Category Archives: Education

On Writing that #@%& Essay

2am

We’ve passed the halfway point in the semester (wait…what?!), and your Final Essay is due soon (wait…WHAT?!). You’re starting to feel the burn…you have nothing to say…but you have to say something. The mere sight of a blank screen puts a knot in your gut and makes your palms sweat. You try to put it out of your mind; it’s not due yet, so maybe you’ll just procrastinate on it until—$#@% it’s due TONIGHT!!!1!@!! And then you’ll spend that last-minute panic attack hating yourself, convinced you completely deserve the F that you just know you’re going to get on this utter disaster that you didn’t even spell-check before submitting because holy crap it’s 11:59. Sound familiar? Yeah. Me too.

I’m not the world’s foremost composition-and-rhetoric expert—not by any stretch of the imagination—but I do have an MFA in writing, and I am a guy who sometimes writes 5,000-word essays for fun (yep, I’m a nerd). I’ve learned a few things in pursuit of that hobby that you may find helpful, so here’s some unsolicited advice.

1. Start early. Better yet, start now. If you don’t know what you’re going to write about yet, you won’t know what you’re going to write about at the last minute. The difference is that if you start it now, you have time to figure that out and you don’t have to do it in a panic. Also, the earlier you start writing on your essay, the earlier you’ll start thinking about it, and the longer it has to marinate in the back of your head. Not all of the writing process happens at the keyboard. Once you’ve started working on a project, it will be there running in the background while you’re doing other things, and that eureka moment is likely to come while you’re doing something completely unrelated. Walking to the cafeteria or driving to pick up your kids. As an example, this point came to me while I was cleaning my cat’s litter box (it’s also my third point #1).

2. Let It Suck. Your first draft is going to be bad. That’s okay. First drafts are always bad. We’ll get back to this later (and you’ll fix it before you turn it in), but for right now, just write. Just write. No matter how bad it is, if you’ve got something on the page, you’ve got something to fix. A blank page is just that: blank.

3. Keep It Small. You’re not going to write a successful 8-page essay on “imagery in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Entire books have been written on that topic. Books. Plural. You might, however, get a successful essay out of that image that shows up in chapter 47, of her hair falling loose dangerously close to the grinding machinery of that steam-powered threshing machine. You might get a successful essay out of examining how that image works as a metaphor for the precarious position of a poor woman in Victorian England, and how that is one of Thomas Hardy’s dominant themes throughout the novel. Or you might choose to take a different approach to that same chapter and write about how the one person offering to take her away from that precarious life is her wealthy rapist. Either way, keep it focused on something small enough to manage in the space you’ve got. And eight pages may feel like a lot when you’re just sitting down to write it, but it’s really not all that much room. Remember, the opposite of focused writing is vague writing, and vague writing doesn’t tend to get the best grades.

4. If you know exactly what you’re going to write, you’re (most likely) wrong. I have seen far too many times when someone wrote a beautiful introduction to their essay, then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot trying to stick with what they had written in that introduction. Writing projects have a way of getting away from us—of turning out differently than what we sat down to write—and the best way to deal with that is to expect it from the beginning. To that end…

5. Write your introduction last. Sometimes you’ll also see this phrased “write it backwards,” but I don’t like that because it’s not really accurate. In my experience it’s something more like this:

  • a] Notes and rough ideas (see below);
  • b] Rough body paragraphs;
  • c] Essay structure/outline;
  • d] Refined body paragraphs;
  • e] Transitions between the paragraphs;
  • f] Conclusion;
  • g] Introduction.

Sometimes c and d can be reversed. Some people prefer to start with an outline; there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you remain flexible enough to rearrange your essay if it becomes necessary. This list also only talks about the first draft. Immediately after that, you’ll start reading through the whole essay for flow and continuity and language issues.

6. Start with notes. Use index cards. While you’re doing your research (or reading what you’re planning to analyze), write down the important stuff on index cards. And by “the important stuff” I mean both the relevant details you’re finding in your readings (quotes and such) and your own thoughts about your subject. Be sure to jot down the relevant sources (the bibliographic data) and page numbers on those cards so you can go back to your sources later, and so you have that information when it’s time to write your works-cited list.

Index cards have two primary advantages: one, they force you to keep it short, and two, you can easily shuffle them around while you’re figuring out your structure. Also, according to cognitive scientists, handwriting notes (as opposed to typing them) tends to be better for learning and retention.

7. Write your body paragraphs as mini-essays. Each of your body paragraphs, as you get it closer to finished, should resemble a mini-essay detailing a specific element of your argument (e.g., why X-character or Y-event relates to your main topic). For each element, your goal is to introduce it, analyze what is significant about it, and conclude with why it is relevant to your greater argument.

8. Eschew the thesaurus. (See what I did there?) As a student, you’ve been exposed to a lot of overwritten material. It’s entirely possible you’ve even had teachers encourage you to mimic that sort of writing, because it’s “what academic writing is supposed to look like” (or some such nonsense). Don’t. Seriously. Just don’t. The best writing is simple and direct, and gets its point across without a lot of effort. I like to say write like you’re explaining it to a smart high-school student. Ineloquent applications of unnecessarily obfuscatory verbiage and etymologically arcane esoterica render the trajectory of any presented suppositions virtually impossible to disambiguate. That’s not good writing.

9. Be prepared to rearrange at any point. As you get your body paragraphs more refined, you may find that the most logical progression of your argument isn’t exactly what you expected it to be. Usually it’s going to follow the organization of the book you’re discussing (e.g., chronologically from beginning to end), but sometimes a better structure will present itself. Sometimes you may discover that the most interesting thing showing up in your body paragraphs isn’t even what you planned to write about. Sometimes your intended conclusion will totally implode (I’ve had this happen on a major assignment, and it’s really disturbing). That’s why I put outline/structure so late in the process up there, with the option to move it even later, because your ideal structure isn’t always clear from the beginning.

10. Be prepared for your conclusion to change. Obviously, if your body paragraphs start leading to a conclusion other than what you thought you were going to write, then you need to be ready to adapt your conclusion accordingly. When this happens—and it does happen—it’s a lot less painful if you haven’t already committed yourself to a specific conclusion.

11. Now that you have written your conclusion, go back and write your intro. Because it would have been pretty hard to write an effective introduction to an essay when you had no idea what it was going to end up talking about, but now that you know what’s going on inside, you know how to set your reader up to ride along with you.

Pro tip: In the introduction, when you mention the things you’re going to talk about in your essay, list them in the same order that they’re going to show up. If your introduction says you’ll be discussing how Tess was wronged by John Durbeyfield, Alec d’Urberville, and Angel Clare, your readers will expect you to discuss the characters in that order.

12. Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! Read it through slowly, putting your finger under each word—maybe even saying each word, or mouthing it—and stop at the end of each sentence, to make sure that sentence really saying exactly what you want it to say. When you think you’re getting close to finished, read the whole essay aloud to someone. Or at the very least record yourself reading it and listen to that recording. If you can, have someone else read it back to you. These exercises will help you discover the rough spots, such as awkward language, or unclear analysis, or non-sequitur transitions. Depending on how seriously you took that “Let It Suck” advice up above, this stage may involve several passes (even dozens of passes) as you take the raw material of your rough draft and mold it into a finished essay.

13. When you’re satisfied that it’s finished, it’s (most likely) not. First-year undergrads tend to start with this notion that you can hammer out a good essay in a couple of hours, in the middle of the night after staying out too late with your friends, before it’s due in the morning. More advanced students realize that it takes more time than that, and more preparation. Graduate students often spend most of the semester working on the final essay for that 600-level class (or sometimes that essay is the cumulative result of a semester-long project). Graduate-degree candidates work for multiple semesters under the supervision of thesis advisors, who read every word critically, usually through several revisions. Professional-grade writers go through numerous revisions (often dozens of them), first on their own, then with feedback from colleagues, then with feedback from agents or editors, and finally with feedback from publishers. When you read that story or essay that is just sublimely written, you can rest assured that the first draft looked absolutely nothing like what you’re reading. In fact, likely as not, the first draft looked kinda hopeless.

I say all this not to discourage you as you’re writing your essays, but to emphasize that, as with any creative endeavor, writing is never—ever—a straight-through, beginning-to-end process. It’s more of a process of continuous growth and refinement. The more open you are to that process from the beginning, the more you open yourself to the possibilities of what you can create.

—Jay Parr

In the Market (For an Education)

by Matt McKinnon

college-student

There is a thick stack of beautifully-produced glossy pamphlets depicting fall leaves and smiling good-looking young people and gothic architecture on my kitchen counter. So many that they continuously slide around and fall off onto the floor to be chewed on by Max the family dog and stepped on by most everybody else. And more arrive everyday: a continuous stream of personalized correspondences proclaiming “Hey Nick” and “Fit is Everything” and “Rocky Says Yes” and “Your Future is Now.”

It can only mean one thing. And anybody who has a kid who’s a junior or senior in high schools knows just what it is:

It’s time to apply to college.

college brochures

I must admit, it’s been a while since I did any applying to schools—the last time being over fifteen years ago when I applied to doctoral programs. It’s been almost thirty years since I applied to undergrad, and even then I only applied to one school.

There may have been a few brochures here and there, but certainly nothing to compare with the mass of publications that seem to be single-handedly keeping the US Postal Service in business.

Ah, there’s the applicable term in all of this: business.

money-diploma

College, for better or worse, has become a business, and like all businesses, it relies on advertisement.

Ergo the huge stack of pamphlets overtaking the counter.

For even in this age of digital technology and social media, not to mention limited resources of both the natural and economic kind, colleges are still heavily invested in print. And nice print at that: thick glossy paper with lots of color and professional graphic design. Some even send short books, paperbacks that are designed more like travel guides than college brochures.

But don’t get me wrong, there’s heavy investment in digital media as well, from emails and Facebook messages to Tweets and IM and who knows what else. And even phone messages from personal Admissions advisors and perky college students extolling the joys of going to Whatever U or This-and-That State.

soccer

Throw in the fact that my son wants to play Soccer, most probably in Division II or III or perhaps even NAIA, and you have another aspect to deal with. College coaches (though limited in how much contact they can have) sending texts or leaving phone messages. Recruiting companies selling their services. College Showcases here; ID Camps there. Recruiting forms to fill out and highlight videos to make.

And if you add something else like band or the International Baccalaureate program, then it all gets multiplied exponentially.

Schools we’ve never heard of contacting us and sending materials. Like Finlandia, which is not quite all the way in Finland, but it’s close (Upper Peninsula Michigan on Lake Superior). Or Lutheran Schools of every Synod imaginableevidently, when you apply to one Lutheran School, they tell two friends, who tell two friends, and so on and so on, until the thought occurs that maybe we’ll convert to Islam just to stop the obscene amount of materials coming from Lutheran schools alone.

euphonium

And God forbid your student played a highly coveted instrument in the band. Like the Euphonium (the what? I know; it’s a fancy baritone). On a recent college visit to the corn fields of Nebraska my son met with the band director, even though he has little to no inclination to continue playing in college. When asked by a few band students in the music building what instrument he played, the opening of their eyes was only exceeded by the gaping of their mouths as they sat there drooling, barely able to contain their joy: “Euphonium? You play the Euphonium?” Even the band director could not completely hide his emotion (I still swear I saw a little tear in his eye as he spoke), promising the chance at several thousand dollars in scholarship without even the requirement of a music major or minor. “Just a couple of practices a week and concerts a few times a year.”

In real estate, they call this a “buyers market.”

The fact of the matter is that colleges and universities need students way more than students need colleges and universities.

college-photo

By that I don’t mean to denigrate a college education, only that the supply seems to be outpacing the demand. And the skyrocketing cost of a higher education isn’t helping, as schools vie for the attention and tuition of students who have many choices, from traditional to online.

College is expensive, the College Board recently reporting that the average total cost (including room and board) for a four-year in-state public school is $18,493.00 per year, and $32,762.00 for out-of-state. Cost for the average private school is $42,419.00.

And with such high dollar amounts and a plethora of choices comes the need to stand out. To show how these amenities or those services provide the best fit or opportunity or quality of life or whatever. Hence the need to sell; the need to advertise. The need for all those %@#& pamphlets and brochures.

in-class

Gone are the days when colleges and universities just offered an education to students. Now, like everything else, we offer services to a clientele: a product, a lifestyle, a brand.

I don’t know if, in the long run, this is a good or a bad thing. After all, one benefit is the opportunity of higher education to a broader range of students. Of course, one of the drawbacks is the oppressive student debt that a generation of students has racked up since we shifted paradigms from mostly grants to mostly loans several decades ago.

College is big business now, and not just the athletic programs with sponsorship and television deals. It’s big business for academics too. And let’s not kid ourselves: given the amount of money that the government receives from interest rates, it’s big business for the federal government as well.

And big business means big advertising. And creating demand. And promoting a brand. And selling series.

Which in term means lots and lots of slick pamphlets and shiny brochures collecting on the counter.

votc

Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

by Steve O’Boyle

I'm Feeling Lucky!

I’m Feeling Lucky!

At no other time in history have people had access to more information than in the current era. Within seconds we can become pseudo-experts on most any topic, from Satanism to Zen, from the Kama Sutra to Lollapalooza and or even an upbeat biopic of Leonard Cohen (say it like co-en, then it works). This is not news to you (or at least I hope it’s not), but it is an important yet puzzling piece to recent controversies concerning freedom of speech in the classroom.

