Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Changing Paradigms

You may have seen this video before; it's been floating about various social networks for a while now. This infographic animate was created from a speech given by Sir Ken Robinson upon his acceptance of a Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Royal Society of Arts in London. It's a fantastic dissection of what's fundamentally not working in western education today.

As an educator, this gives me certain grounds for pause. I am very much imbricated in this industrialized, machine-like system based on a twisted, out-dated version of Enlightenment ideals. But not passively. This is what I do to change the educational paradigm, one class session at a time.

Pose Questions
As I've discussed earlier, posing questions to my students is a cornerstone of my teaching technique. Some find this off-putting and even hostile, at least a first, but I also make it clear that students can pose me questions. In fact, I encourage and sometimes even require it. Class sessions are regularly punctuated with "Avez-vous des questions ?" (Do you have any questions?) and I always do my best to respond meaningfully to those questions. Some times these are "teachable moments," either a particular problem that lets the class and instructor explore a concept together or a bridge to new information.

For instance, a recent session started with the question "Que feriez-vous avec mille dollars ?" (What would you do with a $1000?). The main objective was to allow students some personalized time to express their wishes and use the conditional mood. In response to this question, one student stated they would buy an iPad with a special case. But how do you say "case" in French? There are dozens of ways, and they're pretty context-dependent. But this was a perfectly teachable moment. I opened WordReference and with the class we started sorting through the possibilities. Way down the page, eureka!

casen(sheath)étui nm
Put your glasses back in their case.
Remets tes lunettes dans leur étui.

I never flinch from admitting I don't know an answer; it's always a springboard to a "Let's find out!" moment.  (Or, at the very least from a "Why don't you look that up and share your findings with the class?" moment.)

More than that, one of my very first lessons with students of any level is how to pose questions in French. Class is often a chorus of Comment dit-on ...? (How do you say...?) and that's okay. I really love it when students begin asking Pourquoi? (Why?) and Mais comment...? (But how...?)

Have Fun (and Be Creative)
Critical (self-)reflection is an effective teaching tool, but all work and no play makes Noah a dull prof. Moreover, students are more than just cogitating machines; they have feelings, like anxiety and pride, and they enjoy being entertained. I work hard to have fun in class. Some times this is a simple as making an slightly off-color joke. ("Automobile traffic" in French is la circulation - like in your veins; but le trafic refers to drugs. In our lessons about cars, many student unwittingly complain about the local drug trafficking problem on campus.) Some times this is out-and-out games, like Simon Says, or Jeopardy! Mostly, I seek to create an atmosphere that encourages students to relax and therefore feel free to make mistakes.

You read that right, I want my students to screw up. Because mistakes are the beginning of learning. Every one messes up; the key is what you do next. In a positive, structured atmosphere like the one I try to create in my classrooms, mistakes are acknowledged but more so are corrections. I try to keep the former to a minimum, a cocked head (like a puppy), a half-breathed "Euh...?", a simple prompt to indicate "That's not quite right..." But corrections are praised, and loudly. I applaud; I laugh; I constantly give thumbs up.

Related to fun, creativity and personalization play an important role in my courses. The ability to express your own meaning, even simply, in a foreign language is quite an achievement. To accomplish this, I seek to find the right balance between structure (often, prompting questions) and open-ended tasks. My students interview each other a lot. (There's that posing questions thing again.) Last unit, one class wrote letters to the president of the university suggesting what kind of building we should construct next on campus; presently, I have another class writing reviews of a panoply of Francophone movies, many of which I've never seen before. Last summer, students created guided tours of Francophone destinations and crafted websites to promote them.

Which leads me to the last point:

Make Connections
For me, the pinnacle of education is the ability to make meaningful connections between people, cultures and various fields of inquiry. It's more than just getting your classmate's email address, or learning about why the French tend to have smaller cars than Americans. That's just information, trivia, just the beginning of wisdom. What I really want to see is a student create a third space that bridges the gap between two cultures. To explain to a French person why our American cars are so big and why we take them everywhere, to adapt a French poem for an American audience, to overcome misunderstanding with patience and a will towards compromise. To be more than aware, to be inquisitive, to be creative: to change the paradigm.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Want Better Myths

It's so easy to make feminist critiques of Disney heroines that they're almost straw men (if you pardon the expression).
But it bears pointing out that these misogynist depictions are bad models for males as well:
This is something right at the heart of Third-Wave feminism: that screwing women screws men in the process. A system of inequality may temporarily benefit a certain portion of the population, but when it comes to gender issues like it comes to race, being a bigot is just shooting yourself in the foot.

It may seem like I'm digressing, but bear with me here. This isn't one of those rants about how contemporary media unrealistic portrays women. It does, but I'm not here to rant about it. I'm here to address one of the primary objections I run into when I talk about the study of popular media:
"It's just a movie."
Insert "TV show," "song," "comic," etc. for "movie." These words are just stand-ins for "piece of popular culture," which decades of Ivory-Tower, canon-protecting, Dickens-Tolstoy-and-Hugo fellating white men have told you isn't worth serious study. To boot, so have decades of money-grubbing, shareholder-protecting Dow-Jones-and-Hollywood boot-licking white men have done the same.

They're wrong. These things are worth very close examination because they make up our culture - our daily lives and the attitudes we carry around to both view and shape them - much more than "High Art." (There really isn't such a thing.) Art is art, and you can use the same set of tools to take apart a poem Robert Frost as you can, say, a film from Disney Studios. Mind you, the former is often a lot more rewarding, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't put Walt's work and legacy just as much under the microscope. In fact, considering how many people could quote a Disney film faster than a Frost poem, I'd say it's more important to do so.

