, I distributed an article on Antony Tudor that I wrote and published several years ago. [“Antony Tudor: Pillar of Twentieth Century Ballet.” Dance Teacher Magazine, August 2007: 105-106.] I wanted the students to begin by understanding the context of his career in the framework of dance history. I used primarily the Labanotation score to teach the dance, building upon the phrases that were taught at the audition and moving forward from there. Particularly to check spacing and partnering, I also used a video provided by the Dance Notation Bureau of Joffrey II performing Continuo as staged from the Labanotation score. There were occasional spots where the arms, for instance, were performed and documented differently in the video than in the notation. In these cases, I went with the notation score because that is the primary source used when staging a dance from Labanotation. In addition, this notation score did not have standard facing “pins,” which indicate the direction the dancer should be facing after a turn. With the numerous turns and turning lifts, I used the video to be sure of the spatial direction. Lynne and I counted at first, instead of using the music, slowly working up the dancers’ speed and confidence and then adding the music. MSU Dance faculty member Christian Von Howard assisted us with some of the partnering. Before long, the dance was complete, however, with time being short, the dancers were only able to run the full piece a couple of times before the date arrived for the coaches from the Tudor Trust to attend rehearsal.

The Tudor Trust owns the rights to all of Antony Tudor’s ballets. Because I staged the dance through Labanotation, our contract was with the Dance Notation Bureau in cooperation with the Tudor Trust. Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner were designated as our coaches by the director of the trust, Sally Bliss. They had both danced with American Ballet Theatre for many years, rising to the ranks of Principal and Soloist respectively, and they both knew and worked with Tudor. They also happen to be married! Our students, Lynne, and I had a wonderful learning experience with Amanda and John. They were relaxed and easygoing, but exacting. The version they knew differed slightly from the older, notated version, and so we worked together to decide what would be best for our students in the two extended rehearsals we had with them. Amanda and John were excited to see some of the characteristically “Tudor” steps that had gradually turned into more standard ballet steps through the years. They reminisced, told stories about Mr. Tudor, gave visual images, and worked on some of the partnering steps the students had not quite mastered. They nurtured the dancers to breathe life into the dance. A dance truly lives through performance, and Lynne and I began to see our dancers invest themselves fully into the lyric nature of the dance so that it became a living force, and not just steps strung together.

Montclair State faculty member Neil Baldwin interviewed Amanda and John on video one afternoon after rehearsal was over, and we were fortunate to hear more about their careers and their work with Antony Tudor. [*See below for link to the video.] He was a tough director, often pushing dancers to deep places emotionally, and not in a kind or gentle manner. Amanda and John indicated that they work to get the same depth from the dancers they coach and teach, but without using the harsher methods.

Our student costumer, Samantha LaScala, began attending rehearsals and measuring students. I saw a mock-up of the costumes a few weeks before the performance. The women’s costumes were made of blue chiffon with a pink skirt underneath, and the sleeves have a fluttery quality. They are based upon the original design by Lynn Hoffman, approved by Tudor.  A drawing of the dress along with fabric swatches had been included with the Labanotation score. Under Samantha’s direction, the dresses turned out beautifully. I talked with a friend of mine, Ani Udovicki, who had danced the ballet as a student at Juilliard, coached by Tudor, and she remembered that he told the dancers they should be “like angels.” The fluttery sleeves made much more sense to me in this anecdotal context, because the manner in which they were attached down the back of the dress looked a little like an abstract version of wings. The men wore white, peasant-like shirts with gray tights and matching gray ballet slippers. Our faculty lighting designer, David O. Smith, also attended rehearsals, working with the lighting information given in the Labanotation score.

In the tension of the final tech rehearsals, we could see that the dancers were understandably nervous; however, we could also see that they were dancing from the heart, and that the dance was there – the choreography was clear to see. As the director, it was a very emotional process for me to let the dance go, because in the end, it was the dancers up on the stage — not me. As the dancers moved into the regular run of performances (November 19-23, 2014), Lynne and I made sure that they ran the dance in the studio just before performing it. This allowed them to get in sync with their partners, and to ease into the fluid quality. Continuo was the opening piece of the night, so the first couple was the first on stage for the whole concert, responsible for setting the mood and general impression. A high-pressure task indeed!

Our students gave strong performances, full of integrity and meaning. There are, of course, nuances that Lynne and I plan to work on for the spring performances (Danceworks, April 8-12, 2015); however, it is a fact of life that dancers are always seeking a perfection that is never fully achievable. The beauty comes in pursuit of that excellence – being the best one can be in a given moment, live, on stage, with no re-takes. And the “best one can be” comes from repetition — in the studio, day after day, always working. Through that work and, ultimately, performance, our dancers will carry Antony Tudor’s valuable legacy forward.

Matt and Emma Continuo 3

Elizabeth McPherson is an associate professor and coordinator of the BA in Dance at Montclair State University. She received her BFA from Juilliard, followed by an MA from The City College of New York, and a PhD from New York University. The author of The Bennington School of the Dance: A History in Writings and Interviews and The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900-1995, she has also written articles and reviews for Ballet Review, Dance Teacher Magazine, Attitude: The Dancers’ Magazine and The Journal of Dance Education. She is the Executive Editor of the new journal Dance Education in Practice.

The focus of Dr. McPherson’s research is teaching and learning in dance education with an emphasis on history. She has particular expertise in oral interviews, which make up significant portions of both of her books. Dr. McPherson has staged numerous 20th century dance works from Labanotation and other sources. Recent projects include Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown and excerpts from Anna Sokolow’s Scenes from the Music of Charles Ives. She is a board member of the Martha Hill Dance Fund and on the professional advisory committee of the Dance Notation Bureau. Performance credits include: Ernesta Corvino’s Dance Circle Company, Avodah Dance Ensemble, and the Louis Johnson Dance Theatre.

[*Follow the link to see and hear Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner discuss Antony Tudor and the choreographic process: Continuo.]

[Photographs of Montclair State University students performing Continuo by Robert M. Cooper.]


A Director’s Wilderness – My Journey Through ‘Threepenny Opera’ – By Mark Hardy

[Mark Hardy is an Associate Professor at Montclair State University and teaches in the Musical Theatre BFA program in the Department of Theatre and Dance. Mark came to teaching after a long career as a professional actor on and off Broadway and in regional theatre. He continues to act and direct professionally. The Creative Research Center asked Mark to take over our “Guest Essay” column this month and recount his creative journey while in the throes of  preparing to direct the production of the Brecht/Weill The Threepenny Opera which ran at Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University to great acclaim from November 13-16, 2014.]

Colleagues have accused me of a proclivity for working on complex pieces with inherent difficulties, known in the field as “problem plays.” And I seem particularly to enjoy working on these with students, a prospect that sensible teacher/directors would avoid. Last year, I chose Take Flight, an unresolved and ambitious musical by Richard Maltby, David Shire, and John Weidman that interweaves the stories of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart in non-linear form. In recent years, I’ve also answered the call with the perennially-thorny Taming of the Shrew; the still-controversial and problematic Carousel with a mixed cast of professionals and students; Joe Orton’s stylistically diabolical Loot; the sprawling musical Titanic — on a modest budget; and the Lippa Wild Party with its confounding mixture of schizophrenic score and weak dramatic action. There’s something irresistible in wrestling with tough material in collaboration with student actors, designers, and stage managers. It asks the best of all of us in the rehearsal room every single day. It presents young designers with a host of creative questions.

All of art “is a messy job of work” in the making, as I wrote in an artist’s manifesto in graduate school years ago. I still find beauty in the challenge, in the mess. I like hard work. I like artistic struggles.

The Threepenny Opera is a notoriously challenging piece that I’ve been drawn to for years, although I’d never had the chance to work on it until I suggested we put it on our 2014/2015 season at Montclair State University. It is a polarizing musical. Nearly a year ago, I mentioned I’d be doing it to a Broadway conductor friend who replied, “Good luck with that – I’ve never seen it work.” A very experienced professional actor friend said, “Really? With undergraduates?” Apart from the song “Mack The Knife,” not one moment from Threepenny has been absorbed by popular culture. People seem to want to keep it at arm’s length. Theatre artists tend to admire it – even if some say they’re not sure they like it – and certainly recognize its importance in theatre history as a groundbreaking, game-changing work. But most producers avoid it like a ticket-selling plague.

And most audiences, as with Sondheim’s brilliant A Little Night Music (another favorite of mine), tend to run in the other direction. Threepenny is didactic. It testifies. It aims to startle, engage, challenge, mock, unsettle, even attack. It commingles outrage and farce. This is not at all what Americans have been taught to want or like in musicals. We’ve been coached to want the package pretty and the story resolved. We’ll take irony, but we like it better with puppets. We want our catharsis clear, complete with a lesson that we can walk away from feeling contentment and resolution. Yet Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill set out to rattle such conventions as they persisted nearly 100 years ago. Isn’t it reassuring that their funny, frightening, intentionally misshapen artistic lovechild remains so subversive and uncomfortable? You have to admire its persistence.

It helps to like what you direct — and I like Threepenny’s features, like one of those unforgettably ugly/beautiful faces you see in the films of Almodovar and John Waters. The score is gorgeous and disturbing by turns, the forms are recognizable enough to (almost) allow us some comfort before knocking us off balance, and the characters and action are built to foil any hope of predictability. Words like “pleasant” and “lovely” have no home here. It’s mean and base and odd and true. Its young, brash creators set out to shake us out of complacency, to provoke us to sit forward in our seats. There’s a time to feel comforted and refreshed in the theatre and there’s a time to feel… well, not.

Long before facing the extreme challenges of performance style with an inexperienced cast, my job was to form an overall production concept and refine it with student designers. My private work began well over a year ahead, and my work with the designers began in earnest seven months before rehearsals started. I followed my usual way of beginning. After letting the material wash over me for a time, I focused upon what I wanted to avoid in this production. I identified the show’s traps and what had not worked well in previous productions. I’m tired of an “Aren’t we so edgy?” approach to musicals like Cabaret, both versions of The Wild Party, Rent, Urinetown, Sweeney Todd, Spring Awakening, etc. (none of which might exist without Threepenny’s shoulders to stand upon). The point is the action of the play, not a self-reflective attitude or self-conscious trappings. Therefore, I wanted any choices we made to come from the script and score rather than from any sensational manipulation tactics.

Two key qualities were very clear from the start: the material of Threepenny sounds very fresh, as if it might just have been written; and the piece cannot breathe without humor. Research led me to Nadine Gordimer’s Foreword to a newly-published edition of the play in which she speaks passionately about the show’s universality and timelessness, not least because the social ills it directly addresses have only intensified since its creation. Gordimer convinced me that especially for us, in a university setting, and with an audience almost entirely new to this work, the show needed to be set precisely now. Nothing important in the piece roots it to Edwardian London. Certainly the original Berlin production did not adhere to period details in any way. Nor did the very successful off-Broadway production in 1954, which launched the work to an American audience.

The fact is that Threepenny is a reworking of a 1728 musical phenomenon called The Beggar’s Opera, an outrageous spoof of the genre’s conventions directly satirizing the society and government of its day. The problem with period detail in costume, prop, and set design is that it can have the opposite effect of leading people to identify with the action on stage; rather, it can lead them to think, “How very different things were then!” It can become too easy for an audience to separate from what’s on stage when the coats and cups and curtains they see are exotic. The point of The Threepenny Opera is that the audience recognize what they see as an expression of what is around them in the culture, even when much of it is unpleasant. I have come to question what I call museum productions of period plays – productions that set historical accuracy above action. Young audiences, in particular, are often rightfully bored by these shows, because they instinctively understand the whole point of theatre is to see things happen, not to watch mere behavior or period accuracy. Two important questions to ask when considering moving the period of a theatrical work are: “Will it hurt the work?” and “What will it do for the work?” In our environment, I hoped it would lead to connection. As for the setting in London, I saw no reason to change this. Location is embedded in the text of scenes and songs that I would not be comfortable rewriting (and legally can’t); and there is a particular irony in this most uncivilized story taking place in what many consider the most civilized city in the world. I did choose, however, to dispense with English accents in the service of universality. As with Shakespeare, the setting is an idea with particular, poetic meaning, but is not a determinate of acting choices. German-born Lotte Lenya, the greatest interpreter of this material, certainly never bothered with an English accent. Imagine if we had to suffer through mandatory Greek accents in Oedipus and Russian accents in The Seagull. I’d be the first to run screaming from the theatre.

The challenge I set before us as a design team is what I called “re-Brechting”: a way of pursuing Brecht’s goals within a contemporary theatre dialectic. Brecht – and Weill, as well as Brecht’s grievously-overlooked collaborator, Elizabeth Hauptmann – used specific techniques that sought to rattle and rally the audience. They wanted to undermine the audience’s expectation of going to a musical, replacing received convention with a new kind of theatre that would engage the audience in social change, rather than palliate through mere emotional responses. They wanted the audience to think and take action in the world outside the theatre. Brecht’s techniques and philosophies have hugely influenced modern theatre, even very commercial musical works like A Chorus Line, The Fantasticks, and Les Miserables. With this awareness in mind, the Brechtian hallmarks that I brought to design meetings were: frequent direct address to the audience, often in confrontational ways; the use of signs to announce scenes and songs, creating stops in the action for reflection; the clear separation of songs from the action of scenes, breaking down the pretense that singing is speaking; constant reminders that this is a performance, preventing the audience from losing itself in the emotion of scenes and instead encouraging thought; a recurring subversion of traditional musical and script form as a way of keeping the audience in a state of awareness and surprise (even to the point of uncomfortably inconclusive endings to songs and scenes at times); unabashed delivery of clear moral messages; the complete lack of a hero or heroine — instead, in fact, an entire cast of antagonists; and a stark theatricality directly related to message rather than to a pleasing aesthetic.

Our challenge was complicated by the additional cultural reality that Brecht’s signatures – rudimentary, exposed lighting; simple, unrefined scenic elements and props; matter-of-fact, workaday costumes; a cabaret environment of barest necessities – have become tropes in theatre production. What was startlingly bold and daring in 1928 looks quaint to a contemporary audience. Riffing on the grandeur of opera production, we settled on a large urban ruin with many levels that reminded the audience that they were looking at a set in a theatre. We not only revealed the backstage space surrounding the set, we lit it and removed the usual masking that insulates the audience from backstage workings. As a way of unsettling the space, we contrasted the elegance of the Kasser Theatre with a distressed concrete environment that was an intentionally vague location. It could be an abandoned interior or exterior one might find in any city in the world, save for its London-specific graffiti. We used the same guiding idea to shape the costume design: modern clothing that was at once theatrical and familiar, which told the audience that these were characters constructed to make a point, not personalities to get lost in. We kept the musicians in the pit in a high position, just at the level of the audience seats rather than lowered out of sight, so that spectators would see the action somewhat through the musicians, through the score. We lit the musicians to include them in the picture, another reminder that this was a self-aware performance. I also asked for a bridge between the stage and the theatre house: a wide platform that stepped down gradually from the edge of the stage to the house floor to be used in moments of particular confrontation between actors and audience.