In the past year, there have been several incidents where university professors have been sanctioned for the words that they used in their classrooms while attempting to explain academic ideas. One incident that made national headlines involved a highly regarded sociologist named Patti Adler, a full Professor at the University of Colorado.

Patti Adler.

Dr. Patti Adler.

In her intro-level Deviance in U.S. Society class, Dr. Adler spiced up her lecture on prostitution with “a skit in which many of Adler’s teaching assistants dress[ed] up as various types of prostitutes. The teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes” (DailyCamera).

Adler is described in the article as having an unorthodox and engaging teaching style. “Students recounted how Adler showed up in class in a bikini to illustrate deviance or dressed as a homeless person to make the same point.” However, the prostitution lecture got—well, some negative attention—and at the time the article went to press, it looked like Dr. Adler was at risk of being forced into early retirement over the controversy. She was in jeopardy of losing her job for trying to teach her students in a way that was engaging, entertaining, and most of all, memorable. That is to say, for trying to do her job.

Prostitution skit in Adler's class.

Prostitution skit in Adler’s Deviance class.

I do realize that some of you may not think this is a big deal, but as someone who teaches sociology at UNCG—a discipline that includes an entire area devoted to social deviance—well, as my old not-very-good mechanic used to say about my POS Jeep, “Man, this is troublematic…”

So if we offend a student in class—not directly of course, but by making them feel uncomfortable while trying to teach them important ideas—we might be severely sanctioned for this? Knowledge that is controversial, and can take a student out of their comfort zone, is off limits?

Do I have your attention yet?

Do I have your attention yet?

Students are now exposed to more controversial envelope-pushing cultural ideas and images than ever before, and at much younger ages (scholars call this phenomenon “the internet”). So I find it a bit perplexing that these kids—who could never understand a teenager’s absolute thrill of finding their parents’ porno mags in the sock drawer, but (or perhaps because) they can now google any sex act and have a “how-to” video before their eyes in seconds (and long before their first real date)—these students are so much more savvy than I ever was at their age, but now I have to watch what I say more than ever in the classroom?!

And to complicate things further, because of the limitless access they have grown up with (and the seconds-long attention span that accompanies it), it takes more effort than ever to keep the attention of these Millenials without grabbing their attention—with ideas and language that wakes them the #@%$ up, and stops them from just sitting there in class half asleep, hoping whoever they’re trying to hook up with will respond to their inane text with a “k”…

"wnt 2 hookup l8r?"

“n class. bored. wnt 2 hookup l8r?”

So what to do? I’m going to follow the advice university counsel Skip Capone gave a few years back, after some legal challenges at other institutions—some of them blatantly political (here’s a link to the slide show, which is clearly dated).

My CYA strategy? Define germane to the class, then when comes the time to talk about the touchy stuff, refer them back to that term. Then show them the link from the controversial stuff (i.e., the fun stuff), directly to how it relates—or is germane—to the academic topic. Finally, address the class with “so do you see the connection here?” When they say “yes,” you’re covered.

Whatchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Ivar Aasen?!

by Carrie Levesque

parlez-vous-quebecois-500I’ve always loved to study languages. I grew up in a bilingual area close to the Quebec border where a French dialect nearly unrecognizable to the French (and sometimes to the Quebecois from whom it derived) is widely spoken. In college I continued to study French, majored in Russian and took a few semesters of Spanish because I had a crush on the professor. As a graduate student in Slavic literatures, I studied Croatian for a summer in ultra-Catholic Zagreb, where the prize for the best language student was a large coin with a fetus on it (it was OK with me that I didn’t win). While I’ve met with many linguistic frustrations over the years (the Russian case system, French verb tenses) little in these experiences prepared me for the hot mess that is learning Norwegian as a foreigner in Norway.

A Norwegian to Norwegian translating dictionary.

A Norwegian-to-Norwegian translating dictionary. … No, really.

Because, you see, in Norway there is no standard spoken language. Norwegian literally has dialects without number, and there is no favored dialect. Your dialect is as good as mine. Mixing dialects: Also kosher. The Norwegian you learn in your Norwegian as a Second Language class is not the same Norwegian spoken on the street, and the Norwegian spoken on your street is different from the Norwegian spoken 50 miles down the road. In any Norwegian family one marries into, your spouse may speak a different dialect from his mother, who may speak a different dialect from her spouse. This is, of course, just a little inconvenient for non-native Norwegian speakers.

Back in the day, Danish was the standard written language of Norway. While the urban elite also spoke the same Danish they wrote, or a Norwegianized form of it, the isolated rural populations spoke dialects that evolved only gradually from Old Norse (Vikingspeak) to something more closely resembling the Dano-Norwegian spoken in the cities.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Norway was liberated from Danish rule in 1814, and as this was the era of Romantic Nationalism, establishing one’s own national language and culture was a primary concern. Norwegian linguist Knud Knudsen began to standardize a more fully Norwegianized form of written Danish into what is today called bokmål (literally, ‘book language’). Meanwhile, a self-taught country boy named Ivar Aasen (who, in my opinion, could not just leave well enough alone) traveled throughout Norway’s far-flung rural settlements, compiling many different spoken dialects into Norway’s other official written language, nynorsk, or “new Norwegian” (sometimes called ‘spynorsk’ (or ‘Pukewegian’) by bokmål devotees).

nei-til-nynorskAlthough only about 15% of Norwegian schoolchildren opt for nynorsk as their language of primary instruction today, all schoolchildren learn both languages in school since nynorsk is the official written language of many counties, especially in Western Norway. So while Bergen is a bokmål city and all of its official written business is done in bokmål, it is located in a nynorsk county, and so all institutions administered by the county (the hospitals, universities and high schools) issue communications in nynorsk. And this doesn’t cover what is spoken in Bergen, which is its own crazy something else. The shock and despair I felt when I learned all of this has since diminished, but it may be years before it ever fully leaves.

I heart NynorskFrom the start, people in Norway have been deeply, personally invested in whichever regional dialect of Norwegian they speak or write, so much so that to affect an easier-to-understand dialect—for the sake of, say, helping a foreign student of Norwegian understand them—feels so wrong that in such circumstances they prefer to speak English. While in Norway, unlike in the US, there is by and large no stigma attached to speaking a dialect, there is a stigma attached to speaking a dialect that is not your own.

Early on it was decided that since it was its dialects that kept Norwegian distinct from Danish, the equal status of all dialects must be preserved. This is not to say that people don’t make fun of each other’s dialects; there is lots of good-natured discussion around whose dialect is the ugliest. But, to give an example, teachers in school cannot correct their students for speaking a different dialect.