And plenty of people have done so. These are the myths that we use to build our society. Myths are very important, and even if today we call them "TV Shows" and "Rock Stars" and "Movies" this doesn't change either their social importance or the basic tools of narrative that we can use to talk about them. And let's face it, a lot of myths we keep telling ourselves are messed up. I'm not talking about such banal things as physical violence (which Disney movies, even early ones, have in droves) or drug-use (anyone seen Dumbo?), but rather sexual and political violence (Cinderella prostitutes herself, make no mistake; and Hercules is a political pawn, you know) and the opiates that mainstream movies have become with their sugary endings, simple formula and harmful gender depictions. These myths are poisonous to our psyche, yet we have been conditioned to accept them as not only natural, but ideal.

I want better myths. I want myths like Nausicaä.
Not that Nausicaä. (Well, Homer's character is pretty interesting, but let's file that away for a future discussion.) I want to talk about Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds:
This is the kind of myth I want to see more. And here's why: Nausicaä is a third-wave feminist. She's courageous and wise, active but deliberate, a leader and a listener. She sees people as people first, regardless of their upbringing or gender or nationality. She understands about process and balance, how nature works to equalize itself, and that humans unbalance their relationships both with each other and the environment at their own peril.

She also has pychic powers, the world's coolest sidekick and she gets to fly on a jet-powered ultralight.
Nausicaä is a synthesist with a curious mind. She doesn't see the world as a set of fixed categories, but rather understands that meaning comes from our actively labeling of things. At the same time, she's not relativist. She has a strong sense of moral propriety: the absolute value of life, but the need for death to define that life. She strives for truth, but the understands that silence or even misdirection can be necessary in the service of a greater good. Her first instinct is kindness but she does not flinch from action. She forgives but does not forget.

Nausicaä's journey is so also much more identifiable to us mere mortals. (How many princesses do you know?) She's coming into adulthood, learning about the consequences of her actions, striving to do what is right in the face of adversity, and especially whatever is "right" is often not so easy to discern. While Disney characters like Belle and Ariel might have been touchstone for an entire generation, their stories are ultimately still about caging those women, about taking away their dreams of freedom and replacing them with domestic stability. And at the same time, this delimiting is cast as both natural and desirable.

Nausiccaä shows the way out of the Disney trap: a fully realized character that, yes, happens to be female, but whose gender is secondary to her journey as a character, whose ideals are both complex and clear.

So, whether you are a filmmaker, a songwriter, a poet or any manner of artist: make better myths, myths as unique and powerful and refreshing as Nausiccaä.

P.S. Miyazaki's films are chock-full of great heroines, and here's a really great overview:
"Disney, Miyazaki, and Feminism: Why Western girls need Japanese animation" Christine Hoff Kraemer

Friday, October 21, 2011

What is a song?

It's time for an exercise in synchronicity, collage and reflection. All in the search of a response to a pretty contentious question: what is a song?
Yesterday afternoon, I was taking some personal time to stroll through my Google Reader account. I've got all sorts of stuff that I follow there, everyone from film critic MaryAnn Johanson to SkepChick to Maurissa Tancharoen Whedon and a bushel of online comics from xkcd to Order of the Stick. Long story short (too late!), I get a regular deluge of engaging and occasionally off-beat stuff.

To wit: on Songwriting Scene, there's a link to a 2000 Suzanne Vega interview with songwriter Jack Hardy. While Sharon Goldman, author of Songwriting Scene, wants to focus upon the false dichotomy of songs vs. poetry, the interview explores many more issues about contemporary, traditional and even ancient songwriting. I read Goldman's post, and shrugged a bit because I agree with Hardy that songs and poetry have more in common than they have differences.

But, with that article still fresh in my mind, I immediately went to Flick Filosopher and found the video below, called "Prisencolinensinainciusol" from a 1970's Italian TV show. It's a deliriously fun four-minute slice of disco-flavored big band beats and some really impressive set design and collective choreography:

But, the entire time I was watching it, I kept having this niggling feeling of both lack and doubt. Lack, because, despite the really engaging music and the fact that words are in English, the lyrics are utter gibberish. Doubt - that this was indeed a song. It reminded me of a polite disagreement I had with a fellow SongFighter, Kapitano, about his submission to the "Circle Me" fight back in July.

The lyrics' "language" is entirely made-up, though based upon real-world tongues. The first verse goes :
udu mbu adu (muza zimba)
uwa ungi iba (mudu ngu)
ngu ndu uzi (hawa yami)
wadinga wa ma (buwamu mbu)
I contend that neither of these compositions are songs. But that's easier to say than to argue convincingly, so let's start gathering some ideas.

Collage, part 1: What a song isn't
Wikipedia's "song" entry is pretty thin and seems to come down firmly on the fence. Besides, the more I thought about this idea, the more I wanted a more authoritative source of background information. When in doubt about the meaning of a word, the Oxford English Dictionary is my best tool. So, what is the OED definition of a song?
song1. The act or art of singing; the result or effect of this, vocal music; that which is sung (in general or collective sense); occas., poetry.2. a. A metrical composition adapted for singing, esp. one in rime and having a regular verse-form; occas., a poem.
So far, both "Prisencolinensinainciusol" and Kapitano's "Circle Me" still qualify as a song. They are sung and are metrical compositions adapted just for that purpose. They both have rhyme and verse form. However, this is where the Vega/Hardy interview comes into play along with the ending phrase of each OED entry. Hardy is adamant that "songwriting is poetry;" he points out that poetry was sung for millennia. The modern shift towards poetry as we know it (often free verse and/or concrete, intended as much to be read and seen on the page as to be recited) is very recent and has created a false division between two arts that are sympatico.

