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Jack Solomon

America's Got Sentiment

Posted by Jack Solomon Expert Sep 19, 2019

As Sonia Maasik and I work to complete the tenth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A., I have been paying special attention to American popular music, which will be a topic for a new chapter that we're adding to the book. While our approach will be semiotic rather than esthetic, part of my research has involved listening to music as well as analyzing its cultural significance, and as everyone knows, there's nothing like YouTube to put just about everything you want to hear at your literal fingertips. Which brings me to the subject of this blog.

 

Well, you know how YouTube is. Even as you watch one video you are regaled with a menu of others that can take you on a merry chase following one musical white rabbit after another. And so it came to pass that I found myself watching some famous clips from the Britain's Got Talent and America's Got Talent franchises. Which means that I finally saw that audition of Susan Boyle's, which, while it wasn't a joke, started the whole world crying. With joy.

 

Talk about fairy-tale happy endings! Take a little Cinderella, mix in the Ugly Duckling, and sprinkle in a lot of A Star is Born, and there you have the Susan Boyle story. I'd say that you couldn't make this sort of thing up, except for the fact that it has been made up time and again, only this time it's true. And it helps a lot that the woman can really sing.

 

The semiotic significance of this tale is rather more complicated than it looks, however. On the surface, it looks simply like a sentimental triumph of authenticity over glitter, of the common folk over entertainment royalty. And, of course, that is a part of its significance—certainly of its enormous popular appeal. Just look at the visual semiotics: the glamorous judges, sneering Simon (I'm certain that he has made himself the designated bad guy to add melodrama to the mix), and the audience on the verge of laughter in the face of this ungainly, middle-aged woman who says she wants to be a star. And then she blows the house away.

 

But here is where things get complicated. For one thing, even as the celebrity judges fell all over themselves confessing to Ms. Boyle how ashamed they felt for initially doubting what they were about to hear, they managed to imply that it would have been OK to ridicule her if it had turned out that she couldn't sing, that losers deserve to be humiliated. After all, that's what those buzzers are for.

 

And then there is the notoriously oxymoronic nature of reality television, its peculiar mixture of authenticity and theatricality, its scripted spontaneity. One begins to wonder what the judges knew in advance about Susan Boyle; certainly she didn't get to that stage of the competition by accident. For to get past the thousands of contestants who audition in mass cattle calls for these shows, you have to have something that the judges want, and this can include not only outstanding talent but unexpectedly outstanding talent, the ugly ducklings that provide plenty of occasion for all those dewy-eyed camera shots of audience members and judges alike who are swept away by the swans beneath the skin. The whole thing has become such a successful formula for the franchise that when, a few years after the Susan Boyle sensation, a soprano/baritone duo named Charlotte and Jonathan came onto the stage, Simon Cowell made sure to quip, in a loud stage whisper to the judge beside him, "Just when you think things couldn't get any worse" (funny how the camera caught that), only to have Jonathan steal the show with a breathtaking performance that Sherrill Milnes might envy. Call me cynical, but somehow I think that Cowell knew perfectly well what was going to happen.

 

But let's not forget the designated duds either, the poor souls who get picked out of the cattle calls in order to be laughed at later, to be buzzed off the stage. After all, with so many truly talented people in the world, surely there would be enough to have nothing but superb performers on these shows. But failure is part of the formula here as well as success, for schadenfreude, too, sells. 

 

So the semiotic question isn't whether Susan Boyle can sing; nor is there any question that without Britain's Got Talent she would almost certainly not be enjoying a spectacular career. The semiotic question involves what is going on when television shows like Britain's Got Talent and America's Got Talent play upon the vicarious yearnings of their viewers to shine in the spotlight in a mass society where fewer and fewer such opportunities really exist—even as those same viewers sneer at the failures. Thus, as with so much of reality television, there is an uncomfortable love/hate relationship going on here, a sentimental identification with the winners alongside a derisive contempt for the losers. And in a ruthlessly hyper-competitive society where more and more people through no fault of their own are falling into the loser category, this is of no small significance.


And I have to add that I'm certain that if a young Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen had appeared on America's Got Talent, both would have been buzzed off the stage.

 

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 1868137 by Pexels, used under Pixabay License

 

During a visit to the Bread Loaf School of English in August, a place I have taught on and off for nearly thirty years and one whose natural beauty (in Vermont’s lush Green Mountains) always renews my spirit, I got to attend a workshop put on by Bread Loaf students. Titled “An Anti-Racist Teach In,” the workshop lasted two hours and engaged everyone in the audience (probably 40 to 45 of us) in a series of activities designed to make us more aware of racist words and deeds and to help us develop ways to combat them.

 

The leaders began by introducing us to their “community contract”:

  • Be willing to sit with your discomfort.
  • Don’t assume. Ask questions to clarify.
  • Speak from your own experience.
  • Remember, impact is more important than intention.
  • Be conscious not to shift attention away from people and situations that are negatively impacted by systems of oppression by focusing on those who are privileged by them.
  • Expect unfinished business.