With the cast, the primary challenge was performance style. While the aesthetic demanded a fresh take to power the intent of the piece, the demands upon actors in The Threepenny Opera have remained constant for over 100 years. The universal ideal is that all actors serve the plays they’re in rather than themselves. But here’s a play that utterly falls apart if the cast is not entirely unified in a specific style of performance, a style foreign to young actors and, indeed, even a struggle for professionals who approach this material. The actors must use muscular vocal production in speech and song that sacrifices the voice to the word at all times; erase the standard modern musical theatre pretense that the shift from speech to song is natural and subtle; step in and out of the action by breaking the fourth wall (the imaginary boundary between actor and audience) often and in different ways, including completely stepping out of character at times; employ a large, archetypal size in performance that remains human rather than caricature (harder than it sounds for a group that has grown up with filmic naturalism); maintain the identity of actor while portraying character as a way to remain somewhat removed from character (what Brecht called the “distancing effect”). This last demand flies in the face of mainstream modern acting – which insists on immersion into character, into fooling the audience that we actually are who we say we are – and proved the most difficult of all because it contradicts what students learn in most acting classes. The identity of artist as activist in the moment of performance is not a role most of our students have ever considered, let alone experienced.

We were all duly humbled before these demands, and I must admit that the actors were utterly lost for the first weeks of rehearsal. So many wanted a way a way to “get it right” immediately, as if I could offer quick answers to problems that any actor would struggle with mightily. It is sometimes a trait of this wonderful young generation that they want a speedy road to approval or success, a magic bullet. But there are no shortcuts in art. I took great pains to remind them of this. We talked often about struggle and the power of experimentation. I admitted that all of us in the room were struggling, and that this might in fact be very helpful in a piece that is largely about struggle. We made connections between issues and characters in the play and what was going on around us in the world. I urged patience, another trait many young people today have not been encouraged to develop. I tried to help them understand that what we were after was their interpretation of this play, their message, as well as Brecht and Weill’s — or mine. We talked about the power of a personal stake in their work vs. generic actor “energy.” We discussed the importance of risk and of performance costing the actor something. There were many uncomfortable nights and a lot of frustration, even among the advanced actors, many of whom said things like, “I’ve never worked on something this hard before” and “I understand it intellectually, but not how to do it.” Yet slowly, rather late in the rehearsal process, moments began to land. Actors began to breathe into their roles and truly play the action. They began to have fun inside the material. And something like an authentic point of view emerged.

Getting into the theatre for technical rehearsals – where everything comes together (or not!) – is a fragile and monumental event in every production, large or small. Goodhearted colleagues like to say to panicking directors, “Oh, it will come together – it always does!” No sane director will ever believe this. A massive, multi-level set, scores of costumes and props, a lot of tricky lighting cues, twenty-six young and green actors, a pit full of student musicians playing a Weill score, a student crew running the whole works, and a show that has never been on the list of “perfect” musicals (those that seem bulletproof no matter what) do not feel by any stretch of the imagination like “it’s going to be okay.” But tech time is magical for the actors and crew, because at last they see what everyone has been describing for months, and, in a rush, things make sense. The students heroically process all kinds of new information, making myriad adjustments. I can help them, of course, but they have to galvanize this monster through an act of will and trust.

This is what we theatre people mean when we talk about the “high” of our world. It’s not the applause, the rush at the end of the night when the audience says, “I love you!” That’s too easy, but that’s what it seems to be from the outside. We just let civilians think that, because this other thing – like a drug — is too hard to describe. Sondheim said it best through a lyric he gave Georges Seurat in the masterful Sunday in the Park with George: “Look I made hat. Where there never was a hat.” In the theatre it’s “hat-by-mob.” This takes guts and a healthy dose of essential idealism. It’s nerve-wracking at times and it feels like danger. It can also be unspeakably fun as discoveries are made. And fun is central to art. I often remind my students in classes and rehearsals that for hundreds of years until the mid-20th century, the word “play” was used instead of “act” much more than it is today. We still use it a bit: “I’m playing a role” or “I want to play Hamlet.” But we never hear “What are you playing tonight?” or “What’s playing in the Kasser next season?” any more. We have a lot of definitions for “acting” but we don’t talk of “playing” as the same thing. We should. I recall hearing an NPR interview a few years ago in which a sociologist stated that pornography had become so widespread because most people in first and second world cultures never encounter wilderness; he saw the hunger for wilderness as the need many were trying to satisfy so unsuccessfully in pornography. If only we could get them to engage with the wilderness of art. Of course, to do this, we’d have to make sure we had wild art to offer.

People ask me what my next project is. I can honestly say that now I want to do The Music Man or Gypsy or You Can’t Take It With You, or some such bulletproof work that will not keep me up into the wee hours or find me re-staging what I did in yesterday’s rehearsal. I will do them somewhere, probably not at MSU, and I will play and delve and love it. But since we have not announced our Theatre and Dance season for the coming academic year, I’m not going to be the mole who gives you the title I’m already wrestling with. It’s a small show that enjoyed a modest Broadway run some time ago. It’s imperfect and beautiful, with a rather high style that will confound students at first. It will be a design puzzle and will frustrate the actors. The singing is hard.

I can’t wait to see what we do with it.

Mark Hardy – December 11, 2014.


Harry W. Haines on The Vietnam War Forty Years Later – W.D. Ehrhart on Today’s Unlearned Lessons

[Harry W. Haines is a Professor in the School of Communication & Media at Montclair State University. He was born in Mount Holly, New Jersey and was drafted in 1969, one day after he completed his last requirement for his bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. After his military service, he worked as a reporter and earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in Communication at the University of Utah. For twenty years, he taught a very popular course on the Vietnam War, and he has written critical analyses of films, television series, memorials, art works, etc., that help give meaning to the American experience in Vietnam. He is writing a memoir about his experience as a gay anti-war draftee in Vietnam during 1970-1971.  Here, he explains the impetus for the memoir.]

Two self-disclosures revealed Mitt Romney’s sense of self in the last presidential campaign. The infamous “47%” recording, made by a bartender at a fund raising event, clarified Romney’s sense of social class privilege and his apparent contempt for the American middle-class, struggling under the economic policies imposed on them by his social class since the Reagan Administration. The other self-disclosure failed to get the extensive media play that the surreptitious video received, but it should have. At least, many of my fellow Vietnam vets agree with me that it should have. It was Romney’s bizarre statement that he “longed” to go to Vietnam as a young man but, for some reason, was compelled instead to go to Paris on his Mormon Mission.

As a follow-up, his wife added a few days later that missionary work is very much like military experience, because both assignments offer young men an opportunity to find themselves, to become mature adults. “Unless they get sent home in a body bag,” my Army buddy Thomas Jeffrey Roberts, deceased, would have said. Cue the sniggers of aging vets.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, it’s still weird being a Vietnam War veteran in this country. To respond to the insulting statements by Romney and his wife, even if a veterans group or, as in my case, a mouthy academic with a chip on his shoulder, could find a media outlet that might regard a response as newsworthy, would have risked the label of whiney old fart, still crazy after all these years. It’s over. Let it go. We have a new cohort of vets to worry about. And a sizable percentage of young Americans now believe that the sacrifices we made in Vietnam were actually worth it, even necessary. “How many times do we have to say ‘Welcome Home’ to you guys before you shut up?”

In this postmodern revisionist environment, in which we are often thanked for what we did in Vietnam, the public memory of our actual lived experience begins to lose political currency. I have lost track of the number of times that I have been told, sometimes by well-meaning young vets of the current conflagrations, some of the most righteous men and women I have met in my life, that the Vietnam War was winnable, that we were robbed of victory by craven politicians, that we were betrayed by the same Congress that betrayed the South Vietnamese army, that civilian anti-war activists harassed us at airports and spat upon our uniforms as we returned to The World. And slowly the Vietnam War as a cautionary tale of hubris, corruption, and imperialist aggression begins to evaporate like one of those circular fade-outs in an old silent movie, replaced by myth.

I fear that the public memory of the Vietnam War has been hijacked to rationalize a new phase of aggression that began with our action in Kuwait and was heightened by the invasion of Iraq, the event that destabilized much of the so-called Middle East and determined that another generation (actually, a very small percentage of another generation) would have long-term deployments and redeployments in wars that might easily go on for decades. And, unlike the Vietnam War era, the enemy may actually turn up on our doorstep. Curiously, the people who got us immersed continue to be interviewed on our television receivers as if they retained credibility. We don’t live in times that are simply dangerous; we live in times that are seemingly absurd.

When the Iraq invasion began, I was teaching at a fine liberal arts institution that attracted some of the brightest students in the country, many of them from families that would not have been offended by Romney’s “47%” gaff. In an attempt to silence what was then a very large anti-war movement, the slogan “Support Our Troops” was employed by supporters of the invasion, inferring that opposition to the invasion equaled denigration of our soldiers, harkening back to the supposed and utterly mythological belief that Vietnam vets were spat upon as we disembarked from the Freedom Birds. I happened to get caught up in an exchange of letters in the campus newspaper with a few male students, all of them hawks. Some of them visited me in my office. I suggested to a couple of them that they might support the troops by actually joining them. “No, sir,” one told me, “We can’t do that. We’re down for law school next year.” I immediately thought of this exchange when I first read that Mitt Romney had “longed” to join us in Vietnam and that other commitments prevented him from making the flight.

And so, admittedly, my decision to embark upon the writing of a Vietnam War memoir originates in the big chip that still rests on my shoulder, increased in weight by the current set of dangerous circumstances, brought about by privileged members of my generation who may have “longed” to join in our great adventure in Southeast Asia, but who were noticeably absent from the roll call. I have no delusions that my little tale will turn the tide against the revisionist onslaught against the actual experience and the lived politics of the Vietnam War, but I am certain that it will help shed some light on two aspects of the war that belong in the record.

First, the gay American soldier’s experience in Vietnam is practically absent from the war literature. I happily discovered that U.S. forces were simply loaded with gay guys, so my own story is hardly definitive. But it is a gay story, let me tell you! During the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era, I provided friends with amusing anecdotes about escapades from Nha Trang to Saigon. Quite honestly, I came out of the closet while a young man in a combat zone. In fact, I insisted on declaring my sexual orientation in Vietnam, because the Army had made me an honorary heterosexual just in order to draft me. At my induction physical, I checked off “homosexual tendencies” only because “homosexual orientation” wasn’t on the questionnaire. Warm bodies were needed in 1969, and I was drafted on the spot. And, to my delight, sexuality merged with politics in the war zone.

Second, by the time I arrived in Vietnam in 1970, command had broken down in several areas, not only where we REMFs* were located, but out in the field, where it really counted. For us, the breakdown meant the refusal of orders and the development of gangs in uncounted units, often along the lines that Oliver Stone accurately portrayed in Platoon. Recall the hooch where Wilhem Defoe teaches Charlie Sheen how to smoke dope using a rifle, the quintessential cinematic portrayal of a “shotgun hit.” That hooch was my address in Vietnam. There were other addresses, many of them quite unfriendly and potentially dangerous. I feared many of my fellow soldiers more than I feared the Vietnamese, even though we had much to fear from the locals as the war cascaded to victory for Hanoi.

The breakdown in command accompanied an amorphous anti-war movement among the troops that threatened battle-readiness not just in Vietnam, but throughout the world, including West Germany. The evidence is clear that Nixon’s decision to start pulling out U.S. troops was based, in part, on the conclusion that we could no longer be relied upon to follow orders. This is a major aspect of our country’s history in the Vietnam War, and it formed the context of my lived experience there. I want to give insight into this collective, oppositional consciousness that helped determine the outcome of the war.  At the age of 70, I want to bear witness to it.

[*The acronym REMF stands for “Rear Echelon Mother Fucker,” the term used derisively, and quite understandably, by combat soldiers to label the fortunate sons, including Haines, posted to relatively safe non-combat medical and support units.]

* * * * *

W.D. Ehrhart’s work is among the most important literature shaped by the American experience of the Vietnam War and the post-war struggles of his generation. He is a Marine combat vet whose early poetry appeared in the legendary collection, Winning Hearts and Minds. Although he never intended to be labeled a “Vietnam War writer,” critics—and his fellow veterans—regard him as a major voice in the ongoing attempt to make sense of what the Vietnamese call the American War. He is the author of several collections of poetry and of three memoirs, titled Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir, Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War, and Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America. His many essays focus on contemporary political and social issues. The recently published collection of critical essays, titled The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: Essays on the Life and Writing of W.D. Ehrhart, edited by Jean-Jacques Mal, is available from McFarland & Company. Ehrhart teaches English and history at the Haverford School and lives in suburban Philadelphia. His work is widely used throughout the world in university courses about the war’s history and its aftermath. – H.H.]

Where the Dangers Lie

            The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is violent, fanatical, barbaric, brutal, intolerant, and . . . add whatever other adjectives you’d like to throw in.  I won’t argue that these characterizations are not true.  But over the summer and into the fall, I have watched and listened with increasing dismay to the shifting sands of the US approach to the situation.

            Not so many months ago, we were assured that the US would not get drawn into another war in the Middle East.  But all through the summer and into the fall came an endless barrage of stories about Yazidis being raped and buried alive by ISIS, and the horrifying videos of Americans and other Europeans being savagely beheaded by ISIS, and the failures of the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries to stem the advance of ISIS.

            The drumbeat for US intervention among US policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits began to grow louder and more insistent, and now the US is regularly sending airstrikes and drone attacks against the ISIS forces.  Airstrikes, but no more, we were assured.  This minimal military involvement, however, does not seem to be working, says counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, who argues that we should put “boots on the ground” by embedding “teams of combat advisers with” Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIS.

            A year ago most Americans had never even heard of ISIS, yet now the US is once again militarily embroiled in a war in the Middle East.  What if we send US advisors and they prove to be ineffective, as they have proved to be over and over again ever since 1961—including in Iraq in the past decade?  Will we then have no choice but to send in the Marines?

            Of course, we’re not doing this alone.  Secretary of State John Kerry says that 40 nations have offered to join our coalition, though he adds, “It’s not appropriate to start announcing” which nations will participate and what each will do.  One remembers G. W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” that included such nations as Albania, Latvia, the Fiji Islands, and the Dominican Republic, and can only wonder which nations belong to our coalition this time.

            Back in 1990, when Saddam Hussein accused the Kuwaitis of slant-drilling and stealing his oil, the US ambassador to Iraq told Saddam that the US “does not take sides in Arab-Arab disputes.”  What would you make of that if you were Saddam?  Only after he acted on what appeared to any reasonable person to be a Green Light from the US did the US decide that putting the Emir of Kuwait back on his gold-plated toilet was a moral imperative.

            We were told by a tearful young girl that Iraqi soldiers tore Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and threw the babies to the floor.  Only much later did we learn that the “eyewitness” turns out to have been the Kuwaiti ambassador’s daughter, who was coached in her testimony before Congress by the same public relations firm that had handled George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election campaign.  Her testimony could not be and has never been corroborated.

            Meanwhile, the vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard turned out to be a bunch of rag-tag peasant draftees who were far more eager to run away than to fight Americans.  American audiences were never shown The Highway of Death by the American media, but the rest of the world saw it.  You want to talk bloodthirsty savagery?  Google “Highway of Death” and see what you get.

            And a year later, no less a person than George Will—no bleeding-heart liberal—admitted that the Kuwaitis had been doing exactly what Saddam had said they were doing: stealing Iraqi oil.

            Before the US started putting boots on the ground in the Middle East in August 1990, Iraq was a stable country.  Syria was a stable country.  Libya was a stable country.  Not happy places, to be sure.  But stable.  And secular.  Al Qaida didn’t exist.  ISIS didn’t exist.

            Almost a quarter of a century later, with the US 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain, US air bases in Saudi Arabia, and US army bases in Kuwait, how is the Middle East doing?  After eight years of US boots on the ground in Iraq, how is Iraq doing?  After thirteen years of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan, how is Afghanistan doing?  How is Libya doing after being liberated from Muammar Gaddafi with significant help from the US?  Have we neutralized al-Qaida?  How can ISIS be so effective a fighting force with no air force, no navy, no Pentagon, and no assistance from any major world power while those on whose behalf we want to expend American treasure and American blood can’t defend themselves without our help?

