Archive for April, 2012

Late Night Research and Freaky Animal Puppets

I should preface this post with both an apology and an explanation. Every time I sat down to think about possible blog post topics, my mind drifted back to my seminar paper topic. So this post is part self-serving opportunity to sort through my thoughts in a less formal, structured venue and part genuine desire to make more people aware of a film that has utterly captivated me these past couple weeks. That film is Ladislas Starewitch’s The Tale of the Fox.

During a round of late night research several weeks ago, I somehow ended up on a Wikipedia page listing all feature length stop motion animation films including The Tale of the Fox, which drew my attention for reasons that I’ve since forgotten (I was quite tired at the time). Ever the committed, credible scholar, I took my Wikipedia research to YouTube. Surprisingly, the entire film had been posted in six 10-11 minute videos. After the opening credits of the first video, I was confronted by one of the freakiest images I’ve seen in a while: a monkey puppet wearing glasses and a robe. His movements, particularly his curling lips that exposed his teeth and flapping tongue, seemed something straight out of my nightmares. (I’ve always been slightly creeped-out by audio-animatronics ever since a fateful ride on Disney World’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at the age of two, and I’m still unable to watch Jim Henson’s Labyrinth for more than five minutes before the goblin puppets make my skin crawl). But after watching the first three minutes of The Tale of the Fox, I was fairly certain I had to write about it. By the end of Part 3, I was sold. This was the most brilliantly weird, disturbing, and inspired thing I had seen in a long time. Here were animal puppets that looked, not like real live animals, but like taxidermied animals dressed up and brought to “life.” Unlike the anthropomorphic animals of the Disney films I grew up on, these animal puppets were being subjected to all manner of bodily indignities that left them mutilated, scarred, or stripped to mere bones. I knew I had to translate my frequent exclamations of, “What the ****?” and subsequent uneasy laughter into an insightful academic analysis. My obsession had begun.

Ladislas Starewitch (whose name has seemingly endless combinations of spellings) was originally an entomologist at a Natural History museum in Lithuania. In 1910, after an ill-fated attempt to shoot a short film of two stag beetles fighting (the beetles were uncooperative, fell asleep under the bright lights, and just flat-out died), Starewitch realized the dead beetles made far better actors than when they were alive and shot his film using stop motion. Many of Starewitch’s early short films utilized the preserved bodies of dead insects and birds as stop-motion puppets (See Cameraman’s Revenge and Other Fantastic Tales which can be viewed for free either on Amazon Prime Instant Video or, of course, YouTube).

Made between the years 1929 and 1930 and released in 1937 (eight months before Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) is, according to Starewitch, his masterwork. The Tale of the Fox is an adaptation of the medieval fable of Reynard the Fox, basing its story on the 18th century version by Goethe. As I alluded to earlier, what both fascinates and repulses me about this film is its portrayal of animal bodies. While the puppets in The Tale of the Fox aren’t real dead foxes, wolves, cats, monkeys, lions, hares, etc., the puppets were made of deer skin, among other materials. As evidenced by the photo below of Starewitch surrounded by some of his puppet creations, the puppets (some of them are quite large) were created with an extraordinary level of detail and craftsmanship.

Photo Source: (http://ikono.org/2011/07/ladislas-starevich-and-his-amazing-insects/)

In The Tale of the Fox, Starewitch has painstakingly re-creates animal bodies with astonishing detail; the animal puppets are capable of intricate and widely varied facial expressions and almost all posses unnervingly realistic mouths (lips, teeth, tongues, and even drool). But these re-created animal bodies don’t remain pristine and untouched. The film is full of lost tails, threats of flaying, animal skulls mounted on walls as trophies, multiple brutal beatings of animals by club-wielding human puppets (this is their only function in the film), and the eviscerated body of a mother hen whose chick plaintively cries, “Mama,” at the mother’s bare skull.

