Falling in Line and Getting “In Step”

(Apologies for the slight lateness; hopefully I’ve not kept anyone awake in anticipation for my post).

I approached Adam J. Banks’ Digital Griots with interest, but as many of the previous posts have mentioned, I was unsure of where I was headed once I started reading. This was perhaps not because of any major failing on Banks’s part, but because his book forced me to reevaluate what I expect of a book of the pedagogical cum autobiographical sort (without belaboring generic conventions too much).

After taking Melissa Ianetta’s experimental one-credit “Literature Pedagogy” seminar in Fall 2012, I was no stranger to the academic Bildungsroman, as it were: the most memorable of the texts of this type that we read in that class were Jane Tompkins’s A Life in School and Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, which are as much about the life of the teacher as the methods and materials she discusses along the way. Even though Banks’ book does not really resemble Tompkins’s or Showalter’s in its content in this way, I did still find myself wanting to put it squarely in with theirs, to make it make sense in the ways that theirs had (even if I did not like some of what came out of both).

Naturally, this resulted in frustration on my part because in many cases, that was not what Banks wanted to do—he wanted to tell me about DJ’s and griots and community, but he did not necessarily want to tell me why, for example, he did not formulate his community course with any other partners from his academic community (57-58), or very much detail about the types of students/experiences from each of the classes he brings up in his chapter on “Mix.” There came a point when I had to very sternly remind myself of “the grand law of criticism” suggested in an 1888 article by novelist R. E. Francillon in the Victorian girls’ magazine Atalanta: “Never blame anybody for not doing what he did not make it his business to do [….] Never find fault with good work of one kind because it is not good work of another” (352).

Nonetheless, I had expected Banks to proceed in a certain way at the outset, which explains the sense of displacement. I had expected him to begin by outlining what a griot was and how the concept would come to shape his theory of teaching and praxis; in reality, I do not think he actually defined the term at length until page 23. “Old/new contract!,” I wanted to shout, even though I had long before looked up the term out of curiosity. I found myself noting (with some amount of confusion) places where I felt he flitted around from one topic to the other, seemingly presenting a “shallow” (52) skimming of the deeper ideas he was alluding, or where he seemed to be bashing me over the head with certain points (I get it, “DJing is Writing/Writing is DJing” (1)).

Of course I realize that his entire book, not just the parts that draw attention to themselves as such, is “enact[ing] as well as [stating] an argument”. It took me a while to stop standing around awkwardly in the corner and to allow myself to go along with the “groove,” however tentatively.

This is a fairly true-to-life portrayal of my (therefore nonexistent) dancing skills.

What I initially saw as a random comment was actually a scratch, what I saw as mind-numbing repetition was a chorus. While I still have my reservations about Banks’s book (which will surely come up in class), I acknowledge that the remixing he does within it is not random written chaos; it is innovative in not just the ideas it is presenting but also perhaps in the way it (and the projects it describes within it) reform the expectations for “academic” writing. It is akin to a piece by Girl Talk—like “In Step” from the album Feed the Animals—complicated to the point of sometimes being frustrating, but richly layered enough to merit multiple listens.

Yet, I wonder why this book came in the form of, well…a book? If in this case, as in others, “the Internet would not do” (62), why not? Why not create the project as a multimedia, multimodal, multicultural text if this is what Banks is invested in?

8 thoughts on “Falling in Line and Getting “In Step””

  1. Petra,

    I’m really interested in the last question that you pose about why this text is a book. As you mention, this text would be extremely well suited for a multimedia project that could include music, video, and comments.

    To me, the decision to make this text a traditional book speaks to what we, as readers, are supposed to “do” with it. By opting for the book form, Banks places the work squarely within academic conversations. But such a placing also speaks to the pedagogical applicability of the work, which is an applicability I am still struggling to see. As Janel discusses in her post, I am still wondering how I can take the ideas of Banks and remix them into different classroom communities.

  2. Petra,

    In reference to your final, thought-provoking question, I’d say that, from my experience in reading Banks, he does himself a severe disservice by trying to enact remixing practices in a textual form. Scratches, mashups, jump cuts, and choruses just don’t jive when they’re explicated at length in a monograph as they would in a 5-minute remix.

    And that is why I take such issue with calling Banks’ work innovative. At what point is a style that is mismatched with a certain medium just “bad” writing? I’m also thinking about this kind of structure/organization in the realm of the E110 classroom. Clearly Banks is above and beyond what we’re used to with our students, but I wouldn’t give a student an A just because their writing was “innovative” even if it was a hot mess.