            For that matter, where did al-Qaida come from?  Isn’t al-Qaida the direct descendant of those Afghan mujahideen the US so gleefully armed and funded against the Soviet Union back in the 1980s?  Isn’t ISIS a direct outgrowth of al-Qaida?

            Do we never seem to notice the Iron Law of Unintended Consequences playing itself out over and over again?  Do we not notice that the United States of America cannot make the world behave as we would wish?

            I am not arguing that what is happening in the Middle East is anything other than a disaster for those who are living in the midst of it.  I am not arguing that ISIS deserves a seat in the United Nations.  But I am asking: how much more damage are we going to do in the process of trying to fix the damage we have already done?  How many more enemies will we make trying to kill the ones we’ve already made?  Will the Middle East be better off after we have intervened once again?

            Finally, which is the greater threat to our national security?  Al-Qaida or a crumbling infrastructure of highways, bridges, and tunnels, leaking municipal water systems, and an ancient electrical grid.  ISIS or failing public schools, understaffed hospitals, and overcrowded prisons?  Afgan Taliban or a national debt of nearly $18,000,000,000,000 and rising every day by $2,450,000,000?  Islamist jihadis or a dysfunctional Congress gerrymandered beyond any possibility of compromise?

            We cannot bend the world into the shape we desire through military might, or by any other means for that matter, and our attempts to do so have failed time and time again.  Yet we seem to remain, as a people, as gullible as ever, once again stampeded into winless war by leaders so besotted by the hammer of American military might that they persist in seeing every problem in the world as a nail.


Risky Business – The Alexander Kasser Theater, 2004-2014 – by Jedediah Wheeler

At risk.

Risky business.

Risk taker.

Risk averse.

No risk programming, please.

Risk is a loaded word in our culture.

Why take a risk?

Is there a safe way to take a risk?

Let’s be safe, please.

Yet, risk does have its rewards.

Ten years ago, The Alexander Kasser Theater opened.  Quite a lot of risk has flowed under the bridge – even if it is a stage light bridge.

To fathom where we have arrived today, we should consider where we were in 2004.  The Alexander Kasser Theater was nearing completion. An opening date had been set for October 7th.  In July of 2004, there was no Office of Arts & Cultural Programming. No Peak Performances. And no staff. Not even any office space to manage the opening of a new theater, let alone the proposed debut season!

Today, the Kasser is a celebrated addition to the cultural life of the Montclair State University campus as well as the region, with recognizable impact throughout the country and the world. The National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey Arts Council have offered major public commendations to MSU for its innovative programming.  Two major foundations have underwritten the Kasser’s breakout programs that support both the creation of new work and the education of MSU students.

What are the basic ingredients for an innovative presenting program?

Possibility.  Opportunity.  Permission.

Its hallmarks were apparent from the first season. Mikhail Baryshnikov “acted” in a theater work, not a dance work. Vim Vandekeybus showed how film could enhance dance as an active element of the performance, as his dancers magically jumped in and out of a cinematic swimming pool.  Robert Lepage reimagined The Beggars Opera and in doing so drew criticism for his politically incorrect ideas.  And a completely new production of Harry Partch’s Oedipus — a brilliantly-conceived work that had not been seen in decades — was built, rehearsed and performed.

The program did not merely inch into gear. It roared like a dragster at a speedway!

The performance work offered at the Kasser is designed to set a very high bar. Hence the name of the series: Peak Performances.  Arts & Cultural Programming is a research unit empowered to encourage discovery.  From day one, the hardest task was to encourage a doubting audience to put aside its cultural assumptions and experience something new, with open eyes and ears.

The artists of our day suffer enormously because new work is often assumed to be inscrutable. No one wants to say, “I do not understand.”  But shouldn’t questions dominate at an institution of higher education?

Each person who enters the Kasser for a Peak show has the capacity to experience the work being presented.  Culturally, however, we seek answers which filter the experience. Our culture teaches that to enjoy a performance, one must “get it.” If one does not get it, then there is something wrong —  with that person! Self-conscious doubt closes the door of opportunity!

New is a complex word, considering it has only three letters.

New suit.

New smartphone.

New car.

New toothpaste.

How about a new dance? Or new music?  Or new theater?  Nope. Much rather have that old dance. The one everyone knows about.  Or that play Arthur Miller wrote a long time ago. About a salesman.  “If you want to sell a gizmo, slap the word new on it,” Willy might say!  If you want to empty a theater, call the work “new.”

Experimental or avant-garde performance work has had a rocky history in the Garden State. MSU changed that. The agenda unleashed at MSU was unprecedented — a huge risk.  But how does culture move forward if not by challenging conventional wisdom? The seminal artists of our time who will remain benchmarks of our cultural heritage did not take audience surveys before making a performance. Not Merce Cunningham. Not Martha Graham. Not John Adams. Not John Cage or Robert Rauschenberg.

To compound the complicated issue of local cultural relevance, the program at the Kasser needed to settle into the national presenting arena and underscore MSU as a leading arts institution unlike any other.  Major universities such as Dartmouth, University of Michigan, and UCLA have enviable presenting programs.  But few, if any, make performance work from scratch.

The rollout of our current celebration of works “Made in the Kasser” actually started that first season with Harry Partch’s Oedipus.  In our second season, we invited Bill T. Jones to make a new work here. At varied intervals that totaled six weeks, Jones created Blind Date.  The magic of the Kasser began to reveal itself.  The potent relationship of audiences to stage and that stage’s luxurious production possibilities ignited a fierce energy that continues to this day.

In other instances we produced and presented works such as David Lang’s luminous chamber opera, The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, David Gordon’s magical romp Shlemiel the First by Robert Brustein, based upon a story by I. B. Singer.  More recently, ACP/Peak produced what is now considered a masterwork: Dog Days by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, directed by Robert Woodruff. And Robert Wilson’s Zinnias: The Life of Clementine Hunter for the Kasser, was that great artist’s first work made in America in 20 years.

Many professionals made works with MSU students onstage at the Kasser. Michael Osuilleabhain and Page Allen’s choral work, Madison’s Descent, was designed by Michael Curry and staged by David Bolger. Works by Meredith Monk, Robert Whitman, Doug Elkins, and Douglas Dunn followed suit.

What is the perfect ecosystem for new ideas to flourish? A risk-embracing place, one that supports a performing arts presenting program specializing in the new.  An institution of higher education with an investment in marquee ideas.

Montclair State University is that place!

- Jedediah Wheeler, Executive Director, Arts & Cultural Programming




About Mindfulness Pedagogy: in advance of the 5th Annual Research Academy for University Learning Teaching & Learning Showcase on May 2nd – by Julie Dalley

April 29, 2014

Dear Neil,

In anticipation of our Fifth Annual Research Academy for University Learning Teaching & Learning Showcase this coming Friday,  thank you for your interest in mindfulness pedagogy (also called contemplative pedagogy, or contemplative science) and its practice in higher education.  My own teaching practice attempts to always take a compassionate and contemplative approach, and, as a student of mindfulness pedagogy, here is what I know.

First, I must acknowledge that, while we are seeing an upswing in attention to how mindfulness and higher education intersect — (The New York Times has covered mindfulness in the classroom herehere, and here; The Chronicle of Higher Ed highlights this practice here; and NPR had a recent story available here) – mindfulness is founded upon historical and ingrained cultural and spiritual traditions developed long ago. Now considered secular, contemplative pedagogy has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman societies and borrows heavily from venerable Asian wisdoms: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. There are also many Christian and Judaic spiritual traditions that use meditative or contemplative practices as a form of reaching deep understanding and cultivating heightened attention to ourselves and our relationships with others.

Mindfulness is concerned with our inner selves, cultivating mind and spirit to reach a deeper understanding of who we are, what is important in life and in our relationships with others, and what intrinsic values we uphold as worthy of our attention and development. It encourages an intuitive development of self,  practicing deep attention and focus, and opening awareness that promotes self-compassion, peace, non-anxiety (or reduced anxiety), and social cohesiveness.

In higher education today, we seek to transfer these same practices of deep insight and meditation to our students in order that they can focus more upon things that have value to them and to their communities, and thereby be less distracted by superficial and stress-inducing concerns coming at them from all sides. We teach students to gently and without judgment push away thoughts, distractions, and negative attachments (anger, sadness, jealousy, hatred) so that they can begin to focus on their studies, their health, and their communities.

We can’t learn when we are too focused on things that prevent learning;  indeed, these factors can prevent us from honoring diverse perspectives and ideas.  My colleague Michael Lees argues that, “If a college campus as a microcosm thrives, then academic achievement rises. If academic achievement flourishes, then a fully functioning living system such as a healthy college campus now has the opportunity to take life and learning to the macrocosm and succeed in the global community” (Lees, 4). This is why there has been a renewed interest in contemplative pedagogy; there is a concern in higher education that students lack the skills necessary to “turn off” or, as Sherry Turkle puts it, “untether” themselves from the increasingly dominant and superficial demands for our attention (cf. Chapter 9 of Turkle’s book Alone Together, Basic Books, 2012. ) You can also view a fascinating interview with Turkle here, which discusses her research on how technology actually increases our solitude and our inability to focus on relationships.

The beauty of contemplative pedagogy and practice is that it is interdisciplinary, and benefits both faculty and students. We focus on the now, we attend to ourselves – our physical, emotional, and mental health – and each other, and we concentrate on what matters most to us and learn to push away ideas or distractions that compete for our attention (incoming text messages, constant Twitter feed, work email, Instagram post). This isn’t simply a science that we impose on students to generate better learning (putting it on them, so to speak), but a way of being that we as teachers adapt ourselves, in order to generate excellence in teaching and deeper, more engaged, learning. Ultimately, it is un-crowding our mind, allowing time for reflection and insight, and honing our focus, that we model and sometimes practice with our students.  Here and here are just two examples of the new research that pointedly reveals the benefit to teachers who practice mindfulness. 

You asked about what we are doing at Montclair State University to forward and promote this pedagogy.  At the Research Academy, we have a very active faculty and staff Fellows Program involved with generating discussion, promoting contemplative pedagogy and practice on campus, and designing and implementing new research in the field.

The following is an example of just one small exercise I use to get students to focus on the present moment, and that they find very illuminating and fun.  At the beginning of each semester, I ask my Freshman Writing students to scroll through their texting history and estimate how many texts they send in a day.  In some cases, they couldn’t even estimate how many, as it was well into the hundreds.  I then ask them to write down who they texted most. Usually it was about 5-10 of the same people, all day long (mostly parents and girlfriend/boyfriend). Then I ask to them to look at their texts. What was the most common topic, or exchange? Surprisingly, they were very mundane texts, saying little. Most students couldn’t even recall what they texted to each other. It was a form of communication that existed just to establish or reinforce a connection, but it communicated very little. This exercise was very illuminating to my students, because it showed them how much time and energy they put into a practice they had never stopped to question. It also gave them the chance to do a piece of reflective writing about something that was entirely relevant to their lives.

Hopefully this brief letter will generate some curiosity about the contemplative pedagogy movement, and readers will reach out to me or my colleagues to ask questions or get involved at their own institutions. The exercise I shared above is one of hundreds of ways that educators can introduce more mindful instruction in their classrooms, but the first step is generally adopting a contemplative practice of our own.  Our 5th Annual University Teaching and Learning Showcase on Friday, May 2, 2014  will feature keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Barbezat, arguably the most popular and well-known “face” of contemplative pedagogy in higher education.

Below are some key articles in this field that will inspire and provide more knowledge about this growing pedagogy. Thank you to the Creative Research Center, as always, for being interested in the work of the Research Academy, and for asking the right questions.

– Julie Dalley  – Assistant Director, Research Academy for University Learning

Select Bibliography 

Barbezat, Daniel and Mirabai Bush. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Print.

Brown, Richard C. “Inner to Outer: The Development of Contemplative Pedagogy.” Naropa University. Web. 20 April 2014.

Flook, Lisa, Goldberg, Simon, Pinger, Laura, Bonus, Katherine, and Davidson, Richard J. “Mindfulness for Teachers: A Pilot Study to Assess Effects on Stress, Burnout, and Teaching Efficacy.” Mind, Brain, and Education. 7:3 (2013), pp. 182-195. Print.

Langer, Ellen. The Power of Mindful Learning. New York: De Capo Press, 1998.

Lees, Michael. “Example Program Evaluation and Benefits of Educational Research: Ecoliteracy, Sustainability, and the 21st Century College.” Walden University, August 2013.

Palmer, Parker. “The Violence of Our Knowledge: On Higher Education and Peace Making.” Transcript of public lecture given at University of Wisconsin-Madison (November 29, 2001). Web. 20 April 2014.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.

Zajonc, Arthur. “Contemplative and Transformative Pedagogy.” Kosmos. V:1 (Fall/Winter 2006). Web. 20 April 2014.

Zajonc, Arthur, and Parker J. Palmer. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

[Julie Dalley enjoys an expansive academic background and extensive study of the position of women in society, historically and in present day. Her research has branched into the fields of rhetoric, rhetoric in fictional narrative, and the rhetorical situation of women writers and gender bias in the literary establishment. Her work is primarily focused upon gender issues in writing development, as well as analyzing the rhetorical writing space of all marginalized communities, including gay/queer, racial, ethnic, and transgender rhetorical discourse. Within this field, she has developed a growing relationship with how teachers can approach social issues from a more mindful and purposeful position within the classroom.  Ms. Dalley’s professional work includes faculty development programming, research on emerging issues in teaching and learning (with a focus on creativity, contemplative practice and pedagogy, and writing) as well as writing, editing, and blogging for the Research Academy at Montclair State University Teaching Times in Higher Education. She has contributed to new scholarship on how to foster creativity in the classroom, the role of faculty development in new teaching practices, and the role of technology in teaching and learning.]

Does Anybody Else Out There in the ‘Blogosphere’ Feel Uneasy After Reading These Two Quotes from The New York Times About Books and Reading? – By Neil Baldwin

Some start-ups choose an ambitious approach to the notion that books require too much time to read. Working in collaboration with an author, editors at the New York start-up Citia take a nonfiction book and reorganize its ideas onto “digital cards” that can be read on different devices and sent through social networks…”The ability to commit 10 or 15 hours to a book is going to be an increasingly fraught decision,” said Peter Meyers, author of Breaking the Page and Citia’s VP for editorial and content innovation, “so we need ways to liberate the ideas trapped inside them.” — “Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind.” The New York Times, 12/1/13.

Technology is starting to give authors data that is more precise and thus potentially more helpful: “If you write as a business, you have to sell books,” said Quinn Loftis, a successful self-published writer for teenagers. “To do that, you have to cater to the market. I don’t want to write a novel because I want to write it. I want to write it because people will enjoy it.”    — “Tailoring Their Books to Readers.” The New York Times, 1/6/14.

As followers of The Creative Research Center know, we are all about giving over this platform to colleagues in academia and the arts here at Montclair State University and around the world, students, like-minded friends. I  have not “blogged” as much as I thought I would when I launched this site nearly four years ago because I’ve so enjoyed soliciting and publishing the ideas of others.

That said, as a lifelong biographer and nonfiction author [ and on Facebook at Neil Baldwin Books] I woke up this morning with the intense need to post these two brief excerpts that I clipped from The New York Times in the past six weeks.

One inner voice is saying: “Get with the program, NB. All media have changed and will continue to change — and to atomize. Stop clinging to your old literary ethos. As long as people keep reading, what difference does it make how, why, or when?”

