Tag Archives: Digital Griots

The “Griotic Tradition” and the Multicultural Classroom

In Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, Adam Banks creates a new framework for thinking about writing pedagogy, and digital writing especially, that allows black students a better entry point into the conversation of digital writing:

My argument in this book is that African Americans should take this griotic tradition to their engagements with technology, becoming digital griots, bearers of this tradition in digital spaces. I also suggest that the digital griot has much to offer teacher-scholars in literacy and composition looking for relevant models of multimodal literacies for their work and that of their students. (27)

In terms of his first goal, then, it’s difficult to see how it can be immediately applied to my own experience as a writing instructor at UD for the simple reason that my classrooms are almost entirely, if not always entirely, white. As some of you have said in your other posts, this makes discussing race and creating a multicultural classroom difficult in some respects. Yet, and this is where Banks’s second goal comes into play, I would argue that creating a multicultural writing classroom, a classroom dedicated to the ethics of diversity, is not only achieved through explicit discussion of race and cultural issues.

First, let’s take a moment to recognize that diversity comes in many ways–though race may seem most readily apparent, discussions of class difference or gender and sexuality issues might be relevant and useful for our UD classrooms if the lack of racial diversity is too daunting.

Beyond that, though, Banks’s text shows us the ways that our writing pedagogy itself is infused with particular cultural values. The assignments we choose, the technology we use, the texts we have students read, and, perhaps most importantly, how we choose to evaluate and how we teach evaluation of texts are all imbued with certain cultural values and biases.

What ends up being so brilliant about Banks’s promotion of the kind of writing pedagogy grounded in the “griotic tradition” is the way that it reveals the cultural context and social significance of any kind of discourse–it reveals all discourse to be culturally dependent.

A traditional writing classroom, one that does not follow Banks, preaches a certain set of values when it comes to writing (concision, structure, linearity, clarity, etc.) that are tacitly raced, gendered, culture-ed (a pun!) but are taught as if they were inherently “good” or “better than” or “academic.” In this classroom, student’s writing is “improved” and they become “better” writers–this environment can be alien and terrifying depending on how far removed the student is from the culture of the university.

What the “griotic tradition” asks us to do instead is teach students not to “improve” their own writing (to change themselves!) but to learn and try on news ways of writing, to understand writing as essentially a performance that you can put on and step out of without compromising your personal identity and without believing in any inherent value of certain types of writing over others. So, even for our classrooms with a marked lack of diversity, we can teach an appreciation for diversity and work to undo the assumptions of superior writing skill created by white privilege.

In the end, I think that Digital Griots does offer us a way to encourage a multicultural classroom even without a visibly diverse student population OR explicit discussions of race. Through a treatment of different texts and discourses that highlights their status as culturally-dependent, inherently-valueless performances, we can at least encourage an ethics of diversity in our students.

(I apologize for the late posting.)

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?

White Students and Black Words

One of the most striking aspects of Banks’ discussion was his advocacy of using digital media and the humanities to bridge the gaps between generations and to form stronger communities.  As a student of historic preservation, these are questions that we work with every day in our efforts to make preservation sustainable and inclusive.  However, like the field of digital humanities and digital writing, preservation is largely dominated by white scholars and professionals.  This isn’t to say that there is no minority presence in the field, of course.

Throughout Digital Griots, Banks is invested in the idea that African Americans should have an evolving rhetoric that is “on their own terms,”  using “social epistemologies and subjectivities” directed towards “Black publics or [. . .] cultural geographies (156).”  Essentially, created for a black audience, by black authors, and engaging with topics that are relevant to their community- an important framework for any culture.  With this in mind, I wonder if the weight of African American rhetoric and sources  or the importance of an individual as a griot/te change if their work is being used or interpreted by someone who is white?

As an undergraduate, I really didn’t do very much work with any sort of ethno-centric rhetoric.  Honestly, it just isn’t something in which I am or have ever been particularly interested.  The majority of the exposure I got to non-white writing or media was through my history classes and later in graduate school, use of African American oral histories in survey work.  While none of the people interviewed were likely individuals who could be formally called griots (and they certainly weren’t the DJs that Banks mentions), their oral histories and tradition are important elements of preservation research that are used at an increasingly regular rate.  Especially where black and minority voices have been oppressed by racism or other forms of discrimination, one of the best ways to gain accurate insight into their community’s experiences for the record of history is to speak directly to individual people and let them share their story in their own way.  In our field, however, the students “remixing” these words and thoughts for their papers are often white.

In the same way that Banks discusses “selection, arrangement, layering,” and “blending” in the context of musical arrangements, different voices in communities perform these same functions to talk about their experiences (35).  Stories are remixed or blended as different people tell and re-tell them, and then again changed as they’re added into various contexts and arguments.  It occurs to me that the stories of black interviewees- and indeed, all interviewees- are authentically, completely theirs until they are remixed and re-used by somebody else.  Despite the fact that the initial words and ideas belong to the interviewee, they are appropriated and taken out of their context for use by somebody else.

I know that’s very likely confusing and doesn’t really engage with the digital aspect of  the book, but I was curious to explore this thought a bit more (and I will probably update this again when I’ve had more time to think about it).

Remixing E110

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:

http://www.tubechop.com/watch/2542308 (Vine by Eric Dunn).

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):

http://itooamharvard.tumblr.com/
http://itooamharvard.tumblr.com/

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.

 

New Dimensions of Dialogue

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.

Dimensions of Dialogue by Jan Švankmajer
Dimensions of Dialogue by Jan Švankmajer

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.

Dimensions of Dialogue by Jan Švankmajer

 

 

Teaching, Preaching, and Co-Creating Digital Text?

bear with me … this self-indulgent narrative has a point

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.

pleaz?

Proposals for Co-Creating Digital (and/or Public) Text

  1. Class blog/discussion forum (outright stealing this from our 685 class, where I feel it has been extremely successful).
  2. Creating some assignment together; perhaps a collection of narratives (with visuals) with a discussion about how to organize and group them
  3. Public feedback; perhaps beginning with a text created by me and then easing them into presenting their own work for the public eye.

Not Newness: Wherein I Don’t Say Anything Unexpected

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.

Nope.
Nope.

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.

I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it's an appropriation of another text.
I did not make this image. It did not spring solely from me. I do not know who made it, and even if I did, it’s an appropriation of another text.

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

  1. we’ve been doing that to certain remixers, called authors, but not to others,
  2. nobody operates in a vacuum (see the most recent presidential election’s key debate), and
  3. 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.
  4. Tweetku probably went viral somehow.

    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.
    This image is a pastiche of several memes, combined with a famous internet haiku. There are too many potential layered remixes here.