(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.
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?
I’ve found, reading through the posts before I post my own piece to make sure I’m not repeating what’s been said, that for UD I have a stunningly diverse classroom, whereas the class generally looks like this:
By diverse, I mean I have four students of color (an African American woman, Asian man, Middle Eastern man, and Hispanic man) and one young woman who (while white) doesn’t match up to the average UD student in that both her parents are Polish immigrants and she herself is fully bilingual. That’s about 20%!
We have not discussed race as a class, although I have brought in questions of intersectionality when students conference research topics with me. The one moment where race came up slightly was in our discussion of Anne Curzan’s piece, “Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar,” in which she discusses Standard English vs home languages. Still, I am invested in diverse conversations happening in my course as I gain more experience as an instructor.
I am, however, highly cognizant of Heather’s point about the danger in assigning students the role as “Ambassador to the Other. Carol Powell’s recent campaign at Harvard, “I, Too, Am Harvard” offers one important visual here (of many key images):
I am especially wary of this given my own position at home as explainer and defender of all things bisexual. It’s an exhausting position to be put in and certainly not one I want to place upon any student in my course.
I don’t think Adam Banks, in Digital Griots, gives an explicit answer on how to incorporate black voices in a (nearly completely) white classroom. I do think, however, that digital media offers a way into this conversation for students. We have a multitude of voices immediately available to us. Instead of having students read three essays from the Arak about television, food, and art, an assignment can ask students to respond to “I, Too, Am Harvard.” The accessibility (though I recognize there are absolutely limits to access for many students) of digital writing means that white students (myself included) should no longer have the privilege of being nearly completely uninformed about other races and cultures in the US. The fact that I have the internet means that I can’t claim ignorance simply because the town I grew up in is 96% white (and that is the statistic).
I have a similar responsibility in regards to what I teach. Banks writes, “Every course we teach is a mixtape, a compilation of others’ texts and ideas compiled, arranged, and combined with our own in various critical gestures we hope will inform and challenge our students” (138). I feel as though, currently, my course is a monocultural mixtape (or, perhaps, just a tape in a cultural sense). I ask (require) my students to investigate their own writing processes, their writing itself, their modes of argumentation, and the argumentative and stylistic modes of others. I should be willing to challenge their cultural assumptions as well, at least in the context of language and writing (online or off). When I discuss digital writing as a remix, we can talk about “remix” as a term and its historical/cultural significance. When I talk about academic style (which isn’t too too often), I can talk about the problems with Standard English.
Banks, at the core of the book, argues not only that black culture must have a place in the classroom, but that composition courses should enable “intersectional analysis, intergenerational inquiry, intercultural connection” (33) and do so through the idea of the digital griot – the idea of remix. In talking about the issues Banks has raised and I’ve echoed here, for the UD classroom, the focus does not have to be on only race, which may consistently alienate one student. By building intersectionality into the course, I think that we can have productive conversations about the ways in which we write, argue, question, and think online and off.
In Adam Banks’s smart and energizing Digital Griots, he argues that as teachers and scholars of the academy, and as public intellectuals, we must “teach, politic, build, act, plan, in the idiom of the people—whoever ‘the people’ are in the settings in which we hope to work. And one must teach the idiom—not just the language practices but the ways of seeing the world, the ways of being in the world, the values, attitudes, knowledge, needs, hopes, joys, and contributions of a people as expressed through their language” (49). My experiences as a new teacher of FYC this spring have, in some ways, led me to similar conclusions. I want to work harder to meet my students on common ground, and then build roads together to travel elsewhere. I want my students to feel like the work they do in my course has actual value, purpose and function in their lives away from the classroom. And I don’t ever want to dismiss my students’ everyday cultural and literacy practices as meaningless or lesser than those of the academy, falling into the trap of the “‘back in the day’ narrative” as Banks aptly terms it (87). (Indeed, I’m often surprised at the extent to which my students seem to have already bought into this narrative about themselves—I suppose it’s hard not to internalize the stories that others tell about you over and over again.)
And yet, at the same time, Banks implicitly calls attention through his language to the fundamental challenge of this position: “whoever ‘the people’ are in the settings in which we hope to work” (49). Whoever indeed. Because who are my students, really, and is there really one “idiom” through which I can hope to reach them all? What are these common “ways of seeing the world” and “ways of being in the world” (49)?