Then the other contrarian readerly voice says in response to Mr. Meyers:  “But isn’t part of the joy of reading to enter into a sustained world where you are not so much ‘forced’ as induced to slow down and avert distraction, to pick up a narrative because it is continuous, to follow a story made up of words set down in a certain order for thousands of certain reasons?”

Further, the stubborn authorial voice says to Mr. Loftis: “Certainly I want my books to sell! However, if that were the leading edge of my motivation, I know myself well enough to realize that the writing will suffer. I have learned the hard way (there is no other way) that when I let my voice come forth in a structure and form that are constructed over a span of months and years the result is a book I can stand by and that stands for me.”

Like I said…it took me awhile to decide to add to the multitude of discourse flying around the Web about the matter of — or the matter with — literacy in our fragmented world.

What do you think? Where do we go from here — as writers and readers?

Please let me and others know — click on the response icon at the top of the page.


The “selfie” – an aesthetic of realism – by Hugh Curnutt

THE Oxford Dictionary recently named selfie, the practice of taking and distributing a self-authored photograph of oneself using a smartphone, its word of the year for 2013. Invariably, the commentary that typically accompanies such a proclamation has bubbled up in order to assess, and in some cases decry, yet another media phenomenon brought about by a purportedly narcissistic culture awash with front-facing camera phones and obsessed with celebrity and self-promotion.


Fans of Kim Kardashian surround the reality celebrity as they shoot selfies of themselves and the star.

AP Photo / Mal Fairclough

Fans of Kim Kardashian surround the reality celebrity as they shoot selfies of themselves and the star.


Although I am sure some of this commentary has its merits, I think far too often public discourse about social media, and digital culture more broadly, is inclined to focus on the novelty of new forms of communication instead of considering the extent to which these innovations are actually a continuation of already existing media practices.

Which is to say, from my point of view, it is worth thinking about how something like selfies actually functions to reinforce as well as disrupt the norms associated with self-authored media content.

At its most elemental, taking selfies is photographing oneself in order to share those images with other people. This inclination, of course, is not new. From a psychoanalytic perspective, for instance, one could argue that such an activity is just another manifestation of an enduring propensity to represent what we imagine our identity to be to others.

At the same time, selfies embody a form of representation that is, like so much social media, increasingly abundant and highly dependent on immediacy. For example, many of us share images throughout the day using handy mobile devices in order to capture a happening, however banal, in real time (I am quite fond of texting photos of food).

In this scenario, the value associated with something like selfies not only comes from immediacy, it is also derived from the way that selfies use the author’s face to code an image with a personalized and, therefore, intimate quality.


From the perspective of media studies scholars such as myself, this intimacy is one of the most interesting aspects of a phenomenon like selfies because it connects the practice to a more pervasive interest in media that uses amateur performers — whether they are on reality TV, YouTube or webcams — to affect an aesthetic of realism and authenticity.

Thought about in this context, the contours defining our media landscape are reflected in the various ways in which selfies are now coming to exist in our daily lives. As already mentioned, selfies are very similar to other kinds of social media practices that encourage us to curate and regularly tend to online personas.

They are also another instance in which ubiquitous digital technology provides a seemingly egalitarian form of self-promotion. Because so many of us have smartphones and accounts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, we all have the ability to publicize ourselves.

Paying attention

The question to be asked, then, is who — besides the NSA and Google, of course — is really paying attention? Who wants to see a self-portrait of you while you wait for a friend in a parking lot? Unless you are famous, the answer is most likely, very few. If you are famous, however, that same image could be easily monetized in the hands of a good publicist.

And this is how I suspect the cultural logic driving the selfie phenomenon connects more broadly to other types of social media: individuals who are already public figures (actors, athletes, musicians, politicians) will increasingly snap “spontaneous” selfies in order to garner publicity while lesser known members of the digital ecosystem transmit similar types of images, but to much smaller audiences and, in most cases, to different ends.

Today, for instance, we are said to live in era that is increasingly inundated with different kinds of celebrity. At the same time, however, our relationship with celebrity has not changed all that much. The pleasure to be had in seeing a selfie of Alec Baldwin while he waits in a dentist’s office is not that dissimilar from the enjoyment found in looking at tabloid photos of celebrities walking their dogs or getting parking tickets.

In such images we are given evidence of what celebrities are like at their most ordinary, which celebrities and their handlers have always used to cultivate marketable private personas.

Conversely, non-celebrities taking selfies appears to follow a similar, albeit inverse, logic that informs social media more generally: We busy ourselves creating and maintaining online personas as if we were in some sense already famous in the hopes of appearing somehow less ordinary in order to make friends, attract lovers, secure jobs and so on.

[This essay first appeared in The Record/ on December 1, 2013.]

Hugh Curnutt, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. He works in the areas of critical media and cultural studies.  His research is broadly concerned with evolving communication technologies and the shifting intersection of media producers and consumers. His main project explores the changing televisual landscape, especially the ongoing reconfiguration of television’s institutions and performers in a post-network era.  His work also examines the cultural impact of mobile technologies and self-authored media content on contemporary celebrity.  He is currently preparing a study of frontier reality programming and discourses of masculinity and neoliberalism. – A Dynamic Brand-New Student-Run News Site – by Steve McCarthy and Martin Halo

October 18 2013

Dear Neil: Thank you so much for asking me to give The Creative Research Center a peek into the back-story and an update on, a media collective of journalists, film-makers and tastemakers focused upon music, the arts, sports and culture in the Garden State that has flourished thanks to the hard work of our students and the faithful idealism and support of the visionary Director of our School, Merrill Brown, and many other colleagues in the MSU School of Communication and Media.

When I first came up with the idea last spring, I knew that I wanted this website to be youth oriented, funky and hip. At the same time, we would follow NBC News Standards and Practices in reporting and presenting content in video, text, photo and audio. Such is indeed the case, I am pleased to report.

The site is managed by students and faculty from the School of Communication and Media and features contributions from students in SCM and throughout the University – as well as from projects developed in conjunction with the MSU Center for Cooperative Media.

The site covers campus issues as well as events and news from all over the state. If a big national or international story hits, we seek the local angle and get something up on the site as soon as possible. The site covers all MSU sporting teams, club activities, campus art events and shows, as well as noteworthy news events. We also feature selections from larger projects such as films produced by the MSU Film Studies students and the TV and Digital Media students. The site  highlights the activities of the SCM such as lectures, discussions and projects by students and faculty members.

Our goal for this news and information site is that it be frequently updated, Monday to Friday. Eventually we envision the operation being run from our newsroom in the new SCM building now under construction. Launching the project now — in 2013 — enables the SCM to develop curriculum around WiredJersey production activities and to recruit to the SCM those interested in participating in the ongoing and challenging work of a five-day, frequently updated site.

My Electronic Journalism class here at Montclair State, which already produces the news feature program “Inside MSU,” has morphed into a class to develop and maintain the new WiredJersey site. We call this class “News Production Lab.” The focus is on editorial meetings and lessons on web design and production. A student assigned as site editor each week is responsible for updating the site during that week.  We collectively set guidelines for just how much updating will be required.

Students will gather, produce, aggregate – whatever content they can get their hands on — and pitch those stories at our daily editorial meetings.  Our brilliant consultant, Martin Halo, and the rotating student editor craft this content – video, still photos, text, cartoons – onto a page that shows and links the work.

The class also occasionally puts together a video including one or two students sitting in front of one or two cameras telling what’s happening on the site in just a few dynamic minutes. The “hosts” actually point to the place ‘outside their box’ where content is sitting, and talk about it – maybe show a picture, roll some video – get people interested in checking out that piece of content.

The setting for these presentations is located stylistically somewhere between Scott Pelley’s CBS Evening News and Wayne’s World –  students design the look and feel.

Each 3-credit student in the class will eventually be assigned a reportage ‘beat.’ The beats will be as varied as campus news, NJ News, National and International News, Sports, and Entertainment. Other students will be assigned to check in with our SCM Media Partners to share what they are working on for their organizations.

As the site grows and other classes are brought in, we  are going to divide and expand the headings of the site. Eventually we hope to encompass Campus News, NJ News, World News, MSU Sports, World Sports, Campus Entertainment, World Entertainment, and so on.

During this semester, we are featuring special headings to cover the New Jersey Governor’s race, the upcoming Super Bowl, and other huge events.

Once the class gets going, I see us increasing it to two, three, four and finally five days a week. By that time, a “shelf” will be established and each class will share content. And I might add that content created by any other classes in the school will be welcome.

Once we move into our fantastic new building, we can have two classes a day working on updating the site – it will flow all day and into the evening with frequent updates.

As you and the CRC readers can see by clicking here, the website is off and running. The students of TVDM 455 are managing the site and have created content on everything from an immigration series to the recent and spectacular Homecoming Weekend. The class right now consists of ten highly-motivated students as varied as our population at MSU all working together and putting out a terrific looking site.

And as I had hoped, other students in the TVDM program taking courses with Debra Galant and David Cummings are likewise contributing articles on subjects ranging from a late night disturbance outside a dorm to the latest MSU sports game. We have even had alumni create content: recent graduates Ken Spooner and Mike Mee went down to the tragic boardwalk fire in Seaside Heights to file a report about a pizza shop owner who lost his store in the blaze.

From our newly-improvised and lively production home on the second floor of Finley South the class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays to shoot, write, plans, edit and create. There’s an incredible energy to the class that often reminds me of my days working in the newsroom at CBS News.

Next step: To examine our process and outreach and try to organize production into a more streamlined flow. The site will take a while to develop and find itself — but we already have a tone and style that appeals to our students.

My “Co-Conspirator” Marty Halo is one reason for the quick success. He possesses an unusual combination of skills as a developer, programmer and journalist. He’s always available and on call to get content up on the site and has a great rapport with the students.  I took this opportunity to ask Marty to provide a “P.S.” to my letter, and here it is…

…In March 2013, Steve McCarthy contacted me in the hopes of developing a publishing mechanism for Montclair State University students to produce journalistic content as part of a class project.  The idea of working with a University was very attractive to me –  something I’d always wanted to do.

After graduating from MonmouthUniversity in 2006, I embarked upon a journalism push of my own in American music.  I was searching for freedom and the classic fantasies of rock n’ roll, as I think most young adults in their early 20s dream about.  As I began to weave through the artistic layers of American pop culture, I crossed paths with the bedrock of American rock n’ roll and the artists who, to this very day, capture the imagination in the hearts of the young.

The first publication I began writing feature interviews for was the Aquarian Weekly in New Jersey.  That relationship was the perfect situation.  Nobody there at the time was really tracking down all the musicians that were left to the sands of time: The Allman Brothers Band, Patti Smith, Bob Weir, Richie Havens, Buddy Guy, Jack White, Yoko Ono, The Marley Family, Little Feat, The Black Crowes… and a plethora of others.  Working for the Aquarian, as well as freelance contributions to an industry niche San Francisco based publication, I began to lay the framework for my own journalistic brainchild.  To keep my overhead down I decided I was going to forge a publishing endeavor online.

When you decide to start your own company, you are basically condemning yourself to compete with organizations smarter than you and larger than you that have been around for many years longer than you.  Want to compete? Well, you are forced to adapt and learn while at the same time your own organization is looking to you for all the answers.  It is quite the sensation to work in such an environment.  My mentor at the time was author Dennis McNally whom I had met when I was working with the Grateful Dead camp.   I always used to moan to him how I felt I was running in quicksand at that time in my life.  It was a lot of work, and sometimes the results were not immediate.  The best advice Dennis ever gave me was that the blood, sweat, tears and struggles of my mid 20s would be the things that would lead to opportunities in my 30s.  The man could not have turned out to be more right!

Well…here we are.  I turn 30 in January.  I had just started a web development and production boutique shop in Soho when Steve asked me to interview with the School of Media and Communication at Montclair State University for a position yet to be defined.

Steve was looking for someone who, in a just a few short months, could set up the technology and publishing infrastructure for a journalism endeavor expressly so that the work of his students would have equal opportunities to reach audiences in the same manner as already established publications.

Thus, we “birthed” Wired Jersey, and, as a project, I couldn’t be more excited to create something from thin air and watch it grow up and mature. The opportunities presented to the students in our class are opportunities I wish I had when I was in college.

The technology is tested, the publication is primed… let’s make some noise!


An Undergraduate Theatre Major Reports from the Field: Montclair State’s Dave Osmundsen @ The Kennedy Center New Play Dramaturgy Intensive

Hailing from New Jersey, Dave Osmundsen is a senior at Montclair State University pursuing a BA in Theatre Studies and a Minor in Creative Writing. His MSU credits include assistant directing the department production of Stage Door in the fall of 2011, directing staged readings of The Last Sunday in June and Proof, acting in the new work Crush, and dramaturging a reading of Six Characters in Search of an Author and a production of The Handbook. In the spring of 2014 he will be dramaturging The Big Meal. After he leaves college, Dave hopes to hit the following four careers in his life, in no particular order: Playwright, Literary Manager, Dramatrug, and Artistic Director.
From July 27th—August 4th 2013, Dave participated in the New Play Dramaturgy Intensive at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, in association with the MFA Playwriting Workshop produced in association with the National New Play Network. For one week, dramaturgs, directors, playwrights and actors came together to develop, present and view new work from emerging playwrights. The dramaturgy intensive was an eight day program consisting of lunch meetings with artistic directors, literary managers and dramaturgs from across the country, sessions with the through-line mentor Mark Bly, and rehearsals for presentations of new work.  Dave served as the assistant dramaturg to Janice Paran on Michael Yates Crowley’s new play The Tourists, directed by Freddie Ashley. At the end of the week, playwrights in programs such as the Yale School of Drama and Julliard had the opportunity to present new work to artistic directors and literary managers from a variety of regional theatres.
The following is Dave’s journal chronicling his thoughts and experiences throughout the week.

July 26th, 2013

I don’t leave for DC for another day. I have three and a half hours of leisure time before I drive to Corrado’s to complete a four-to-close shift. Only five and a half hours or so. Everyone there is excited for me to go. At least I think they are. My boss, Pat, hasn’t really said much. Last weekend he asked me what I was going to DC for. He wondered if I was going on vacation. I told him I was attending the New Plays Dramaturgy Intensive at the Kennedy Center. He asked if I was going to see any of the sights. I said I didn’t know. I told him I had gone to DC a few times before. He retorted with, “But you didn’t appreciate it”.

And he was right—I didn’t. I admired the monuments, but took little to no interest in the museums my family took me to see. I remember once, we went to the Museum of American History. My sole purpose was to see the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in “The Wizard of Oz”. But the ruby slippers literally danced around me as my mom dragged me from exhibition to exhibition, displaying mechanisms that would break and blister under today’s advanced technology. When I finally saw the ruby slippers, I was satisfied. They weren’t the only pair of shoes Ms. Garland had worn, apparently. They were the ones she used for her dance sequences. There are three other pairs somewhere around the world. The whereabouts of two pairs aren’t even known. At least I don’t think so.

There was an episode of “Arthur” once where the Read family visited DC for a family vacation. In it, Arthur is enthralled by the historic sites while DW, his little sister, would rather watch Pony’s gallivanting. During a tour of the White House, she diverges from the group to examine the paintings of horses. There was one in particular she greatly admired, I think George Washington was in it too. A man approached DW and said that was his favorite painting too. He kindly escorted her back to her family, where it was revealed that he is the President of the United States of America. What do you know?

