infra-ordinary analysis

Yesterday, I was working with 10th-12th grade at the Harlem Children’s Zone, attempting to get them to draft personal statements for college. It was a beautiful day, and the senioritis in the air was so contagious even 10th and 11th graders were susceptible. One girl woke up from a nap and shouted to a girl at the other end of the table, “Oh my GAW~wd, I had the WEI~rdest dream, I’m gonna write you about it.” She then proceeded to write a note to her friend, which an advocate confiscated, to her shrill complaint of “But MISTER, I wanna know what she think it meant, ain’t that like doing work?”


Dream analysis is fairly common in our every-day lives. I think most of us have, at some point or another, had an acid-trip dream that we could not parse ourselves, and then recounted said dream to a friend for an outside perspective. In my college classrooms I’ve overheard students dissecting their dreams before class—unpacking signifiers and symbols fairly adeptly—only to then balk once class starts and I ask them to unpack a sentence of academic writing, dissect pop culture, or analyze signifiers and symbols in literature.

Perhaps this could be utilized as a thinking exercise at the beginning of the semester, as a way to prove that we do analyze things every day (and thus preempt the inevitable question, “Why do I have to take this apart??”) and to give them a familiar referent and model for the kind of analysis that is expected of them. This could be accomplished by first posing the question as a free-write: “Describe the weirdest/most memorable dream you’ve ever had.” Have them write for ~5 minutes, focusing solely on detailed description and not their own analysis of the dream. Then, on a separate sheet of paper, they could analyze their dream themselves; following this, they could swap dream descriptions with a partner for an outside perspective. Finally, they could compare analyses to see whether or not they line up, and to use both perspectives to come up with a solid claim about what the dream could mean. And there you have it: the process of analysis and of coming up with a central argument.

To workshop my own idea, I imagine the swapping process would entail minor interviewing, since dreams often speak to who we are as people, so this exercise may be most effective in the 3rd or so week of the semester, once students have gotten comfortable with each other and with sharing their work. Also, I could see it getting out of hand since people tend to get very caught up in retelling their dreams, so it might require closer monitoring on the instructor’s part to keep the class on task. Assigned partners may work better in this situation as well, rather than letting them choose for themselves.

I’d thought of a similar thinking exercise as well, focusing on Facebook. I was stalking people as a way to procrastinate and realized that someone I was barely acquainted with had defriended me, and my immediate response was: “But what does that mean?” Not like it has to mean anything, but Facebook and other social networking sites encourage this kind of thinking; since the whole point is the ability to author your own identity in a particular way, even the slightest changes to that identity—whether it’s accepting or rejecting a friend request, joining or leaving a certain group, conducting conversations on Walls instead of over private messages, framing your relationship status in a certain way, or (especially) wording your status to generate curiosity, “likes,” and comments—suddenly acquire significant meaning. And students, who are very wired creatures, are aware of this, if not consciously.

The thinking exercise, I imagine, would involve creating a fake Facebook exchange: recounting a story, or maybe modifying screencaps as a handout or for the overhead projector, where students a series of cryptic status updates. Students would be told to imagine that the anonymous Facebook person is a real-life ex-friend of theirs, or ex-boyfriend/girlfriend; they would then be asked to analyze what these status changes or Wall comments “mean.” I would allow initial responses and then refine the question, possibly into “Why would the person frame it this way and not another way?” or “What response is this person going for?” This could provide a familiar referent for literature analysis, where both of those questions commonly arise.

To workshop this exercise, I usually teach a segment on cyberculture and identity construction, so for me, a thinking exercise regarding Facebook would tie in very nicely. It may seem irrelevant or thrown-in if cyberculture isn’t a component of your course. Also, I imagine the preparation for the exercise would be a lot of work—i.e., screencapping, modifying those screencaps to make them anonymous, and creating statuses that generate the right levels of mystery, intrigue, and drama. Finally, this exercise could also get out of hand, so I imagine close monitoring would be essential.

I’d be interested to hear how this works out if you decide to try these exercises, as well as if/how you would modify them for your classroom. These exercises would probably also work well in secondary ed classrooms, with a little tweaking.

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