These questions are obviously especially complicated in the face of a diverse student body. And yet it seems to me that they are not really any easier to answer on a much less diverse campus like UD, for a number of reasons.
Like others in this class who are thinking through Banks via teaching, I want to put some pressure on the idea of “teaching in the idiom of the people” in the context of a very white and relatively affluent student population. One reason Banks rightfully sees it as so important to teach African American students/community members “in the idiom of the people” is that black home/community discourses have historically, in the school system (and elsewhere), been marked by difference, oppressed and repressed, abused and devalued. Banks’s stance is a response to institutionalized racism, to a system of power that simply refuses to hear certain voices.
But when we’re talking about affluent white students with college-educated parents, their home “idiom” likely is the privileged discursive mode of the academy (and elsewhere). It seems to me that such students (and I absolutely include myself as one of them) need, more than reinforcing this discourse, to experience its disruptions. To listen to voices that are not ours, and seek understanding on someone else’s terms. To recognize that to feel only mildly uncomfortable speaking the language of the academy is already to speak the language of power.
As a white person teaching mostly white people, I’m not at all sure how to facilitate this. I know I need to get more comfortable being uncomfortable in the classroom. I want to work on it, but so far that’s about all I’ve got.
I had a difficult time following Digital Griots’ central argument. I think Adam Banks devotes a great portion of his book to his own academic complaints, authorial doubts and personal stories which are not that much connected with African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. I can see how he has been trying to play the role of one Griot himself, stimulating the obstacles that one digital Griot would face, by explaining his own pre-writing predicaments when the first voices he heard were not his own (41); Still, the sudden appearance of literature reviews in middle of his personal stories, or the sudden appearance of personal stories in middle of literature reviews, undermines the general narrative and makes it hard for the reader, or for me as the reader, to explore new dimensions of African American narratives in the multimedia age. However, what I like the most in his writing is the basic idea of building “two-way relationships between universities and communities [which] requires something far more than the traditional one-way service model” (67).
Two-way relationships between academia and popular culture could result in ideal moments when neither universities nor communities play the role of mere generators or mere consumers of intellectual debates specifically the racial ones. Banks criticizes the existing gaps between academic theories and people. He desires to “take intellectual work to the people themselves” in a new space “where the vernacular and the theoretical came together and where would be taken seriously” (57). Symbolically enough, although not really intended to be symbolic, this statement challenges any kind of discrimination that prioritizes one community over the other one in having the ability of narrating, analyzing or even preserving the history of a particular culture. Creating new Dimensions of Dialogue (I take this phrase from an astonishing short animation made in 1982) between two potential authorities, academia and communities who not in direct relation with each other, could definitely be a great challenge in the world of established hierarchies.
UD’s online community the Colored Conventions is a good example of a new digital space aiming to gather scattered database from different resources on a specific subject, that is “Black Americans and political organizing during the nineteenth century”, in order to “brings buried history to digital life”. The introduction page of this website tells us that “the Colored Conventions team comprises a diverse group of dedicated and energetic scholars, graduate and undergraduate students and librarians at the University of Delaware”. That means there are new dimensions of dialogue and cooperation going on between different levels of academic positions in various disciplines. I talked to Jim Casey, an executive committee member, to ask about the possibility of non-academic communities’ direct participation in this project, and I learned that the process of proving the authenticity of the gathered data would be really complicated. However, it’s interesting to see how this digital resource is going to offer classified pedagogic materials to instructors who are interested in integrating African American debates with other courses, even Eng110 (those of you who had ENGL688 last semester would remember Sarah Patterson’s introduction to this section.) The introductory page asserts that “you will find all of the resources necessary for your class unit on a convention, including sample assignments for lower and upper division undergraduate classes as well as for graduate seminars.” I think practicing such assignments might generate new materials to be submitted to the same resource. That means having an online community designed not only to collect related materials but also to expand its territory to new spaces by generously sending out its collected, proved and categorized materials to other sections of academia, and even beyond that in the future, hoping to get back new generative responses. Of course not all attempts would receive an instant response; what really matters is to keep the dialogue going on without facing a huge definitive full stop.
When I began teaching ENGL110 last spring (has it really only been one year?), I had in mind a teaching persona and classroom ethos that I was going to cultivate:
Me: Strict, but kind; witty but magical director of discourse; organized; gives cool assignments
Classroom: Erupting in huge debates (directed by me); happy and inspired; students in my office hours every week, desiring my knowledge and wisdom
Then I actually became an ENGL110 teacher.
