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A few years ago, one of my students said, “I use to love movies, but then I made the mistake of taking a film class. Now I can’t watch them any more.” And, just last week, a similar incident occurred.

We were coming off a module on rhetorical analysis. As usual, I had used movies as a language that could be read and analyzed. We went over the Rule of Thirds, and discussed film scores, especially the move away from the brassy fanfares of John Williams, to the dramatic strings, Carmina Burana choirs, and big, tribal drumming of, e.g., Hans Zimmer and Steve Jablonsky:


Then, out of perversity, I suppose, I introduced them to the Wilhelm Scream, and then to the practice of counting shot lengths, which I first learned from an article called “Quicker, Faster, Darker: Changes in Hollywood Film Over 75 Years,” by Cutting et al., from the Department of Psychology at Cornell. According to the study,

short shots likely increase viewer response to films and film segments, forcing observer eye movements to quickly reevaluate each new visual depiction and increasing heart rate and other bodily responses…Adding more motion to these short shots is likely to increase viewer response all the more. We suggest that this increasing correlation may help to couple attention to broader physiological responses.

Here’s the example I used in class, one of my favs: the central battle scene from the first Avengers movie, with the incredible 30-second tracking shot (!!!) that Joss Whedon manages to squeeze into the middle of an explosion of choppy chaos. (I love the arrow, in particular.)

Anyway, when the module was over, a few students admitted that they had started compulsively counting shot lengths when watching movies, and listening for the Wilhelm Scream, which should have been an epic win for me, right? But one student seemed more annoyed than anything else, almost disconsolate. I tried to make it better by saying, “But now that you’re aware of these things you should be able to ENJOY THE MOVIE EVEN MORE! And, anyway, there’s no going back now.”

The force of what I’d said struck me immediately, and it kept barging into my mind as I tried to move the class forward.

There’s no going back. You can’t go home again. “The place where you came from ain’t there any more, and where you had in mind to go is cancelled out.” (Oates.)  A necessary threshold to cross, certainly, and I had assumed that everything would be better once I’d led the students over it with a slight sense of gleeful superiority. Plus, as I made sure to tell them, it’s best to know when, and how, one is being manipulated by rhetoric. But still…

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps. But when class was over for the day, and the students were filing out, I couldn’t help but recall the end of Paradise Lost:

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.

With apologies to Milton. And, of course, to the students.

*****

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“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.” -Edward Abbey, Flatland (1884)

In July of 2013, Dustin Cable, from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, gave the world an invaluable document: The Racial Dot Map.

The map displays 308,745,538 dots, one for each person residing in the United States at the location they were counted during the 2010 Census. Each dot is color-coded by the individual’s race and ethnicity…Whites are coded as blue; African-Americans, green; Asians, red; Hispanics, orange; and all other racial categories are coded as brown.

One could spend all day reading Cable’s map. I zoomed straight in on Rochester, NY, where I live. The map reveals the racial topography; natural and man made boundaries carve up the surface like an X-Acto knife:1

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The purplish semicircle to the southwest, pushing out into the Genesee River, is the University of Rochester. Across the river to the west is the 19th Ward, almost solid green. The green and orange dots continue in a clockwise arc toward the northeast, in an area known as The Crescent. In a 2003 article in the New York Times, Michelle York reported that “[t]he crescent is home to 27 percent of the city’s residents and 80 percent of the city’s homicides.” According to the article,

The reasons behind the burst of violence…include the lagging upstate economy, a steady migration of residents to the suburbs and a growing number of abandoned houses prone to become centers of drug sales and use. Rochester also has a school system that performs poorly. Only a quarter of high school freshmen last four years and graduate. Some 93 percent of school-age children live in poverty…

Just south of The Crescent, past the sharp boundary of East Main St., is a wedge of deep blue—the upscale East End. According to its web site, “The East End…is Upstate NY’s premier destination for fine dining, nightlife, entertainment and the arts, doing business and living an urban lifestyle.” Blue dots scatter to the east, south, and west, dissolving into seemingly thin air.

I zoomed out from the Rochester map and started scrolling to the left, to visit Buffalo, when a tiny, dark blip caught my attention. At first, I thought it was another scratch on my antediluvian MacBook, but it was moving. So I zoomed in:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.39.23 AMThe blue sprinkles at the top represent the village of Attica. The rectangle at the bottom center is Attica Correctional Facility; the smaller one to its right is Wyoming.

At this point, it became like a game, as I zoomed out and scrolled around the map. Whenever I encountered a dark spot, I zoomed back in for a closer look. It was always a densely populated polygon, situated near, or in, a field of scattered blue dots. Here’s Gowanda:

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And Clinton:

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And Albion:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.02.20 AMAnd Five Points:

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And so on. Try it with your own state. For best results, click on “Remove Map Labels” first, to let these color-coded shapes speak their own hard truths.

For example: Things have not improved in The Crescent since Hill wrote her article. If anything, they’re worse. Paul Jargowsky, in a 2015 report for the Century Foundation, titled “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” found that Rochester has the 4th highest Black concentration of poverty in the United States, jumping from 34.2% in 2000, to 51.5% in 2009-2013. Buffalo came in at #6. Syracuse was #1.

