Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Composing Culture, Working with Words and Images: An Interview with Writer-Critic-Educator Jody Swilky

 

KIRPAL GORDON: Such a pleasure to google you & find out all you’ve done since I last saw you in Albany, NY, in 1988. You were deeply into a Doctor of Arts degree in Critical Theory & with A Little Salsa on the Prairie: The Changing Character of Perry, Iowa, a documentary you recently wrote & co-produced, it seems your progressive approach to writing & teaching has come full circle. So what happened?




 

 
JODY SWILKY: After leaving Albany I took an academic position at Drake University in Des Moines, joining an English department  that intended to make a wholesale revision of its curriculum, moving from the old smorgasbord of categories structured by nationality and periodicity to one more informed by writing and reading as interdependent activities. Everyone would be responsible in varying degrees for teaching reading-and-writing intensive courses, and I was hired to teach a range of these courses, including “Freshman Seminar in Reading and Writing,” “Reading and Writing Poetry,” and “The Teaching of Writing: Theory and Practice.”  I was also asked to develop new courses in literacy, cultural studies, and writing. I was excited by this possibility, despite the fact that I was not thrilled about moving to Des Moines, a sentiment that has changed radically over the years. What attracted me was the fact that the department was interested in revising its programs and informing them by theoretical and pedagogical developments that recently emerged in writing studies and cultural studiesdevelopments that dominated my graduate work at Albany.

 
I remember coming across an interview with Jane Tompkins that would be critical to the writing and teaching I wanted to pursue:

 
Although I didn't realize while I was in graduate school and for the first twenty years of teaching that I really aspired to be a writer more than a critic, now that I have made this crossover, I'm absolutely delighted. Let me say, though, that I think it's a false dichotomy: a scholar/critic versus a writer. It's a dichotomy we've all been sold in some way by the tradition we work in, and it's not useful to us anymore.

 
-from "Jane Tompkins and the Politics of Writing, Scholarship, and Pedagogy" Interview in JAC: A Journal of Composition Theory)
 
 
KIRPAL GORDON: I saw you erase such dichotomies with the journalism & creative writing students you taught at Arthur Kill CF, but it sounds like the SUNY-Albany program helped you combine your skills as a teacher-poet-writer-critic-activist in new ways.
 

 
JODY SWILKY: The graduate courses at Albany that had the most invigorating impact upon me were the courses that encouraged me to blur distinctions between writing and criticism, between aesthetic and critical writing. The English department at Drake seemed interested in people who had training in multiple fields or divisions within a discipline, who, for instance, had attended an MFA program and pursued doctoral work in writing studies or cultural theory, and who could contribute such training to the curriculum revision initiative. I wanted to teach courses and produce writing that was informed by tensions between and intersections of storytelling and rhetoric. I wanted my writing to take an ethnographic approach to studying culture, to study and use language in multiple ways that challenged traditional divisions between notions of the creative and the critical, between academic and journalistic writing, and between storytelling and critical analysis. After a few years of continuing to produce writing that served to preserve the conventions of genres, I embarked upon a decade-long collaboration with Daniel Mahala, another Albany grad, that produced writing that integrated storytelling and cultural theory, both our own and the work of other writers, illustrating how storytelling was being performed in multiple academic disciplines—in critical legal studies, in literacy studies, in anthropology, in the social sciences, and in literary theory—constructing a layered essay that advocated making story, testimony and the personal central to academic writing. Much of this writing captured the struggle to represent a fuller self, one that engages and exploits the conventions of academic writing while using language that enables writers to work towards their particular intentions.
 
The storytelling in a number of our essays took various forms, sometimes appearing as nonfiction, other times seeming more like fiction. Whatever writing strategy we employed, narrative translated abstract concepts into a representation of lived experience. The crossover that JAC promoted, what Tompkins advocated in her interview, enabled my collaborator and me to continue to build on the work supported by the doctoral program we attended, which attracted a group of people who were making crossovers: a published playwright working on a doctorate on avant-garde contemporary performance theory; an erstwhile journalist working on a theory of documentary filmmaking; an engineer writing a multi-genre dissertation, capturing, through poetry and prose, his interpretation of William Carlos Williams’ epic poem, Paterson; and a good number of card-carrying, MFA program grads engaged in projects concerned with theories of storytelling, composing, and collaboration—three activities that would begin to inform the work I produced after I left the program.
 
