Tag Archives: new literacies

Writing, dance, and math

Why don’t I teach dance, writing, and math together?  All three do the same thing: communicate.

Writing: expression.

Dance: expression.

Math: expression.

And there we have it.  Patterns, planning, movement, revision, stories, practice, rehearsal, communication, symbols, letters, signs, meaning. Word problems. Story problems. Honestly. Who writes about this intersection? Where would a logical place for such speculation be found? Here. Because I’m doing it right now. But where else? There must be interdisciplinary journals I’ve never dipped into whose authors write about the connections between math, dance, and writing. Perhaps a chapter in an open educational resource like Writing Spaces might be appropriate, if such linkage could illuminate something vital about writing for college students. Do we need to explicitly draw the lines between movement studies, writing studies, and mathematics? We might do well to shed disparate learning environments in colleges/universities.

Right this minute, I’m not sure what to do with this idea, so I’ll just keep wondering and wandering. If I take just a moment to envision the implications of all three subjects in one space, I can envision writing workshops in which math and movement are linked with writing projects in 2D, 3D, video, audio, numbers, words, paper.  I’d need a really big room with lots of space and computers and smart boards and cameras and lots of natural light. And an ash floor for moving around, lots of support and give–I love to dance on ash wood floors. And loads of mirrors. Dancers need to see dancing. Lots of paper, too. All kinds. And we’d need pens, crayons, chalk, paint, charcoal, pencils, ink, and a whole lot of “I don’t care how messy it gets.”  Younger students, older students, any students. We’d tell stories with everything we have.

Right this minute, as I’m writing, I’m listening to music. And, you may need to sit down for this one: phantoms dance in my mind’s eye with each note of every song, always, haunting me, calling me to move again, to see how words and numbers and counting and movement all come together, 5, 6, 7, 8.  Always someone is dancing when I hear music. Sometimes it’s me dancing, but mostly it’s someone else I choreograph for, someone else who dances now. When I was a dance major, I was required to take choreography. The course was called “composition” because we composed stories for our bodies to tell. I think we must have counted to 1 billion through the semester.  We composed.  We moved.  We moved others.  We counted, we moved, we composed.

Sharp intake of breath.

(That felt self-indulgent as I am just now working out the depth of the bonds in my mind between math, dance, writing, and, really did feel like I should inhale on the screen, for my own sake, and in case no one noticed THAT, I needed to reinforce the fact that I am just now working this all out here by drawing attention to the textual inhalation in a lengthy parenthetical–wish I could figure out how to use footnotes in a blog–I love Infinite Jest.  So. Skip ahead if you like because this next reference is so odd that it might make you, Gentle Reader, want to click away, though it does directly connect to baseball, mentioned later on: would Crash Davis, a faded/fading/starmaker/mentor/catcher in Bull Durham, call blogging self-indulgent crap like he did the works of Susan Sontag? It does seem self-indulgent, especially right this minute. But crap? I rather like to think blogging is a way to selectively unclutter my mind and explore ideas about writing which might lead to professional and personal happiness. Blogging: an online highway to happiness. Self-indulgent? Maybe. Crap? Hell no. Who cares what Crash Davis thinks anyway? He’s fiction.)

Back to my anaphora: “right this minute” (See how footnotes would have been so great here. I could have attached a footnote to the phrase at it appears a third time below and avoided another break in your reading, and my writing, and still kept this terribly pithy reference to rhetorical figures of speech in here somewhere–my favorite figure of speech is anaphora. The Wikipedia authors on the term say Charles Dickens was well-known to use anaphora. Of course. Of course it’s my favorite figure of speech.)

Right this minute, as I write, as I listen, as I dream, while I may be indulging myself in words and thinking, I know this, too: I miss quadratic equations. Oh, differential calculus, why did I let you get away? I loved you so much.

One day, long ago, when I used to say silly things like, “I love to read, but I can’t write,” I pasted a nine-page calculus problem on my dining room wall to figure out where I’d gone wrong. Something had been bugging me about the problem or formula–I don’t even remember it now–and I couldn’t find a solution for hours, perhaps days. On the wall, everything changed. I saw three things: a dance, a story, and the answer. The wall nearly came alive; the math certainly did. It was art, it was text, it was formula, it was freedom, it was the future.

I never said “I can’t write” again. I solved problems with numbers, text, movement–it was, for a time, all the same to me. I knew everything was story, everything was moving, numbers were everything. Math taught me how to think and wonder; dance taught me how to move, how to achieve control and exuberance together; writing teachers/tutors taught me how to be patient and persistent…all of which I needed to communicate through the symbols we call letters, arranged in words, arranged in sentences, in paragraphs, in essays, in books, on the web.