So linguistically egalitarian are the Norwegians that Norway’s major public television networks also produce programming in the language of the Sami, the indigenous population living mostly in the north of Norway. Though there are only 40-50,000 Sami in a total population of 5 million, every day they broadcast children’s shows and the evening news in Samisk (with Norwegian subtitles). That would be like American public television networks providing daily programming in Navajo or Cherokee. Hard to imagine that happening.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

It is interesting to imagine what things would be like in the US if we regarded all dialects equally, as the Norwegians do. While I don’t know a lot about the history of our most prominent dialects’ development, I think a lot of the stigma directed in some regions of the country toward certain dialects comes from the complicated and often ugly history framing, for example, Northerners’ prejudice toward Southern dialects, or whites’ prejudice toward Ebonics. How might it challenge us to do some serious thinking about these parts of our history if we learned to view as equally valid the different language patterns that grew out of this history?

“Dialects are not necessarily positively or negatively valued; their social values are derived strictly from the social position of their community of speakers[,]” as W. Wolfram and N. Schilling-Estes explain in American English: Dialects and Variation. What does the way a nation treats its speakers of certain dialects say about the values of that society? Because even if Ivar Aasen made my life more difficult by preserving and legitimizing the dialects spoken by many of Norway’s most disenfranchised citizens, I see the great value of his larger project and its enduring message. Everyone matters. And the tool we use to express our worth—our language—matters, too.

Why Writing Matters, And Why You Should Care

by Erin Poythress

You are working on your final essay and preparing to turn in 35% of your grade, and the universe hears you thinking out loud, your curses at the screen. It hears your exhaustion, and perhaps, just the slightest temptation to lift a paragraph or idea from a source you’re reading. You know, since you can’t say it any better than its author did… and anyway it’s 3:00 AM. Maybe this isn’t you. I hope it isn’t you. But if you’re human, you’ve probably at least thought about it. We all have.

This New York Times article describes how plagiarism is on the rise on college campuses all over the country. Any student would be most wise to read this. It isn’t very long, and is a thoughtful approach to a topic that is typically unthoughtfully discussed in class: academic integrity and intellectual property.

Many instructors don’t want to have to spend time discussing plagiarism, and I’ll admit I have felt like students should know this by now. I have also felt that I am only preaching to the choir, since someone lazy and irresponsible enough to cheat clearly isn’t going to bother to read or listen. Often the discussions of cheating that occur the first day of class are like bad sex-ed talks from the 1950s—”don’t ever do it; bad things happen if you do”—without ever talking about what “it” is.

But the notions of authorship and intellectual property have changed in the digital age, and you need to know how this will affect you, because they haven’t changed at UNCG or any other college campus.

If you use someone else’s words or ideas and do not give them credit, it is plagiarism, which is just a fancy word for stealing. In an age where you can illegally download music, books, movies, and where websites routinely steal passages from each other uncredited, this may seem like an antiquated notion. It’s not. Not only is that how the university’s Academic Integrity policy specifically defines plagiarism, but to cut and paste or in any other way claim another’s thoughts as your own does not prepare you for the kind of synthesis and analysis that intelligent people must do to be a successful and productive part of society. The short-term result of plagiarizing any part of your essay in one of my classes is, of course, failing the class. But that concerns me less than its broader implications. And it should concern any student, too.

When you graduate from college, because you will have more education than many of your peers, you will have opportunities to not only be more financially secure in this world, but to shape this world. I would argue that all of us—whether we have a Ph.D. or a third-grade education—have an obligation to be a force of positive change in our communities, and as you join the ranks of those with the most education, you have the opportunity to be more visible and more convincing, since you’ve spent all those years learning to think logically and argue convincingly. But this means you also have an obligation to do your thinking and arguing ethically. It’s not difficult at all to find examples of unethical people who have preyed upon innocent people and even profited. Bernie Madoff comes to mind, but he is one of the more egregious examples of lapses in ethics that occur on smaller scales every day. His crimes had victims with names and bank accounts. You may think intellectual property heists have no such victims, but they do, as the linked article from The Crimson attests. They not only hurt the people who actually did the hard work of composing their thoughts, but they hurt the people that steal them because they help sustain the lie that the ones who steal can generate meaningful, coherent thought. What do you think the world would look like if our country’s great thinkers resorted to cut and paste instead of doing the difficult work of trying to solve our world’s most pressing problems?

This may seem like a strong reaction to a problem you view as minor, but I ask you, if, from here on out, all we do is copy/paste/recycle/reuse all the thoughts that came before without improving them, challenging them, overturning them, how will we solve problems we have never faced? What will be the fate of human innovation if all our thoughts are merely mashups of someone else’s deliberation?

Perhaps original thought is overrated, but I don’t think so. And the university doesn’t think so. And original thought is exactly what is expected in your essays. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn from other people’s ideas, but you must give them credit for lighting your path. Don’t denigrate your own talents by lifting their words verbatim without quotation marks and a citation—you’re all intelligent enough to discuss a topic without resorting to stealing.

Pornography For—and As—Education?

by Ann Millett-Gallant

"Belle Knox."

“Belle Knox.”

As a college professor and a resident of Durham, NC, I have been following the stories in the local, national, and even international press about the Duke University student known as “Belle Knox” (or “Lauren” in some articles) who has been performing in pornography to pay her tuition. If you’re interested in reading along, you can check out these articles from The Duke Chronicle, WNCN, The News and Observer, The Washington Post blog, The Huffington Post, Gawker.com, and UK’s Independent.

I am fascinated by the articles written about and by this, shall I say “candid,” young woman, who declares her rights to own and display her sexuality. She is repeatedly quoted as saying she does the work to make money to pay for her $60,000+ per year tuition to Duke.

She wrote this blog about her experiences for XOJane, and as a follow-up article, she addresses the responses she received from the first article. In these pieces, Belle Knox asserts her rights to participate in pornography and to own her sexuality. She also responds to the criticism and harassment she has received in response to her story, saying that no one has the right to judge or vilify her.

The issues raised by this case relate directly to two of my BLS classes, Photography: Contexts and Illusions (BLS 345) and Representing Women (BLS 348).

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #6, 1977.

In Photography, we study the work of Cindy Sherman, who photographs herself in the guises of stereotypical film characters (the housewife, the femme fatale, and the victimized girl of horror movies, for examples), women in art historical portraiture, and mythological, monstrous female forms to critique and parody the representation of a “Woman” across visual culture, specifically as a fantasy persona constructed through the male gaze. Sherman’s strategic role playing in the images articulates the artificiality of her staging and asserts ideas that identity is a performance.

Sherman also makes works that critique the pornography industry specifically. She photographs herself in excessive compositions or uses prosthetic or mannequin bodies to recreate explicit porn-like poses. Her images attempt to frame how these images are staged and strategically non-lifelike.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #255, 1992.