I’m nervous. Not because of the new people I’ll meet down there—that’s nothing I can’t handle. But rather the getting down there. For all I know, a meteor could crash onto earth causing the traffic jam of my life on the way to Newark Station, and I would wind up missing the Bolt bus down there. Or I could get released from the wrap up meeting with not nearly enough time to get to Union Station for the Bolt bus home. I’m worrying too much, as I usually do.

But what about the Intensive itself? I’m intrigued. Gregg Henry doesn’t even know what our assignment’s needs will be, and I’m intrigued to discover what the needs for my project, “The Tourists” will be. I read the script over a few nights ago. It’s basically Enchanted April meets Lord of the Flies. Terry and Carla are cousins traveling to Europe with Terry’s moody daughter, Bethany. They expect all the trappings of a luxurious and convenient vacation—oversexed backpackers, internet cafés and friendly locals. But a ferry strike prevents them from getting off the island they’re visiting, and they’re forced to stay in a hostel with a homosexual named Joe, who’s trying to get over a recent break up, and a one-eyed dog, whose backstory keeps changing. THAT’S a dramaturgical question I want to explore—why does the dog’s story keep changing? Why does he change it himself? It can’t just be to prevent dramatic repetition. There’s got to be another reason.

The whole point of the play is to respect other cultures. As tourists, we are technically invaders, but only briefly to take part in the culture and learn something new about the world and ourselves—one character states, “You visit Europe and expect it to be just like America. Why?” Why do some people have a more difficult time breaking out of their comfort zones? Is it societal mores? Our primal nature which we always seem to be afraid of? I’m interested to hear the playwright talk about this work, and for the actors in it to offer their perspectives.

This all probably sounds bland, but I’m not trying to create the great American blog here. I’m just trying to capture this moment. I have a difficult enough time living in the moment that I don’t need people criticizing me when I actually do. At least I’m writing something and being productive. Right?

July 27th

I have arrived safe and sound. I had no issues getting to the bus stop at Newark, I had no problem finding the metro (although it’s really nice when someone who knows the area better than you do just so happens to be going the same way), and while there was an unfortunate downpour on my walk to Thurston Hall, I was able to find it without issue. The subways are spacious and clean—nothing like the cramped, dirty and uncomfortable New York City ones.

I have two roommates. One is Kyle, who is a fellow dramaturg. The other is named Ben, who is doing the directing intensive.. He reminds me a lot of Mike McQuade, the other student from MSU who is here with me. I told him he should talk to Mike—I think they’d get along very well.

When seven o’clock came, we gathered in the lobby of Thurston to be escorted to the Kennedy Center. Kyle and I had already joked that hearts would be mended, lives would be broken, and connections would be made (or shattered). We ventured off to the Kennedy Center for our welcome dinner. There was a giant “The Book of Mormon” poster hanging on the façade of the theatre. We entered the Hall of Nations, where flags from all over the world were lined up along the hallway. We walked to a small corridor with an elevator, and rode up to the café where we were to eat.

During and after dinner, I met most of the people I’m supposed to know. I say most because the playwright AND the dramaturg of my project aren’t going to be here until Monday morning. Michael Yates Crowley, the playwright, is finishing up a stint at the O’Neill. Janice Paran, my mentor dramaturg, is just finishing up at Sundance. However, I met the people with whom I’ve been exchanging e-mails back and forth for the last few months—Gregg Henry, Mark Bly and Matt McGeachy. They all seem like great people, and I hope I manage to do some sort of networking with them for the rest of the week.

I didn’t realize I was in heaven until I was talking with everyone at dinner. This, I realize, is where I want to be—surrounded by intelligent people who are willing to teach both themselves and each other. Everyone is eager to be here, everyone wants to be here, and everyone’s ready to work and have a good time. I was afraid I would come across as too loose, or too stuffy, but I find that, like everyone else, I am a perfect balance of intelligence and quirkiness.

I met a lovely woman named Suzanne, who is also from the East Coast. She’s working on “In Love and Warcraft”, which she told me she had to discuss with her sons in order to get all the references. In fact, it doesn’t seem like a lot of us are really “suited” for the plays that were selected for us. But I feel that part of this intensive is expanding our horizons. That’s something we’re all learning as artists—to expand our worlds so that they are able to encompass more art.

The compliment of the night goes to Cara Beth. All of us dramaturgs were waiting for our orientation meeting with Mark Bly, and she said, “This is the dramaturgs meeting”. I said, “I know! I’m a dramaturg!” She quickly realized her error—she thought I was one of the playwrights. I was flattered—I was glad to have been recognized as a playwright, even if it was a mistake.

Cara Beth and I were also exchanging concepts and ideas for plays we’ve written—she’s written a play about human trafficking, I’ve written a play involving teen prostitution. We get along really well.

Mark Bly mentioned “The Dramaturgical Impulse,” which we’re going to talk about more this week. He also mentioned “dramaturging the week”, which is pretty much  EXACTLY what I’m doing with this “blog.”

July 28

The morning commenced with an orientation session with Mark Bly. Mark clearly knows what he’s talking about—he talked more about the “dramaturgical impulse”, which is knowing when to ask, Why? As Dramaturgs, we are required to do much more than simple background research into a play—we’re supposed to be asking questions that will help shape the acting, design and social values of a production. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic—in order to have these questions, we need to listen until our ears bleed. If we listen hard enough, the questions will come, and when we present these questions, that’s when we’re bound to get answers.

We’re Questioning spirits. Keyword: Spirits. Not critics, not audiences, not whiners. Spirits.

Perhaps the most fundamental question is “What was the spark? What was the ignition behind this piece? Were you angry, sad, calm, collected, what?” I know when I began writing my play “Distance” it came from an angry place—anger that guys I’ve liked would choose their work over me. But to add salt to the wound, their work would take them all around the world, which would leave me alienated and trapped in my own little bubble. Mark Bly told us that he wrote his lecture “Bristling with Multiple Possibilities” from a very angry place as well, coming from years of people denouncing the role of the dramaturg. He said that the best writing comes from anger. I would expand upon this and say that the best writing comes from passion, emotion, feeling. Not necessarily anger, although anger is perhaps the most accessible feeling and the easiest to articulate.

Other questions to ask: What does this mean? How does it matter? Why does it matter? How is it different? What are positive traces we can bring out of this? Mark Bly said “anyone can do research”. Being a dramaturg is about going beyond the obvious—what are the questions that will lead to the deeper meaning or vision of a piece of art?

I did a lot of sightseeing today. We walked around the National Mall and saw the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building, and the World War II Memorial. I bought my sister a postcard of the Vietnam Memorial. Taylor and I said that every American should have a birthright to go to Washington DC, just like Jewish people have the birthright to go to Israel. We need to learn about our history, and be able to say that we’ve seen these incredible and extremely important and indispensable monuments.

Tonight, I had dinner with Freddie, the director, and the assistant directors of my piece. Freddie has had experience as a literary manager and a dramaturg, and I asked him some things he looks for when reading plays. He said that something he looks for in plays when being a literary manager is whether the world needs to see a play or not—does it say something at least mildly uplifting or insightful about the human condition? Or, does its sturm und drang compel so much that we’re able to recognize the purpose of sitting through it all?

Freddie talked about his experiences at the Alliance Theater and Actors Express in Atlanta. It reminded me of something a former writing professor told me: “I really think you should go to Chicago. There’s a great theatre scene out there, and you also have more time to hone your craft, whereas in New York you’re hustling and struggling so much to get your work performed that it defects the work.” I asked him if there was any real difference, and he said it didn’t really matter where you go to school—you can succeed anywhere, although if you didn’t attend a top tier school, you’ll have a difficult time making it in NYC, unfortunately. I could go on a rant about how unfair and classist and elitist this is. But listening to Freddie made me realize that there’s so much more theatre to this country than just in NYC. There are communities all over the country that are dedicated to showing all types of theatre. I don’t have to restrict myself to NYC, although it’s the most convenient option for me, since I live right by there. But maybe I’ll be in a completely different city for the entirety of my career?

One final thing: It feels like all my thoughts are being articulated by others down here, and I don’t feel so alone. Kyle told me that there are times he’s asked if he has any questions during a dramaturgical session, and he can’t say anything other than, “No, you explained it pretty well to me”. I often feel that way too—that everything is neatly explained, no questions are necessary, I have all the information I need. But when something is unclear, I will inquire in order to clear the air. But sometimes I feel like I don’t have enough questions. Hopefully the floodgates will open and I’ll have questions for the rest of the world?

July 30th—August 1st

We had a meeting with Celise Kalke, who is considered one of the leading dramaturgs in the nation and is also the Director of New Projects at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. She said that being a literary manager meant more than just reading scripts—season planning is involved, marketing is involved (which I actually have some experience in), liaisons with the director, artistic director and the playwright are involved… Like all theatre arts, literary managing is about collaboration.

I have this potent, fierce need and urge to participate. That’s probably why I’m not a very good listener—I just want to jump into a conversation and have the final word, be right once and for all. But Mark Bly has told us to “listen until our ears bleed”. However, there have been times in my rehearsals when I haven’t been listening—when I go off into my own mental tangents about changes I need to make to my own play, how I’m going to figure out my August schedule, etc. I need to remind myself, and I do, that I am not here in service for myself as much as I am in service of the play and the playwright.

Rehearsals for “The Tourists” are going very well. I’m starting to gain a sense of what it means to really “develop” a play, and it’s very similar to when I did “Their Own Good” at MSU. I encountered very similar dramaturgical challenges when mounting that play as I did with the other plays that are being work-shopped here. I would love for one of my plays to get a workshop with a group of professionals and dedicated performers. Something that annoys me is actors who nitpick and question the script. True, there are generally some logistical things that need to be changed and altered in order to clarify the character’s relationship and the story. However, when an actor goes “Why would she do that? I would never do that!” I just want to stand up and scream, “This is not YOU. This is the CHARACTER. YOU are not the CHARACTER. YOU are trying to BE the CHARACTER, but you don’t have to be IDENTICAL to the character in REAL LIFE”. My advice to these people is to pipe down, let the director do their job, and figure it out yourself.

One of my fellow dramaturgs said that one of her stage managers had a great metaphor for it: It’s like visiting your grandma’s new house, being in the kitchen, and trying to find the plates. You can either call your mom for help, or you can open a few cabinets and find plates (and other utensils) yourself.

My mentor dramaturg is very good at fixing the script and communicating with the playwright and director. One project I’ve been working on is compiling a timeline of the Eurozone Crisis and the impact it’s had on European society. We think we have it so bad over here, their unemployment rate is 27%. If there was ever a case to prove that dramaturgy could be sobering and edifying, it’s this one. But the research isn’t what’s the most important in this play—it’s about finding a shape for the play, and clarifying the character’s story arcs. Clearly, this is a different method of dramaturgy than I am used to. Perhaps I should just go with it then? Of course.

One night, we had a meeting with everyone involved in the intensive, and one of the directing mentors had a great quote: “If I do my job right, the best idea in the room isn’t mine”. I find this incredibly humble and humanist of him. While it’s important for directors and dramaturgs to have questions, it’s stage-hogging to keep all the great questions to yourself. You need to use your questions to push your actors and creative team to think “beyond the obvious” and ask the questions that cut to the heart and arteries of the piece. This relates to one of my theatre mottos of generosity. Being onstage is nice—letting others have the spotlight shows you’re a great collaborator.

Then,  we got together with our assistant directors and discussed how we would collaborate on an abstract piece called “Which Witch Hwich”. We were asked “How would you make a production that would be significant for an audience?” My assistant directors and I agreed that the piece is about living life in a routine manner—not taking advantage of the years you have, but rather sacrificing them with a mundane job until there’s no way out. Our vision would be “don’t fall into a godless routine!”

I feel that this is exactly what we need — harsh yet nimble discussion about plays and the visions we have for them. We also need to learn about the art of collaboration first hand. Prompts such as these will help us learn these aspects of the business, and will help us to improve our collaborative skills.

I told Mark Bly about my tendency for my mind to go off on tangents during rehearsals. I asked him if that made me a bad dramaturg. “Oh God no! No no no!” He shook his head profusely. “That doesn’t make you a bad dramaturg at all! It’s completely understandable, since the dramaturg has a lot of down time in the rehearsal room anyway. It’s just knowing when your input is necessary that counts.”

Thank God for that.

August 2

Today we had a meeting with Anne Morgan, the literary manager at the O’Neill Center. She told us about how she approaches a play—with the same enthusiasm as she would one of her favorite novels (at least, that’s how I interpreted it). Falling in love with a play is like falling in love with a person—you can fall in love with a play’s mind, body, or heart. In an ideal play, all three would be combined for a sensual and thrilling encounter.

Tonight, we began the reading process. First up was “An Almanac for Farmers and Lovers in Mexico”. It was a whimsical story filled with magic realism and a profound sense of humanity. The story was of a soon to be bride whose fiancée turned into a bird. The hurdles she has to go through in order to get her husband back to human form—and the revealing love triangle among her friends—make up the dramatic arc. Its use of magic realism was incredible—this wouldn’t work on film for fear of being too unbelievable and potentially pretentious.

A lot of the characters said “This isn’t my play”, and then the play would go on tangents about those characters, so it wasn’t just one story. I never felt that this derived from the main plot—perhaps because the piece had such an ensemble feel anyway. The only deviation I felt was detrimental was the farmer who had lost his land. For one thing, I wasn’t sure if he was protesting or homeless—he was handing out pamphlets, but for all I knew he could’ve been spreading information rather than protesting. He was trying to find his wife who ran away from him, after all. Also, what was he protesting? Government takeover of land?

The most beautiful part of the play was the monologue that compared corn to a tomato. Heirloom tomatoes, to be specific. Corn is something that become useful in many other practices, but it’s still manufactured. Heirloom tomatoes remain natural throughout their “natural”  lives. The question the play asked is, “Are you a corn, or a tomato?” Which being are you—manufactured or human?

Some questions I wanted to ask were about the symbolism of the piece—why a hummingbird, for example? Also, what inspired her to write about the apocalypse that wasn’t worried that the world was going to end? Had she been to Mexico, and how did that influence the play? Did she look into any other pieces with magic realism in them (a la “Like Water for Chocolate,” or anything that Garcia Lorca has written)?

 August 3rd

And it’s the final night I’m here.

So much to type about. We had three presentations today: (a love story) by Kelly Lusk, Flesh and Blood by Tatiana Suarez-Pico, and The Tourists by Michael Yates Crowley.

First, (a love story).

I had many emotions during this play. It’s the type of theatrical experience that takes its audience on an emotional journey—it begins at the beginning of a relationship, which is a very good place to start, carries us through the tempestuous waters of love, and finally, violent heartbreak. I found myself engaged for 95% of the play. There was only one point where I felt it deviated from its plot, but since it’s still a work in progress, it can be fixed.

The play tells of three couples, two young and one old, who are experiencing love for either the first or second time. The chorus throughout are three sprouts, who are tendered by the otherwise violent bully Richard. They also double as ants and twigs throughout, adding to the whimsical feel of the piece.

Admittedly, there were a few points where I felt the dialogue sounded very mature and poetic coming out of the mouths of… well, actually, we don’t know the age of these characters. I assumed they were in high school, others assumed they were in middle school, I feel it will depend on the director. Also, a few of the plot contrivances (a delayed tryst, for example) could have been solved by the use of cell phones. The playwright establishes that in this world, there are phones. Maybe there are only phones in the kid’s rooms and aren’t cellular phones—wait, the mother of one of the characters makes a call from her car, which we can assume is a cell phone. So cell phones DO exist in this world. Ah, I’m thinking too much into this—if we bring reality into the alternate world of plays, we wouldn’t have theatre. We’d just have real life, and quite frankly, that’s not what most of us really go to the theatre for.