So, what is poetry? Back to the OED!
poetry II. (in existing use) 3. The art or work of the poet. a. With special reference to its form: Composition in verse or metrical language, or in some equivalent patterned arrangement of language; usually also with choice of elevated words and figurative uses, and option of a syntactical order, differing more or less from those of ordinary speech or prose writing. In this sense, poetry in its simplest or lowest form has been identified with versification or verse. [my emphasis].
I particular like the final entry in II.3, providing a clear and useful distinction between poetry and prose, which John William Mackail identifies as "the repeat":
1906 J. W. Mackail (Communicated), In general, the essence of poetry as an art is not so much that it is rhythmical (which all elevated language is), or that it is metrical (which not all poetry is, except by a considerable extension of the meaning of the word), as that it is patterned language. This is its specific quality as a 'fine art'. The essence of 'pattern' (in its technical use, as applied to the arts) as distinct from 'composition' generally, is that it is composition which has what is technically called a `repeat'; and it is the 'repeat' which technically differentiates poetry from non-poetry, both being (as arts) 'composition'. The 'repeat' may be obvious, as in the case of rhymed lines of equal length, or it may be more implicit, to any degree of subtlety; but if it does not exist, there is technically no poetry. The artistic power of the pattern-designer is shown in the way he deals with the problem of 'repeat'; and this is true of poetry likewise, and is probably the key (so far as one exists) to any technical definition or discussion of the art.
Still, if repetition is the key to poetry and poetry is a synonym for songwriting, this is doesn't solve my dilemma. "Prisencolinensinainciusol" and Kapitano's "Circle Me" both rely on repetition in many ways, including rhyme, assonance and consonance. But note that Mackail says "patterned language" and while he places an emphasis on "patterned," I'd like to take a closer look at "language."
2.a. In generalized sense: Words and the methods of combining them for the expression of thought.
Eureka! "For the expression of thought," this is precisely what these two compositions are lacking. They express emotion, but there's no message, no narrative, no meaning in their lyrics, merely the abstract use of vocals in the same way as any other instrument. In certain respects, the vocal melody could have been carried by a guitar, or a violin, or a Jew's Harp with the same effect. (Though I do admit, with respect to the precise tonality and timbre of the human voice, the choice of "instrument" does make a difference, sonically but not semiotically.)

Collage, part 2: What a song is
Reductive arguments are a rather poor way to craft a definition (and all definitions are arguments). If these two compositions are not songs because they don't use language, what is a song? I think Vega's and Hardy conversation holds some key points that ring true for me. In brief, songs - good songs, at least - are narrative and dialogic.

Jack Hardy states "I think that every song is potentially almost like a play." Even at their most abstract, songs tell stories, they delve deep into our Jungian subconscious and connect with some of the basic drives; they animate the most primal of archetypes. This is their power. Hardy elaborates:
JH: If you take the song as... Like when you're telling a child a bedtime story, they're not listening to you tell a story. They're in that story. They become the princess. Everything that's happening to the princess is happening to them. And to me, a song, when it's good, does that same thing, places the listener in the song. Because when you move the listener physically into the song, their emotions follow. 
This idea leads to the dialogic characteristic of songs and poetry, that is, their equally performative and interpersonal nature. Vega poses the question, "Do you ever think about how it will be perceived by your audience?" and Hardy eventually responds, "Oh yeah. I feel that a song is a two-way street." More importantly, "poetry or song should be accessible to a more general audience and shouldn't be exclusionary." Language is precisely what allows a song to be inclusive. This seems to be an essential point for Hardy, who has rather long diatribes in the interview against the increasingly egocentric and form-fascinating modern trends in both poetry and songwriting; so, language itself isn't sufficient. But it is necessary; Hardy continues his "princess" metaphor in this vein: 
Because when you move the listener physically into the song, their emotions follow. As long as they're still stuck in their cerebral self, you don't have their emotions; they're still thinking about it. They might think that this is a good song, but you're still in the ego level of "this is good/bad"; you don't really have their emotions.
If language is the point of entry, as I contend it is, then this is precisely what happens to me when I'm listening to songs with nonsense lyrics. I'm always thinking about it; I'm not feeling it. And this is somewhat ironic, because they're probably designed to be "feel-pieces," instead of "think-pieces," more akin to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor ...
... than to, say, even something as lyrically abstract as DJ Ranger Den's tone poem "Shoot Through It."

But because they're offered as "songs" and not "compositions," there is a generic disconnect. I keep waiting for a story, for meaning, for thought. In fact, I'll even start trying to construct something even where's there's no there there.

Reflection: How does a song come to be?
I've whittled out a pretty solid definition here, I think. A song is a metrical composition adapted for singing, an artistic form similar to poetry and whose lyrical element contains language.

But we've come to the "so what?" part of our ruminations. In the definition above, a simple ditty like "Ring Around the Rosy" would qualify as a song while the musical engaging and even complex "Prisencolinensinainciusol" does not. Even if we set aside any issues that such a labeling might be qualitative and/or comparative, of what use is this definition?

Well, for me, at least, this definition helps to resolve that nagging feeling that I got listening to Kapitano's "Circle Me" and the "Prisencolinensinainciusol." Maybe, for you, it might serve some other purpose. Good try it out, and let me know what shakes loose.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Speedy Thing Goes In...
Portal is a first-person puzzle-platform game, released by Valve Software in 2007 as part of a product collection called the Orange Box, (Amazon, Steam) which included Half-Life 2, its sequels Episode One and Episode Two, and Team Fortress 2. Unlike its violent (if very smart) counterparts, Portal was a revolution in gaming.

