in which I become the body in the classroom. literally.

In any city, in any country, in any university in which you have been enrolled, go into any classroom and silently say, I seek the Holder of the A. If when you open your eyes a professor stands at the lectern, then you have failed, class will proceed as normal, and your journey ends here. But if when you enter you are greeted by a prostrate woman, eyes-open and non-responsive, then quickly assemble in groups of five or else prepare for a horrific end. The mind is more fragile than you know, and there are worse things than death.

If you seek the Object clenched in the body’s hand, you must tell the corpse its own story: the myth of the Holder of the A.

Do not forget as you write, this is no myth. Do not touch the Holder or attempt to take the Object by force. If you do either, or if you fail to reinvent her in the allotted time, she will stay dead and you will be forever destined to fail no matter the task you undertake. Succeed, and the corpse will awaken, and offer you a crumpled, bloodstained note promising intellectual supremacy.

The note is Object 537 of 538. If you can attain it, success is yours.

If, like me, you lurked or participated on 4chan’s /b/ or /x/, you may be familiar with the generic conventions in the short prose piece above. It mimics the style of the Holders Series, a collection of creepypasta chronicling the tasks of reckless, curious individuals seeking to collect mystical objects that should never come together. In the vein of open-source fiction, the individual stories in the Holders series lack attribution and the mythos is collaboratively, transparently constructed based on communal negotiations concerning the generic conventions of horror and expectations for the story itself. The mythos is unstable, unfixed, and thus can be continually modified and augmented. As a case in point, while the first Holders story states there are 538 Objects, stories exist after #538, telling the story of Objects 539 of 538, 540 of 538, etc., and a sequel series, Legion’s Objects, was started to chronicle an additional 2000 Objects.

I wrote the piece quoted above as part of an experimental class on open-source fiction, fandom, and amateur production online. I did this exercise in a media studies course, but I think it would work equally well, or better, in a composition or creative writing classroom. More after the jump if you’re interested in replicating the exercise or just want to hear how it went.

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in which i reflect on fall 2014 and asp 2014.

The effects of airplane turbulence aside, I’m feeling more like myself and realizing how much I’ve been meaning to write about. The surreal nature of being classified in the ER. The progressively decreased emphasis on quality of work in favor of quantity of interpersonal drama on Inkmaster. Something about Crossed‘s Cindy or Crossed: Family Values‘ Adaline and/or her Mom for a CFP. And, for months now, my recent experience teaching first-year writing in Columbia’s summer bridge program for the second time, as it has kept me afloat through a rocky semester of teaching in which I had to power through the pain and fog of recovery in order to make money to survive, and simultaneously ignore the nagging feeling that, maybe, I shouldn’t have had to.

Mark Strand once wrote: “We all have reasons for moving./I move to keep things whole.”

As I faced the pale shadow of myself, floundering in my work load and trying to find my way back to the teacher I knew I used to be, the memory of ASP 2014 sustained me. As professors we talk warmly about students “getting it,” and I knew, whatever my pedagogical lapses as I recovered, I had helped those students “get it” and, as dark as my map had become, that was a place my teaching could return to.

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first blood.

Wednesday was my first day with the rising 9th grade (the students who have just completed 8th grade) at the nonprofit organization where I teach full-time during summer academics. I have them for 2 hours Mondays and Wednesdays for essay writing. It’s their last class for the day. I have all 16 kids in one group, which presumably would be similar to last summer, where I had 2 classes of 15 kids each, though each class was 1½ hours instead of 2.

These kids are angry. They are hot. The air conditioning in the school is often broken or barely effective, and the past couple of days have peaked at 102 degrees. The last time I worked with this group, during ELA prep in afterschool program, DeVon threw a metal folding chair at me, or at least in my direction. I’m still not sure how it just barely clipped my shoulder, when I was too startled to really move all that much. I’d chaperoned this group on field trips before too, and witnessed Shaun shaking hands with the skeletons at the Bodies Exhibit. My first class with them was on a 101 degree day, for 3 hours, from 1:00 to 4:00. I know some of them by face but I haven’t earned their respect yet. They don’t know me as someone who will stick around, or someone who gives a damn. Mainly, all they’ve seen of me is that I can’t command their attention in the classroom and I can’t project my voice enough to drown them out.

So I wasn’t entirely surprised when, after I was left alone in the room with them, DeVon and Shaun, who are friends, started play-fighting.  

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the glass isn’t bulletproof.

Last Wednesday, there was a shoot-out at our site. A few coworkers, kids, and I had entered the center. I was starting to help a 9th grader with her resume. The fan was whirring in my ear. Then came the popping sound. One of my coworkers dove down immediately, sprawling, followed by another, who grabbed and shielded a kid as he fell, taking the impact on his shoulder. I dropped next to a man whose name I didn’t know. We were shouting for the kids to get down as they kept spinning on their swivel chairs, checking their email, working on homework. I heard 5 shots; some people, who were still in the foyer when the shooting began, heard up to 8. We phoned parents and asked them to come pick up their kids. We asked them to bring ID. In retrospect I wonder if this might have been in case a gang member came to pick up someone in a mostly gang-affiliated family, since some of the kids spoke very loudly that day about having brothers who’d shot someone, or been shot, in gang shoot-outs before. I helped a usually bubbly 12th grader arrange a ride home with a friend’s parents. I overheard kids muttering, “Man, they buggin’, I gotta go home, I can go myself, this shit happens all the time here.” I helped a 9th grader print his homework. I lent my phone to a 10th grader I’d helped the previous day; after I’d edited his essay, he exclaimed, “Oh man, I’m so happy!” and hugged me. He lived in a decent neighborhood and had never heard gunshots before. He asked me if I was scared: a loaded question. Other kids were listening. I hedged, “No, but it will probably seem more real to me later.” He seemed to respect that. He told me he was scared. That he didn’t quite understand what had been happening, and that to keep his mind off the fact that we were in danger he’d kept doing his homework. Then there was a strange moment of disjuncture where we both looked at his computer screen, which was left on the YouTube video he’d been watching when the shots began: a gameplay demo of an unreleased Xbox shooter game.