 
 
KIRPAL GORDON: Talk more about ethnography as a means or method to understand culture. What inspiration did you draw from that study?
 
 
JODY SWILKY: Modern ethnography appears in several forms, traditional and innovative. As an academic practice it cannot be separated from anthropology. Seen more generally, it is simply diverse ways of thinking and writing about culture from a standpoint of participant observation.

 
                        (James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art)

 
In 1988, James Clifford’s seminal study of Western ethnography was published, offering an important critique of how anthropology, travel writing, collecting, and museum displays of tribal art represented culture and cultural groups. Clifford offered an alternative practice which, as the quotation just displayed suggests, called for a more inclusive perspective on who might study culture, and through example, how writing might include the voices of those being studied while serving their interests.           

 
That same year, The Thin Blue Line was released. Errol Morris’ groundbreaking documentary depicts the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit. Adams’ case was reviewed and he was released from prison approximately a year after the film’s release. He told reporters,

 
 “The fact that it took 12 and a half years and a movie to prove my innocence should scare the hell out of everyone in this room and, if it doesn’t, then that scares the hell out of me.”

 
The integration of an investigative perspective with the aesthetics of filmmaking is the hallmark of Morris’ documentary, which weaves a thread of reenactment, of dramatic storytelling, with interviews, plus a multitude of images—of faces, newspaper headlines, street, maps and buildings—presented through imaginative camerawork and pacing—zooming in and out, spanning landscapes and rooms, capturing and dispersing colors, and moving to the hypnotic effects of Phillip Glass’s score. The film lets us know we are in the presence of filmmaking. The results were art and social justice. 

 
Clifford’s and Morris’  work opened up possibilities for studying culture, particularly who contributes, and what materials and representational strategies are used, to construct and capture their storytelling; and in distinct ways, their work complemented how writing and filmmaking can serve the social interests of the individuals and groups being studied.

 
Over the past decade, within writing studies, there has been increasing concern about the relationship between words and images, what Kristie Fleckenstein has described as  a shift from “a language-centric to a polymorphic literacy,”  a response acknowledging that “meaning shapes itself in response to the dictates of different media, modes and contexts of representation,” what she deems a necessary response in this post-Gutenbergian, image-dominated age, in which we are subject to an unending stream of information-melding words with mental, graphic and verbal imagery. If we fail to account for how imagery affects our understanding of experience, Fleckenstein argues, we limit how richly we can understand the world that impinges on us. This suggests a new possibility for composing culture—a transformation from creating images only through language to working with multiple kinds and modalities of images—graphic, verbal, and mental—the product being a text that does not abandon language but rather incorporates multiple semiotic systems.

 
Possibilities can represent opportunities as well as challenges.  Since Clifford’s book and Morris’ film were released, academics who previously wrote about culture, primarily for a specialized audience, have begun to work in documentary film.

 


KIRPAL GORDON: How did your interest in making documentary film come about?  Did you seek out the work of other academics?

 

 
JODY SWILKY: Since I began work on a documentary in 2005, I have attended dozens of screenings by first-time, academic filmmakers, who had little or no formal training in filmmaking or prior experience adapting their writing for a non-specialized audience.  These events have caused me to think more about the challenges of transitioning and adapting, including working with multiple semiotic systems, negotiating the interests and desires of different audiences, and establishing ethical participant-observer relationships with the culture being studied.

 
A significant challenge has been moving from working with images through language to composing culture through multimodal texts, moving from  reading and hearing language to considering how language works with visual images and sounds—and how that might affect the listener-reader-viewer.  


 
I remember in the late 1970s and early 1980s theories of image-making that stirred my interest. There was Pound’s misreading of the Chinese, captured in “The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry,” which might have had the linguistic substance wrong, yet his theory represented a powerful way of thinking about constructing images: placing perceptions side by side, as if they were ideograms.




 
KIRPAL GORDON: Would you give us an example from your own poetry?



 
JODY SWILKY:
Shared Music

 

They sang the same songs for years,
 
in the dark, across a continent,

sometimes awake at dawn,

humming to a frosted window.

 
 

Years would pass before they danced

to ballads in a shadowy room,

careless of stepping

on each other’s toes.

 

The muted trumpet lingered

and something burned their faces—

the remains of an incredible embrace,

the body speaking a startling language,

 

the way the woman who just left her lover

and now arrives home,

suddenly stops smiling, then smiles again,

surprised by her daughter’s laughter.