In Portal, you play as Chell (gasp! a female protagonist! and a non-sexualized one!), navigating your way through a series of physics and logic-based tests. Your only weapons are your own mind and a portal device. On most surfaces in the game, the device can place two portals, which create a visual and physical connection between two locations in three dimensional space. A very important aspect of using the portal gun is the principal of redirected but conserved momentum: objects (or people, like Chell) maintain speed when traveling through the portals. This allows the player to access otherwise impossible areas. Check out one of the most challenging and rewarding levels, Test Chamber 18:

Beyond innovative game-play, Portal is great because of its (ostensible) antagonist: the rogue A.I., GlaDOS. Voiced by Ellen McLain, GlaDOS is a sinister and snarky presence, part guide, part personal trainer and all psychopath. It seems odd to state that this is really a large source of Portal's charm: GlaDOS is the player's clue that there is a subtext to the straight-forward problem-solving we're doing. She takes over the smirking role that many of us have when playing first-person shooters, sticking her tongue firmly in her cheek for us.
Portal Pedagogy
The revolutionary nature of Portal (and its 2011 sequel) goes beyond these aspects. Once I played the developer's commentary, I discovered a level of unsuspected profundity. First of all, the game design has a sophisticated grasp of teaching, especially the concept of the "zone of proximal development." In brief, this theory of cognitive development holds that people learn best when we give them tasks that are just a little beyond their mastery. When provided with appropriate models, people figure out how to complete the tasks on their own. And then there will be cake.

Or not, in Portal, but the point is that this game is the essence of well-designed experiential learning. The first few levels are literally "this is how you play the game," but they never feel like a sit-down lecture. They are instead a series of discrete problems to solve, slowly increasing in complexity.

To boot, Valve's Source game engine recreates physics in a very realistic manner. So realistic, in fact, that educators are using Portal to teach about the physical properties of the universe, to interest children in things like math, science, logic, spatial reasoning, probability and problem-solving.

Portal Philosophy
Especially with Portal 2, the franchise goes beyond even those utilitarian domains. The addition of the character Cave Johnson allows the game to slyly lead the player towards an exploration of just what is science? The apocalyptic results of Aperture Science's experiments, it seems quite evident that science is not that they've been doing. But what I really appreciate about the game is that it doesn't hammer you with "This is how you define science, idiot!" Instead, it rewards your critical thinking. Because science is precisely how you win the game: observing, hypothesizing, testing and checking results. Think critically and creatively at the same time.
Beyond an inductive exploration of the nature of science, the story and characters of both Portal and Portal II can lead us to all manner of investigations : about power (economic, technological, political), about history (what happened to the game world?), and even about feminism (a computer game where the female characters outnumber and consistently out-think the male ones is a rare gem, but that brings us back to ideas of power and the binary trap of patriarchy...)

...Speedy Thing Comes Out.
This is really just a sketch of some of the issues that I want to explore more with Portal and Portal II. There are already quite a few folks out in the blogosphere that have ruminated on some of these things (especially GlaDOS) and over the next while I start talking about those ideas. I'm actually developing this for the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Associate national conference in April.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How do you say "Miss the point" in French?

Pardonnez-moi un moment while I get my rant on.

In the October 6 Los Angeles Times, special correspondent Kim Willsher wrote an article with the title: "France bans ketchup in cafeterias." Note the slight disclaimer in the subtitle: "Well, it's allowed with one side dish (guess which one). But putting it on veal or boeuf bourguignon is now interdit at schools nationwide."
Hilarious: those funny frogs and their stuck-up culinary ways, trying to forcefully wrench the world's most beloved dipping sauce from their children.

I'll come back to the hurtful cultural stereotypes this article employs as its hook. Let's first discuss some plain bad journalism. The new policy was implemented on October 3, 2011 to improve the health of public school lunches after more than four years of expert nutrionist research. Here are the real highlights:
  • A variety of 4-5 dishes must be served at both lunch and dinner
  • At least one of theses dishes must be a vegetable-based side and one must include dairy products
  • Fries (high in calories and sodium) can only be served once a week
  • Water and bread must be freely available, but
  • All sauces, including mayonnaise, vinaigrette and - yes - ketchup, are served in fixed portions directly on the student's plates and only when those sauces would be appropriate to the meal.
This policy will be enforced because schools have to document exactly what they are serving to students and report to the government. These records must be kept up to date for the previous three months.

This is a fantastic policy. France, who is simultaneously being a team-player in the European Union with this legislation, is doing hard scientific research and applying that data to better look after the health of its citizens. It's being responsible with both the content and enforcement of its legislation and shaping good eating habits in its youth. And yet, Kim Willsher decides to go with the "France Bans Ketchup!" angle?

A quick scan through Willsher's other articles for the LA Times demonstrates a competent journalist who specializes in news from Europe. The tone is even, the research is well-done and the writing is clear. So it's baffling to me how such a professional could succumb to such facile xenophobia. Let's put aside the poor translations of a few key words in the article. ("Canteen"? Really?) Maybe Willsher isn't a professional translator; but a the large proportion of articles about France, I will assume this person is at least competent in reading the language. Let's merely discuss the fact that it took me 10 minutes to Google the straight facts about this entire thing. To wit, after a digging through a "ketchup interdit" Google search, I found:
And from that article, I made a simple search for "Journal officiel", then looked within that site for the October 2 publications. Egads, I had to cross-reference a pair of one-page publications to get the skinny on ketchup and its evil cohorts mayonnaise and vinaigrette. This kind of irresponsible journalism riles me to no end. It doesn't help, of course, they this article perpetuates anti-French stereotypes, but the fact is plain and simple KETCHUP IS NOT BANNED. Fact-check; sheesh.

