The DJ as Modern Day Storyteller: Talking About Adam Banks’ Digital Griots

So you think your iPhone, some computer in the classroom, or the Blackboard online platform is just some neutral tool?  In this week’s episode of the READ, WRITE, & TEACH digital book club, I was joined by my colleagues Carmen Kynard and Roseanne Gatto so that we could discuss our reading of Adam J. Banks’ Digital Griots:  African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age.  It’s a book that interests me because as a writer and teacher who hopes to be professionally relevant in the years to come, I believe it’s important to be able to speak into digital spaces.  Early in the podcast Roseanne points us to these lines where Banks describes one of the goals of his text:

This book looks to scratch, to interrupt, to play a while in the grooves of two records–disciplinary conversations about African American rhetoric and those about multimedia writing–to begin to blend and loop them while posing one question:  how can African American rhetorical traditions and practices inform composition’s current endeavors to define, theorize, and practice multimedia writing? 

Adam Banks Digital Griots Kynard Sirc Rice Torgerson Gatto

Digital Griots by Adam Banks

Digital Griots is a call to action for every teacher who isn’t working to enable students  to enter into the digital space in a meaningful way.  This is a text that connects the role of the African griot storyteller to the role of the modern day DJ.  In this podcast you’ll meet my colleague Carmen, who is the director of First Year Writing at St. John’s University.  Carmen is mentioned several times in Digital Griots, including a reference to her article, “Wanted:  Some Black Long Distance [Writers]:  Blackboard Flava Flavin and other Afrodigital Experiences in the Classroom.”

My fellow composition teacher Roseanne wonders if as a white lady she’s got any business bringing a Jay-Z text into the classroom or teaching a hip hop themed course.   She also tells a pretty funny story about the time she and her friend went to a Buju Banton concert and were pretty much the only white people there.  (don’t worry if you don’t know Buju’s stuff; I didn’t either)  I’ll save the “punch line” to the story for those of you who listen to the podcast.  🙂

Roseanne and Carmen join Banks’ in his “playful” challenge of Geoffrey Sirc and Jeff Rice.  Banks writes, “And while I see value in both Rice’s and Sirc’s arguments in favor of the ability to play freely in texts and techniques in the writing classroom, their desire to lift, sample, and loop concepts from black traditions freely for their their mere applicability without concern for the culture or context that produced them, the mixtape as rhetorical practice offers composition pedagogy and digital writing theory far more than a whimsical pursuit of the cool.”

Banks’ primary objection is stated here:  “Now how Rice is able to claim that he “invented” a rhetoric of something, much less a rhetoric of the cool (Rhetoric of Cool 5, 113), given Fab’s description and many of the texts he himself cites, I have no idea, though the various traditions he links together in his study of cool help make the book an intriguing one.  My playful rib aside…”  (118-119).  This is a section of the book that Carmen brings into our discussion.

As for myself, Banks’ Digital Griots furthers my understanding of what a POWERPLAY literacy can be.  Language can be used to access power; of course language can be used to oppress and control.  For all the reasons you understand that it’s important to read and write, those same reasons can be applied toward an understanding of how important it is for a writing teacher to help others into digital spaces where they can be heard.

If you’re a teacher or student, I’d like to hear from you about how technology is or is not being used in your classroom.  Do you see technology as a neutral tool that does what you want it to, or do you think that the tool has a lot embedded in it that seeks to direct  or influence you?  If you’re a technology user, especially in a classroom or literacy program, how much of the conversation in Digital Griots is ongoing in the spaces you inhabit?

Thanks to Roger D and C Milli for providing the music!

Some links that might interest you:

You can link to the podcast here or

you can search “Digital Book Club” on iTunes.

Thanks for reading!

Facebook and Blogs as Instruments for World Peace?

from Bruce Barrett founder of IWAGEPEACE.ORG

When I started to make the mental move from basketball coach to writer (not that a person couldn’t be both) the two writer/teachers I began to read were Donald Murray and Peter Elbow.   Many of the professors and teachers around me let me know that these two men were considered to be from the “expressive” school of composition and that if I followed their methods then my classroom would not be a place for political and social change.   In the years that have followed, I have not found the warnings about expressivism’s lack of political impact to be true.

In the writing classrooms I inhabit, my students write in what Murray called a daybook (think writer’s journal) and they use Peter Elbow’s guidelines for sharing their work with one another, and what happens after that often takes on political implications for the classroom and beyond.

What follows are my notes for the reading of a text I choose because I’m thinking about technology, multimodal texts, and how those terms relate to the act of writing.  The text did its work of giving me more to consider, but it also got me to thinking about the social and political change that occurs when people read and write together, whether this happens passing sheets of paper back and forth, posting on Facebook, or creating websites.  If you have any doubt about a blog’s ability to spread any sort of message, take a glance at the map that goes with this blog and check out the location of some of its readers.  Whoa.