 

These statements gave us much to think about and to discuss in small groups, which were all, thankfully, diverse. The leaders also asked us to carefully consider some terms and, perhaps, come to a new understanding of their meanings: race, racism, whiteness, anti-racism, postionality, privilege, intersectionality, microaggressions, and white supremacy. While these terms are all familiar to me, our discussion of them added a lot of nuance and what Wayne Booth called “overstanding” so that I came away with new information not only about the terms themselves but about their effect on real people in real places. I was particularly struck by our discussion of “microaggression,” defined as “small daily insults and indignities against marginalized or oppressed people.” What I learned was how such small things always accumulate, becoming overwhelming and intolerable, and how such “small daily indignities” felt to the people in my group.

 

After these discussions, we went outside and paired up in various configurations to do some role playing that involved a LOT of listening really closely to others, a lot of careful observation, and a lot of making a space that was inviting and open. The student leaders (all high school teachers) had worked out every detail and led us in easy yet sure-footed ways. Brilliant. And effective.

 

I came away grateful not only for what I learned but grateful for these teachers, and for those of us attending the workshop, all now back in classrooms across the country trying very hard to implement anti-racist teaching. I’m wondering if readers of this post did any work this summer on anti-racist teaching and, if so, if you would share your experiences with us. We all have so much to learn—and also the responsibility to do so, and to pass it on.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3513653 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License

 

On August 31, at about 2:30 in the afternoon Eastern Time, Nancy Johnson, Professor of English at Ohio State University, shuffled off this mortal coil, leaving so very many of us bereft and grieving. Nancy (as I never learned not to call her!) was a great teacher. A GREAT teacher.

 

As I flew to Ohio that day in a futile attempt to be with her, I kept thinking of that part of her identity. Like all of us, she was many things: daughter, sister, mother, partner, writer, reader, researcher, friend, gardener, artist. And more. She was all those things, along with being a magnificent teacher, as legions of her students will testify. I first met Nancy at a conference in 1980, I think, and then I had the great good fortune to be on the hiring committee that offered her a position at the University of British Columbia in 1981, where she taught until 1990. I remember her impish grin, her quick wit, the funny spin she put on almost everything. I remember her kindness, her way of being absolutely present in the moment. And I remember her passion for pedagogy and for students. Her intense attentiveness to students was a gift that kept on giving: I have seen her, patiently and quietly, draw out of students insights they wouldn’t have imagined they could have, ideas for articles and talks and dissertations that they had never dreamed of.

 

So. I’ve been thinking this week not only of Nancy, of her brilliance in the classroom and of her deep caring for students, but also of all great teachers. Somehow, in this time of near despair at a world spun out of control, hovering on the brink of disaster and presided over by a person without a shred of integrity, thinking of good teachers—of those who in Marge Piercy’s words do “the work of the world” and keep on doing it in spite of everything—lifts my spirits and touches my heart. So here’s to all those teachers and to one teacher in particular: Nancy Johnson.

 

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 768458 by Free-Photos, used under the Pixabay License

Caitlin Martin (recommended by Elizabeth Wardle and Jason Palmeri) is a PhD candidate studying composition and rhetoric at Miami University (Ohio), where she also serves as graduate assistant director of the Howe Center for Writing Excellence. She has taught courses in composition theory and business writing in addition to face-to-face and online first-year composition and advanced writing courses. Her primary research interests include threshold concept theories and conceptions of writing, writing-related faculty development, and writing assessment.

 

What is the most important skill you aim to provide your students?

No matter what class I’m teaching, my ultimate goal is to help students develop as reflective practitioners (Shon). Reflection isn’t just crucial to learning about writing, it’s crucial to most learning situations we all encounter. I want the students I work with to be able to ask good questions about their knowledge and experiences so they can determine how to bring that to bear on their current and future educational experiences. When I first started teaching, I struggled with teaching this because I had never really been given adequate support to reflect on my own experiences. I studied reflective self assessment in order to teach for transfer for my MA thesis, and it helped me to think about reflection not as a genre I ask students to write, but as a strategy that is useful at all stages of writing a given product. Providing multiple opportunities for reflection also helps me learn about my students and meet them where they are, which is important to me as a teacher.

 

How do you hope higher education will change in the next ten years?

One change I hope to see in all education, not just higher education, is a shift away from deficit models of learning. Instead, I hope more educators will adopt strength-based models of education. Elaine Maimon, President of Governors State University in Chicago, explains this model as “building on what is right about students rather than fixing what is wrong” in her book Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Instead of focusing on what students can’t do, it can be really powerful to think about what they can do and to consider how a course might build on that existing knowledge or set of experiences. This model also more accurately reflects how learning works. People aren’t empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge. They have lived experiences that influence how they encounter the worlds, and then they integrate new experiences, ideas, beliefs, and values with those experiences. It doesn’t serve learning when we as teachers only focus on what someone isn’t currently capable of doing. 

 

What do you think instructors don't know about educational publishing but should? 