(Follow this link to see more of Sherman’s work at MOMA).

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

Lyle Aston Harris and Renee Cox, Venus Hottentot 2000, 1995.

In Representing Women, we analyze the work of Renee Cox, who also photographs herself in the poses and costumes of various dubious roles for woman. These works satirize and critique the ways women, particularly black women, have been objectified in visual culture historically.

(See more of Renee Cox’s work at her website here).

Renee Cox, Olympia's Boyz, 2001.

Renee Cox, Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

These classes debate how effective Sherman and Cox are in their postmodern parodies. Many students feel these artists are simply contributing to the profusion of visual culture that objectifies women’s bodies. I wondered about the Duke student’s actions and whether they could be thought of as performative acts. Maybe she is working within the system of pornography to expose its problematic history. Perhaps she is acting in the traditions of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who was employed as a Playboy Bunny in New York’s Playboy Club in 1963. Steinem then wrote a two part article for Show Magazine exposing how women were treated in the clubs. Here are links to a scanned PDF copy of her essay on the subject and an article about her acts in the New York Times from 1985.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Gloria Steinem as a Playboy bunny.

Is Belle Knox doing research for an exposé? Is she gaining experience for the future career goals that she claimed on ABC’s The View, where she stated that she plans to pursue a law degree to advocate for Civil Rights, and particularly women’s rights? Is she a Feminist?

I still have these questions, and found this provocative article, written by Duke professor Robin Kirk, which raises more issues.

In the article, Kirk underscores the role pornography has played in the objectification and abuse of women, historically and specifically on the Duke campus. Pointing to more distinctly Feminist forms of pornography, she questions what is Feminist or even avant-garde about the student’s performance in this media.

My questions mount! I was particularly moved by seeing Belle Knox speak on ABC’s The View on Monday March 17, as she was interviewed by Whoopi Goldberg, Sherry Shepherd, Jenny McCarthy, and Barbara Walters. I was disappointed that no one on the show spoke of Barbara Walters’ own experiences with pornography, or the display of women’s bodies. In 1962, in an act similar to Gloria Steinem’s, Walters was a Playboy Bunny for a day and reported for NBC’s Today Show. Here is an article about the event with a clip of the story.

On The View, the 18 year old student reported that she has made 25-30 films, for which she was paid $1000-$1500 each, and that her parents supported her positions. She also spoke about the hostile reactions of others when her story was exposed: People have declared she should be expelled from Duke, or even raped; she has received thrash thrown at her and numerous death threats. I found her to be very intelligent and eloquent in speaking about her beliefs and defending her actions, as well as every woman’s right to ownership of her sexuality.

Belle Knox on The View.

Belle Knox on The View.

The co-hosts were varied in their reactions. Whoopi Goldberg said she understood why the student has said she felt “empowered” by doing the films. Sherry Shepherd, who tends to be the most morally conservative of the group, was almost in tears as she said that her heart broke for the girl and expressed how she would feel if any of her female family members “sold” their sexuality. And although I respect and support many of the Duke student’s positions, I shared Shepherd’s sadness, not from personal or familial experiences of my own, but from thinking about the woman (as well as men, AND children) who have been and continue to be exploited, degraded, and abused in venues of pornography. I would advocate the rights of the Duke student’s and other artists’ and Feminists’ participation in these venues, most especially when their projects intervene on and critique the traditions within they work. And as an educator, I see these acts as stimulating material for conversations and debates about key contemporary issues.

———

* Update: Condé Nast’s The Scene has produced a 25-minute web documentary about Miriam Weeks and her alter-ego Belle Knox that may be worth a watch:

BecomingBelleKnox

The One State

by Carrie Levesque

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

It was that time of year again, when my Russian Novel of Conscience class was discussing possible areas of overlap between the futuristic society in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We and contemporary American culture. In Zamyatin’s highly regulated One State, citizens (known as “numbers”) live in ecstatic conformity and “mathematically infallible happiness,” having abandoned the “savage freedom” that we know today to happily accept the “beneficent yoke of reason” and blissful “unfreedom.” Their lives, lived in glass houses, are watched over by an omnipotent Benefactor and ordered by a Table of Hours that keeps everyone moving in “million-headed unison” all day, every day. When a group of rebels seeks to bring down the totalitarian state with dangerous reminders of the numbers’ humanity (emotion! individuality!), the state takes drastic steps to inoculate its citizens against the most dreaded contagion: Imagination.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in another dystopia that looks much like I imagine Zamyatin's to look.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in a dystopia styled after Zamyatin’s We.

While this novel easily calls to mind our current concerns about the modern American surveillance state or our uncritical conformity to various media’s ideas of perfection, this time around it also made me think about experiences I’ve had here in Norway (once called “the last Soviet state” by a Swedish finance minister who thought he was off-mic). You see, my child has recently been diagnosed with the disease of “imagination.”

A few months after starting kindergarten here, my older daughter was having some trouble adjusting. From time to time, she would act out in disruptive and silly ways, and she was making up stories about our family that raised the staff’s concern. Through a parent-teacher strategizing session, we discussed how to help her feel less overwhelmed socially and linguistically, and my husband and I clarified that we did not really share our home with her “brothers” James, Logan, Kendall, and the prone-to-biting Baby Carlos. As many parents of tweens may recognize, my daughter was not being abused by a voracious, unsupervised baby; she was just obsessed with the television boy-band Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

While they were mostly satisfied with this explanation, at the end of our meeting, there were lingering concerns. “But aren’t you worried that she has imagination?” they asked delicately, cringing slightly, as if asking about an embarrassing disorder she had. Though we explained that in the US, it was normal for children her age to make up stories during play like our daughter did, they seemed unconvinced. “We think you should keep on eye on it,” they concluded soberly.

Nearly a year later, I would interpret this strange encounter through the pervasive Janteloven lens of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is, as defined pretty succinctly by this blogger, “a principle which places importance on equality and egalitarianism while discouraging individuality and personal success or in other words, standing out.”

Being like everyone else—in one’s appearance, in one’s behavior—is prized above all else in Norway because it makes everyone comfortable, or so the thinking goes. When people behave in unexpected or “imaginative” ways (say, singing to yourself, doing a little happy dance when you receive some good news, basically any “excessive” show of positive emotion), it makes people uncomfortable because you are standing out. You are out of step with the five-million-headed unison of Norwegian life. It is believed that people who act differently and do not conform to the norm do so because they think they are “better” in some way, even if there’s nothing arrogant about the “aberrant” behavior.

The crowd. Don't stand out.

The crowd. Don’t stand out.