However, what's more pernicious here is the xenophobia that allows such an article to be published. This isn't Willsher's fault alone. Maybe Willsher thought it would be a funny fluff-piece, maybe the editor did, too. But it sticks in my craw that this last line from the LA Times article is certainly meant to be a zinger: "Food is very important here," said Hazan of the parents federation, "and we can't have children eating any old thing."

That's not funny, that's a profound statement of cultural values. It's also plain common sense: we shouldn't have children eating "any old thing." We should look after their nutritional well-being. And in France, a country with a very rich culinary heritage, it's also a matter of national pride. But Willsher and the editor and probably several people who read the article all thought that it was hilarious. Because, you know, the French are narrow-minded and denigrate anything not in line with their simplistic world-view and maniacally seek to exclude foreign products and workers and tightly control their media and economy so that it wobbles on the brink of isolationism.

Oh wait...

Friday, October 14, 2011

Siren Sleek & Faster Fury

Stolen soaring siren star
Variable in her variant orbit
The system is binary we circle differently
Trajectories at odd angles crossing
At points only ever uncertain
Any plans to the contrary are best laid
Like those of mice and men playing Einstein's dice
It was it is it will be must be unforeseeable
Stolen soaring siren star

Fueling funneling faster forward
Outpace outstrip outsmart the lacuna
Which is not so much a lack
As a burning void an ellipse orbiting darkness
That I might use as a rocket takes up hydrogen
Ignites it directs it spews it forth
White hot no color no love no living thing
But distance ever growing ever stretching
Further fleeing the darkness behind
Fueling funneling faster forward

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

De-Lovely: Every Song is a Weapon

For the most part, I hate musicals. It's funny, because films like The Sound of Music, The King and I, Singing in the Rain and My Fair Lady were staples of my childhood cinematic experience - and pleasant ones, too. But the shine wore off. At some point, I began to see through the veneer of their engaging numbers to the stale, even oppressive, narratives that they couched. I began to be irritated that the story would come to a halt just to have a character sing and dance, illustrating some idea that was terribly plain to see.

John Lasseter has it exactly right: "Story is king." Cinema is primarily a narrative medium, and that which does not serve the story does not make a good film. And most musicals are chock of time-wasters, from a narrative point of view. Worse, their spectacle is a distraction from a misogynistic message, despite the central presence of some dynamic female leads. Sound of Music? Daddy needs to be king. The King and I? The king is daddy "from bee to bee to bee." Singing in the Rain? Life is only good with the right man. My Fair Lady? Yeah...

So, it's rare that I like a musical of any kind, but when I do, I really, really love it. Irwin Winkler's 2004 De-Lovely is one of my rare treasures. It's self-aware but not insular; it's counter-cultural but doesn't alienate; it's clear without being facile and sharp but not smug. And it has a kick-ass soundtrack.
De-Lovely received a lot of mixed reviews, with only a 53% Metacritic rating and even worse on Rotten Tomatoes (only 48% fresh). Some of the more even-handed (but still mixed) reviews bemoan the lack of engaging characterization, its historical inaccuracies, or a incoherent, unsatisfying narrative. The individual elements are fantastic, they agree, especially the updated musical numbers (a gamut of Porter's hits sung by a cavalcade of contemporary stars like Elvis Costello, Alanis Morrisset and Robbie Williams). But each damns the film with faint praise like "But aside from the major annoyance that it is just plain hard to sit through,De-Lovely is a great movie."

There's something important to note about so many of the reviews: the authors can't help themselves from dropping references to Cole Porter and his songs. It's as if the postmodern aesthetic of bricolage and hypertextuality is catching. It seems to me that these reviewers are obtusely missing the point, griping about the very things that make De-Lovely great.

Unconventional narrative. The stories of De-Lovely (there are several) consist of frames within frames within frames. To begin, of course, the film itself is framed; a finger pointing to itself, holding itself up as an object of scrutiny and, as we will see, interaction. Within the cinematic frame, there is the central narrative frame of  Cole to reviewing his life as replayed on a musical stage. Within that frame exist the musical numbers themselves. Notably, these spiral back out as a commentary on Porter's life itself, and even further as commentary on the film and, by extension on cinema itself. Heady stuff, huh? And yet, this doesn't distract one iota from John Barrowman's and Kevin Kline's sexually-charged duet, "Night and Day."
Subject matter. I can count on one hand the number of mainstream films about a white marriage. De-Lovely is the only one that dares to talk about a heterosexual love story within a such an arrangement. and, contrary to what so many critics may think, it's the characters that really pull this off. Maybe it's just too much of a stretch to imagine someone as strong and self-possessed as Ashley Judd's Linda Lee Porter being so understanding, so clear-headed and yet so obviously conflicted about her marriage to - let's be frank - a ragingly promiscuous homosexual man. And while Kline plays Porter as a child-like epicurean, the shades of regret and doubt that slowly invade his demeanor are masterfully done. De-Lovely does a courageous job of telling the story of the Other - and moreover, letting the Other tell its own story.

Adaptation through transformation, not copying. The use of contemporary artists to re-interpret Cole Porter's hits did not sit well with some literal-minded critics. I think it's a master-stroke, because this is a movie. That is, this is a fictional recreation of a myth and not even necessarily the myth of Cole Porter. Indeed, you could say that the essential truth of Cole Porter is not to be found in this film. And this is a good thing. De-Lovely understands that "truth" is not found; it's made. It's a construct, and a complex, slippery one at that. This attitude is mirrored in the music production: Porter's songs are stripped bare of their original sound and rebuilt from the ground up. The result is universally fantastic: the lyrics and melody are still there, the traces of Porter's genius, but the surrounding sensibilities are refreshingly different.