  3. Petra,

    A thoughtful comment, followed by more thoughtful comments by Heather and Chris. At the risk of skipping by too much, I’d like to start with a response to Chris’ final question: If we don’t want to reward a piece that is a “hot mess,” then why are we so often content with those that are some version of a “dull grind”? Yes, Banks may err on the side of style, rather than substance, but as a reader, do you really resent that?

    Which brings me to Petra’s concluding question: Why a book? My answer would be: Why not? Why not write an academic book that resists the form and register of most academic books? Why displace such a project to other media?

    I am combative. And so I apologize. But I also kind of want to force the question: Why do Banks’ experiments in style provoke discomfort rather than admiration?


    1. Joe et al.,
      You raise many excellent questions, but I’d particularly like to address Joe’s question in response to my own about the format of the book. I absolutely think “why not” is as good a reason as any to have any text in any particular format, though, like Chris and Heather, I still wonder what even part of this project would have looked like as audio/video/visual–maybe Banks would be interested in doing a remix of Digital Griots at some point to “translate” it.
      My answer to Joe’s last question will probably not be a satisfying one, and would perhaps be a mere rehashing of some of the points of discomfort I have already alluded to in my post. One aspect of my trepidation might simply be that I am not as familiar with DJ culture as Banks is; I haven’t spent the time watching a master DJ spin tracks, or listened to the remixes he alludes to, over even read the academic texts he references on the topic. Although Banks does a good job explaining many of these things and, as a fairly astute person, I can form an abstract understanding of the concepts, I still get the feeling that I am missing something vital in his particular comparison by not being attuned (and tuned in) to the specific musicality he relies so heavily on. Maybe I would just like Banks to make me a mixtape to listen to before or as I read!

  4. Petra & Chris & Joe,

    I don’t know that we can ever say that something is “bad” writing, even if we oftentimes feel it keenly. Or if we do, it’s because the author failed to follow through on the rules or expectations they themselves set out to achieve, not because it doesn’t adhere to a certain style or structure that we are more comfortable with. Part of Banks’s project is to expose the cultural dependence of certain writing practices and rhetoric over others, as well as certain technologies over others.

    Publishing his work as a print book, then, does two things: (1) creates a text that can serve as an example and perhaps influence what we consider to be academic print writing, and (2) uses our frustration to expose our unstated and perhaps even invisible-to-us cultural preferences and assumptions about what academic print writing looks like.

    Think about our frustration at being unable to follow along easily and being thwarted in the reading process due to unfamiliarity with the remix style of writing. Banks does this on purpose to show academic audiences how it feels to be that minority student, coming from a different cultural background than the mythical norm, confronted with the kinds of academic essays and assignments in the writing classroom. The difference is, the minority student isn’t in a position to call academic essays “bad” writing, even if they feel just as alienated from it, because the university prizes them so highly. I think choosing to go the route of print publishing is an interesting way that Banks further enacts his argument.

    1. It strikes me that Banks’ book is less “difficult” than it is “disobedient”–though it is strange that, all in our pedagogies, we are sure to distance obedience to academic convention from valuations of texts but often that serves to make us less guilty when we fail a student’s “abnormal discourse” than it does actually confront the problem of the disobedience. I’m not saying that we just let people write whatever and give them A’s (or tenure), obviously, but there is a weird way that our judgment of a text’s performance (and our response) is inextricably linked to valuation, and a way that our good-natured offering of revisionary advice is also, inherently, liked to valuation. Like Banks’ piece, Petra’s article and these comments demonstrate a troubling and hard-to-shake link between “what we must teach them” or “how a book works” and “there are disobedient texts that we implicitly judge as nonliterate or counter-literate”.

      Also, Petra, I’m going to need you to write Francillon’s quote out on a piece of paper and draw pretty things around it, so I can frame it on my desk FOREVER. (You don’t actually. I might though.)

      1. We can call a text “disobedient” all we want, but it still needs to follow through on what it sets out to do. Fine, the term “bad” is problematic, but it doesn’t always just mean “this sucks”; it means “effective” or “ineffective” but just quicker to say.

  5. I also think that this book would work better in a different medium, not really because it is not obeying academic rules, but because it is not able to create an independent style out of its own confusion (I prefer the word confusion to chaos talking this book.) I do not mind reading a non-linear or disobedient text that does not stay withing the frames of my expectations; However, Digital Griots has not been able to convince me that I am facing a deliberately different form of academic discourse.

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