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Monday, October 30, 2006

Maya Angelou in Stamps, Arkansas

Maya Angelou writes a memoir about growing up in Stamps, Arkansas, in the segregated South. Her depiction is searingly honest, and it gives faces, places, and specific names and feelings to what could be viewed as the collective experience of many growing up in the South in the first 100 years after slavery was abolished in the U.S.

videography: dave feiden

As young African-American females, Maya Angelou and others are automatically relegated to the position of being marginalized by white society. The sense of being on the outside looking in is made even more poignant and harrowing by the fact that antebellum aristocratic values of European origin are imposed on blacks. They consciously or unconsciously buy into the vocabulary and practices of elitism by embroidering knick-knacks for a dowry chest, learning the rules of etiquette involved in setting an elaborate table, and using the language of the debutante to describe one’s coming of age. Such activities primarily function to reinstate difference as the only way of knowing each other, and reinforce the distance that exists between white women and the black women who present such a potent threat to them. To Angelou, the linguistic and social practices of the South are a cruel joke, particularly when the more typical role of a young black girl was to be a servant in a white woman’s home.

The young black female is considered an outsider – an outsider who possesses little or no power. Her powerlessness is illustrated when the white woman has the power to erase and then reconstruct identity by renaming. Angelou provides an example of this in the selection printed here. She is working in a white woman’s kitchen, in what Angelou characterizes as a perverse finishing school, where she learns the finer points of setting a table, etc. Her employer, Mrs. Cullinan, is descended from Virginia plantation owners. She surrounds herself with white friends who consider themselves entitled to “culture” and to be waited on by black servants, in an ugly echo of “the good old days.” The sense of the employer’s power becomes ominous with the power of naming. “Margaret” is deemed too long and is shortened to “Mary.” “Hallelujah” was long ago renamed “Glory” in a creepy echo of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

If renaming can dehumanize, negate, invisiblize and nullify, does the act of naming have generative powers as well?

The mindset examined in this selection is one that looks closely at the way language is used to either empower or strip away entitlement or rights. Conversely, there is an awareness that one can empower oneself by naming, and it can be used for the good.

In writing about how black girls and women were subjected to nullifying linguistic and social practices in Stamps, Arkansas, Angelou also corrects the misconception that silence denotes acquiescence or agreement. The women to whom the psychological assaults are not sufficiently empowered to be able to question or counter the practices directly. Indirect rebellion seems to be their only way to resist. Thus, when Angelou considers her situation, she seeks revenge rather than rapprochement, and obtains it when she deliberately breaks a family heirloom from the old plantation in Virginia. Sadly, no one understands the message behind Angelou’s gesture, so her speaking and acting out are misunderstood and worse – processed through the unknowing and unenlightened mindset of her employer.

One does see how erasures of identity are always a part of the outgrouping process. A key lesson is that the converse is possible: ingrouping and inclusion are possible when one names oneself into it.

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 104-119.

Short Answer: Maya Angelou
(questions by Elaine Bontempi)

1. How was Maya marginalized by white society?

2. What does the author have to say about naming?

3. How does the author resist psychological assaults?

4. Explain the irony in the location of the author’s finishing school, and the irony of it all.

5. What was the purpose of Maya’s learning the things that she was taught where she was working?

6. Why was it so insulting for the author to be called Mary? What did this mean to her and others in her community?

7. How is the author’s status as an outsider with little or no power made evident in this reading?

8. Explain what the author meant when she wrote, “Her husband remains, in my memory, undefined. I lumped him with all the other white men that I had ever seen and tried not to see.”

9. Explain how Maya’s identity was stripped away from her.

10. What does re-naming do to one’s sense of inclusion?

see other authors:

Monday, October 16, 2006

Video Clips / Vodcasts for Online Literature Courses: The Allure of the Moving Image

I started incorporating digital video in online courses about ten years ago. I wasn’t following the lead of the “streaming lecturer” or “talking head.” Instead, I filmed myself with my Logitech MiniCam and kept the discussions to about 3 minutes or less. I also recorded a number in a studio in Oklahoma City that was incredibly ahead of its time. They had the idea of being a YouTube or a Google Video, and were helping film and host digital libraries of digital video.

It was a great idea, and they even hosted the video, so that one would not need to worry about bandwidth or capacity in one’s own server.

It was not a viable business model. No one paid for the service. Worse, it rarely worked on everyone’s computer. In theory, the mpeg file could play on the latest or next-to-latest version of RealPlayer, Window Media Player, or Quick Time. In reality, users had trouble downloading the right version of the media players. Even when they could get the media player to work, for some reason, the video would not always play. Sometimes, there was insufficient bandwidth and sometimes the connection was too slow.