Are there texts on the intersections of these three disciplines out there and I missed them? Totally possible. Instead of exploring this topic by searching a marvelous library database this evening, I am reading two frivolous texts as I recover from my week: a book on the history of cocktails and a collection of short stories by Edwidge Danticat. (She might quibble with me about calling her writing frivolous–it’s not at all–but it sure occupies that space as I have a lot of other work I should be doing that I am purposely, and successfully, avoiding by reading those two books and writing here. Damn. Am I frivolous? What if I am? Damn again.)

Are writers writing about dance, math, and writing? Could be. Where are the dancing mathematician writers? You are my people.

I desperately wanted to study more about all three together in my master’s program in grad school, but I got sidetracked by bad knees, Samuel Beckett, then baseball. No kidding. The rhetoric, sociolinguistics, and mythology of baseball–not a bad thing but not THIS. Not writing, math, and dance. When all three meshed, I felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do–a mind, body, spirit thing, perhaps, maybe, might could be.  Might could be it’s still a mind, body, spirit thing.

Math, writing, dance: even when I don’t consciously think about them, they weave together always, a tapestry of meaning wrapped snug around me like a smooth, thick, well-worn cloak in winter warming me to the core as I begin to think my education was never about getting a degree.

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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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Hold your fire, Cowboy, your finger’s on the trigger of the pistol of my heart…

Yes.  That’s what it says.  A friend and I used to play with words like this inventing the titles of country songs never written.  As I recall, this title was one I came up with when I lived in Idaho and was seriously into country music (I bought a one-ton pick-up, and it only had an AM/FM radio and only two push buttons that worked–both were fixed to country stations).  Prior to that life, I’d been living in Southern California with long brown, white, and pink hair, watching punk bands at Whiskey-a-Go-Go go up or down in flames, hanging out in and around Sunset with a dog named Arthur in my purse.

The point is not that I lived through all that (though I’m grateful I did).  The point is that long before I considered myself a writer, I’d been playing with words.  Lots of people do–but do we think of that as literacy that matters?  Does it matter when a group of people share an experience and create (spontaneously or otherwise) with a catch phrase that identifies them as part of a group?  Does it matter when we pick up words created by others and riff on that?  I could name a dozen funny things I’ve heard in movies (“I didn’t get a harrumph from that guy,” Blazing Saddles) and television (“You look mah-velous,” Saturday Night Live) that were also things my friends said to one another in appropriate circumstances, adapting as needed.  I may still tell people they look mah-velous.

Can this sort of literacy–a shared verbal tic that brings much amusement and confers identity–be the sort of thing that could be the subject of a literacy narrative?  I think so.  I’ve taught literacy narratives for a long time, and perhaps it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done as a teacher, pushing students to think about their relationship with writing.  I used to require students write about their writing lives… pretty narrowly focused on writing… in or out of school, but still about a writing experience (not reading, not online, not technological).  I have begun to ask students to think about different literacies, group literacies, new literacies made possible by the world as it exists now.

And since I remembered this song title–and feel connected to that friend and to that time (and a circle of friends from that period in my life)–I’m wondering if this sort of literacy narrative might be fun to write about in a comp class.  Surely, we all have some “playing with words” experience we can remember that helped us identify with a group, marked a rite of passage, determined a moment as special. Perhaps the words so define an event or occurrence that only those involved would understand the meaning.  I was a member of the Van Buren Drive-In Gang in high school.  What on earth did that mean?  It must have some meaning because it’s the one thing I remember including in my silly profile in my high school yearbook (I now wish I’d had more dignity as I’m sure I had very little then).

Who else has defined who they were with words created for a moment in time?  Everyone I know?  I wonder if students now do this in many incredible and different ways because of the social media they connect with and through.  I wonder.  If I tweeted or twittered, I’d ask.  I could ask on Facebook, but I think I’ll wait and ask my students first.

Perhaps as I’m considering what literacy means, or rather literacies, and what new literacies could be and are, I should expand the way I talk about word play in classes I teach, in assignments I give.

How do we value words that define us?  It may be that I have never valued words we create in this way… as a teacher.  It may be that I need to because I have valued these kinds of words in my life for as long as I can remember.

One of the reasons I am an advocate of open educational resources and open source is that being open is a new kind of literacy for me.  Open IS a new kind of literacy for anyone that is made possible by infinite connectivity.  Writing Spaces is a new kind of literacy for teachers and students in writing classes–not just for college but for pre-post-secondary education, too (K-12–why not?  I used to teach Tennyson to 2nd graders and John Trimbur to 6th graders).  If we continue to create writing that is shared with teachers and students via such a space, we are indeed creating new literacies… and we are playing with words… and we are writing the titles of songs yet to be written… and we are defining ourselves as part of a group (those who create and those who use WS)… and we become part of a group that is special because our reason for being isn’t about a forty-million dollar investment to corner the market on writing teachers writing for students but about making new literacies happen through content of the Writing Spaces volumes and through delivery.

Long live open.  Long live new literacies.

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