Yet, there’s an honesty to this film that is lacking in many other anthropomorphic animal films. It doesn’t hide the animal body, living or dead, from viewers. It refuses to ever let the viewer entirely forget that these puppets represent physical animal bodies. This contrasts with the more recent stop motion fox film, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). After viewing Starewitch’s film, Anderson’s film and its animal puppets (which share a similar look with The Tale of the Fox puppets) seem more cartoonish. The animals in Fantastic Mr. Fox can be electrocuted (the standard flashing of their skeletons occurs) but are apparently unharmed. When animals do die in the film, their eyes are replaced with X’s which mark the only trace of death on their bodies. The dead chickens just look like they’re sleeping; the next time we see them, they have assumed the familiar form of a plucked, ready-to-cook chicken anybody could go pick-up at the grocery store. I’m still not sure whether to read this disavowal of the physical animal body as a step in the right direction, a step back, or merely an interesting observation. But I do know that I feel more captivated by The Tale of the Fox and I’m determined to figure out why.

Coincidentally, the YouTube videos of The Tale of the Fox were posted just one month prior to Fantastic Mr. Fox’s theatrical release. Without the YouTube videos, I would have been unable to view this film. The only DVDs available for purchase are used copies ranging from $40-160, none of them in a format that will play in US DVD players. Just about the only place someone in the US can watch this film is on YouTube. Oddly enough, I think this helps the film. The Tale of the Fox possesses greater relevance now than it did 75 years ago, particularly in terms of animal studies. Starewitch’s film calls attention to the distance between humans and animals, a distance further compounded by its presence on YouTube. The film’s insistence on insistence on injuring, killing, and stripping the flesh from animal bodies momentarily breaks the spell of the anthropomorphic fable, as we are reminded that these are animals with whom we share a certain corporeal vulnerability. At the same time, the animals in the film aren’t real; they’re puppets carefully assembled by humans in a way that echoes the kind of communion with the animal body that occurs with taxidermy (particularly the anthropomorphic taxidermy that was common in the Victorian Era). So how are we, in the 21st century watching this film on our computers, supposed to read this film and its depiction of animal bodies?

I don’t have all the answers yet. After all, my paper’s not finished – this is only a drop in the bucket. While this post has been immensely helpful for me and my paper writing, I do hope it leads people to watch The Tale of the Fox or any of Starewitch’s other films. They are fantastic technical achievements in stop motion animation, their use of animals is both confusing and intriguing, and, quite frankly, they are refreshingly quirky, weird, and unusual.

Published in:Julie McCown |on April 23rd, 2012 |3 Comments »

Highbrow Rhetoric at Taco Bueno

Unfortunately for my students, what gets discussed more than anything in my ENGL 1301 and 1302 courses is Taco Bueno. Its menu. Its price. Its parking lots. Okay, perhaps this is a stretch. Let me clarify before I get myself into trouble.

Every teacher has a technique. We all want to connect with our students. We all want out students to learn. And, in an ideal classroom, we all want our students to connect to the material we are teaching. To do this we try a number of techniques and strategies. Some of them bomb; others go quite well; most of them seem to fit somewhere in the middle. Like all of you, I have my own techniques to help my students connect with the material. Some of them don’t work, while others get the job done. And while I vary my examples and artifacts on a weekly basis, from an all-campus email from a high-ranking university official to an article from the New York Times, I have realized that I have one recurring example: Taco Bueno. Strange, I know. How does Taco Bueno provide material for discussion? In a class focused on issues and writing about them, how does a typical fast-food restaurant provide fodder for rhetorical discussion? Or, as my students’ faces seem to consistently ask, why the hell do we keep talking about Taco Bueno?

When I say that Taco Bueno is my recurring example, what I mean is that I am consistently trying to contextualize the material of rhetorical analysis and writing for my students. And, for me, this works best whenever I use mundane, easy-to-understand examples; i.e. Taco Bueno. This takes place in a number of ways. On a day when we are talking about claims, reasons, evidence, etc. on a general, introductory manner, I’ll provide an example to illustrate what I mean. So when I tell them that their arguments are based on a central claim, a focused idea of which they are trying to convince their audience, I’ll give them an example: “We should eat at Taco Bueno after class.” Sophisticated? No. Well-worded? Of course not. But it’s a claim, and it’s something that students can understand without difficulty. On another day we might talk about counterarguments and responding to naysayers. We discuss what exactly it means to address a naysayer respectfully and present their argument fairly and accurately: “At the same time, Todd Womble—a local manager of a Taco Bell—argues that Bell consistently uses fresher and better ingredients in their items.” We talk about finding common ground and making concessions: “Womble makes a strong point in his description of Bell’s ingredients, and he is correct to assert that Bell does in fact use fresh produce.” And we stress the importance of offering specific and strong rebuttals: “But while Womble does make strong points about Taco Bell’s ingredients, this argument does not necessarily show that Bell’s products are any ‘fresher’ than those used by Taco Bueno. If Taco Bell uses fresh tomatoes and lettuce, does this mean that Taco Bueno cannot use similar ingredients?”