Times have changed – note the recent acquisition of YouTube by Google Video. Now, people regularly host video they’ve captured on their digital cameras, cell phones, or laptops on YouTube or Google Video, and they embed the video in their websites and weblogs and social networking spaces such as MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga, Blogger, etc. They can even e-mail their video casts.

What is the difference? The difference is in the “jukebox” – the little portable media player that does not have to be downloaded, but sits inside your website and allows you to click a button and it plays. You do not even have to download the video file! What is nice, is that services such a YouTube and Google Video will optimize your uploaded file. Say, for example, you upload a 80 MB wmv file that came straight from your Fuji F-10 digital camera. If it is in Google Video, your viewers can download the file to their iPod. When they do that, the file is converted into a mp4 file, which might have 4 MB instead of 80 MB. Amazing!

The bottom line is that basically everyone can capture and incorporate video in their websites, and basically everyone is.

The fact that the video will play does not mean that it is of high quality, though. In fact, there may actually be very little educational value beyond engaging initial interest.

So, it is good to look at where we are, and to review the fundamentals of using instructional media for positive educational effect. I’ll use the case of an online literature course, because it makes an interest example of how something that is essentially textual (a work of literature) translates to the moving image, with audio, often with spectacular success. There can be spectacular failures, too – and we want to avoid those.

videography: dave feiden

Video Clips in an Online Literature Course: What Works

*--Create ideal conditions for learning by capturing the students’ attention. Say something provocative about the work or the author. Find the heart of the issues that surround the work and focus on them in order to engage your reader.

*--Arouse emotions and curiosity.

*--Do not drone on too long. Keep it short – usually between 45 seconds and a minute and a half. Remember, you’re engaging the learner and trying to inspire him / her to want to delve in to the text and also to ask questions and engage in a dialogue, even a debate.

*---Go for sizzle. Have fresh settings, nice backgrounds, interesting venues.

*---Keep it real. Students respond in a positive way to the real presence of their professor or a subject matter expert, and if it is a bit rough around the edges, it comes across as authentic.

*---Try for the human interest angles. Find intriguing factoid about the author or the work itself and mention it. Establishing a connection with your viewer within 3 – 5 seconds is absolutely critical. In those first seconds and nanoseconds, the viewer makes the decision whether or not to pay attention or to switch to something else. You have 5 seconds to get their attention. Do you like challenges?

Video Clips in an Online Literature Course: What to Avoid

Here are a few natural mistakes that will result in less-than-ideal implementation and outcome.

*--Don’t focus your eyes on the ground or the sky. Keep your eyes on the camera. The direct eye connection makes a difference.

*--Avoid the “talking head” approach. It doesn’t work! Talking heads (a head that fills the screen and drones on and on) do not engage viewers. Learners become passive and stop paying attention, even if you think you’ve fancied it up with whiteboard.

*--Avoid the endless script. Don’t tape yourself writing on a chalkboard and trying to approximate the experience of reading. Don’t try to imitate the classroom lecture, either. Students stop paying attention.

*--Don’t read poetry from a script that you hold in your hand. I tried it. It is horrible. While watching myself, I immediately felt as though I were attending a painful poetry reading in which the poet has gone on entirely too long. I just wanted out. I clicked “pause.”

*---Don’t recite statistics. Avoid being too “canned.” Biographical details and statistics may be important pieces of information, but the mind does not hang onto them. Our minds love narrative in conjunction with the moving image. Therefore, it is good to connect the moving image with a story.

These are just a few practical suggestions from an “in the trenches” point of view. While the technology has improved immensely and it has made the incorporation of video both inexpensive and easy to use, it is clear that we are in a “rapid evolution” phase of technological development. So, keep an open mind, be willing to experiment, and keep up to date by continuously scanning the environment and trying technology.

The key is to uncover the real behaviors of your students and design a use of video that builds on how they are comfortable with using the technology.

Don’t try to impose an artificial behavior or awkward way of using technology. Instead, learn how it is being used, and incorporate that activity into your instructional strategies.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to try incorporating video clips in your online courses is that it is fun and effective! You’ll find that you are engaging students’ interest, creating conditions that are ideal for learning, accommodating learner preferences and styles, rehumanizing the e-learning space, and inspiring students to delve deeply into the text -- make connections, analyze in a new way, and think critically.

videography: dave feiden

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