In my fifth section, this is currently my persona and classroom ethos:
Me: sets out rules but constantly breaks them; compassionate to the point where I know I get taken advantage of; often forgetful; constantly changing my teaching style to reflect the needs of each class; constantly betraying my excitement about writing concepts
Classroom: extremely engaged, though often not willing to talk in the large group setting (very willing to talk in groups and one-on-one with me); open to ideas; embracing difficult concepts and lessons; regrettably suspicious of their peers and their peers’ comments; desiring (and fearing) creative assignments; avoiding my office for “fear of taking up your time” (!!)
One of my initial slight disappointments with Adam Banks’s Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age is the lack of teaching anecdotes or advice on teaching as a DJ griot. He does give us an idea of what his own community courses looked like, but this didn’t seem helpful for the UD teacher of a (mostly white) ENGL110 classroom. “Give me methods and systems so I can craft the right identity,” I cried in my head. “How can I teach this in the correct way?”
Then Banks asked us to consider teaching in the community as preachers rather than wisdom-imparting-intellectuals in Chapter 2 “Mix.” At this passage, I paused to reflect:
“These processes of collaboration and identification, of call and response and building shared knowledge, of code switching, finding, and using shared language, for Moss lead to the creation of a shared text. In other words, the preacher is no longer a sole author, and the congregation can no longer be said to play the role of mere listening or receiver. They create text together” (51).
My inclinations as a teacher were originally to control and create a strong queendom (with me at the head, of course). I discovered very quickly my first semester of ENGL110 that this would not work for two reasons: (1) in making myself a figure of absolute authority (without vulnerability), I was creating a person that my students didn’t care about and thus resisted; (2) in my personal ideology (as this class has seen in my former responses), I am extremely open-sourcy, championing free knowledge and anti-establishmentisms.
In my own teaching life, these two realizations led me to be more vulnerable with my class (sharing opinions about long-established writing rules, sharing my own failures as a writer, being honest about what I knew and didn’t know). They also led me to adopt a policy of consistent dialogue in drafts, in groups, in the large class, and one-on-one with my students. This kind of dialogue creates a sense in my classroom that each student has valuable ideas and messages, which is shown in how seriously I take them.
That said, I still don’t think that my class has the aurora of “creating together” that Banks mentions. There is a sense that each individual is creating a text with me, but there is not the same sense of community creation in my class. I really want to get to this point of community collaboration, though, and I also really believe that digital media is the place where this can be done the best. So I’m going to propose some things to try for the next class that I will teach, and I would also welcome feedback and ideas from others.
Proposals for Co-Creating Digital (and/or Public) Text
Class blog/discussion forum (outright stealing this from our 685 class, where I feel it has been extremely successful).
Creating some assignment together; perhaps a collection of narratives (with visuals) with a discussion about how to organize and group them
Public feedback; perhaps beginning with a text created by me and then easing them into presenting their own work for the public eye.
Banks’ first moves threatened to drive me nuts. He posits, as many other eminent compositionists have, that we now live in a remix culture, and that this paradigm was launched by DJs. That scared me, as far as an assertion goes, because (as you all now know), my whole soapbox is: We have already, always lived in the RW, remix, intertextual culture, this paradigm is not new at all, perhaps only disrupted by the Enlightenment’s love of the image of the lonely artist operating in a vacuum to create works of sacred creativity. This is not new!
No doubt part of this is me taking pleasure in everyone else finally realizing, as I have in the course of accidentally becoming a genre theorist, that all writing is remixing (genre, after all, might be seen as a shared convention of what you remix from, with deviations/scratches being celebrated as innovation) and that the stodgy literary elitism of the past century (and this century still) has no legs left to stand on: it posits that remixes are inherently derivative, that genre texts are inherently inferior to the romantically-conceived, independent artiste writing a truly unique work of universalizeable and immortal literature, and this position simply cannot be sustained. Neither, really, can the laws that pretend it’s true. Just ask the RIAA.
Even if you literally show me pictures of myself writing my novel at 4am in a locked room, I will not buy the idea that there’s an un-remix-ed version of writing, or that this is new. There are novels in the room, and in my head, so no. Nope. No.
But then, within syllables, Banks saves himself (see page 2)–this is a book about locating African American cultural agency inside a paradigm that has suddenly returned to the fore after being mythologized out of modernity by a system built to construct African American as “other” (in the same way non-Enlightenment, non-European, “non-modern” groups get Othered to create the Us). The DJs hearken back to oral storytelling–the griots–meaning that this is not new, that this is just one way of looking at it that might be cool.
