Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Wikipedia Zombies and the White Album

If anyone out there ever wants some quick insight into what I am like as an academic or a teacher, you simply have to remember that before I became an academic, an activist or a professor, I was an artist. So no matter what I am writing, what class I am teaching or what I am researching, there is always this festering, Duchampish, avant garde impulse to either push some boundaries or to infuse some creativity.

So for instance, I am currently teaching three English composition classes at the University of Guam. Its something I never imagined teaching, and to tell you the truth, there isn't much about it that I've enjoyed (although the job (yan i salape) is appreciated), but I still find ways to make my pedagogy or what I'm teaching match my instincts as an artist. Sometimes this has gotten me into trouble, thankfully, no serious trouble yet, but enough irritating little spats to ensure that I never want to teach English at UOG again.

But to give you an example of my desire to perform and force some aesthetics into my teaching, earlier this week, while I was talking about what are appropriate resources to use for academic research papers, I drew a picture of my daughter Sumahi on the chalkboard, blowing away a zombie. I was later told that another professor heard about the drawing I had made and was offended and irritated by it. I doubt that this professor ever actually saw it, but hearing about it was enough to apparently complain vocally to several students about my behavior at UOG.

Now, you reading this, might yourself feel that it was ridiculous for me, a college professor, while I'm talking about such important things as writing and research, to waste everyone's time by drawing such a stupid thing on the board as that. Given, the limited amount of details I've provided so far, it would be very understandable if you came to that conclusion. But, in truth, that drawing wasn't without purpose, and so that's why it was so frustrating to hear that people were condemning me without even knowing what they were talking about.

I'm pasting below a photograph of the zombie and Sumahi. Otro fino'-ta, for anything I draw on the board during class, I always take a photograph for my records. (This was another one of the reasons why it was so difficult losing my laptop a few weeks ago, I lost all the images of my lectures from last semester.)

It might be very difficult to see the details, but I explained them to my students. On the left is Sumahi, with a very evil, but delighted face. She is holding a shotgun which is smoking after recently being fired. On the right side is the zombie. Thankfully I only had one color chalk and so its not as vivid, visceral or as colorful as I would have wanted it to be, but basically, one of the zombie's arms was recently blown off, and the wound on his head, which has exposed his brains, isn't very pretty either. Above the zombie's head is a thought bubble with just a little joke, he's thinking to himself "Gof mannge i tintanos Sumahi" or "Sumahi's brains are very delicious."

In the zombie's remaining hand he is holding something. Now usually zombie's in horror films don't carry things in their hands and so the fact that this zombie is carrying something should be a clue that something is amiss. In his hand is a pile of papers, on the front of which we see the words "Research Paper" and then the letter "F." On the t-shirt of the zombie we see the words "Wikipedia Zombie."

I drew this image in order to make clear a point for my students. To illustrate it to them in a way which might surprise some, shock some, offend some, or make laugh some. I told my students, that whether they were a good writer or not, had less to do with whether or not they would produce good papers than they thought. That the basis for creating a good research paper was not how smart you were, how well you spoke English, how articulate you were, or any of those superficial things that tend to determine the intellectual hierarchy of a classroom. I said, that the best place to start in writing a good research paper, was to use good sources.

I told my students that at this stage it was pretty easy to tell when you read a college undergraduate paper, where they did their research. You could be a great writer, a master of take' toru, the top of your class at Sanchez, ND or Academy, but if you used crap sources, then your paper would reflect it. Your paper and your argument would be as thin and limited as whatever crap you dredged up during random Bing or Google searches. I told them, that if they were serious about getting good grades, you had to look to sources which had more depth to them, more breadth, which engaged in the ideas you were interested in talking about, in a more complex and broader way. I basically told them, that if Google and Wikipedia are the only things you use for your papers then you are like this zombie. It doesn't matter if you are the smartest zombie in your clique, you are still just like this zombie, with your brains leaking out uselessly. If I get papers like that, then I'll ask Sumahi with her pakin lulok to come and put you out of your misery.

I finished by telling my students, that if you spend time in the library, looking through their databases and their archives, and read what you find, I guarantee that your papers will be I better. And then, maybe I won't have to tell Sumahi to bring her pakin lulok to class.

In response to this, some students chuckled, some were appalled and some were offended, but I had a very serious point, and I chose to make it in the way I thought was best. I chose to do it in a way which didn't simply communicate knowledge or an idea, but did so in a possibly humorous, weird and artistic way.

After drawing this Wikipedia Zombie, its actually made me reflect on all the other ways in which I try to be artistic in my academic work, and some ways in which its effective, but also can haunt me. I remember when I defended my dissertation last year, there was a moment where I was told that my dissertation was like a work of art. It was very abstract, very creative, very challenging, but that this didn't necessarily make it a good dissertation. It made it very artistic, but didn't necessarily work that well in translating your project for an audience who may not be able to follow all your points or appreciate your style.

This comment was in a way a critique, that my dissertation wasn't formal enough, wasn't academic enough, or didn't show that I had mastered the art of taking my particular thoughts and putting them into a universal medium, where those who weren't me could easily understand what I was arguing. But I wasn't necessarily upset at this, because in a way it is absolutely true. We should never ever assume that we can do everything that needs to be done, or that there is someway that we could occupy the perfect form of any act or intervention. There is not ideal or perfect way to teach anything or say anything, and while each context provides you clues, sometimes rigidly sedimented clues as to what is considered to be the most prefect way of conducting yourself or articulating something, but even if you follow as best as you can such prescriptions, it doesn't mean that you lose something in the process. No matter how you chose to act you will sacrifice some other way, or part of what you could do. So even I did chose to be incredible formal and attempt to fill that fantasy of appropriate academic writing or articulation, I am wary of what I would lose or be forced to give up in the process. But at the same time I am aware that when I chose to be more artistic or more unconventional, it comes with costs. It increases the chances of openly alienating readers or people, it leaves me open to more forms of attack or critique and it can make my life more difficult in terms of getting points across.

So, while I understood the implicit critique in the idea that my dissertation was a work of art, or like an abstract painting, I still appreciated the sentiment, because its true. There is a part of me which is still interested in embodying avant garde principles, and challenging conventions, appearing to abuse things or misuse them and taking the risk of alienating those who read or hear me. There is a very big part of me who strongly believes that I should have those artist instincts inform my academic work, and that even though I can make things more difficult, it can still be nonetheless effective.

When I think about the idea of my dissertation as a piece of chaotic art, for some reason I always think back to the album The Beatles, or as I usually refer to it as, The White Album. For some reason I feel like that album is like the dinga or twin to my dissertation. Both are sprawling in size, both of them were written under chaotic circumstances, both of them have this mixed aura of being a well-thought out, fantastic balance at one moment, and falling apart and pointless repetitive at another. When I try to think of which Beatles album is my favorite, even though I hate half of the songs on The White Album, and feel that so many other albums of theirs are better put together and have stronger songs, I feel this affinity to The White Album that I can't really explain.

But in honor of creativity that can't really be explained, and its power and importance, I'm pasting the entire album from Youtube down below:

1 comment:

charissa said...

Its ironic that the academic zombies didn't appreciate the humor & creativity of your illustration. I thought it was funny & more telling then intended.


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