In few places is this law more strongly enforced and engrained than in Norwegian schools. Here there is strong pressure from both peers and teachers to meet—but not exceed!—expectations. Excelling academically only makes others feel bad and makes you look like a jerk. There is no tracking, no grades, no gifted classes, and things move along rather slowly at the elementary level to keep everyone on the same page. It’s March of my daughter’s first-grade year and they just wrapped up discussion of the letter B (though I should explain that the letters are taught out of order, in what appears to be a manifestation of Alphabet Janteloven: why should Z always come at the end? A, B and C must learn that they cannot always come first!).

The Norwegian One State may not have a Table of Hours, but they do have a rather amusing Table of Days. Should we take the reckless step of making tacos on a day other than Taco Friday, we keep the windows closed, so as not to arouse the disapproving curiosity of our neighbors. If we are caught allowing our children to enjoy a dessert or some candy on a day that is not Saturday, when Norwegian children get to indulge in a bag of candy after a week of self-denial, we are sure to invite stares, comments and questions.

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

My (American) mother-in-law tells a great story from when she was living with her Norwegian mother-in-law and decided one fine day that she felt like baking a cake. “On a Wednesday?!” her horrified mother-in-law asked. Tense debate ended in compromise: My mother-in-law could bake the cake on Wednesday, but her mother-in-law insisted it be placed in the freezer until Saturday, a more acceptable day for such indulgences.

For decades, anthropologists have classified societies according to how strictly they hold members to certain norms. “Tight societies are formal and disciplined, have clearly stated social norms, and rebuke individuals who stray from the norm. Loose societies are informal, have weak or ambiguous norms, and tolerate deviant behavior” (Psychology Today). When an international team of social scientists recently surveyed nearly 7,000 people in 33 countries to rank the world’s tightest and loosest societies, Norway ranked 6th tightest, behind countries like Pakistan, India and Singapore (and ahead of Turkey, Japan and China). “A shocking surprise!” said no expat living in Norway, ever.

Tomoko Sawada's face 41 times in a shot from her book School Days; a commentary on conformity in Japan.

From Tomoko Sawada’s School Days, a commentary on conformity in Japan
(look closely; the teacher and each of the forty students is Sawada herself).

There is no marching to your own drummer here. There is no letting your freak flag fly. Oh, how we miss our American brethren and their freak flags! People who burst into song in public, who don’t hesitate to engage a stranger who looks like they’re feeling down and in need of a mood lightener. There is a street performer here who’s often out in the city center playing peppy Russian folk songs on his accordion, and my girls and I always give him money simply because he’s “the guy who brings the joy,” something few Norwegians would dream of doing in a public space. Joy is to be kept under wraps!

I hope this musician keeps bringing the joy. I hope it spreads, wildly.

Studying in Ghana

by Nargiza Kiger, BLS student, Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza in Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza Kiger in Tamale, Ghana.

I am in the middle of my online midterm test, and rather confident that I know the material, but becoming anxious because the test has a limited time and my internet connection is being torturously slow. I click to submit my answer, and watch the precious seconds go past, becoming more anxious as I wait for the next question to finally appear. I answer it…click…and wait again.

That’s when the power goes out.

Cussing and feeling defeated I storm outside to calm myself. The last time the power went out (the day before the test), it lasted for over twelve hours. In my head I am already drafting yet another email to my professor trying to explain my situation. “Just don’t make it sound like one of those excuses professors get from students all the time,” I tell myself as the security guard approaches me.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

I have been living in the West African region since 2011—the same year I became a student at UNCG—and since then I have been taking my classes from Nigeria and Ghana. Living in West Africa is exciting and rewarding both on a personal and a professional level, and the new phenomenon of “distance learning” creates huge opportunities for a student like me, who can live in Ghana and take online classes from an American University. However, living in and taking online classes from Tamale has its own set of challenges. Sudden power losses and slow, at times non-functioning internet are common situations. Reliable internet access and reliable electricity are rare. As a distance learner I face these challenges on daily basis. It can be maddening.

As Ibrahim the security guard approached me, I wanted to vent my frustration and complain to someone about how challenging it is to be a distance learner when you have such poor infrastructure around you. In the course of our conversation something special happened that made me reflect back on the bigger picture and why am I a student in the first place. He brought me back to reality, and now any time I am frustrated about my tests, quizzes and mid term exams, I remember the story of Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim

Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim is a 22-year-old young man who wants to be a medical nurse. He was the oldest son of a farmer who relied on him greatly in managing the farm. When Ibrahim was 14 an educational project “Literacy and Development through Partnership” came to his community. This project focused on adult education and taught them how to write and read in English, the formal language of Ghana. Ibrahim joined the project and started going to night school after long, labor-intensive days in his family farm. Only at the age of 14 did he have access to basic education that I had had access to at the age of 7 growing up in Uzbekistan.

In rural parts of Ghana basic education can easily become a burden for parents. In rural Ghana a person on average lives on $2 USD a day. Although the education itself free from 1st grade to 9th grade, if you want to go to high school you have to pay on average 100 Ghana Cedi ($50 USD) per academic year. Private schools are 4-5 times higher. Because Ibrahim wanted to further acquire his higher education, it was crucial to graduate from high school.

Ibrahim committed to his night school education so much that his uncle noticed his abilities and convinced Ibrahim’s farther to let Ibrahim go to high school. In the following farming seasons, his father encouraged Ibrahim to hire some assistance in the field, so he could spend less time on the field and more at school. Ibrahim joined the junior high school at the age of 17 and graduated from High School in 2013 at the age of 22. He paid for his school from the small profits he made from growing rice. He told me that one year he had such a bad yield (6 sacks of rise) that he did not have any money or rice left when he paid his school expenses.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim told me that he was surrounded with classmates who were much younger than him and always felt a bit ashamed, but he said that adult students like him tend to have clearer goals and have less time to “play around.” Now he is studying for his standardized entrance exam for the Nursing School. He tells me that it is very competitive and mostly not based on merits. Since he has no connections to the influential people at nursing school, he says that he has to only rely on his abilities and knowledge. At the same time the educational system favors those with financial capabilities. Ibrahim says that if a person pays about $5,000 in bribes to “the right person,” the person’s place at the Nursing school can be secured without any exams. He knows that it is impossible for him to save up that much money working as a security guard and making about $150 a month. So, he is determined to challenge himself and take the test. He told me that most of his salary and harvested rice is spent on his siblings’ education. He wants them to be educated at much earlier age than he was.

The day Ibrahim and I shared our educational journeys was the day I told myself that I will not feel frustrated over small challenges and will do my best to focus on the bigger picture. Ibrahim’s story made me reflect on educational journeys that many young people go through in different parts of the world, facing their own challenges. Most of us in the United States are lucky to have the opportunities in front of us. We only have to recognize them and take advantage of them. Immense resources and technology make education even more accessible. Online education has become a widely used approach in non-traditional education. It definitely allows me to achieve my educational progress from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Ibrahim’s reading spot under the mango tree.