Digital Griots is a tool for reimagining what is going on–for scholars who have discovered the model in a new fashion, not an absolute pronunciation of the newness of the system itself. The DJ is “a figure through whom African American rhetoric can be reimagined in a new century” (2). The griot maintains the past within the present (see epigraph on 10), which of course makes the distinction really fuzzy. The way it ought to be.
That, at least, makes the academic in me happy. And it also helps to explain the really weird phenomenon that happened on Twitter–somehow, Tweetku has taken on a life of its own and has its own twitter, but we’re not sure if we made it or if we just happened to be doing the same thing while it was already there all along. Remix obfuscates historicity. The agent (the romantic author) blurs into the griot (the person speaking right now, the re-vision) (156).
My attempts, and our fixation, with locating an originator are probably possible but really counter to how the internet works structurally–the internet does not make allowances for the purity (and the myth) of the original. CNN’s silly attempts, every week, to find out about the source of viral things feels about as in-touch as their five weeks of coverage for a plane crash: they’re fixated on originators. Likewise, TV news networks talk about the hacker collective Anonymous as if it’s a thing, with leaders or consistent members. It is *not*. That’s the point. There’s no satisfying author at the end of the trail of remixes.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t protect remixers work, or reward particularly effective innovation, its just that we need to acknowledge that
we’ve been doing that to certain remixers, called authors, but not to others,
nobody operates in a vacuum (see the most recent presidential election’s key debate), and
academic culture still creates systems of value, good or bad, around arbitrary distinctions between remix and original, derivative text and magical “springs fully formed from the head of the author, like Athena from Zeus” literature.
When reading Banks’ work, I couldn’t help but think of my own E110 classes at UD. My undergraduate university was extremely racially diverse, so I have learned first hand how useful discussions of race, power, and privilege can be in a composition classroom. That said, I think these conversations are only useful when the class contains voices that are diverse enough to contribute varying perspectives. Without these first hand accounts of the effects that race has on writing practices, a discussion about writing studies can very quickly become a discussion about race studies. And while this latter discussion is important to have, I am not convinced that the FYC classroom is the right place for it.
My unease about having discussions of race in E110 at UD stems from the fact that, like Banks, I believe that we should adapt our teaching voice to the communities that we serve. Banks explains the importance for this adaptation in his chapter on community engagement:
One must have a teaching voice, an active voice, a scholarly voice that allows one to teach, politic, build, act, plan, in the idiom of the people—whoever “the people” are in the settings in which we hope to work. And one must teach in the idiom—not just the language practices but the ways of seeing the world, the ways of being in the world, the values, attitudes, knowledge, needs, hopes, joys, and contributions of a people as expressed through their language (49).
I think that it is this belief that makes questions of race appropriate for some first year composition classrooms and not others. During my time at Temple, discussions of race arose organically and felt natural. Racial discussions were a part of the “cultural idiom,” so we never had to have a specific week when we sat down and talked about race. Yet at UD, it seems to me that the norm is to have “the race week” where there is one text about African American studies and the central question of race is put on the table. Even at places like UD, race is an implicit part of all conversations, but because it is not a part of UD’s explicit cultural idiom, it just doesn’t come up. So instead we opt for making it come up. To me, these discussions always seem forced and contrived, which is why I’ve excluded them from my own E110 classroom.
Moreover, I think there is a very real danger of discussing race in an E110 class that is mostly white. In all of my classes, I have had at least one minority student (but never more than three). And although I have never tried to have discussions of race in this 20 white people 3 non-white people environment, I imagine that it would make the minority students feel very uncomfortable—as if they suddenly had to speak for ALL minority students.
I know that not talking about questions of race does not remove the very real implications of white hegemony over academic discourse. But I don’t think that talking about race in a room of mostly white people does either.
When I walked into Alison West 206 on February 11 for my first day as an English instructor, I expected to have at least one black student in my section. But no. When I called roll, white person after white person said “here.” And when they look at me (and heck, even at the headshots of the people whose writing we read), it’s all whiteness.
Why does this matter?
It matters because that isn’t reality.
So when Banks writes in Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age that his purpose is to scratch and interrupt, to play between two disciplinary conversations, one about African American rhetoric and one about composing in multimodal forms (2), I want to go with him. I find his writing to be self-reflective, engaging, and inviting.