By the latter half of the semester, my students are not surprised to hear something about Taco Bueno. Whenever we talk about a specific element of our papers, or discuss a new aspect of rhetorical theory and academic writing, they know that our recurring Bueno discussion will soon resume. I assume that some of them find this strange, and others probably wish that I would move on to a different example. But I do know that each of them understands exactly what these Taco Bueno examples mean, and this is why I continue to use them. In order for lower-level composition students to advance to higher-level rhetorical writing, we must challenge them to think in new and uncomfortable ways. But I feel strongly that they must first recognize and comprehend the basic elements and conventions before they move on to these challenges. And, for me, using unsophisticated examples like convincing your roommate where you want to go to dinner, or arguing about which fast-food joint offers better hot sauce and a bigger parking lot, allows me to be sure that my students do understand what exactly a claim is, how you go about formulating a reason, what it means to address a naysayer, etc.

This does not come from reading articles or books about pedagogy, and I know that no one ever advised me to find a fast-food restaurant to clarify my teaching. Instead, I think this comes from years spent in a classroom as a student, struggling to understand the material in front of me. As a student, I know what it’s like to be confused and frustrated with the subject matter. I can empathize with my students whenever they are clueless about an assignment or unsure about how to start their essay. I have felt the same way. And in my own experiences, whether in a freshman mathematics course or a graduate seminar on literary theory, the best way I was able to overcome this confusion and grasp some sort of comprehension was through contextualization via clear and easy-to-understand illustrations and examples. I still use these examples when I re-encounter certain theories or confusing analyses today, and they continue to help me. I don’t want to patronize my students, and I know that a move beyond these simplistic arguments is the goal. But a foundation built on understanding and comprehension undoubtedly fosters more productive attempts at achieving this goal.

Borrowing from the teachers that have helped me in the past, I want to enable my students in their efforts to “master” rhetorical argument and composition. And for me, recurring examples like Taco Bueno help me to do this.  To a certain extent, you probably do this same thing. What’s your Taco Bueno?

Published in:Todd Womble |on April 17th, 2012 |3 Comments »

A Pedagogy of Anal Retentiveness

To proudly proclaim to your students when you walk into the classroom that you are anal retentive and a bit obsessive is one of the many luxuries bestowed upon the Freshman Composition instructor. Personally I delight in the fact that those students that are brave enough to take my 1302 class after a harrowing experience the previous semester have been successfully infected by the contagion that is my own anal retentiveness. It gives me great pleasure when, after a month or two of nothing but dress slacks and drab neckties, the students see me stride into the classroom in rather pedestrian khakis and an almost scandalously informal short-sleeve shirt. I can easily register the shock on their faces. It is the same expression that greets me when I fail to show up to the door at precisely ten ‘til the hour. The routine and the infallibility of the system of norms that has been mechanically established every day for the past few months has been disturbed, and there is a little small voice in everyone’s head that is present in all good obsessives that whispers quietly that something is not right.

We have all had that professor, instructor, high school teacher, or coach that has figuratively beaten a rule that, although it may seem arbitrary at the time, becomes so intricately lodged in our psyches that it cannot be easily flushed out even in adulthood. The use of the subjective “I” in argumentative writing is something that is seemingly taboo in Texas high schools and when given the opportunity to use it in college writing those students that have had this rule successfully drilled into their craniums have a reaction that is nothing less than visceral. Rarely can they use the subjective “I,” even when it is explicitly permitted and most inevitably balk at the abyss of this infinite freedom of expression. This kind of “banal systemization” is not uncommon. I for one had the pleasure of having a philosophy professor at Texas Tech University scar me for life when he kindly informed me that “I had no opinion and no voice” and that all he needed to see in the papers I submitted were the synthesized points of view of experts, those that had a degree. This kind of intellectual hazing undoubtedly breeds anal retentiveness, but it is not a successful pedagogy.

