Industrial Light and Magic at 35… and writing studies

As I watch a 35-year anniversary documentary about Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), I have begun thinking about the ways writing studies has changed in the same amount of time… or nearly so.

I’m thinking specifically about my life in this time, my writing, my education in literature and composition/rhetoric (better named writing studies?).  I was just called the “queen of change” on Facebook a week or so ago because I’m been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” a lot and creating a playlist for Darwin because I’m teaching Darwin this semester (who doesn’t love Darwin and his big change?  Don’t ask.).  I embrace change because it’s poetic.  It’s life.  It’s my life.  It’s a way to live.  But change is very hard for many people.  Extremely hard.  Scary.  Still it can be incredible.

Many of the ILM folks in the documentary talk about the change that happened because of ILM’s innovations and the difficulty they encountered over the years in changing–they pushed hard to innovate and create opportunities for others to change and see the world differently.  Artists were reluctant to embrace the new computer generated art/characters/etc.  When one artist moved from the art department to the computer department, it was said she “went to the dark side of the force.” (Okay, settle in, it’s a long parenthetical: the documentary is a love letter from ILM to ILM, so I get that, but it’s not wrong–ILM has done amazing work–and do you know Edutopia?  A George Lucas-funded online resource for K-12 teachers.  I visited for years when I was designing curriculum for K-12.  I have been reading Owen Edwards for ages–a great writer/editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian–I like his work for both.  How does that happen?  A writer for Edutopia and Smithsonian?  His piece on making hot chocolate in Mexico was stirring in the Smithsonian.)

ILM changed my life as it did for many others–who hasn’t been affected in some way by Star WarsIndiana Jones and ____?  Transformers?  (Not the second Transformers.)  I still make references to these films and watch them with my son and students.  And the latest Star Trek?  It made me want to teach Star Trek and argument: race, class, gender.  And it was just what I wanted it to be: stunning.  I’m a creature of my generation and my generation is a visual one and my students loved the reading about writing, the thinking about the visual, and watching movies and episodes of Star Trek.  And my generation grew up on ILM.

(Are you still musing over the link between ILM/George Lucas/Lucas Films, Ltd. and an education online resource as great as Edutopia?  I am.  I always am.)

So in these past 35 years what sorts of changes have occurred in English?  Teaching writing in writing classes rather than teaching literature in writing classes.  Whole degrees in writing.  Master’s and PhD’s in writing.  This change is still frightening for some.  But like the ILM artists who feared CGI, but converted, or actors who feared blue/green screens, but managed to perform, so have many moved from literature to writing and many now can embrace the discipline of writing on its own.  But disciplinary change is not new.  Remember back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century when ALL kinds of educated folk were up in arms over the ghastly change from classic Greek/Latin education in universities to a more practical education in vernacular…even, hush your mouth, studying modern literature?  It was revolutionary, roguish, daring. And women allowed in higher education, too.  Good heavens.  It wasn’t all that long ago.  Neither was allowing women to vote.  My grandmother was among the first women to vote in this country.

How hard was it for English literature professors to find validation from classics professors?  I wonder, but I wouldn’t be surprised at answers that included: hard, damn hard, impossible.

So change is hard.  And though lots of folks have moved from teaching writing about literature to teaching writing, not everyone has taken that trek.  Change theory is, perhaps, applicable here, especially as we are now, and for the last score of years, undergoing another change in thinking facilitated by the googleverse.  There are a number of theories to help us think about how change happens in communities, organizations, institutions.  Mostly the ones I know are social theorists, human performance improvement gurus, and instructional systems designer types.  But could such theories bring some peace to change within a discipline?  Sure.  Why not?  Kurt Lewin is a good place to start (that’s right, a Victorian, at least by birth); there could be worse places to start, but I like the historical, chronological, 20th-century sweeping approach to learning.

Back to the initial thinking: is writing studies/composition/rhetoric part of a big ol’ change in how the world goes round?  Like ILM is to special effects?  Sort of.  We do ask the world to see things in a different way than they have ever seen things before?  We say writing is worthy of study.  We ask people to understand it’s a field, a discipline, and they do.  Mostly.

Specifically, I think it’s the magic part that equates what we do as writing professionals in writing studies to the pros at ILM.  Hard work=magic in my experience.  ILM gurus break down the hardest possible tasks into the smallest possible pieces so that they can manage a system to create something complex and meaningful that we can all see.  We do that, too.  We demystify writing, break it down into smaller pieces so something complex and meaningful can be created… that we all can see. We ask students to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.

ILM gives us the ability to believe what we see–that is the magic they do.  We give students the ability to believe they have the skills to write or can acquire them.  It’s a kind of magic.

Change is hard; no one wants to do it; but when it’s done right, it’s magic; with open educational resources becoming a bigger player on the college scene, the magic is spreading.  Are we wizards?  Writing Spaces…like magic.  Maybe we are a little bit wizardly.  But we are definitely the people behind the curtain, too, showing students how they can make their own magic happen.

And may I say: what a fine documentary.  What a lovely way to spend an hour.  What a nice moment of joy and inspiration.  What a grand connection between special effects and writing.  Lucky me.  Watch whenever you can as often as you can.  I liked it so much I forgot Tom Cruise was the narrator.

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