At one point in (a love story), an ant told the aforementioned sprouts about how Richard’s spit caused a Noah’s Ark-like flood in his community, killing his wife and children. This brought the sprouts the news that their caretaker may be betraying them. But I wonder if they could realize it in a different fashion—maybe have them recognize a wound that isn’t his father’s? (His father beats him, by the way). But the ant was only in the first act, never to be seen again in the second act. He had such a detailed story—if the story was going to go into that much depth, I would’ve enjoyed to see it carried even further.

The first act ended with a climactic tempest of dreams, where the characters had nightmares involving one another. There was debate that this should’ve been cut. While I feel this made the play reach its climax perhaps a bit too soon, I don’t think it should’ve been cut solely due to the foreshadowing and theatricality of it all.

Next up was “Flesh and Blood” by Tatiana Suarez-Pico. This was a much more didactic play, but nonetheless packed an emotional punch. The first act of the play felt very stilted —however, the play is still in its early stages, so this can be forgiven. It was also easy to follow, and wasn’t the slightest bit pretentious, but there were parts I feel would’ve worked better as a film.

The story was about a group of Hispanics who are forced to confront the dangerous working conditions of the factory they work at after tragedy strikes. Kalla (Carla?) is engaged to a recently divorced tortilla factory owner who, shocker, oppresses his workers in greed (even though he says it’s to support Kalla’s destitute family). Kalla also carries on an affair with fellow factory worker Everisto, who is in turn married to Avril. Don’t worry, the story turns out too politically to be a soap opera. There is a man named Jim, a former drug addict who is trying to organize a union for the factory workers to stand up against their conditions. Some whined about the white savior, but puh-lease, the workers probably wouldn’t have a clue about their rights if this person didn’t inform them about their rights. They’re very set in their culture of honor and respect for the higher ups. They wouldn’t ask for more if it wasn’t provoked.

The characters felt like mouth pieces throughout the first act. It was when the bloody first act finale came that they began feeling like “flesh and blood” to me. From that point through the second act, I was completely involved with their story. The ending felt very abrupt, but it was a smart decision—the central character, Kalla (Carla? I wasn’t sure) decides to march against her husband. She could be deported, or go to jail, or lose all financial backing.

It’s a story that needs to be told, for sure. However, one man questioned what the audience for the play was—the type of people this play is about wouldn’t be able to afford the ticket prices, and it probably won’t land among the wealthy people who would pay the big bucks to see it with much impact. I feel it would make a better film.

Then “The Tourists” went up. It wasn’t until this reading that I realized the arc that Michael realized with the play—it felt like a roller coaster going upwards and upwards until it made its first dip into high-speed velocity. However, aspects of the play didn’t work for certain people—the incestuous, borderline molestation between two cousins in the play bothered some with its treatment—it’s not portrayed as terrible or harmful in the conventional sense, but there’s more of a sense of abandonment.

I fielded a lot of questions about the play from my fellow dramaturgs, which was gratifying because I got to explain and discuss the play to them. And that’s what this week—discussing, debating and examining theatre with a group of intelligent people who are just as driven to succeed as I am.

It’s wonderful, but at the same time I’ve never felt lonelier in my life. I feel I know what tools I need to be a good dramaturg. Now I need to figure out how to get them. How to have a mind that constantly questions and wonders, to spend my life preparing for God knows what.

I had my final meeting with my mentor dramaturg and director. They asked what I learned. I said I developed a new definition of dramaturgy—initially, it was just taking a play or production and putting it into context. But now, when working on new works, I said that dramaturgy was about developing the world of the play, its rules, its characters, its flow, and how it works. My director told me that what I described was more the playwright’s responsibility—the dramaturgy was there to help them. So does that mean I have the mentality of a playwright? I don’t know. But I now know that as a dramaturg, it’s not about me. It’s about the playwright, and serving his work and vision. I have nothing to give except myself.

We also had our final meeting with Mark Bly today. Something he said that stuck out to me was, “You’ll spend your whole life preparing for something if you’re a dramaturg. So acquaint yourself with everything—high culture, low culture, any culture. Go out, see stuff, do stuff. You can never know too much if you’re a dramaturg.”


August 4th

We had three more readings today: “The Claire Play” by Reina Hardy, “Lingua Ignota” by Johnna Adams, and “The Memory Tax” by Chad Eschman.

“The Claire Play” was an intellectual, but nonetheless whimsical look at a life that lacked closure, sustained grief, and infinite possibilities. The first act was a two character play between Claire and Devin, a childhood love who died very young. It’s hinted that he died due to his allergies to candy (Snickers, to be specific). The timeline alternated between an encounter they had, and Claire’s future career as a poet and professor. The second act, in which Devin whisks her up to the Heavens, brings in historic characters, Aristophanes among them.

The play brings in mythology, which is a term we’ve played around with a lot this week, something I’ll have to think about. I don’t know as much about mythology as I should. I own a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology, but I haven’t read it yet. I define mythology as a story that details the human condition in very specific circumstances, usually through elevated storytelling or larger than life characters. The scope of mythology is wide—family, friendship, love, war, and peace. We derive our mythology from the Greek and the Romans. Where else will be derive our mythology in the future? Maybe Claire knows?

I was unclear about the last twenty minutes—Claire falls into a hole that she’s warned not to look into so as to avoid heartbreak. She does, and meets a boy named M—is this M, an entirely different entity, or Devin? It turns out to be Devin, but I was still very confused by this. I’m sure this will be resolved in rewrites.

The playwright, Raina Hardy, said something interesting—she wrote “The Claire Play” in an attempt to improve upon another play she had already written. An assignment she was given was to write an alternate beginning to her play, which resulted in Claire’s first monologue being churned out.

“Lingua Ignota”, or the English translation as “Unknown Language”, told the story of two artists, a photographer and a novelist, who are forced to face their pasts and futures. The photographer has two daughters, one of whom wants to write an epic, complex series of novels, or make it a TV show, or a film. The other one (Delphine) is an artless real estate agent.

Not much happened during the story of “Lingua”. In fact, a good portion of it was the characters describing or reading aloud stories they’ve written. Naturally, this leads way for a revelation or two. The revelations never felt forced, though. One of them was that Delphine is pregnant with the child of a man whom her sister dislikes. The other was that the mother was going blind, which is not good for a photographer.

Towards the end, a figure named the “Wild Woman Doll” entered and danced. I was confused at the meaning of this figure. When I discussed it with the dramaturg after the performance, I was told that it represented inspiration, “the must” who finally came to the characters after lack of artistic fulfillment. This made sense to me.  However, I wonder if, it were a full production, I would’ve understood the intention behind it.

“The Memory Tax” was the most disturbing of the readings today. It told the story of Jason, who, against his mother’s wishes, takes a job at a “Memory Tax”, where people’s memories are stored away so that he can gain some sort of understanding as to why his father left them. There, he meets a girl whom he falls in love with.

One of the questions the playwright asked was, How did Jason’s behavior change from the time he began working at the Memory Tax? I would say that he became much more passive—during the play, he gets his girlfriend pregnant, and when she takes actions to abort the baby, he doesn’t really bother to stop her.

His dreams are also haunted by the “Hat Man”, played by the same actor who plays his father.

There was a lot in this play that didn’t make sense—what were the “check-ups” about? Were they his job trying to render him less sympathetic? Were they trying to take his memories too? I felt this wasn’t sufficiently explained. I may try to see this in NYC, just to see what I pick up on a second viewing.

I feel so fortunate to have been invited to the Kennedy Center. It was an edifying experience to work with incredible artists from all over the country, not just New York. I asked the lady who was a part of the National New Play Network if they had a home base in NYC. She said that they purposefully didn’t, which I found interesting—it proves that New York isn’t always the center for new work.  However, she said there was a home base in Madison and the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, and she encouraged me to knock on their door, introduce myself, and see what comes of it. If I learned anything from this experience, it’s that I don’t have to restrain myself to NYC for good theatre—some of the readings I’ve seen this week were superior to some of the theatre I’ve seen in NYC, both Broadway and off-Broadway.

Something we were encouraged to do was “listen until our ears bleed”.  I now know what that means. After the reading of “The Memory Tax” ended, I wasn’t sure what to make of it—my opinion of the piece was still up in the air. However, I decided to listen to people’s reactions to see what they thought it was about. One of the plot points involved Jason murdering his father. One of the questions the dramaturg and playwright asked was whether it was necessary. A few of us, myself included, were unsure what it meant, or if it was even necessary.

I added my own interpretation that it was assisted suicide—if his father had no memories of his son, how could he face his grandchildren if he had any? I felt that the father was asking his son to murder him, and the son was an accomplice in it.

However, I realized that I felt my ears bleeding with words that needed to be said. And they mattered. And they weren’t forced or unnecessary. They contributed to the conversation. So now I know what it means to listen.


Highly Recommended: CRC Staff Picks from This Month’s “Virtual Mailbag”

[Our hardworking staff  continues to curate and build their list of new things worth reading on the Web — as well as in the analogue world. – Ed.]


Naomi S. Baron. Redefining Reading: The Impact of Digital Communication Media. PMLA, 128.1, January 2013.


Robert Darnton. The National Digital Public Library is Launched! The New York Review of Books, April 2013.


Julia Floberg and Alan S. Brown.  Engaging College Students in the Performing Arts: Case Studies in Good Practice. Research Commissioned by the Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College. May 2013 [Montclair State University’s ACP-RAUL “Creative Campus” project is featured; see  study no.4]


Kenneth Goldsmith. UbuWeb. [“Archiving is the new folk art…Our relationship to the cultural artifact has shifted in this age of insane abundance.”]


David Greene. Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching. The New York Times, April 30, 2013.


The Journal of Emerging Learning Design. Issue 1. April, 2013. [Montclair State University]


Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain. New York: Random House, 2012.


Elka Krajewska. Salvage Art Institute.  [“…a term borrowed from the art insurance lexicon, refers to work removed from art circulation due to accidental damage.”]


Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light at The Museum of Modern Art. [On view through June 24 - a must-see.]


Timothy Van Laar and Leonard Diepeveen. Artworld Prestige: Arguing Cultural Value. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.



Three New Approaches to Pedagogy: AJ Kelton on Disruptive Learning Design & Kirk McDermid on The Helix as a Model for Learning & Cigdem Talgar on The Uses of Emerging Technology in the Classroom

[Over the past several months, the CRC has been in stimulating correspondence and informal communication with three thought-leaders at Montclair State University: AJ Kelton, Director of Emerging and Instructional Technology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; Cigdem Talgar, Acting Director of The Research Academy for University Learning and Editor-in-Chief of MSU’s first virtual scholarly journal, ELDJ; and Kirk McDermid, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy and incoming Chair of the General Education Committee. Herewith their recent projects & thoughts. — NB]

AJ Kelton on Emerging/Disruptive Learning Design & the 2013 Conference @ MSU

Dear Neil:  I enjoyed our recent meeting and am thrilled you “get” our vision for the upcoming 3rd Annual ELD Conference at MSU on June 7th.  In that regard, I must say that the info you gave me on Joseph Schumpeter and his theory of “creative disruption” is relevant and fascinating to me.  I think this is a process that anything goes through when it experiences dramatic change – the phoenix rising from the ashes, so to speak.  You and I also talked about  Cognitive Load Theory.  If you want a kind of thick, but research intensive book on this, I recommend the work of Jan Plass. He is one of the faculty members in my PhD program and one of the leading experts on the topic. The other topic of interest we touched upon in our chat was Allan Paivio’s dual-coding theory. 

The mission of the Emerging Learning Design Conference is to showcase best practices in design and implementation by bringing together those interested in engaging in vibrant and dynamic discourse regarding pedagogy; and how technology can better enhance it.  The theme for this year’s event is LEARNING AS DISRUPTION. ”How learning occurs” has become the disruptive force that influences an educator’s decision process in all that occurs in the classroom, including pedagogy, curriculum design, and incorporation of technology into a course. Since Clayton Christensen’s 2008 book Disrupting Class began to influence the national (and global) conversation, learning as a disruptive force has been a hot topic in professional development, on campuses, and at conferences. When learning becomes the focus of education, the students’ experiences become relevant and motivating factors that drive what occurs in the learning experience, in or out of a classroom.  As Judi Apte points out in her 2003 article Facilitating Transformative Learning, “learning is about transformation, it’s about change, it’s about seeing yourself in relation to the world differently” (p. 168).  
The 2013 ELD Conference Theme “Learning As Disruption” is designed to help presenters and attendees alike address this important issue.
The philosophy of the ELD conference is to provide an atmosphere for learning and networking where what goes on between sessions is of value to the material presented during sessions.  In only its third year, the ELD has attracted attendees and presenters from dozens of institutions both locally and across the United States.  The combination of concurrent sessions, workshops, and our exciting Ignite! & Engage! sessions are designed to provide as broad a range of “takeaways” as possible.
The ELD conference is employing a rolling peer-review process for submissions.  As part of this process I am happy to tell you that we have already secured some great presentations, such as:
  • *Christopher Donoghue will show how to increase the frequency and quality of instructor-student interaction in distance education using Qualtrics, in “Virtual Instructor-Student Interaction in an Asynchronous Learning Network”.
  • *Michael Kolitsky will show how to enable different modes of learning, on-demand, with “Where Does 3D Printing Fit Into Your Pedagogical Thinking?”
  • *John T Oliver will make a case for the pedagogical value of open, collaborative knowledge construction in “Making Student Wikipedians: Encouraging disruptive scholarly communication”
  • *Sophie Idromenos will demonstrate game design using Scratch in a hands-on workshop called “The Scratch Disruption: Video Game Design with Scratch.
The conference organizers have just announced that select proceedings from the conference will be published in the new Journal of Emerging Learning Design (ELDJ).  [See Cigdem Talgar essay below] 

The papers for the select proceedings are not due at the time of submission for the call for proposals.  Presentations at the ELD13 conference will be reviewed by the Journal of Emerging Learning Design Editorial Board and invitations to appear in the proceedings will be issued not long afterward.  Papers for accepted invitations would be due late summer/early fall 2013 and the proceedings issue of the ELDJ to be published in early 2014. For questions or details please email
[EDITOR’S NOTE: As if to underscore AJ’s message herewith, Tom Friedman’s New York Times  Op-Ed piece on MOOCs and disruptive learning landed on our desk this morning, and   The Harvard Business Review just arrived in the CRC mailbox with its cover story by Clayton Christensen and Maxwell Wessel on Surviving Disruption.]