 
 
 
The final stanza of the poem, read line by line, embodies how the body speaks a “startling language.” Collectively, the lines of the final stanza create the stages of the experience—departure, arrival, readjustment, and surprise. A sequence of perceptions, of scenes, each ordinary in itself, yet as you read through them, each can carry the residue of the previous images, accumulatively creating new meaning.
 
 
KIRPAL GORDON: To make the old new, to express the “startling language” hidden within the everyday that yields those haiku-ish, satori-like eurekas—you’ve wrought the best of Pound’s misreading of Fenolossa. You’ve made good on other influences, too, yes?
 
 
JODY SWILKY: Another theory of image-making that influenced my work in language was that of the deep-image aesthetic. I was taken by the notion of a poem playing states of being against each other, or building and possibly provoking a more imaginative state of consciousness. Some poems I wrote about seeing and the imagination attempted to exploit a tension between common visual images and images that aren’t of the natural world. 
 
 
KIRPAL GORDON: Would you illustrate the tension in a poem?

 
JODY SWILKY: An example appears at the end of this poem:

Animation

 

A man walks through a district
 
of perfume and dress shops,


 
and wherever he turns,
 
whatever his eye might spot
 

 

through the sunlight, shadow,

and damp odor of traffic,

 
 

he sees only the cold beauty

of women in windows.

 
 

If a mannequin leans,

offering her perfect hand,

 

 
or the woman sitting in bed

whispers a few words,

 
 

he knows, as the body absorbs

sight and sound, they're calling him.
 

 

And if they stand as stiff as plaster,

he thinks each inviting gesture

 
 

is saved until the streets empty,

until his fingers touch luminous glass,
 

 

leaving a handful of kisses

on their billboard smiles.

 
 
 
The closing image of the poem works with what can be seen, a common image in advertising, and what must be imagined, an almost magical gesture of affection for one’s own creation, the animated inanimate object—the mixing of language of intense desire with that of simulated beauty.

 
KIRPAL GORDON: Perhaps on the other side of affection for one’s creation there’s a loneliness inferred in those last lines as well: is the fetish defeating the real thing? Is kissing the “cold beauty / of women in windows” a sad confirmation that he can’t get no satisfaction, that he’s hooked on image? The ad’s reflection in glass lends this reader to re-think ideas about beauty, flesh, desire, artifice, propaganda, advertising, manipulation, the politics of the female body & the separation from nature/woman inherent in your cityscape. After reading your collaborations with Daniel Mahala, I find you’re packing a punch akin to this Deep Imagism in your essays.
 
 
JODY SWILKY: The hybrid collaborative essays were enabling new territory for critiquing culture, and although they used storytelling to capture institutional, programmatic and disciplinary situations, they represented a divided writing identity, what seems to me more critical than creative.  Later, when I found myself working in a multimodal medium (film), I sensed a more balanced construction of aesthetics and critique, which emerged by working with multiple forms of images, created through the linguistic, the visual, the aural, and most important, through the integration of the three—through how they  present image, story, critique and argument—and consequently produced a critical aesthetic through the composing of culture that worked against a divided disciplinary identity. A writer-critic, if you will. 



 
I have been considering these challenges of representation and collaboration ever since I worked on A Little Salsa on the Prairie, the documentary I wrote and co-produced. What I mean by representation is the way one or more modes of symbolic representation are used to construct the story and the perspective(s) from which a story is told; in other words, issues of composing and storytelling which often blur or are interdependent. 
 
 
 Vivian de Gonzalez Transcript
 
 
You know, when I got here to Perry, ah, and people would look at me they thought, oh, you know, she doesn’t understand English, she’s Spanish speaking, she, you know, she doesn’t understand, but not knowing that, you know I am, I did speak English, and I am an American and um, I’ve, I’ve had to have proved myself not only once but twice because I have to prove myself not only to my own people but to the Anglo population too.  

 
Now I would like you to watch and listen as Vivian speaks: Go to 

 
 
 
You know, when I got here to Perry, ah, and people would look at me they thought, oh, you know, she doesn’t understand English, she’s Spanish speaking, she, you know, she doesn’t understand, but not knowing that, you know I am, I did speak English, and I am an American and um, I’ve, I’ve had to have proved myself not only once but twice because I have to prove myself not only to my own people but to the Anglo population too. 
 
