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Friday, September 26, 2014

Embrace the Remix, Cultivate Creativity

I love being in a place of learning! Yesterday, we had the good fortune of meeting with Dr. Henry Jenkins, a media scholar from the University of Southern California. He sat in on our Teaching First Year Composition Practicum and spoke with us about the ever-changing role of media and technology in our lives. He writes about participatory culture and digital media.

As educators, it is our task to keep up with the times while maintaining academic standards. We need to make our information relevant in order for it to matter to our students.

Dr. Jenkins explained to us that a lot of educators and academics he meets find it difficult to incorporate new technologies into the classroom, and they are baffled by his willingness to embrace them.

“Yes, it's true,” he told us. “I learned how to think in graduate school. But I have also kept on thinking since then.” I thought that was a profound statement that speaks to many people’s reluctance to flow with the changing times. Rather than hold back the tide, Dr. Jenkins leans into digital culture. After all, it's here to stay.

Dr. Jenkins reminded us that everything is a remix.  Even Melville was a master re-mixer of his time, shifting genres from chapter to chapter in Moby Dick. We may not see it this way now, but it was revolutionary for the time. So what did Dr. Jenkins do to get people reading this classic book? He asked them to re-write it. 

He calls this participatory learning: getting students engaged in a text by asking them to apply it to their world. What would the whale trade look like today? Who would Captain Ahab be? But what Dr. Jenkins is really promoting with this project is giving students the chance to pursue their own interests and passions. This is where we find the key to learning.

Unfortunately, our education system does not make writing accessible to the youth. As Dr. Jenkins remarked, “If we taught sex education like we do writing, we’d die out in a generation!”

But actually, according to Dr. Jenkins, this generation writes a lot. They just don’t think of it as such because it’s not writing in the traditional sense. Maybe it’s a blog post about the Jonas Brothers or a response on a World of Warcraft forum; the internet houses hundreds of different ways for people to connect and communicate with one another. Because this writing is not happening with pen and paper or in a classroom, does that make it any less valuable? And how can we bring the kinds of communications that happen naturally over the internet into the classroom?

I was intrigued by Dr. Jenkins' stance towards social networks and digital media as a learning tool, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom behind it (speaking of social networks, you can now follow The Restless Writer on Facebook!). Why not use a blog post or a Youtube video to explore the rhetorical situation? Instead of banning Wikipedia, how about analyzing how it works by tracing the history of a Wikipedia page? Digital culture can be a friendly point of entry for students to embrace learning and writing.  

According to Dr. Jenkins, and I agree with him, we should be moving towards a creative society, and anything that we can do to get people thinking and acting creatively is valuable.

As someone who has apprehensions about the internet and social media on the whole, I found his point of view fascinating. But what will happen to reading books? I asked him. The novel isn’t going anywhere, he reassured me. We need to keep in mind that communication is the key, without getting caught up on the particular mode of communication. There are multiple literacies, and each mode of communication serves a different purpose. How-to books, for example, are probably not as effective as how-to videos. On the other hand, novels as a self-reflexive form are valuable for conveying the "inter-states" of being. Novels ask a reader to imagine what a world looks like, while film asks their audience to figure out what the characters are thinking. They both require imagination, the key to creativity.

And so, fellow writers and friends, I’ll leave you with this last question: 
What does writing do that other technologies don’t?

Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll check out this short video with Dr. Jenkins!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Notes on Ira Glass

Every week feels like a big week! A lot has been happening and I am getting big information about writing and creativity all the time! Inspiration abounds...

Last weekend, I was able to see Ira Glass speak/perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Pete as part of WUSF's 50th birthday celebration.  As an avid This American Life listener, I was psyched about seeing the man behind the voice. But I had no idea how relevant his performance was going to be!

As it turns out, all he wanted to talk about was STORY! And how lucky for me since I am currently getting a masters degree in exactly that!!

He started off by telling us that everyone knows that the world is going to shit. We are living in a crazy and despairing world.

Does that mean it that our work as storytellers is less important?
NO! In fact, he claims that there has never been a better time to do creative work! That was pretty heartening news for a girl who just started her first semester of a 3 year graduate program in the arts!

He also let us in on some secrets about what makes a story good and how to keep your listeners/readers engaged:

Your story needs to be a combination of PLOT (action) and IDEA (vs summary and synthesis). They each create an appetite for the other. You also need to hang QUESTIONS within the ACTION. This creates narrative suspense. Also, readers want to know what it FEELS like to live inside your world. SHOW them what it's like to live there.

Questions writers should ask of their writing;
How should the reader relate to this story?
What is the underlying universal emotional that anyone can connect to?