But I also feel hypocritical because I haven’t figured out, as a white person teaching white students, how to talk responsibly about race and power. Or more importantly, how to do the work that Banks writes about in his compelling social commentary about rhetorical strategies used by digital griots.
How can DJs’ creative and rhetorical moves come into play when I’m teaching white first year students how to enter the scholarly conversation? Or to see the bibliographic essay as a mixtape, as Banks suggests? How can I help students try “sampling” through their use of someone else’s idea that is vital enough that they don’t just cite it but make it a “looped” and “continually repeated” part of their own creations (26)?
I feel convicted because I know that Banks is right that the “acts of writing, the social networks and cultural contexts in which they occur, and the technological networks in which they take place and are disseminated still involve systems of power, still reflect relationships between individuals and groups within those systems” (154). My own writing as well as the E110 writing I assign are embedded within a “system of power” that unconsciously excludes or dismisses voices and perspectives of minorities, even as the academy tries to make room for people whose voices were silenced for much of history.
In short, I am utterly persuaded of the richness and possibility in flow, layering, rupture, and remix of hip hop. That process (and indeed, the product of a remix) appeals a great deal more than the staid and patchwritten research paper drafts that cross my desk.
On the positive side, the technologies available to us and to our students can open up startlingly rich combinations, as Banks deftly and creatively discusses (and indeed, performs) in his book.
The question I am left with is this: if “black griotic traditions call for an approach to writing that is committed to the range and flexibility to ‘teach in the idiom of the people'” (155), what can we do if the people in the classroom are. all. white? What then?
In his chapter on remix, Adam Banks draws from the work of Catherine Latterell because of her attraction to the concept of remix as something that “allows students ways of juxtaposing texts and ideas from academic and popular culture as well as other forms of public discourse and encourages students to create a wide range of print, oral, and digital texts” (88). Although Banks is clearly interested in these pedagogical values of remix, he advocates that our definition of what remixes, mixtapes, and samples are and do should also emphasize how they enact a “synchronizing of generational commonalities and tensions that allows, even demands, innovation while remaining linked with histories and traditions” (90-1).
So, even if we aren’t explicitly utilizing African American rhetoric within our first-year composition courses, how can we get our students “to remix history in order to point a new way forward” (100)? Furthermore, how can we get them to recognize composition as one giant “digital humanities project, as a thorough linking of texts, techne, and technologies” (155)?
I’m especially interested in how Banks calls for a “linking of texts” that preserves their “histories and traditions” because it feels (at least to me) like he is proposing a New Historicist approach to composition, which could have numerous exciting possibilities. And I very much agree with his assertions that we, as teachers, cannot “create any syllabus or teach anything without the explicit and implicit borrowing and reuse that DJs have celebrated and mastered,” and that “[e]very course we teach is a mixtape” (138).
But what are some examples of texts that we can introduce into our first-year composition classrooms that carry with them historic import?
Well, I’d like to think that material culture (or Material Culture?) is a fine place to start.
In my past two years of teaching E110 here at UD, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching my students’ reactions when I introduce their final writing assignment of the semester: a material culture multimedia project that asks each of them to examine a significant object from their own lives. They first write a personal narrative detailing how that object has helped them understand who they are as individuals but also as members of various communities (family, school, hometown, teams, etc.). They must then transform that narrative generically for a class presentation.
Initially, they view material culture as just a bunch of “stuff,” not as a series of “texts” that can offer valuable insight into their personal histories. Sort of like this guy:
But their final projects almost always rise to the challenge:
And what I’ve received are narratives centered around extremely evocative objects: a childhood home, a bracelet commemorating a loved one, a tchotchke from their birth country, or even a video game that has helped them through major life transitions like divorce or changing school systems.
So, why material culture then? Well, for Banks, part of what is at stake in using African American rhetoric in composition is to show black students how to interact with their backgrounds/origins, and their capabilities in a multimodal world. Material culture, as I’ve shown in the project I have my students complete, achieves a similar end. Likewise, Banks wants us to educate our students on how “to critically examine the technologies they often use without careful consideration” (88). To that end, it would behoove us to conceptualize material culture not just as “stuff” but as an archollection (archive & collection) of critical life technologies, ones that we may take for granted through everyday use but nonetheless tell us a great deal about who we are, where we came from, and what we can do both inside and outside of the composition classroom.