Tag Archives: academic writing

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?

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The False “Text” vs. “Media” Dichotomy: Academic Culture as Remix Culture

In this week’s round of responses, others have (rightly) called attention to the false dichotomy Lessig sets up between RO and RW culture. But as I was reading Remix, another opposition struck me as particularly bizarre: the binary Lessig attempts to construct between text and digital media. He boldly claims that

Text is today’s Latin. It is through text that we elites communicate (look at you, reading this book). For the masses, however, most information is gathered through other forms of media: TV, film, music, and music video. These forms of “writing” are the vernacular of today. (Lessig 67)

Wait—really? Even if we narrow Lessig’s definition of “text” to “alphabetic text,” which I believe is what he means, I have a difficult time believing that “the masses” are “gathering information” about the world exclusively through these non-alphabetic media. There’s a crucial distinction to be made here: the non-Latin-speaking ‘commoners’ of the European Middle Ages did not have the literacy necessary to make use of Latin as a medium of communication; the ‘masses’ who consume other kinds of media today are generally  literate in alphabetic texts. Yes, people are watching “New Girl” on TV and streaming movies on Netflix and watching/listening to Britney Spears on iTunes/YouTube/whatever. But they are also reading alphabetic text, even if they are doing so in different ways, in different environments, and surrounded by other media. To find evidence of this, we need only look at Facebook and Twitter, the two most widely used social media programs on the web: these are absolutely alphabetic text-saturated and -reading dependent environments.

No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!
No alphabetic text or reading going on here at all, no siree!

The statistics Lessig cites in the same paragraph to claim “falling numbers for text” (67) make it especially apparent that he is falsely distinguishing print alphabetic reading practices from digital alphabetic reading practices. These statistics pit the act of “reading” against “playing games or using a computer for leisure” (67). But is it really not possible that we might read alphabetic texts (both in extended and fragmented forms) while we use our computers for leisure?

What I find particularly problematic about this false dichotomy between “text” and “other media” is that it allows Lessig to then claim that digital media remixes are somehow more convoluted, entangled, or even more creative than textual remixes. Lessig asserts that the ‘quotes’ used in digital remixes “happen at different layers. Unlike text, where the quotes follow in a single line—such as here, where the sentence explains, ‘and then a quote gets added’—remixed media may quote sounds over images, or video over text, or text over sounds. The quotes thus get mixed together. The mix produces the new creative work—the ‘remix’” (69).

As an academic(-in-training), I found myself more than a little irked at Lessig’s oversimplification here of the way that texts and ideas are circulated and remixed through alphabetic writing. In academic writing, we don’t just cite quotations—we cite ideas. Sometimes those ideas get represented through direct quotation, but often they do not: sometimes we paraphrase, sometimes we borrow someone else’s approach and apply it to a new text, and sometimes we do a little thing we like to call academic synthesis wherein we effectively “layer” others’ ideas to produce something new. To borrow some terms and ideas from Joe’s Rewriting, in each of these instances of putting others’ texts in service of our own writing projects, we are effectively rewriting them to say something new—an act I think we can justly call “creative work” and “remix.” Viewed through such a lens, textual remixes seem to me to be at least as complicated and difficult to disentangle as those composed using  digital media.

I highlight all of this in order to suggest that as much as academic culture may have to learn from digital culture (and I think it’s quite a lot!), there may be something digital culture can learn from academia as well. I suspect that the academy values intellectual property as much as the commercial sector, if not more—and yet, it has managed a system of attribution and citation wherein the use of others’ texts and ideas is not just free, but encouraged and expected as a means of contributing to a diverse body of texts and ways of knowing. Citation is more than an obligatory head-nod; it represents coveted influence within the culture. People want their work to be cited, to be rewritten, to be remixed. I am not arguing that academic culture is some utopian ideal, and I recognize that there are issues of compensation bound up in this discussion—issues we’ll no doubt attend to in next week’s discussion of Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. But I still think there are values inherent to the remix culture of academia that are worth preserving, and worth trying to cultivate in the digital world.