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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?”

Huh.

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bearing witness.

This month marks the first anniversary of the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

On 2009 May 17-18, depending on how you look at it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள்), also known as the LTTE or Tamil Tigers, were routed by the armed forces of the primarily Sinhalese government. The war, which was the product of years of ethnic tension between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority, lasted 25 years and was marked by the ruthlessness of both government military and paramilitary campaigns and guerilla warfare and suicide bombing employed by the LTTE, both with little regard to the cost of civilian life. We saw this magnified in the end stages of the war in May 2009, when the LTTE brought over 80,000 civilians with them into a tiny spittoon of land in the northeast, using them as human shields and impressing them into service (“Sri Lankan Government and LTTE Must Heed Demands from UN Security Council”), and the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the shrinking warzone, as it had hammered designated no-fire zones such as hospitals, bunkers, and other areas in the Vanni with a known civilian presence in flagrant disregard of the laws of war (“Sri Lanka: Repeated Shelling of Hospitals Evidence of War Crimes”).

In May 2009 my sanity was eroding and I cried almost every night, barely slept, was made numb by President Rajapaksa’s victory speech. People celebrated in the streets of Colombo and throughout the country. Like many others, most of whom were Tamil, this victory felt hollow and strange. Thousands upon thousands of civilians died in the months leading up to May 17. And while I personally condemn the actions of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government, I didn’t know what to think when confronted with the news of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s corpse. On the news segment his forehead was covered. There were flies. I wanted to see the bullet hole for myself. Wanted proof. Felt like a part of my life had ended. At that point I hadn’t lived my life outside of the shadow of Sri Lanka’s war.

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rhetorical analysis and reinterpretation

“ROW, ROW FIGHT THE POWAH!!”

Gurren Lagann, practically every episode

If you aren’t a Gurren Lagann fan or 4channer, you likely have no idea what that means, so let me enlighten you: it’s a rap lyric from the main “theme” of the show, “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii” etc. The Engrish isn’t terrible, though the lyrics are somewhat hilarious (particularly the refrain, “row, row, fight the powah,” which has achieved meme status all by itself).

As my brain slowly pieced itself together following illness, I was rewatching the Gurren Lagann Parallel Works videos—sort of like official anime music videos (AMVs) created by the production company Gainax and set to different musical tracks from the show—and it occurred to me that much of the music is comprised of different versions of the main theme. We are given the same lyrics set against different background tracks, ranging from electronica/hip-hop (“Rap wa Kan no Tamashii… Datta… yo…”) to orchestral/operatic arrangement (“‘Libera me’ from hell”) to “Rap wa Kan no Tamashii da! … Kamina-sama no Theme [etc.],” which has a funky, casual aura with its twangy guitar and its beat, whereas the piano-accompanied beat of “‘Libera me’” and the crash of opera vocals gives us a sense of build-up, of imminent danger, perhaps warns us that something tragic will happen, that there will be survivors who will overcome regardless. This is, incidentally, how the track is used toward the end of the show. Each background track evokes a particular response in us, whether we’ve seen the show or not, and when embedded in its visual context, the meaning of the lyrics accumulates significant meaning.

And yeah, I listened to the full soundtrack before watching the whole show.

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q&a: why analyze things like there’s always a deeper meaning?

Posed by more than 50% of my class almost 100% of the time. This time, the particular unit was themed around fairytales, folktales, and myth, and on this particular day we were discussing a few versions of “Little Red Riding Hood”: Grimm, Perrault, Carter, and Gaiman (excerpted from Sandman: The Doll’s House). It was an uphill struggle to get them to see how each of the stories contained different messages about gender roles, sexuality, and the dangers of female independence, and they completely balked at discussing what the wolf could symbolize. It isn’t the first time I’ve come up against this question in a literature class, and students really do need to be convinced of why it’s important to read more deeply into things, especially since we are inundated with messages encoded into pop culture, particularly around identity construction.

Here, more or less, was my response.

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authenticity and approaching literature

I’ve been thinking about the question that I brought up in class on Monday, about the impact of fiction versus nonfiction, and how genre shapes our reaction to a given piece of literature.  I have to say I was surprised at the prevailing sentiment that nonfiction delivers more of an emotional “punch,” if you will, than fiction—but then, this is the most common approach to the issue of genre.  So why was I surprised?

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“what’s the point of literature?”

So I had my first-year writing literature classes read excerpts from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. And my students had a difficult time understanding the content as well as its arrangement. The most common initial responses to the reading were “What’s the point?” or “Why did she even write this?” I tackled this in class, but since it came up towards the end, I tried to wrap up the discussion online in the following post. This was drafted in 30 minutes on the NJ Transit train, so it’s less polished than I would have liked, though it did end up modeling the kind of writing I encourage in their Zero Drafts.

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