When I was offered the opportunity to be a Bedford New Scholar, I didn’t know much about the publishing world except ongoing conversations about rising textbook costs and some skepticism about the publishing industry’s role in developing curricula. I imagine that other instructors, especially those who haven’t had the opportunity to meet and work with publishers, might view the industry similarly. I was really excited to learn how Bedford/St. Martin’s values disciplinary expertise when developing its textbooks and products. The editors I’ve worked with care about helping authors translate their research into textbooks meaningfully. I was also completely unaware of the amount of focus group research they conduct when developing new projects. They have really committed themselves to responding to teacher needs by finding a variety of ways to figure out what those needs are and to work with experts who can help meet those needs. I don’t think that’s something most of us think about when we consider whether to adopt a textbook.

 

What's it like to be a part of the Bedford New Scholars program?

Being part of the Bedford New Scholars program has been a great opportunity to learn about the educational publishing industry and learn from other New Scholars about how writing is taught in a variety of contexts. But most importantly, it was a really energizing and validating experience. Of course, it’s always nice to be recognized for my work by my mentors who nominated me. But there was a really awesome sense of encouragement as we shared our Assignments that Work during our summit in Boston, and I left the summit being really excited about my scholarship and my teaching because of the ideas I’d heard from others and the feedback I’d gotten on my own assignment. I have enjoyed this opportunity to meet and learn from others who I otherwise might not ever cross paths with. 

 

 

Caitlin’s Assignment That Works

During the Bedford New Scholars Summit, each member presented an assignment that had proven successful or innovative in their classroom. Below is a brief synopsis of Caitlin's assignment. You can view the full details here: Teaching Revision and Research through Full-Class Collaboration.

 

I chose to share my approach to teaching research using full-class collaboration, which I explored in a first-semester composition course that focused on research-based writing, typically by developing a research project over multiple stages throughout the semester. The first time I taught the course, I saw my students struggle with using sources in their papers and discovered that most of them had never been taught how to take notes, so I created an assignment in which we read and took notes on the same resources together and then wrote an argumentative paper as a class. Students then revised the draft on their own by trying out what I call “radical revision”: rewriting everything in a given paragraph except one sentence. This assignment doesn’t fit with the FYC curricula I teach now, but the semester I used this approach is still one of my favorite teaching memories, and I try to find ways to bring successful aspects of this assignment into all the courses I teach.

 

Learn more about the Bedford New Scholars advisory board on the Bedford New Scholars Community page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How many times were you asked to write about this topic when you started a new school year? In my memory, this question came up every single year, and every year I had a hard time coming up with a response. One year I got to go to a YWCA camp, but mostly I reported on what I read. And I guess I’m still at it, since I’ve read some very good books this summer, which I will be writing about in future posts.

 

But in fact, I did some other things besides read. I wrote like a demon, revising The Everyday Writer for its 7th edition [!] and The St. Martin’s Handbook for its 9th, and working on a couple of essays. For one of those essays, I drove from my home on the northern California coast inland to the town of Willets to interview Sally Miller Gearhart, feminist activist for gay rights, the environment, and social justice, at her home. Now 88, Gearhart is renowned for her very early linking of feminism, rhetoric, and environmentalism, a linkage she explores in her groundbreaking article “The Womanization of Rhetoric.” I will write more about this interview soon, but below is a picture of Gearhart, wearing a T-shirt with Wanderground, the name of her most famous sci-fi novel, on it. What a woman!

 

 In addition to reading and writing, I enjoyed working on the board of directors for the Kronos Quartet, the amazing group that has changed the very definition of “string quartet” with their ever-growing repertoire and over 900 commissions. They are now working with third graders in San Francisco, aiming to inspire them to take up an instrument, and are working to complete a huge project called “50 for the Future,” fifty new commissioned works (half by women, half by men) for string quartet that will all be open source, available to anyone anywhere to download and play. For this project, Kronos has partnered with Carnegie Hall, and I and other board members have worked hard to raise the funds necessary to pull this off: it takes a lot of money to make music available for free! You can learn more about this project here—and listen to some of their spectacular music.

 

Finally, I had a week-long visit from my sister and my two beloved grandnieces, Audrey and Lila, now 15 and 12. Audrey was in charge of our schedule, and she had us moving every minute of every day! We went “thrifting” in Gualala and Mendocino (where she bought six pieces of clothing for $21 and was thrilled), fed giraffes at the B Bryan Animal Preserve (pictured above), watched Napoleon Dynamite, which the girls had never seen, took hikes, and every night walked out onto the ocean bluffs to watch the sun set and the moon rise before going back to soak in the hot tub.

 

So, I had a fun and productive summer, and I hope you did too. Now I am nostalgic once again for the beginning of school. This is my favorite time of year, when the new class arrives, and I’m hoping to visit Stanford in a week or so just to meet and greet some new students. My heart is always in the classroom—and I’m wishing you a wonderful teaching year.

 

Image Credit: Andrea Lunsford