He told us that it took him a long time to sound on the radio the way he does in real life. I think that's what makes him so appealing. Sounding natural is a hard thing to do on the page, but I'm working on it.

Takeaway messages:

  • Not using humor is like giving up a weapon.
  • You need to shoot 60 hours of footage in order to get 5 minutes of gold. If you want lightning to strike, you need to walk around in the rain for a looong time.
  • Spend TIME and MONEY on your story, learning about the characters and finding 1) what's amusing and 2) where are the emotional hits.
  • A writer has to KNOW when they are surprised/curious/amused so they can tell their reader. This mimics real conversation.
  • It's a good thing when things go bad.
  • Run towards something at full speed, even if it's just a hunch. You never know what you'll find there.
  • Action, action, action, question! If it's a great story, all of the questions get answered in one single moment.

After the show, we all went to get drinks at a place called Ceviche in downtown St. Pete. We closed down the place, and then a few of us may or may not have ended up swimming in the ocean......... My extroverted self was thrilled!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Let's All Be a Little More Like Jane Goodall

It helps, when starting a big endeavor like an MFA, to be clear about the goals you wish to achieve by the end. I'm taking a class called "Graduate Studies in the 21st Century" which has been very helpful in helping us map our way.

In the name of accountability, these are the goals I have come up with:

  1. Improve my writing skills. This is why I'm here. I think I'm a pretty good writer. I want to be better.
  2. Engage in a community of writers by developing relationships with professors, peers, and off-campus events and groups. Before coming to the MFA program, I was part of a few writing groups but again, I wanted more. Now I have 10 pairs of eyes looking over my work and giving me feedback! And one of those people is the talented and impressive Heather Sellers! Yes, I am a lucky girl. Also, I have already attended a writing workshop by the Spoken Word poets of Tampa and I hope to get more involved in this beautiful and vibrant community.
  3. Further my development as a teacher, by actually teaching classes but also by learning from my fabulous teachers, many of whom practice contemplative pedagogy which I love! Learning lots from brilliant people...
  4. Explore my career opportunities as a writer. Whether that means transcription work, marketing, editing... I'm excited to learn about all of it! And hopefully I can even do an awesome internship in the field.
  5. Develop a STRONG WRITING ROUTINE. No, I don't need an MFA to do this, but I'm hoping it will help.

It's a hard life being a hyperactive person and a writer at the same time. But then again, when I see people like the incredibly inspiring Jane Goodall (who came to campus this week!), I realize that you can lead a highly productive and active life, and also.. write books! She's done amazing things with her life: she's changed the way we view primates and ourselves, released countless chimps back into the wild, and written 15 books along the way! 

That's one badass lady.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Set your life on fire

I've survived my second week as a graduate student! It's been intense, but in a good way. This week, somewhere in the midst of mountains of reading, not to mention lesson planning and responding to student emails, I had an epiphany.

This is how I roll.

Although I was eating lunch at my desk and I hadn't seen the sun in many days, I felt focused and clear. Every minute of every day was essential and could not be wasted. I was ON. I managed to get all of my schoolwork done and my classes planned, and I even had time to tinker around with a new creative piece. All of a sudden, everything else seemed less important. And I realized that I've been worried for nothing. This is what I'm here for.

In my previous life, I put all my energy into my social life. I made that my priority, and I aced it. I was good at being busy, flitting around from work to dance class to a dinner date. Oftentimes I double-booked myself and made it happen. 

What I'm beginning to realize is that, even if I don't have that crazy schedule anymore, I still have energy. It's up to me to decide how to use it. 

These days, I wake up around 8 and make something delicious for breakfast. This is a good time to banter with my roommate about something cute that the cats did or what we thought of the reading for class later. I pack a lunch, load my book bag into my bike basket, and head over to campus. This is where I'll stay for the rest of the day, usually oscillating between my office and the library. This might sound lame, but classes are like mini study breaks, a place to see friends and catch up. Of course, there's also learning to be done. Obviously. In the late afternoon, I catch a dance class at the gym or take a walk in the woods near campus. Then it's home for dinner and back to the library for a few more hours. Bedtime is usually around 1 in the morning and it starts all over again.

Exciting life, right?

But it is! My creative writing teacher asked us a simple question on the first day: What are you on fire about? And I'm happy to report that this - this! - is what I'm on fire about. I'm forced to spend most of my time in the service of words! And that makes me happy.

We'll see how I'm feeling once the semester really kicks into gear, when I have 50 papers to grade and my own 50 pages to write. But for now, all I can do is lay the foundation for a solid work/life situation which will hopefully help me weather the storms when they pass through... 

Let's just hope I don't turn into this guy. I can see the headline now: From social butterfly to reclusive hermit. That could be a great name for my memoir!