Let's revisit my statement that Lasseter has it exactly right. Is story king anymore? Yes - and no. De-Lovely eschews the conventional narrative even of the biopic (which is usually a myth of redemption) for a much more complex and unstable collection of vignettes that nonetheless cohere breathlessly. It's one of those rare films that has faith that we can follow along while it plays fast and lose with time and even space. I love how Jonathan Pryce's character enters into the scene with Louis Meyer: he talks to the screen! And the screen talks back.
It's not just self-congratulatory, navel-gazing post-modernism here. It's an invitation, and incitement to action. Question. Meddle. Turn your constraints into tools. It's the essence of great cinema: an engaging story with a novel twist on old stories that tells us something about ourselves, then turns us around and sends out the theater door with a fire in our belly.

Read a great deconstruction of the film by Penny Spirou at Refractory

Watch De-Lovely on Netflix.

Buy the DVD from Amazon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Echo Panacea

I've written a new song, "Echo Panacea," for Julia Sherred's Lupus Awareness Virtual Art Gallery.

Usually, I don't like to talk too much about my work. It can often remove a lot of the mystery and the ambiguity that I really prize. But Echo has a story that needs to be told.

Echo was something of a commisioned piece, I wrote it for Julia Sherred's virtual gallery dedicated to raising awareness for lupusJulia Sherred has the disease, and so do about 5 million other people, including Maurissa Whedon. I'll let far more qualified and expert people explain in their own words, but in a nutshell, imagine your own body turning on itself: those wonderful bits of your anatomy that keep you healthy and hale, that fight off infections and flu, suddenly turn their great, big barrels on your very insides.
October is Lupus Awareness Month, and when Jules put out a general call for contributions earlier this year, I volunteered. And so I created a little file in my Evernote: "Lupus Song." I read through the Lupus Foundation website, took a look at what others had previously contributed, and poured over Jules' personal account, picking a few phrases that resonated with me.

The project sat for a while. I knew I needed to do it by October and I knew what I needed to be writing about, but I had nothing.


So I gave up. I let it go. My creativity is like a cat: it really likes to play, but only when it's ready. So, you leave a few treats out and keep the laser pointer ready and you wait. My form of waiting was to get back to craft, to guitar basics. Lo and behold if a guitar methods activity did not make stop and go "Huh. That's pretty." The riff was in 6/8 time, a simple melody with alternating low note trikes on the C-chord. But, couple that with a chord progression from a previous exercise (D - A - F# - Bm) and voilà! Instant song! Four chords, even! "I might not even have to write a new chord progression for the chorus!" I said to myself, smugly.

Yeah, right. I kept flubbing the change from Bm back to D. My fingers wanted to go to the C chord; and this was enormously frustrating because if I couldn't play the basic riff in my sleep, a lyrical melody would not come. It took me a while to figure out that the shift from Bm to C (major) actually sounded pretty cool. And if I just applied the same pattern, I already had a whole new direction for the song. Gadzooks! Eight chords! A shift in key signature! This was already far more complex than the vast majority of my tunes. 

And so it was time to begin crafting some lyrics. I had this long, lilting phrase on the guitar, slow and pretty, in 6/8 time and so I wrote a long lyrical vocal phrase for it:
Bad news: a specter is haunting these glossy glee pages; bad news
Bad new: the phantom is you and none of your wrinkles; bad news
You'll note the heavy use of repetition. I generally like repetition and symmetry, and these phrases had lots of room. As I crafted three verses worth of lyrics and a story emerged, which remains intact in the final version, a hopeful journey from darkness into light. 

It's important to note at this point that while I call her "Echo" for the sake of convenience, this song still had no title beyond "Lupus Song." And maybe because she was still a unnamed Morphean thing, she started to slip about. I crafted a scratch percussion track, thinking of something Cohenesque, but the 6/8 riff and melody it required (88 bpm) made the tune something like 6 minutes long. I knew that I didn't have 6 minutes' worth of musical and melodic ideas.

Solution: fiddle. Instead of a finger-picked 6/8 plod, I found that a thumb-struck 4/4 strum, similar to what you hear in the final version, worked. Well, sort of. First, the new strumming pattern was so monotonous that it needed a break. Beyond Echo's story, the chorus you hear in the final version may be the single-most long-lived element of the song. Secondly, the new strumming pattern sped things up to the point that I had to spread the lyric phrase out over twice as much time. Result: a 5:30 tune at 132 bpm. For a radical change whose goal was to shorten and focus the song, this was a mixed success.

Solution: cut. Mercilessly. I slashed the 32-bar verses to 16, which meant tearing out all of my prized repetition and symmetry. It meant getting to the real heart of things. It meant, in the end, making the song better, forcing me to focus on the most important parts. Actually, I made something of a compromise with the tune, keeping a quarter of my verse repetition.

Trimmed, sleek and drum-tight, the composing was over and it was time to record this difficult child. For me, recording rarely changes things radically in a song; because I have to build and/or perform each section by myself individually, recording is the usually the most rigid part of my songwriting. Changes occur: slight variations in melody as I find something sounds better after playing it the Nth time, or finally discovering a hook. But these are rare and minor.