What this means for the cycle of incarceration is clear. In the words of Tony Gaskew, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Pittsburgh,

The road to redemption for an incarcerated Black male returning to his community is paved with temptations, disappointments, and failures. When he goes home, unemployment will still be high. Our educational system will still be broken. He will still have the greatest opportunity to be victimized by a person within his own community of similar race or ethnic background. There will still be more liquor stores than schools in his neighborhood.2

James Baldwin captured this process in his short story, “Sonny’s Blues“—which is itself almost 60 years old—during a cab ride shared between the narrator and his brother, who had just been released from prison: “So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed…”

And we wonder why recidivism rates are so high.

“These neighborhoods,” says Jargowsky, “are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices.” The Racial Dot Map reveals the consequences of those choices. The problem is clear, hard with luminous edges. Can the same be said of our national resolve to fix it?


1 Images Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

2 NEW DIRECTIONS FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGES, no. 170, Summer 2015 © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) • DOI: 10.1002/cc.20145

Six-Actors-Poster-WebI had a dream about Wikipedia once. (I know, right?)

If you analyze the format of a Wikipedia page, you’ll see that, at the top, there’s the main concept, and the page becomes increasingly detailed and fractured the further down you look.

Well, as my dream opens,  I’m looking at the very bottom of a Wikipedia page—at the “External links,” probably—and then I begin visually scrolling up, higher and higher, with an increasingly urgent need to reach the controlling Word, where all the scattered instances will finally fuse together into One, the only One there is.

I woke up about 2″ from the top.

Anyway, sometimes I think that the secret of academic writing is not to look for examples to support a thesis, i.e. “cherry picking,” but to allow examples to suggest a meaning, to hint, tantalizingly, at a concept, just as they are wont to do in waking life. Similarities propose a marriage; resemblances suggest a unity. Find 3 or 5 or 7 of these things and you’ve got yourself a paper.

I just watched a YouTube video of Collin Raye’s 1993 country classic, “That’s My Story,” while I was doing some research. (It’s complicated.) At the beginning was an ad for Tough Mudder. I never watch the ads, but the text of this one caught me. Here it is:

Immediately, I was reminded of a number of similar texts we went over in my ENG101 sections just this semester. The first is an entry in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, “Yu Yi”:

Some Mudders might find it strange—or annoying—to be lumped in with the existential lyricism of the Dictionary, but tough. It works.

A second example is “Cycle of Fear,” an article in the New York Times where Tim Kreider writes about how he deals with his anxiety by bicycling at high speeds through Manhattan traffic:

I’m convinced these are the conditions in which we evolved to thrive: under moderate threat of death at all times, brain and body fully integrated, senses on high alert, completely engaged with our environment. It is, if not how we’re happiest — we’re probably happiest in a hot tub with a martini and a very good naked friend — how we are most fully and electrically alive.

I could go on. There are many other examples, but they all add up to one thesis: something’s missing, I know not what. Is it a nostalgia for a fresh and exciting world? A fealty to some atavistic trait long forgotten? A longing to express a kind of immediate, pre-linguistic experience that language itself has absorbed into its dry concepts? How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem all the uses of this world.

We seem to have gotten everything backwards.

Pick the cherries first, then dream of red.

***

“Never forget where you are.”

That’s one of the first things I was told when I started teaching classes in the prison. Initially, the warning seemed absurd; if you’ve ever been in one of these places, you know that  you can no more forget where you are than you could if you were to suddenly materialize at the bottom of the ocean. It was also vaguely threatening, redolent of sudden attacks, and covert manipulations by desperate, irredeemable men. For the record, I have never experienced any of those things. But there is wisdom in the warning, nonetheless, and I often receive stunning reminders of “where I am” just as I begin to feel comfortable.

For instance, last week we were talking about deductive reasoning, and what can happen when you try to make a deduction based on imperfect evidence, or no evidence at all. I admitted that the very first time I entered the prison I had thought to myself, Here there be monsters, but where? That got a laugh, plus several nods of the head. Then, I asked if they had had any deductions about college before actually starting the program. (For many of the students, “college” might as well have been “Timbuktu” for all they knew about it.) I was expecting answers that touched on anxiety, course load, fear of the unknown, etc.

Instead, one student said, “I remember wondering whether or not the teachers would treat us the same as their other students.”

“Do you mean if we would ‘dumb down’ the classes?”

“No, I meant if you would treat us like everyone else does.”

“Treat you like inmates.”

“Yes.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, right in the middle of a presentation on APA style, one of the students raised his hand and announced, quite calmly, “Mister G., I have question about ethos.”

Now, a question about ethos should not be surprising in a composition class. But this was Science Writing. Ethos had not been mentioned once since the start of the previous semester, when I’d casually mentioned it as one of the elements of persuasive rhetoric. To have it come popping out of the underbrush at that point was a shock.

I lowered the strip of toilet paper I’d been using to clean the White Board, and waited.

“You said that ethos means ‘good character.’”

“Yes. Partially.”

“Well, given who we are,” he continued, gesturing vaguely to the rest of the class, “why would anyone ever read anything we write?”

Experienced teachers know the occasional need for an extemporaneous “Plan B,” that sudden, vertiginous swerve down a road you never saw on the map, but which you must navigate at high speed with only slight pressure on the brakes. In the prison classroom, it’s always Plan B. Every text hits bone. Words have consequences. Rhetorical concepts, long ago discarded as boilerplate, are discussed endlessly, dissected and rebuilt, not just in terms of essay writing, but of freedom, justice, identity.

Your lecture notes are worthless, then. So are the skills of which you were once so proud. Even if you used to thrive on spontaneity, challenge, and surprise, your intellectual agility means nothing when you have been stunned into silence by a grown man who has been made to feel worthless. At that moment, you will remember where you are.

And why you’re there.

***