Ibrahim and I became good buddies since our bond over our educational goals. We both encourage each other in our so different world, and remind each other of our ultimate goals in this journey. Recognizing poor availability and access of the resources for Ibrahim, I now share my books with him, as he is very nervous about passing English on his big test.

—–

Nargiza Kiger (rhymes with “tiger”), a senior in the BLS Social Sciences concentration, currently lives in Tamale, Ghana with her husband. A resident of North Carolina, she finished her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Technical Community College before coming to UNCG. Prior to that, she grew up and started her education in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, and she speaks enough languages that the College foreign language requirement probably won’t be an issue for her.

Santa, Jesus, and Race

by Matt McKinnon

So, as I’m sure most of you have heard, Santa Claus and Jesus are both White.  They just are.  And these are historical facts.

1

Megyn Kelly.

Or so proclaimed Fox television personality Megyn Kelly on her show The Kelly File, while discussing an article by Slate contributor Aisha Harris proposing that the beloved American icon be “made over” in a more culturally neutral manner. (Harris’s suggestion is a cartoon gift-bearing penguin complete with red suit and obviously fake beard.)

What ensued was a predictable lampooning by late-night comedians and news commentators, followed by Fox News’ just as predicable recalcitrant dismissal of a “liberal media’s” obsession with race and race-baiting.  For her part, Ms. Kelly refused to apologize for her position, calling the entire episode “tongue-in-cheek,” though she did acknowledge that the issue of Jesus’ ethnicity is “unsettled.”

2

Harris’ Santa (illustration by Mark Stamaty).

There are many issues here that deserve commentary and discussion, not the least of which is Ms. Harris’ initial suggestion that an ethnically-neutral Santa Claus is much better suited for a multi-ethnic culture like that of the contemporary United States than the image of fat white man landing on rooftops and essentially performing what would be interpreted as “breaking and entering” in most legal jurisdictions.  (And at least one comedian has suggested the ramifications for a black counterpart, given the Stand Your Ground laws in places like Florida.)

But I, like most in the entertainment and media industries, am more interested in what Kelly said, and how she said it, than in what precipitated it.

Kelly, of course, was simply pointing out what most Americans probably assume: Santa Claus as a fictionalized character is based on the historical fourth century Christian bishop Saint Nicholas of Myra.  Santa has always been portrayed as a white man because, duh, his likeness is based on a real white man.  The notion that he can be portrayed any other way than that of mainstream American culture and its hegemonic ethnicity (white) is practically unthinkable—at least by white folks in the mainstream.

In fact, when watching the video from the show, it is more Kelly’s insistence of the brute factuality of Santa’s (and Jesus’s) ethnicity that is so problematic—and not necessarily her position.

And on this subject, a few ideas deserve discussion.

First and most obvious is that what the historical Saint Nicholas and Jesus both share is, if not a common ethnicity, then at least a common geography and culture—that of the Hellenistic Near East.  And while Nicholas was most probably a Greek from “Asia Minor,” and Jesus a Palestinian Jew, neither of them would have considered himself “white”—and would probably not be considered so by today’s use of the term.  So if Santa Claus is simply a reinterpretation of the Anatolian bishop Nicholas of Myra, then Ms. Kelly is mistaken: neither he (nor Jesus) is white.

They just aren’t.

A forensic reconstruction of St. Nicholas' face, surrounded by his image in traditional icons.

St. Nicholas’ face, in a forensic reconstruction and traditional icons.

But, without getting into the specifics, our Santa Claus’s development most probably owes more to Pagan characters, practices, and legends than he does to the Christian bishop of Myra.  And so, arguably, on this point, Kelly is correct: Santa Claus, inasmuch as he evolves from Germanic mythology, is “white” or Northern European (though the same cannot be said for Jesus).

3

A Medieval European “Wild Man.”

Of course, the real issue in all of this is the assumption that Santa is white—must be white, can only be white—whether rooted in history or mythology.  And that is the assumption of hegemony: Where whiteness is the presumed sole and legitimate norm.  Where the way things are is the way they have been and should be.

And pointing this out to someone who is oblivious to the ubiquity of whiteness in our culture can be awkward, unsettling, and even shocking.

Hence the insistence that Santa, like Jesus, is white—without any thought or consideration that such a proclamation may be controversial or that it could possibly be historically and culturally conditioned—tells us more about the speaker, her audience, and our culture than it does about either Santa or Jesus.

But this is not to belittle Ms. Kelly or chasten her about her firmly-held beliefs and ethnic identity.  For the real “White Man’s (sic) Burden” is not to rule over and “civilize” the non-White world, but rather to recognize and confront examples of “White Privilege” in our pluralistic and multi-ethnic culture.  And while there are much more important aspects of white privilege in present day America (like being arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to jail far less often than non-whites for similar crimes), the ubiquity of whiteness as the aesthetical norm is not to be dismissed.

But this is easier said than done, since, while the ubiquity of whiteness is quite obvious to most non-white folks, it tends to be invisible to most whites.

And the same thing that happened to Ms. Kelly happened to me, though I was seven years old and in the second grade at the time.

I had the same reaction to the “Black Santa” that my African-American teacher Mrs. Watson had put up on her classroom wall: “Santa Claus is not black.  He’s white,” I thought to myself, aghast at the suggestion.  Luckily, I didn’t have a television show to proclaim this, and didn’t actually articulate it to any of my classmates either.

But the memory has stayed with me—as one where, for the first time, I was confronted with the hegemony of my own culture: me, a little white boy bused from my mostly white neighborhood to school in the projects: a minority among minorities, but whose whiteness was still the norm.

Or should be, as I mistakenly assumed then.

4

Still from the Good Times episode “Black Jesus” (1974).

And around the same time (1974) and in much the same way, I was confronted by the “Black Jesus” episode on Good Times, where JJ had used Ned the Wino as the model for his painting of the Christ, since—being passed out in the gutter—he was the only one who could hold the pose long enough for JJ to paint.

Much later, of course, I was confronted by a long history of Jesus being portrayed in the varying ethnicity of the portrayers—across the centuries, from Asia to Africa to Europe and the Americas.

An Ethiopian Jesus and a Chinese Jesus

Jesus in Ethiopian and Chinese depictions.

And then by the African-American Liberation Theologian James Cone’s insistence that “Jesus is a black man,” in that, according to Christian theology, God comes to his people in the guise of the most repressed and outcast among us.  And in the United States, the reasoning goes, who has been more marginalized than the African slave?

But, arguably, I may not have been as sympathetic and understanding of art history or liberation theology had I not first been confronted in the privileged place of my whiteness in American culture by folks like Mrs. Watson, and the producers, writers, and cast of Good Times.