* * * * * * * * * *


Kirk McDermid on The Helix as a Model for Learning

Dear Neil:  As the new-ish Chair of the General Education Committee (charged with overseeing the General Education Program at Montclair State, a 41-credit blended content distribution and skill development ‘menu’ of courses) – we have a large and diverse program to manage.  And improve.  And ‘sell’ to students.  The problems we face are exacerbated because our Program is not a unified, small set of ‘core’ courses, but a wide variety from almost every discipline.  The Program is charged with exposing students to that wide range of disciplines, while also helping them develop a set of key competencies or Learning Goals such as critical thinking that cross disciplinary lines.The helix is a fruitful image for me to use in order to make sense of this task.  No single course can accomplish the goals of our Gen Ed; no single discipline can, either – by definition in the case of the content requirements, but also in the case of the skills/Goals.  I took it as fundamental to the original vision of our Gen Ed that the learning and thinking competencies our students would acquire were to be understood as inherently interdisciplinary – critical thinking may have originated in philosophy and may even be exemplified in its “purest form” therein (a philosopher may argue), but surely we want critical thinkers across academia and outside it as well.  As you and I agreed, real intellectual skill is not confined within disciplinary boundaries; if it is, I would call it “technical proficiency” instead.  Students will only appreciate this if they can see such skills and abilities transcending disciplinary boundaries, and become self-aware of the interdisciplinarity of their learning.

helix learning[1]

The helix image “trajectory” shows a student’s growth as dependent upon repeated exposures to distinct but related content/disciplines, and skills/competencies, in different combinations.  As they gain such exposures, they will build upon their previous achievements to reach for more complex expressions or skill-sets – and we as their teachers & mentors would urge and demand that, as well.  We know from psychological studies of learning that single exposures to material rarely result in learning; students need repeated exposure, in a diversity of environments and situations, to learn.  The helix model represents this in the rotation of the trajectory, as students return to the ‘same’ material repeatedly.  Of course, it’s not the same: it’s different, as the students are somewhat changed from their previous exposure to that Goal or skill, as well as the other distinct but related ones.  They are also more aware of the diversity of disciplines in which those skills could be deployed.  Perhaps the helix’s radius should expand as it rises, to capture this growth in application; what starts as a skill ‘locked’ in a specific discipline becomes more flexibly employed across disciplines, as the student gains experience in seeing it deployed in new contexts.

The helix also represents the importance of apparently unrelated learning in different disciplines or skills: part of the ascension is due to the unpredictable connections the student constructs, or the inspirations they can draw from previous learning experiences.  As almost every student’s learning trajectory is unique at MSU — apart from the very beginning courses, students have flexibility to sequence their Gen Ed in various ways — we cannot tell what their previous learning experiences might do to shape their understanding of their present courses.  That’s a bad thing as it makes our jobs as teachers more difficult, not being able to take student preparation for granted, but also a good thing as it makes our jobs more interesting, and – if we are willing to work at it – better for all students who can see student models of achievement to strive after, in their own classrooms.

The helix is also very optimistic; the only thing we can control is the circulation around the perimeter.  The student’s progression upwards – the incline of the helix – is not under our control directly.  This points to the pessimistic possibility that students may not in fact “be helical” in their learning, but instead “circular” – i.e., cycling, but not progressing.  I would hope, though, that if this were the case, the repeated exposure to the same concepts, in diverse contexts, would trigger some substantial learning.  At the least, one would also expect that instructors and advisors would be able to detect with suitable assessments or feedback the ‘slope’ of any student’s helix, and design interventions or instructional aids to steepen that trajectory.

Ideally, we would have courses or learning experiences ‘calibrated’ for the student, such that they matched the students’ ascending trajectory, instead of being jarringly too far above or below the students’ present capabilities.  Don’t ask me how to manage that; we’re just beginning with this concept.


Cigdem Talgar on The Uses of Emerging Technology in the Classroom

Dear Neil: Thank you for inviting me to share my informal thoughts with the CRC readership on the volatile, ever-changing field of emerging technology in the higher education classroom, where it offers an excellent ‘toolbox’ for demonstrating creativity.   For example, using ‘virtual worlds’ brings students in language classes to new and far-flung places where they can experience the cultures accompanying those languages.  In biology, students of anatomy utilize augmented reality to delve into the human body multiple times.  Students of psychology can network with students in various departments (i.e., physics) through social media to “invent” things that are possible via cross-disciplinary, peer-to-peer collaboration.

The availability of such technology is a testament to the creativity of the individuals who made it possible; however, it is a common misunderstanding that technology makes the professor creative.  Technology does, indeed, offer opportunities; but what these opportunities are — and how they are utilized — is a function of the creative nature of the professor and the needs that he or she possesses to bring the material to light.  The thought that infusing your classroom with technology will thereby lead your students to learn effectively is inherently flawed and, unfortunately,  all-too-common.

Rather, I believe, the creation — or disruption — of so-called “deep learning” environments depends upon factors such as student engagement, motivation, attention and cognitive load; these are not mutually exclusive but rather continuously interact.  The successful use of technology in the classroom is linked to the success with which it promotes these factors.

Emerging learning designs offer students opportunities to express their creativity.  Once again, they have to be given the opportunity or the problem or the limitation which requires them to go beyond their customary and comfortable use of the technology.   This thought of creating limits — or “blockages,” as my colleague, Iain Kerr, instructor of the Creative Thinking course at MSU says — forces the students to think “sideways” about technology and other tools.  Students can use this sideways thinking to utilize technology that they usually use ‘one way’ to come up with creative solutions to problems posed by their instructors.

The June 7th Emerging Learning Design Conference and the new Journal of Emerging Learning Design (ELDJ) offer a forum for discussion  and debate of these issues from the perspective of instructors as well as students.

The ELDJ,  Montclair State University’s first open access, Web-based peer-reviewed journal,  provides a platform for higher education practitioners to explore emerging learning design theories, concepts, and issues, and their implications at national and international levels.  An outgrowth of the annual Emerging Learning Design Conference, which as you know makes its home at Montclair State University, the ELDJ invites scholarly communications in the field and will present best practices in design and implementation by offering articles that propose or review engaging and dynamic approaches to pedagogy and how it can be enhanced through technology.

The inaugural issue of ELDJ will be published on March 22nd, 2013.  It will feature invited articles from Joshua Danish, Jonathan Richter and Sarah Smith-Robbins, presenters of keynote addresses at the past two ELD conferences.  The second issue, due in early 2014, will feature an invited article by Christopher Hoadley, keynote speaker for ELD13, as well as selected proceedings from the ELD13 conference.



Montclair State University Hosts The Second International Health Humanities Conference: Music, Health, and Humanity – by Brian Abrams, Conference Chair

From August 9th-11th, 2012, through a collaboration among the Colleges of the Arts, the Humanities and Social Sciences, and Education and Human Services, Montclair State University hosted the Second International Health Humanities Conference.

The Health Humanities, a relatively new area, applies humanities disciplines (arts, literature, languages, law, history, philosophy, religion, etc.) to discourse about the promotion and enactment of  human health and wellbeing.

The MSU Conference was only the second of its kind in the world; the first was held in Nottingham,UK, during the summer of 2010.

In attendance at the three-day event at the Montclair State Conference Center were professionals and graduate students from various disciplines: medicine, psychology, literature, arts, music, and music therapy; and from universities and health care agencies and other human services organizations hailing from the USA, Canada, the UK, Norway, and Japan. Participants’ interests included research in behavioral health, the arts, narrative inquiry, and sociocultural processes; as well as applied work in medical care, psychiatry, arts, and music therapy.

Key topics of presentation ranged richly and widely, including metaphor, inter-subjectivity, archetypes, the developmental lifespan, cultures, communities, creativity, literacy/fiction, fantasy, suicide, grief, wellness and self-care, education, supervision, interdisciplinarity, and technology.

Plans are underway to produce a peer-reviewed volume of publications based upon conference presentations.

On day one, the conference opened with words of welcome from Daniel Gurskis, Dean of the MSU College of the Arts, Marietta Morrissey, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Robert Cart, Director of the John J. Cali School of Music. Conference attendees and invited guests then enjoyed a special appearance by guest celebrity Kate Pierson of the revered American rock band, The B-52s. She shared inspirational words underscoring the vital role of music in the health and well-being of individuals and society.  She also shared her music, including the public premiere of an original song. Following the performance, Paul Crawford, Professor of Health Humanities, University of Nottingham (UK), served as the conference’s first Keynote speaker.

On day two, the Keynote presentation featured the life and work of Pulitzer-nominated and Grammy-winning contemporary composer Joel Thome, as well as the work of music therapist Benedikte Scheiby, who worked with Thome following his stroke.  Thome’s arduous journey —including his stroke, recovery, and new compositional style based upon the trans-cultural, circular “mandala” — is featured in the recent documentary by filmmaker Chris Pepino, “Inside the Perfect Circle: The Odyssey of Joel Thome.” All three shared their perspectives and experiences during the Keynote presentation held in the Jed Leshowitz Recital Hall at the John J. Cali School of Music, featuring a mandala-based composition by Thome performed by two of his former composition students. A plenary presentation by UK psychologist and scholar Victoria Tischler followed.

On day three, the conference concluded with a Keynote presentation by Brian Brown of DeMontfort University (UK), as well as a co-presentation by Music Education scholars David Elliott (New York University) and Marissa Silverman (Montclair State University), who helped illuminate praxial understanding of the value of music as a resource for personal and cultural wellbeing.

The Third International Health Humanities Conference will be held under the auspices of the Arts and Humanities in Healthcare Program at the Center for Bioethics and Humanities, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, in August, 2014. The theme will be Envisioning the Health Humanities: Film, Media, and the Visual Arts.

For more information on the summer 2014 conference, contact Therese (Tess) Jones, PhD, at, or 303.724.3995.

Significant support for these conferences is provided by the International Health Humanities Network (IHHN), providing a global platform for innovative humanities scholars, medical, health and social care professionals, voluntary sector workers and creative practitioners to join forces with informal and family service-users and the wider self-caring public in order to explore, celebrate and develop new approaches in advancing health and wellbeing through the arts and humanities in hospitals, residential and community settings.

Supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, this initiative launches a new era in developing ways that arts and humanities knowledge and practice will enhance health and wellbeing. On the AHRC website, informal careers, service users and the self-caring public are invited to share their ideas of how arts and humanities have benefited them and may help others experiencing challenges to their health and wellbeing.

Nurses, doctors, occupational therapists, psychologists, dentists, physiotherapists, social workers, childcare and school workers, alternative and complimentary therapists, as well as those who have traditionally drawn on the arts and humanities such as music therapists, dance and drama therapists, poetry therapists, art therapists, bibliotherapists and sports therapists, are invited to join and report on successful, innovative projects and events in this field.

The International Health Humanities Network has partnered with many other institutions in its endeavors to “bring the human back into health,” including the OppNet division of the National Institutes of Health. For more information on the Health Humanities, visit the International Health Humanities Network, at

 Brian Abrams, Ph.D., MT-BC, LPC, LCAT, Fellow of the Association for Music and Imagery, serves as Associate Professor of Music and Coordinator of Music Therapy in the John J. Cali School of Music, College of the Arts, Montclair State University. He has been a music therapist since 1995, with clinical experience involving a wide range of populations. He has published and presented internationally on topics such as music therapy in cancer care, music psychotherapy, and humanistic dimensions of music therapy. His current interests include contributing to the development of the global, interdisciplinary area of Health Humanities.


Dance & the Human Spirit – Danceaturgs Reflect on the 2011-12 Repertory – by Marissa Aucoin, Elaine Gutierrez, Morgan Kelly & Colleen Lynch, with Ballet & Modern Studio Photography by Jessie Whelan

Breath was choreographed in 2011 by Fredrick Earl Mosley and set on dancers from Montclair State University’s Dance Department. Although the piece is fairly new compared to other pieces such as Opus 51, D-Man in the Waters and There is a Time, which also were performed in this year’s Works-A-Foot and DanceWorks, Breath has found its own way to connect with the repertory theme of “Dance and the Human Spirit”. The piece illustrates people’s reliance and trust in God (or a higher being) after traumatic experiences and how people turn to faith to help them cope. The title is very fitting. In the first moments after the lights come up, two dancers are seen onstage, one of whom is breathing deeply and slowly. This breathing motif is carried throughout the duration of the piece, and can be seen in the multiple high releases (lifting the sternum with the head tilted upwards), which emulate breathing. During the course of the piece, a series of solos, duets and quartets, as well as large groups are seen. This highlights and mirrors how every person deals with their faith in different ways, depending upon their background, upbringing, etc., in their daily lives or times of need. The gospel song “Pass Me Not” by Eddie James accompanies the choreography. The lyrics, “Pass me not O gentle Savior, Hear my humble cry…” call out and ask for help. Breath connects to this year’s theme of Dance and the Human Spirit because it illustrates how people turn to faith after trauma and also how people from diverse walks of life connect with their own spirituality and lift and support one another in times of need. — Elaine Gutierrez

There is a Time. In the book of Ecclesiastes, placed between the two other iconic phrases “the sun also rises,” and “[there is] nothing new under the sun,” we find the simple statement “There is a time for everything, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Words that teach a lesson, instill a sense a purpose, and express the delicate balance of give and take that our own human spirit experiences in life.  Not immune to this balance, we find choreographer José Limón taking this phrase and finding an inspiration to create one of his greatest works, “There is a Time. (1956)” The piece embodies the entire passage from chapter three of Ecclesiastes as it goes on to lay the framework for the human experience...

“There is a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal, 

a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.” 

Separated into sections, There is a Time communicates all of these concepts through choreography and musicality, a variation on a theme. “Limón used as his theme a large circle, which, at the opening of the work, fills the stage and moves majestically as if to evoke the perpetual passage of time. This circle is seen repeatedly in many guises, rhythms and dramatic shapes, always making allusion to the text from Ecclesiastes and its evocation of the human experience.” [Jose Limon,] A circle, also symbolic of a womb, bears life and introduces humans as characters into their own stories.  It is within these different stories that the characters endure a plethora of emotions and events, all related to the human experience. And it is within“There is a Time,” that Limón uses the dancers to assume the roles the text provides.  A male soloist born into the piece experiences his own death minutes later; a trio of women collectively mourn their loss with heavy movement and even heavier hearts.  A duet of a man and a woman, one desperate to be heard, the other longing for quiet and commonality, struggle with their differences; a girl bursting into laughter alone on stage, brings light to everyone watching.  A group of people at war and in turmoil are pacified by the promise of peace, given by a lighthearted offering from a female soloist.  At the conclusion, the group comes together with familiar movement to express one last message,  “There is a time for love”. Each section, unique in its own way, shows how the classic fundamentals of José Limón technique can take an idea, or in this case a passage from Ecclesiastes, and create a piece that is relatable while still becoming larger than life, larger than all of us.  Collectively, each section expresses an emotion or event that is part of the human experience, endured by all.  “There is a Time” is the physical portrayal of the raw emotions that the human spirit experiences and that is embodied in every other piece in the Montclair State University dance department repertory for 2011-12. — Morgan Kelly

Opus 51.  The version of Charles Weidman’s Opus 51 presented at the MSU Alexander Kasser Theater April 11 – 15 is the Opening Dance from what was originally a six-section work. The Opus 51 that Weidman presented at Bennington College in 1938 was comprised of: Opening Dance, March, Commedia, Solo, Duet, and Spectacle. Performers included nine members from the Weidman Company, including Weidman himself, and seven students from the student workshop group at the Bennington School of Dance. The piece in its entirety was 22 minutes long, as opposed to the approximately seven minutes that the MSU students performed. The music for this work was composed by Vivian Fine. The title for this specific work of Weidman’s came from the simple fact that this was Weidman’s 51st dance work.  Unlike many of the dances being performed in Dance Works, the “Opening Dance” does not possess a particularly strong story or narrative. It portrays movement among a synchronized community of dancers. This driving sense of community allows the dancers to accept new members into the space and work as a single cohesive unit. It is this sense of community that embodies this year’s repertory theme of “Dance and the Human Spirit”.  We survive and thrive through our relationships and connections with others. The same can be said for the “Opening Dance” of Opus 51. With such a small cast of dancers moving in unison, it becomes necessary to be extremely aware of and invested in the group you are dancing with. Once all the dancers have entered and we begin to work in unison, there comes a sense of oppositional energies not only within the movement of each individual dancer, but among the group as a whole. By drawing from the ‘pull’ of these opposing energies we are able to form a community of dancers deeply connected both physically and spiritually, allowing us to execute the piece in perfect harmony.  –  Marissa Aucoin