Here are some “Golden Lines” and some of my thoughts related to Kathleen Blake Yancey’s “Made Not Only in Words:  Composition in a New Key.” 56:2  CCC. December 2004.

  • “Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside” (298).  My students write regularly on blogs and I have them form groups to investigate an issue within writing studies, write a collaborative research paper, and present it to the class via a multimodal text.  While those are activities within the courses I teach, I also talk daily about scholarly sources, signal phrases, parenthetical citations, and an MLA works cited page.  I was just walking to class and thinking about how few of my students will use these “skills” (what else to call them?) after college.  I was also thinking how rarely I use those skills in my writing. If I were a teacher and writer mostly publishing in scholarly journals, I would use these features of writing a lot, but I think of myself as a novelist, a short story writer, and an essayist.  Most of the reading I do does not contain parenthetical citations.  I hang onto to teaching that part of writing because my students are mostly just getting started at the university and I imagine that they will have to do this sort of writing to successfully navigate the university.  If the latter is true (that students will read scholarly sources and write research papers) then I think the quote from the Yancey article that begins this bullet is an observation worth consideration.
  • “How is it that what we teach and what we test can be so different from what our students know as writing?” (298).  I want to take my students beyond what they know as writing.  I want them to think critically about the texts that bombard them.  I want them to equate writing with thinking, to begin to see the phrases that ripple across their mind as revisable thoughts.
  • “At best, it could help foster a world peace never known before” (301).  We weren’t blogging in my courses yet, but this sentence reminds me of my own classroom, where the Jewish immigrant from Russia became best friends with the Muslim student from Pakistan.  These students wrote about the world was set up for them to hate one another but our classroom at St. John’s University became a space where they could work together and become friends.
  • “At this moment, we need to focus on three changes:  Develop a new curriculum; revisit and revise our writing-across-the-curriculum efforts; and develop a major in composition and rhetoric” (308).  Sentences such as this one cause me to wonder my place in Writing Studies, as a professor with an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English Education.  Writing Studies sounds like something to which I can belong while an Undergraduate Major in Composition sounds more like something within which I will always be slightly unqualified to teach, at least when it comes to my terminal degree.
  • “In composition, we need to learn how to read and write e-texts–synthesizing, questioning, evaluating, and importing from them–databases and catalogues, hyper-texts and archives, Web essays and portfolios” (318).    If you are already trying to teach students to be critical–to question information as it comes toward their thinking–then I don’t think this seems like such a big step, at least the first part.  Read and write online, perhaps watch various online video including documentaries, and apply Yancey’s “synthesizing, questioning….”  As I write this, I hear many of my students telling me how much they hate the “critical lens” assignment.  Many of my students are being asked to do something they despise in whatever they mean when they say “critical lens.”  I don’t think reading and writing have to be things to be dreaded.
  • With regards to technology, especially something such as a set of Power Point Slides, “If we continue to partition it off as just something technical, or outside the parameters governing composing, or limit it to the screen of the course management system, or think of it in terms of the bells and whistles and templates of the PowerPoint screen, students in our classes learn only to fill in those electric boxes–which, in their ability to invite intellectual work, are the moral equivalent of the dots on a multiple choice test” (320).  I think the E-Portfolio has the strong potential for becoming the new five paragraph essay, a prefabricated form which limits thinking.

My Notes and Thoughts on Reading Cynthia Selfe’s “The Movement of Air…”

Formatted Document – ProQuest.

It’s Daniel Keller’s oral essay, “Lord of the Machines…” that really does it to me:  gets me as excited for what the writing classroom could be, as excited as I was the first day that I realized that all I really had to do to to get students interested in the class was to allow them to read and write and share their own words with their classmates.   I wonder how old Daniel Keller is, not enough to look this up, but I see a lot in his oral essay that appeals to who I am, including clips of dialogue from an old favorite movie of mine, Office Space. There’s a lot else in Keller’s essay too:  music that must come from what he knows and loves, more movie cuts, and funny and surprising research that states 33% of people admit to having assaulted their computers and 70% of people admit to swearing.  I have sworn at my computer many a time but so far no assaults that I can remember.

What’s so exciting for me is to consider all that could go into a piece in the spirit of the oral essays Selfe shares.  What does each student care enough about that they would pursue knowledge on the subject, figure out how the subject connects with who they are (for example, wherever it was that Keller tapped into his knowledge of The Office), and bring together all that thinking into a multimedia/multimodal text.