With Echo, I should have known better. Building the drum part wasn't too hard; I had been focusing on that aspect of my songwriting for most of my album, and after a long talk with a good friend, I had some interesting ideas to try out. They worked beautifully and, unlike most of my "first take is good enough" work for Song Fight, I had the time to really engineer the percussion, mixing and mastering each "drum" as a separate track and exporting that to rest of my mix-down. It sounds a hundred times better than what I've done in the past. So, on with the show!

Yeah, right. Obstacle the first: I wanted a piano part. I am not a pianist; I have a nice little MIDI VSTi and a basic grasp of music theory and composition. It took forever to find a good arrangement. I knew I wanted something tonally different, but it still had to blend with the acoustic guitar, both the soft rumble in the verse and the more kick-out chorus. Obstacle the second, the new melody, the result of so much hemming and hawing and hacking on my part, was a fickle little thing. So, the bones of the song, the acoustic guitar part were a difficult part to nail down - until I stretched out the first 8 bars to half-speed; so, 2 bars of D, 2 bars of A, etc.

And then the chorus. "This should hit pretty hard," I thought, "It should really step up the dynamics." So I chucked on a little over-driven guitar, slightly clean, hard panned to the left. It wasn't enough; I piled on more over-drive: panned right, messed up a bit more - and crank that volume knob while your at it. 

What I ended up with was a terrible mess with a dozen parts competing violently and awkwardly with each other. Solution: cut mercilessly. The opening bars were too loud; I cut the gain on the vox and dealt away with a whole track of guitar. The piano wasn't coming through in the last half of the verse; I turned down the  gain on the over-drive vox and brought out the EQ scalpel. The chorus was a terrible muddle; I cut the acoustics gain by half and literally halved the piano part, letting it punch only on the end of each phrase.

"Well, hell," I finally said to myself, as the over-driven guitars poured through my headphones, "I've made a rock song." Echo had finally found her voice and spoke to me with a feral feline's spit and hiss. And from there on out we understood each other. The lead part was no clean BB King spank, it was as snarly, loud, and gritty a tone as I could muster. The third verse cool-down wasn't a sweet acoustic-guitar walk, it became an electric growl.

Omega Point
This entire process probably took more than three weeks. As a frequent participant in songwriting competitions where you're always on a deadline, this was a new experience to me. And Echo has taught me a few things:
  1. I really understand my own creative process. Everyone's is different, so listen to yours, poke at it (gently, they're all wild, you know) and ask it questions. Some people have to go get theirs with a club; other's have to coax it out with sweets. Figure yours out.
  2. Sometimes, even at the most inopportune moment, you have to go with the flow. It wasn't so much that Echo fought me, it's just that she kept slipping off in new directions. And I had to let her. Some of them were dead-ends (there was almost a horn part), but others were terrific ideas that would never had happened if I had been impatient.
  3. Flow notwithstanding, sometimes you have to declare enough is enough. Vocals are not my strongest suit, and so they are the part of Echo that I am the least proud. I could have held the tune back, kept fiddling and honing, letting it explore new avenues forever. But I put my foot down; I wiped the sweat from my brow and when « ça suffira. » And so off it went.

Friday, October 7, 2011

You Should Be Listening To...

Three albums from a trifecta of women songwriters:

Björk: Biophilia 
I haven't downloaded the app yet, but you can listen to just the music and read a great review over at NPR. As always, Björk is an acquired taste but her songs reward patience. The lead tune, "Moon," starts off like some distracted chick in the corner of the coffee shop. (You know, that creepy one who's still kind of cute feral kitten kind of way). But then it finds its groove, the melody evolves and picks up the instrumentation and... wow. Haunting, sweet, rich and very, very different: everything I want from Björk album.

Marian Call: Something Fierce  
Marian was a Google Plus find for me, but I'm kind of astounded that I've never heard of her before now. She's a big geeky (feminist) songwriter, with a whole album of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica songs. (I only have one of those). The lead single from Something Fierce, "Dear Mister Darcy" is a slightly meandering thing at 5:34, but damn if it isn't a lot of fun:
Marian has the gift of a strong sense of melody, the craft to tell a good story and the courage to defy songwriting conventions. (A double album, half of which is devoted to Alaska? A nearly eight-minute epic called "Anchorage"?) To boot, she's got a sharp wit: "The Avocado Song" is one of most original metaphors for a break-up song I've ever heard.

Feist: Metals  
I'll be honest, I haven't had the time to give Feist's latest a really close listen. But the overall sparseness of it is powerful. I love the sense I get of sitting in some Paris loft listening to the musicians rehearse. Metals has that immediacy, along with the sharp, shimmering tonality of Feist's signature vocal. Forget about the run-away "1234," this is the girl from Let it Die all grown up.

To boot, Feist is playing the Tabernacle here in Atlanta on November 6. Who wants to go?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Learning to Learn

So, I'm applying for a promotion, hoping to move up from a yearly contract as an lecturer with a huge course-load but no expectations or either service or scholarship to a tenure-track position as a professor of Foreign Language Education where the service and scholarship that I'm doing anyway will be more rewarded. It's an equally exciting and daunting prospect as I put myself up for, effectively, judgment by my peers.