D-man in the Waters was created by Bill T. Jones in 1989, during a time when company member Damien Acquavella was dying of AIDS (D-man referring to Damien), and following the death of Bill’s partner Arnie Zane. In our intimate rehearsal with Bill on March 24th, he nevertheless verified that “D-man is not a piece about AIDS.” Rather, in reinforcement of our repertory theme this year, ‘Dance and the Human Spirit,’ D-Man is a piece about community. Bill defined community as people coming together around an idea. The idea we are coming together for, expressed in D-man and in Dance Works this year, is the celebration of the human spirit — coming together as a community to help one another rise above times of struggle and to celebrate life and survival. Bill explained to us that D-Man is a piece full of ghosts. The cast is ultimately emulating people who were very important to Bill when he created the piece. We could tell from the rehearsal with him that the memory of these people is imperative to him and it was necessary for him to bring those people back to life in rehearsal with stories and different movement qualities. Bill was inspiring and stimulating to work with. His energy permeated into all of our souls as he ran and jumped around the room, yelling at us to “feel the movement for ourselves.” He made it clear that movement isn’t about having a pointed back leg or a high extension; it is about the goal: Where is the movement going? Why are we moving? The choreography and music of D-man is enriched with Bill’s spirit. The movement phrases suggest the metaphor of water. And we are reminded by doing this piece that sometimes we swim against the current and sometimes we swim with it. Bill reminded us with his raw emotion that Arnie Zane died this very week in March, 24 years ago, in 1988. It will be important to think of Arnie during the Informance this week. –   Colleen Lynch

Mind-dancing. It is an entirely new world for a photographer taking pictures of dance when the photographer herself is a dancer. This is the case for myself and the photographs that I have taken. As a dancer photographing dance, I know specifically what elements to look for and experiment with when photographing, such as when to snap a shot when the dancers are jumping. I can also visualize where I might want to be in the room after finding out what the type of movement is going to be. It’s a bit of a mind dance you have to do with yourself in order to capture the best moments in photographs. What I mean by mind-dance is that I imagine in my own mind that I am dancing the steps that the students participating in class are dancing. I imagine and feel in my mind’s eye how I would attack the movement, which helps me in looking for these elements in the dancers. And dancing the movement in my own mind helps me to take better photographs of the motion; because if I were literally dancing the movement, I would not be thinking about what I am doing, but rather what I am going to do next. I take this idea, and rather than physicalizing it, I keep it in my mind and capture these upcoming moments on other dancers with my camera. Being a dancer who is musically inclined also helps me. When taking the photographs of ballet and modern classes, I listened closely to the combination and musical instructions, and imaged myself doing the movement. I memorized the sequences, and danced along to the music in my mind so that I would know opportune times to snap a photograph. When capturing student-teacher interaction I often took continuous photographs because I know that a memorable candid moment can come at any point in this special interaction. – Jessie Whelan



Poetry is Dead. Long Live Poetry! Some Thoughts on Poetry in the American Public Sphere – by Susan B.A. Somers-Willett

Everybody knows that poetry is dead. We have a vision of its pine box, nailed shut. We may not have heard the funeral dirge or witness a dove marking the sky over its grave, but we know that it’s moldering down there somewhere, six feet under. Our collective American voice says poetry is some long-lost ancestor, replaced by newer, fresher generations of novels, blogs, reality television, and memoirs.

How do we know that poetry “has passed on,” “has ceased to be,” “has joined the choir invisible?” Because when we browse our ailing bookstores for signs of poetry on the shelf, or we look to our high school curricula for its evidence, or we peruse book reviews in major newspapers and magazines, poetry is relatively absent. These signs relegate poetry to a novelty, pure artifact—certainly not essential part of anyone’s reading diet. When teachers assign poetry on their syllabi, students conjure a vision of dusty texts akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a post which shares the title of this essay, one witty journalist, writing articles for a tongue-in-cheek “musepaper” on the Poetry Foundation blog in 2009, likened poets’ careers to stints in debtor’s prison and sightings of their verses as fabled as those of UFOs over Roswell.

The discourse of poetry’s death is nothing new. It was nearly twenty-five years ago when poet and critic Dana Gioia most famously declared poetry dead to the general reader in his 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?” published in The Atlantic and later collected in an eponymously-titled book. He claims that Americans lived at that time in a “divided literary culture”—that of academics who read and practiced poetry and general readers who did not—leading to “the superabundance of poetry within a small class and the impoverishment outside it. One might even say that outside the classroom—where society demands that the two groups interact—poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms.” Poetry was only to be resurrected, he argued, by bringing it outside of isolated academic practice, taking it beyond the small presses and anthologies in which poets publish other poets for means of tenure and promotion and actively court a public audience. “It is time to experiment, time to leave the well-ordered but stuffy classroom,” he concluded. “Let’s build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.”

Gioia received an overwhelming response to his essay—in the way of both messages of support for his argument and scornful criticism from some in academic creative writing programs. For all of the timely vinegar his argument produced, American poets and critics have actually been lamenting poetry’s death for at least the last century, as noted by Executive Director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs D.W. Fenza in his essay “Who Keeps Killing Poetry?”  Gioia’s essay fell quick on the heels of (and was first drafted as a response to) Joseph Epstein’s 1988 editorial in Commentary, “Who Killed Poetry?” Epstein’s essay echoes some of the same arguments of critic Edmund Wilson, who in 1928 asked, “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” All of these critics recall the granddaddy of American poetry Walt Whitman who mused in 1892, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences too.” So when we look to our bookstores, our Kindles, and our newspapers for evidence of poetry, we are not alone in thinking it is dead. The experts have already said as much.

But perhaps they—and we—are not checking in the right places for the vital signs.

In the midst of this handwringing over poetry’s relationship with the public, poetry did indeed have a healthy practice outside of the academy.  In 1986, a Chicago construction worker-turned-poet Marc Smith was experimenting with performing poetry in white, working-class Chicago bars, mixing cabaret and vaudeville traditions with verse. One night when he ran out of material for a set, he decided to hold a mock competition, asking the audience to judge the poems performed on stage with boos and applause. The model proved so popular that he repeated it, eventually adding a nod to the Olympics by asking the audience to rate each poem from 0.0 to 10.0. Thus, the poetry slam was born—the competitive practice of performance poetry that now includes three national tournaments, the largest of which draws over 75 ensemble teams from the U.S., Canada, and a few nations abroad to represent their home turf.

Even before that, in the mid-seventies, rap laid its claim to poetic territory as emcees like Kool DJ Herc rhymed over disco tunes at South Bronx block parties, in step with the Caribbean traditions of toasting and dub music. The resulting hip-hop culture that emerged is now global and ubiquitous—but it also is evidence of the popular practice of poetry. Rap is poetry with a difference, poetry with music behind it, poetry that mugs for the camera, but it is poetry nonetheless. The intricate methods emcees use to lay their lyrics on top of and against the beat of 4/4 music—which is the very same strong-stress tetrameter line we know from Beowulf, as hip-hop scholar Adam Bradley notes in Book Of Rhymes—is I think the most innovative formalist poetry being practiced today. At least once before I die, I want to replace a Norton Anthology of Poetry on my syllabus with Yale’s The Anthology of Rap. I bet students reading the latter will be more practiced in prosody, if not more enthusiastic about understanding and employing this essential tool of poetic craft. Considering the rhetoric of death surrounding poetry, old school Philly DJ Lady B’s closing lyrics of “To the Beat, Y’all” ring prophetic: “I’m saying when I die, bury me deep / Plant two turntables at my feet / Put a mixer near my head / So when you close the casket I can rock the dead.”

Both the poetry slam and hip-hop are grand examples making a larger statement: poetry is, indeed, all around us in the public sphere—it’s just not necessarily reaching us through a book. Think of a group gathered to hear a conference paper on the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton (masters though they are), and then think of a multitude of youth bobbing their heads to Nas or Missy Elliot. In each case, I marvel at the sparkling use of metaphor, the slant of the rhyme (what Eminem called “bending the word”), the intricate craft of working with and against the beat of the line/measure. Perhaps even more importantly, these more recent modes of verse attract younger audiences, and in many cases, they convene critical communities who have deep commitments to lyrical practice. This poetry is popular, so why not acknowledge its reach? Dana Gioia, to his credit, does so in his 2003 essay “Disappearing Ink,” in which he calls the popular emergence of poetry slams, hip-hop, and other communities where poetry is practiced in extraliterary ways “without a doubt the most surprising and significant development in recent American poetry.”

Of course, the argument of quality is quick to be employed when considering such examples, which often gets confused in the critical sphere with the definitional aspect of verse. Harold Bloom, for instance, famously deemed poetry slams in the Spring 2000 issue of The Paris Review “the death of art.” This new poetry isn’t as masterful, such critics imply, or Because it doesn’t work on the page, it can’t be real poetry. Both are utter canards. Just because such verse may reach us through different media, through performance or video or Internet streaming, doesn’t make it less of a poem, or less of a good poem. The artists who operate through media other than print have to be even more savvy about their craft, knowing what can or cannot work with a live audience, how gesture and tone can influence and audiences, or how to visually and orally represent their work in multimedia venues. Such practices certainly produce poetry that succeeds or fails in ways different than its text-only counterparts, but it still is poetry that can succeed on its own terms. I think this difference is something to be celebrated, not condemned.  

Let’s not forget that print has not always been the standard medium of poetry, or even the most revered model. When anyone laments to me the sorry state of poetry’s readership, I am quick to note that Homer’s Iliad wasn’t a fixed text for nearly two centuries, and during that time it was distributed by any number of nameless poet-performers, adding their own improvisations and sense of craft. Add to that the traditions of the bard, the griot, and the troubadour; even Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—a text that pre-dates widespread literacy in Western culture—is presented as the reported speech of a cast of characters performing their histories in verse. In many ways, our literary culture still works by word of mouth, by deed of body, by vow of image and beat. As a scholar of poetry in performance, I send praises to YouTube for being my Alexandrian Library that will not burn (even as I smolder in the five-second purgatory of advertisements).  A more concerted effort to collect such ephemeral work is the Performance Poetry Preservation Project (P4), which, once it finds an institutional home, is poised to become the most comprehensive multimedia archive of performance poetry in the world. Other efforts include From the Fishouse, which  focuses on sound recordings by emerging poets, and Charles Bernstein’s initiatives the  Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo and Penn Sound, both of which explore avant-garde sound and digital poetries.

In the wake of recent debates over poetry’s death, a number of initiatives have emerged to both highlight and improve poetry’s standing in the public sphere. In 1992, The Poetry Society of America initiated Poetry in Motion, which brought short poems to bus and subway passengers in metropolitan cities, printed on their subway tickets and posted in the spaces where advertisements usually appear. (The program, most famous in New York City, was on hiatus for four years in the Big Apple, but it returns this April.) In 1996, The Academy of American Poets launched National Poetry Month, celebrated every April since with posters, a series of events, publicity, and practical resources to encourage the public’s engagement with poetry year-round. In 1997, U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky used his office to initiate the Favorite Poem Project, which asked people across America to submit videos in which they recited poems meaningful to them. The project resulted in a two anthologies, a textbook and curriculum guide, a DVD, and an interactive website where public audiences could watch and discuss the poems being read by everyday citizens. Riffing on poetry’s celebration during the cruelest month, poet Maureen Thorson established National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) in 2003, during which writers pledge to write a poem a day throughout the month of April.

Alongside the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Society of America, another one of today’s powerhouses in public outreach for poetry is the Chicago-based organization The Poetry Foundation. Affiliated with Harriet Monroe’s venerable Poetry magazine (now celebrating its centenary), the Foundation was established in 2003 after receiving a 200 million-dollar gift from philanthropist Ruth Lilly. The Foundation’s multifarious projects—which include poetry events and readings, digital programming like mobile apps and podcasts, a website with searchable text and audio archives of poetry, publicity initiatives, animated poetry videos, and awards to American poets—all aim to maintain “a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture” and “discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.” One of those initiatives, the Poetry Out Loud competition, established an annual national poetry recitation contest in 2006 for high school students. In June 2011, the Poetry Foundation opened the doors to a new public building in the heart of downtown Chicago, which houses a 30,000 volume poetry library, a performance space for readings, and permanent administrative offices for Poetry magazine. In establishing a physical space for poetry, the Foundation echoes the Poets House in New York City, which houses a 50,000 volume library of poetry and hosts readings and events throughout the year in its relocated home in Battery Park.

Such a dizzying array of programs and organizations, paired with an understanding that popular forms of poetry are indeed all around us, are more than enough evidence that poetry never really died. And yet I think we still need more of them because, as former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall put it, “Our trouble is not with poetry but with the public perception of poetry.” When I asked my students to write about poetry’s place in the public sphere this semester, all but one of them described poetry as dead or at least in serious need of life support. Yet when we discussed the meters and metaphors of hip-hop music, almost every one of them could recite their favorite rhymes by heart.

One place where poetry’s public image is particularly laced with cobwebs is actually in the academy, especially in K-12 institutions.  Suffering under standardized curricular restrictions of No Child Left Behind and our own prose-centric culture, students are commonly left with the impression that poetry is something “to figure out,” written in inscrutable code that only those with a rare intuition can decipher. Of course, poetry is something to figure out—its compressed diction and associative language requires a good deal of attention and different kind of reading. However, its contemplative nature also invites us to wonder, to discover new possibilities and connections with the world.  In this, reading or listening to poetry is a real-time critical act that challenges us to become better thinkers and stewards of literature. At the same time, our students need to know that although a poem may challenge them, a poem is not a test.

Still, it’s not just the genre, educators, academics, poets, or critics who perpetuate the myth of poetry’s death when it is very much alive. We as readers and listeners have a responsibility to poetry as well—to explore it in its abundance and variety, to discover the voices that turn us on and turn us out. I believe poetry’s public image suffers when we define it too narrowly. In that vein, I invite you this April to explore poetry in a new fashion. If you are a reader of poetry, check out a local reading series or poetry slam. Rent a film about a poet, or check out a poetry trailer.  If you read newspapers, log in to Verse Daily or Poetry Daily for a moment before checking the morning headlines.  If you are a fan of poetry readings or performances, explore one of the recent books published in the National Poetry Series or the Everyman’s Library. If you enjoy traditional narrative verse or received forms, check out work in a more avant-garde or experimental vein (Ahsahta Press and Omnidawn Publishing are both great places to start). Surveying verse outside of one’s comfort zone is not terribly big commitment, and perhaps a new understanding of poetry’s breadth and presence can emerge if we expand our own ideas about what poetry is and does.

Beyond this initial exploration, I also entreat you to share your findings with others, whether through Facebook, blogging, or the simple art of conversation. I think one source of poetry’s public image problem stems from the fact that we often define its reach through the single, solitary act of reading—which it undoubtedly is, sometimes—but that doesn’t mean that poetry shouldn’t inspire discussion, debate, and a vociferous public around its reception. Poetry has and deserves a concrete community of readers and listeners. Imagine what a polis we could create if the next book winning the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award in poetry got as much Twitter buzz as The Hunger Games.

On the theme of exploring new texts and authors, 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 is the author of two award-winning books of poetry, Quiver and Roam, and a book of criticism, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. Her writing has been featured by several journals including The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poets & Writers, and The New Yorker’s Book Bench. Her collaborative documentary poetry series “Women of Troy” aired on PRI and BBC radio affiliates and received a 2010 Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media.  She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing and poetry at Montclair State University.