With my excitement comes the dampening thought of all the problems I already face when it comes to the writing and thinking my students and I do that doesn’t happen in a Word document.  Okay, my students use Windows Movie Maker for a project.  Where should we put this video?  On You Tube?  I can’t require students to make their work public.  It could be dangerous, an invasion of their privacy.  And how will I collect all this work as artifacts of our writing and thinking and my teaching?  The hard drive on my computer is already too full.  I’ve already transferred kilos and kilos of bits onto an external hard drive, but now I can’t access that material unless I drag it along with me.  I am vaguely aware of the notion of cloud computing, which means to me that I can have storage “out there,” accessible to me from anywhere, but at the moment I don’t know how to make that technology work for my students and me.

I could go on about these problems; surely fill pages and pages with what I know how to do but can’t bring to my students because of one obstacle or the other.  I think I can sum up a lot of my troubles in this way:  okay, I can do that (insert sound, video, oral essay, etc) but where am I going to put it?  How are my students and my students only going to access it?

Golden Lines from Selfe’s Article and Thoughts if I’ve got them:

  • “Writing as Not-Speech” (Selfe 627). At the moment, all my courses are first year writing courses.  This course is required of just about all the students.  I already do everything I can think to do to say that writing isn’t just writing; writing is thinking. I give examples such as, “Okay, there’s someone you’re romantically interested in.  You’ve spoken to them.  They are looking at you.  Your opening has got you at least that far.  Now what?”  My examples aren’t contained to what could sound like a pick up line.  I tell my students about my phone calls to the state of New York about my denied tax refund.  I had to think about structure, purpose, and audience.  I’m surprised how much time Selfe has to spend showing that there is more to a composition class than sentences written onto a piece of paper or typed into a Word document.
  • “Digital networks, for example, have provided routes for the increasing numbers of communications that now cross geopolitcal, cultural, and linguistic borders, and because of this situation, the texts exchanged within such networks often assume hybrid forms that take advantage of multiple semiotic channels” (Selfe 636-37).  I do my blog post.  I see on my map that people from several continents read my post.  How did my blog collect that information?  Is this an invasion of privacy?  I copy and paste an image from Office Space I find online into my post.  Have I committed copyright infringement?  If I write only text, don’t I lose a lot of potential readers?  Aren’t most online readers drawn to links, pictures, and video?  Isn’t it amazing, that I write a reflection on the documentary Food, INC and the next day I get a comment from a farmer who defends the way soybean seeds are protected by seed companies?  It’s so much to manage.  It’s so invigorating and overwhelming.
  • “Aural Composing Sample 4:  Daniel Keller’s ‘Lord of the Machines:  Reading the Human Computer Relationship'” (Selfe 640). I show my students a clip of a documentary on the big screen in front of the class.  I ask them to consider audience, purpose, structure, and payoff.  By “payoff,” I want them to ask, “What is the reward supposed to be for watching this film?”  What rewards are there supposed to be for reading what I write?  What rewards should their be for me when I write?  For some reason, my computer overheats and shuts down after about ten minutes.  I want to use my computer because all my browser favorites are on there.  I know about “Delicious” (probably spelled wrong), a social bookmarking tool that would enable me to access my online “favorites” from any computer and even share them with others.  Delicious is a Yahoo thing.  I have an old Yahoo account but I can’t remember the password.  Should I get another email address so that I can use the Yahoo related social bookmarking tool?  Just how much time am I willing to spend managing all my accounts and passwords?  I think Mozilla, my preferred browser, might remember my passwords for me.  Now how does that work?
  • “I do want to argue that teachers of composition need to pay attention to, and come to value, the multiple ways in which students compose and communicate meaning, the exciting hybrid, multimodal texts they create–in both nondigital and digital environments–to meet their own needs in a changing world” (Selfe 642). Students needs?  I keep forgetting to put in there that I often have to push (such an ugly word) students to consider what they want to know and what they ought to think about.  This was done for me countless times!  There was/is so much that I haven’t thought of.  My teachers (both in person and in the form of texts) showed me that there was more out there worth knowing about than I had imagined.  The main reason I blog and try to learn about multimodal texts isn’t so that I can be the best teacher.  I do this because I think of myself as a writer, and as a writer I imagine us heading deeper into a world where readers sit with laptops glancing at texts, or else fidgeting with some sort of controller, maybe a wireless keyboard, looking at their television screen and alternately watching videos and clicking on texts they want to read.  I’d like to have a voice in that world, even if it’s a voice that convinces them to take a break, go find a quiet place, and crack open a novel written on paper or lie under a tree and load up a digital novel on their Kindle.  (or whatever all those are called today)  When is my WordPress editor going to stop telling me that “multimodal” is misspelled?

Copy and Pasted from “Son of Citation”:

Selfe, Cynthia L. “”The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” CCC. 60.4 (2009): 616-663. Print.

Here are the online essays Selfe gives readers to check out.