A part of any application for a position is academia is defining your "Philosophy of Teaching," those basic principles that guide the crafting of lesson plans and assessment tools. For many years, this was a constant preoccupation for me as I revisited the pros and cons of what I had been doing and seeing what worked and what didn't. But, after 11 years of foreign language instruction (wow, more than a decade now...), I've really established some comfortable parameters, to the point that I pretty much copy/paste the same paragraph whenever my work comes up for review:
My philosophy of teaching has three major tenants: 1) respect the free-will of the student, 2) serve as a guide and a facilitator, 3) adapt to the needs of the student. Respect for free will is paramount in avoiding the “Atlas Complex,” which engenders little more than the parroting of preprocessed information. It further helps to convince the student of his capacity to learn through exploration, creativity and personalization. This relates as well to the second tenant of my philosophy: that instructors are most effective not behind the lectern, but amidst the students. My primary role is to structure activities, not to directly transmit information. The former allows the student to explore the material and adapt it to his own needs and interests; the latter squelches these practices. Finally, the most effective structures are adapted to the constantly-shifting needs and capacities of the student. These three components coexist in a cycle of testing, correction, implementation and critical feedback.
As I was reading this over, the last phrase struck me, particularly the idea of critical feedback, that need for self-reflection. Because, while my three main principles are solid, there are some underlying counterpoints that I'd like to take the chance to nuance.

I've had teachers like this; it's how I learned what not to do.

Respect the Free Will of the Student
This is more than a pedagogical approach for me; it's a fundamental ideology in life. As simple as it may be to state, and as appealing as it is in the abstract, it's a difficult line to walk, especially for a teacher. Part of the teacher/learner binary is an assumption of superiority/inferiority. On a certain level, it's true: I have a mastery of the subject that my students lack; not just in knowledge, but in skills. It's tempting, seemingly efficient, to simply transmit this knowledge in a top-down fashion: lecture, drill and assess student retention of cultural and linguistic information. However, cognitive theory and many years of experience demonstrate that this doesn't work. Students may be able to, in the short term, perform well on a test, but they quickly lose the general skill-sets and specific knowledge that the instruction is supposed to instill.

Instead, the acquisition - and retention - of the knowledge and skill sets that define a skilled language user actually requires a bit of trickery on my part. And this is where my professed "respect" for students' free will can seem to become suspect. Rather than a direct transfer of data, it's more effective to establish a goal (the more realistic and authentic, the better), and then show students some tools helpful for accomplishing that goal. The precise method of getting there is up to the student. There's a certain level of frustration and uncertainty inherent to this method. Some students don't respond well to this, especially as first. Conditioned by more hierarchical and discrete teaching methods, they feel lost, splashing about in a seemingly-infinite sea of possibilities.

Yet, eventually, they start swimming. Some are faster than others. Some have already taken a few lessons at the local pool; others just have a talent for the best stroke; still others just barrel through with sheer stubborn determination. But the end result is the same: a finished product of which they can be proud (whether that be a letter, or an oral presentation based on independent research of Parisian cybercafés, or the ability to conduct a meaningful, unscripted conversation with the professor), and a set of skills and knowledge that they have accrued on their own.

Be a Guide (not a Demagogue)
As you can see, the solution to the paradox of my first tenant is my second principle. Yet, this gives rise to another contradiction. If building assessments in an open-ended but helpfully structured manner best aids learning, it is best conducted with a interactive style that many find uncomfortable, even confrontational or hostile.

It's called the Socratic method. In some ways, it's a microcosm of my assessment approach. (You might begin to see that I don't really differentiate instruction from assessment; more on that later.) I prefer to ask questions rather than make statements. Indeed, each session in the classroom begins with a question; I call them démarrer questions, from the French term "to start up." It's a verb used with machines like motors or computers; the connotation is that something gets revved up, starts turning over and conducting power. These questions aren't necessarily the central idea of the entire session, but they have several purposes. First, they are a capstone of the previous night's homework. The questions are published in the syllabus and I encourage my students to prepare their responses to the démarrer question at the end of their work at home. Secondly, they induce the students to begin thinking differently, to jump-start the French parts of their brains that they need to be developing: the different sounds of French phonetics, the unique manners of syntax and the different ways of thinking that speaking in another language not only implies but needs. Thirdly, it provides a moment for formative feedback. A successful, correct response by the student in turn prompts a meaningful, encouraging response from me; an unsuccessful response to the démarrer question is a "teachable moment," where we can collectively highlight a discrete difficulty or address a misunderstanding of the specific grammar or vocabulary at hand.

Finally, the démarrer question models my typical approach to the rest of lesson, wherein rather than drill students on verb conjugation or lead them in choral repetition of vocabulary, I prefer to pose questions: "What's this? What's a synonym for this term? How would you respond in this situation?" These questions are rarely posed to an individual student, but to the class as a whole and creates an context of collective problem-solving, where the stronger students can feel a sense of accomplishment by leading, and the weaker ones can learn by the examples of their peers rather than from me.

Adapt to the Needs of the Student
This last practice leads to my final tenant. Using questions as the basis for lessons and crafting assessments that are authentic but with open-ended methods of completion allows me to keep a quick, constant pulse on how well my students are doing. It not just a matter of "Is their pronunciation correct?" or "Did they conjugate that verb right?" or "Did they use the best word for that idea?" These are important; but other questions are equally pertinent: "Are they asking the right questions of themselves?" and "Do they demonstrate initiative to reference outside resources?" and "Do they make useful connections between the various parts of the curriculum? Between their native culture and those of French speakers? Between French and the other language(s) they speak?" These are forms of my own self-assessment.

When the answer is "yes," then things are going well; I keep at it. When it's "no," it's time to step back and re-examine. It's time to pose more questions. "Why did they have difficulty with that exercise?" or "How can I make this clearer?" or "How can I modify the goal to make it more authentic?" These are the things that drive a constant continuum of refinement in my lessons as well as assessments.

This is the crux of effective teaching for me: reflect, employ, assess, reflect again. It's the same process for both me and my students. The result, for them, is more than the ability to speak French, it's learning how to learn. For me, it's a never-ending puzzle, a constant progression that is adaptive by intent. It's learning how to help people become learners.