 
When I first read Vivian de Gonzalez’s account of how she was perceived after her arrival in Perry, I had not seen film footage of her interview. My response to the transcript was that there was an important message in her explanation that addressed a fundamental problem in understanding the relationship between recent Latino immigration and the identity of New Iowans, as well as the consequences of this misunderstanding. I initially decided against using this footage to open the film, however, because I felt unsure about the syntax and how that might come across to viewers. But when I viewed the footage and listened to the speaker—after seeing her face and body, and noting her body language; after hearing the register of her voice, the pace and emphasis of her phrasing; and imagining music accompanying the footage—I  had a different response. Her presence as speaker made the written text particular, personal, as she infused the text with pauses, emphasis and emotion. When I read the transcript, I could construct an image of her, but now her visual presence affected any image I previously had. My method became: listen, look and read.
Along with the challenge of the medium for composing culture, there has been the matter of approach. When I consider the structure of A Little Salsa on the Prairie, the challenges of representation and collaboration become entwined. Moving from the past to the present, from reconstructing history to documenting a community-wide dialogue, we intended that the role of residents would be enhanced as the story unfolded, and that through this process, the competing interests and needs of the community would emerge.



 
The first chapter, which offers a historical view of Perry through a perspective that considered the relationship between ethnicity, industry and immigration, was constituted largely by archival images and scholars’ voices. The ensuing chapter focused ONLY on the residents’ views concerning the dramatic culture change of the 1990s, when Latinos came to work at the meatpacking plant and settle in the community.

The next segment documents a dialogic process during which residents met for five consecutive weeks in small groups,

followed by a community-wide forum, to discuss the challenges the transformed community faced. Through the structure of the story, Perry’s residents took a more active role as actors in telling the story. At the same time, from the footage we shot and the archives we visited, we selected the materials and we designed their arrangement, and thus the needs and interests represented were not the result of our negotiating with the community. While two rough cuts of the documentary were screened for several community groups, and their feedback was taken into consideration, throughout the production process, we did not work with members of the community on determining the specific interests and concerns that would inform the film. Thus, it was our representation of “their interests and concerns.”
 
 
 
What might have been the story if we had regularly negotiated the content?  We came closest to this approach to collaboration in the coda to the film. Using Vivian de Gonzalez’s and Father David Polich’s uncut representations of the religious ritual, replacing the voiceover with the voices of two residents, each having a distinct story informed by their connection to the ritual; consulting with them regarding the B-roll to complement their narratives, we constructed the film’s coda. The process was collaborative and the coda became a metaphor for collaboration, integration. That was closer to what the politics of the both the film and filmmaking could have been.
 
 
 
Despite the limitations of the project, I must say that it was an incredible experience, as far as what I learned about writing grants and securing resources, the tensions of studying and working with a community of people, the tensions and revelations of collaborative work with an artist situated outside academia, and the challenges of constructing a product that integrates language, images, sound, and so on.

 

 
KIRPAL GORDON: What pieces of advice would you give to someone just starting out?

 
JODY SWILKY: The most important thing about the grant world is learning formulas and expectations.    
 
 
 
The spectator-researcher subjectivity is much more complex, particularly negotiating the fact that people who you care for are subjects of your work, and you must hone your care and concerns for them in relationship to a story you are striving to construct. That’s why in an interview format (section II of the documentary), we let Anglo and Latino residents report on how they responded to the dramatic culture change in the community, then followed these interviews with a section shot more in cinema verite format, with the camera rolling on the study circle groups, with people not as poised, not as careful about expressing their views on immigration, assimilation, and culture change.
 
 
 
Then there is the tension of working with someone whose purposes and rhythms differ from those of us trained and housed in academia. Based on my limited experience, the academic and independent artist can have divergent priorities, and different pressures can affect attention to phases of the project, including research, writing, shooting footage, and editing. There are also different realms of knowledge: for example, a videographer who works produces work for the general public might think differently than an academic accustomed to writing for a smaller audience. It certainly was a lesson in understanding a new form of otherness.