So what is troubling in Ms. Kelly’s remarks is not her assumption that both Santa and Jesus are white—but her insistence that they are, an insistence that suggests that she has probably never been confronted by the hegemony of her whiteness or the problems that such an unyielding hegemony can produce, at least in a multi-ethnic culture like ours where the power to portray is the power to influence.

It is the catering to the very understandable perspective of a certain portion of the American public that times are changing, have changed, and that “their America,” for better or worse, is gone and not coming back.  And while such a perspective is frightening and should be met with sympathy and sensitivity in order to soothe and diffuse it, it is usually met with a demagoguery of entrenchment from the one side and outright scorn from the other.

Where are Mrs. Watson and JJ when we need them?

(Of course, I must admit, I don’t particularly care for the Penguin Santa myself, whatever ethnicity it is.)

Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

by Carey Terhune, BLS Humanities student
introduced by Ann Millett-Gallant

The students in my BLS 346: “The Art of Life” class had an assignment to write a review of an art exhibition or a work of public art.  One of my students, Carey Terhune, wrote this strong review of the Willie Cole exhibition, which is on view at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum through December 15.  Carey is originally from Orange County, California and now lives in High Point, NC with her husband and 3 children.  She is currently a student in the BLS program and aspires to be a book or film critic and to write her own book one day.  When she is not doing school work or taking care of her kids, she enjoys writing, blogging, entertaining and cooking with her great friends, and traveling with her family.

Willie Cole, Man, Spirit, Mask

Man, Spirit, Mask (1999)

 Complex Conversations with Willie Cole

The artist Willie Cole is known for transforming ordinary objects into symbolic representations, with themes ranging from the African slave trade and West African tribal traditions to American urban life and personal identity. In his exhibition entitled “Complex Conversations: Willie Cole Sculptures and Wall Works,” Cole presents a collection of forty pieces from across his professional career, covering a range of artistic mediums, including three dimensional sculptures, drawings, embossing, and prints.  This collection in particular features found objects, such as old hairdryers, discarded high heeled shoes, and most prevalently, the steam iron, which pervades the majority of his work.  Cole exemplifies what Michael Kimmelman describes in his book, The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa, as the kind of artist who celebrates the beauty in ordinary things. Kimmelman reminds us that, “it is the ability of more circumscribed artists to slow our systems, calm our minds, and show us reality as we have probably not considered it…” (214). Cole revitalizes and transforms the ordinary, and it is with these uniquely simple elements that he invites us to mine our way through this exhibition and experience the complexity of his work.

Having spent the majority of his life in Newark, New Jersey, as the eldest son in a primarily matriarchal family, Willie Cole’s work is anchored in his love of urban life, and respect for feminine power. He identifies himself as an “urban archaeologist,” (Joyner) creating his work from a global perspective, and representing the human experience.  It is obvious that Cole has a very personal connection with all of the pieces in this collection, which is apparent from the moment one enters the gallery at Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. The very first piece we encounter, Self Portrait, ca. 1979, is a simple pastel drawing on a brown paper bag just inside the main entrance to the gallery. Cole uses vibrant pastel colors to highlight his face as if reflecting the glow of inner-city lights at night. This image seems to be welcoming visitors to the exhibit, and introducing Cole as the artist.

Willie Cole, Shoe Bouquet

Shoe Bouquet (2009)

As we continue through the spacious gallery, painted white from floor to ceiling, we encounter one of Cole’s featured pieces, Shoe Bouquet, 2009, constructed out of wood, screws, metal, staples, and hundreds of worn-out, women’s, high-heeled shoes in a variety of colors. The leather and varying fabrics of the shoes are bent and curled into giant flowers seeming to create a four-foot-high bouquet. It is positioned in the center of the first segment of the gallery because it is truly meant to be experienced from all sides. Each flower reveals layers of dimension and texture, calling attention to the bottoms of most of the shoes, as if to salute the miles walked in them by hundreds of women. It’s as if he’s returning the shoes to their original beauty by transforming them into this symbolic gift to women.

Moving forward through the gallery we pass by some of his beautiful prints, drawings and photographs featuring images of West African tribal traditions infused with countless steam iron impressions.  To the left we encounter, Double Headed Gas Snake, 1997, a sculpture constructed of articulating sheet metal hoses with metal nozzles and rebar. It resembles a giant snake with two heads, which seem to be fighting one another. This is another reference to Cole’s urban upbringing, in that it addresses the issues of urban violence, and acknowledges its presence as an intricate part of the beauty of inner-city life.

Willie Cole, Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4 (2007)

Progressing further we encounter Por La Mesa de Mi Abuelita x4, 2007, a pale pink pigmented, cotton liner paper with embossing, cut by water stream. This piece at first seems somewhat dull and monochromatic compared with some of his more vibrant works, but as we move closer it becomes clearer that these large, snowflake-like paper cutouts are more symbolic of Cole’s artistic style. They are delicate, as if to appeal to women, featuring layered impressions of steam irons. And yet, they have a slightly dirty and torn appearance, fitting right in with the urban themes of the exhibition. An even closer look reveals details that connect it to Cole’s tribal themes as well, including dozens of tiny spears and overlapping steam iron cutouts that resemble tribal masks at the corners of each of the four pieces.

Cole continues this collaboration of themes in several other pieces throughout the exhibition. Examples include a tribal mask constructed out of dismantled antique hairdryers; an oversized antique ironing board that resembles a tribal shield, embellished with steam-iron-scorched markings; and a sculpture assembled using parts of an old bicycle that resembles an African mask dance figure.

Willie Cole, Wind Mask

Wind Mask (1991)

Nearing the end of the exhibition, on a large white wall shared with just one other piece, hangs Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999, a three-part image in which Cole utilizes photo etching, a silkscreen, and wood to artfully draw the viewer into his private world. In this piece we are able to see how Cole’s identity is interwoven with the elements and themes of his work.  This piece arranges a photo etching of the artist, a steam iron scorched impression, and a tribal mask print. They are displayed side by side, representing the man, the spirit, and the mask. All resemble one another in scale, size, shape, and color, and all seem to express the same stalwart gaze, but are different parts of the whole person, as an artist. With so many varying mediums represented in this collection, Man, Spirit, Mask, 1999 seems to merge these components into one powerful representation of the artist himself. We begin our exploration of this collection with the simple yet captivating greeting of his Self Portrait, ca.1979, and by the end we understand Willie Cole, and his bold and soulful exhibition, on a more personal level. This melding of artistic inspirations using commonplace items defines Cole’s work in this collection and throughout his career, reminding us that beauty and meaning can be found in the most ordinary objects, which are “accessible to us all, at almost any time, if we are just prepared to look for them” (Kimmelman, 214).

Works Cited

Joyner, Amy. “Found Object Sparks Theme in Artist Willie Cole’s Work.News and Record. Web. 5 October 2013.

Kimmelman, Michael. The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.