A pedagogy of anal retentiveness necessarily involves the instructor becoming a contagion in regards to their students. I once, in a jocular manner and after several attempts at trying to explain why the phrase “a lot,” (one of my own pet peeves) at least in the particular paper, was a phrase that was not acceptable, resorted to telling the student that whenever they thought about or actually typed the phrase “a lot” in one of their papers they should instantly picture me grasping my temples in anguish and curling in the fetal position crying. The constant attempts to explain to this particular student that in the context of their argument, one that involved a potential audience of scientists, that the phrase would appear unprofessional were all in vain. The student was well-aware, after constant explanation, why the phrase was unacceptable, but nevertheless would forget and place it in their papers. It wasn’t until they, with the help of the image of me in anguish, were able to remember to refrain from using this phrase. In this situation, my own anal retentiveness regarding a phrase of no consequence had been successfully injected into the mind of the student. My own obsession revolving around the fact that when the phrase “a lot” is used in a paper that all is not right with the world, became a contagion.

Anal retentiveness, used in a colloquial sense, involves an obsessive attention to detail that stems from a desire for control and structure. It is the compulsion that fosters the correct use and placement of topic, transition, and return sentences and breeds logically cohesive paragraphs that stem from a systematic thesis statement. It is a thing of structure that allows for, if not uninhibited freedom, the possibility of the conditions for expression. For instance, every day my students are well-aware that I arrive ten minutes early so that I can write up the schedule and announcements on the dry-erase board. They are well aware that this “pocket” of time will be structured around preparation. They are aware, because I am a good anal retentive, that the schedule and announcements are always written on the far right hand side of the board. The structure and the progression of dates are well-known to them. Even the contents of this minimal portion of the dry-erase board, the schedule, can be deduced before I begin to write. It will always include what is already on the syllabus, which they may or may not have read. The key here is that they can know, only up to a point, what will fill the structure of the schedule. I might add or change a due date or put in a piece of homework, always only a little bit of course. The context cannot always be determined completely. There is always room for expansion or addition.  The content of the structure can never be completely saturated. They are aware what should be there, what form it will take, where it will be in proximity to other things, but they are never fully aware of the exact contents.

The structure of a student’s paper can be viewed in much the same way. The students, through banal systemization, read and listen to examples of how to answer the “so what?” question. They are well aware, at least I always hope, of the practical reason why this question needs to be answered. They are well aware, at least in relative proximity to other key components of their paper, where the answer to this question should “go.” They can narrow down the location, at least in the way I teach it, and know that it is after an overview of the issue, but before the thesis statement. The structure of the contents of the paper, after constant practice, is burned into the back of their brains, along with their lovely professor who becomes that voice in the depths of their head that prompts them never to leave a paper without a proper “so what?”. But the context can never be fully saturated. Like the They Say, I Say templates, there is always a subjective gap where, although the space where it occurs might be prescribed and determined, is always their own. The goal of a pedagogy of anal retentiveness is to be obsessed with structure. The goal is to know, at least to a level of certainty, where key components of a paper “go” so that an outline of sorts is manifest immediately and the paper becomes something like a grid for their thoughts and/or argument to be poured into and properly sifted. A pedagogy of anal retentiveness, contrary to popular opinion, is not totalitarian. To become a contagion for your students, so that you (or perhaps the textbook even) become a voice in their heads compelling them almost unconsciously to do something doesn’t restrict their ideas or their arguments. To know that your paper needs a “so what” and that it must go somewhere in the vicinity of “right here” and that it must logically connect a previous portion of your paper to the next, doesn’t eliminate the fact that the gap can never be fully closed. The student must always fill in the remainder.

Published in:Charlie Hicks |on April 10th, 2012 |2 Comments »

Semi-Provocative Article Title: With not one, not two, but three sweeping words as sub-title.

I am, as usual, a bit late to this game.  I am crafting my very first article for submission to a peer-reviewed journal.  The plan is to complete the piece by early summer, coinciding with the time when my teaching load goes on vacation.  The projected article actually stems from a short, five-page essay I wrote for a literature class in my doctoral studies coursework here.  My instructor had offered glowing feedback and ample, fruitful recommendations of what additional directions I could take, both in terms of supplemental research and professorial collaboration within our department.  In short, I need to expand and extend.

First of all, this entry is not meant to read as an immodest platform for my personal gloating (so, consequently, I apologize if it comes off in this manner).  No, I only recount the above accolades because I want to learn more about this task of scholarly article-writing, about its process(es).  I want it to seem less veiled, less covert a practice for those like me, those still sitting in a classroom as a student.  And maybe it already is part of our premeditated curriculum; maybe I am just tardy to this party, too.

As if on cue, my quiet thoughts were recently acknowledged.  Last week, an e-mail came through the wire about a dissertation, thesis, and ‘longer-paper’ writing workshop happening in a few weeks.  This is brilliant.  This seems like the proverbial step-in-the-right-direction for me, for my personal demystification.  Now, I do not know the origins of sessions like this, but they seem designed to elucidate, to enhance the contemporaneous gaining of scholarly experience, to run parallel to our other intellectual pursuits as graduate students.  One could argue that learning how to write a peer-reviewed journal article comes by simply reading loads of other peer-reviewed journal articles.  This sounds straightforward and direct.  After all, as an undergraduate and graduate creative writing student, my exposure to the published literary ‘greats’ that came before, being their witness, holding them as models, was a time-tested and positive practice that worked in improving my own fiction writing.  Indeed that worked, to an extent, but it needed buttressing by the nitty-gritty of peer workshopping, the get-your-hands-dirty kind of text-delving exemplified by exchanging papers and, much more importantly, ideas.

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I want to cite theory and criticism comprehensively and with either great respect or oblique disapproval, when appropriate.

I want to invent no less than one new term, something to add to the long-established nomenclature of my field.  It should end, obviously, with one of the following suffixes:  -esque, -zation, or the all-powerful, yet seemingly anachronistic, -ism.

I want to write long, lucid sentences: those curling serpentine things, scaled with stout, shiny language.

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In an article entitled “’Predatory’ Online Journals Lure Scholars Who Are Eager to Publish” from the March 4th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Stratford directs readers’ attention to the proliferation of so-called pay-to-publish peer reviewed journals.  As mentioned earlier, I came from a creative writing background, and thus I had a keen awareness of outfits such as Xlibris, Lulu, and iUniverse, companies willing to publish my collection of short stories for the banal ‘nominal fee.’  These firms, however, made no secret about what they did, how they crafted their intentions and/or business models.  In Stratford’s piece, however, he suggests shadier dealings: that pay-to-publish academic journals add professors, unknowingly, to their editorial boards or by burying extravagant publishing fees so cryptically within their website that authors often only discover the excessive fees until receiving some staggering ‘invoice.’  Through a deeper uncovering of editorial board recruiting practices, ‘accept-all-article’ policies, and the prevalent over-charges existent, Stratford’s article was a well-timed and quite welcomed article for me.

Forwarding the Chronicle piece to some of my mentors and colleagues, I subsequently learned about things like pay-to-publish academic-level presses as well as some potentially dubious conferences out there.  None were aware, though, of the likes of such ’suspicious’ journals mentioned in the Stratford article.  Maybe readers of this blog, by now, have already seen Stratford’s Chronicle write-up (or the almost equally interesting 29 reader comments that follow it) and do not need my evocation of it here.  I cite it more for the fact that it is a small, but characteristic, part in a much larger machine that I know very little about operating.

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A classmate, colleague, and fellow English Matters blogger, Todd Womble, introduced me to a useful website, created by the University of Pennsylvania English Department, that categorizes calls for conference papers by the numerous (though seemingly not all) sub-disciplines of English studies.  This came about following the posting of his own blog entry a few weeks back, “This is Not Breaking Bad.” While a basic library search, even just a few Google clicks, would have yielded this same resource, I’m sure, the personal and trusted guarantee that came along with Todd’s information could never replicate under an electronic search.  What does this mean?  The navigation and creation of my extracurricular academic activities is not a wholly personal affair nor comes about from a mere repetitive style of practice.  Additionally, it might also mean that the extracurricular should become the curricular.  I am a novice and I may be needy.  It helps me when I find things out from someone else in the program, whatever their level/ranking/distinction, rather than just doing a search on my own, shooting from the hip, into the vastness.

The parallel here to my own 1301 courses is rampant, apparent, and beautiful: you know, all that business about entering into discourse communities and such.  An overarching goal is to help my students seek guidance, if not from me then from others.  So, I need to be more cognizant of the moments when this same type of guidance is seeking me out, in my own continued studies of English.  Working on this peer-reviewed journal submission will really help me to breach this doctoral discourse community in a punctual fashion.  I hate being late.

Published in:Brian Carroll |on April 2nd, 2012 |No Comments »