 
I found myself in new territory in my work, and, dare I say, opening up new territory for humanists at Drake. I was the first member of the humanities faculty to get the highest level of support for a multimedia project ($15,000) from Humanities Iowa, a state organization affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. The film project also received additional state funding ($6,900) from Iowa Arts Council, and from a private foundation, Bock Family Foundation ($7,500). Then there was the strange world of soliciting funding form individuals and industry.
Commencing in the fall of 2006, I began a five-year period of traveling and lecturing. There have been about 40 public screenings of the film, on campuses and in communities, and I have spoken at many of these events. The film has been aired several times on Iowa Public Television and was shown for two years on The Documentary Channel which is available through Direct TV. Finally, and perhaps most important to current and future research projects, since 2008 I have been invited to give seven presentations on the effects of recent immigration on Iowa and the nation. The majority of the invitations have come form universities and colleges, among them Technologico de Monterrey (Guadalajara, Mexico), Manhattan College (New York, NY), SUNY at Geneseo (Geneseo, NY), Saint Mary’s College (Moraga, CA), and St. Thomas Aquinas College (Sparkill, NY).

 
KIRPAL GORDON: Yikes, Jody, this sounds like the antithesis of the stodgy academic life! You’re connecting with so many communities, you’re constantly synthesizing feedback, you’re uniting people of a similar karass, you’re engaging with one of our country’s biggest issues & you’re making a difference to people who have not necessarily paid your employer any tuition.

 
JODY SWILKY: If I consider the historical trajectory of this project, if I think about its evolution from applying for grants to the recent  presentation of the documentary in Mexico to an audience of hundreds, many who have personally known someone who has been part of the phenomenon over the past two decades of changing rural communities throughout North America, I can say I have been engaged in what I think is a vital discussion across our nation—how welcoming you will be to the new immigrants who are changing our country. The disparate responses of people who have attended screenings has engaged me in numerous discussions about divisive issues—what it means to think of a human being as “illegal,” what should be the responsibility of the government in promoting or restricting immigration from south of the Rio Grande, the importance of precluding, restricting or enabling paths to citizenship, and how fear and the unknown inform contrasting perspectives on welcoming new residents of the U. S. These exchanges have taught me the importance of using the documentary to promote discussions concerning the historical causes of recent demographic change, the struggles and challenges immigrants endure, and the contrasting consequences of recent immigration for communities across the nation.



 
I often find my thinking aligned with a point that Sonia Nazario  raises in her national bestseller, Enrique’s Journey, concerning the problem with the way we debate and legislate immigration: no matter how legitimate, campaigns and law have had a “corrosive side effect” (xiv). Recent immigrants’ presence in the United States is deemed either good or bad, reducing these individuals to a “cost-benefit ratio,” downplaying or erasing the reasons for, as well as the struggles and effects of, immigration. While immigrants’ stories about culture change, assimilation, and the future frequently reflect the thinking that informs public debate, these narratives simultaneously speak about experiences and identity in ways that complicate and challenge the way public debate has defined the effects of immigration. Thus, in our attempts to understand the meaningful possibilities for reform, we need to look not only at the thinking that informs public debate and produces legislation, but to the culture change in communities and the stories their residents tell of the specific effects immigration has had on the quality of life—for themselves and other residents of the community. That was a primary objective of the documentary.

 

KIRPAL GORDON: So how has all this time in Iowa changed you? What I mean is: don’t hak me a chaynik; you’re no less intense now!

 
JODY SWILKY: When I came to Des Moines in 1988, some of my students and some locals considered me a somewhat abrasive, perhaps too intense, Easterner, something of an intruder from the East. My character and personality frequently clashed with the dominant mores and attitudes. In one sense, this is a generalization; at the same time, however, there were enough statements in student evaluations and reactions from people in the community to suggest to me that I was somewhat of an outsider. I have changed, and people who get to know me, at Drake and around greater Des Moines, have shown willingness to accept my contrasting ways. This sense of being “somewhat different” has been useful to me as I presented the documentary across the state, for it has helped me gain insight of our fears of otherness, whatever it might be, whether it is among ethnic groups or my own intimate circles. So I have learned more acceptance of the elderly Anglo woman from rural Iowa, who has lived in a homogenous community all her life, and then experiences her community undergoing rapid ethnic diversification. What a challenge for her being confronted by dramatic culture change that can initially present too much of the unknown. I have learned to be more attentive to, and accepting of her fears, of the challenges she faces. It reminds me of a poem that I wrote decades ago:









Nothing but Image
 

If I am amazed by anybody

it’s the bum on 34th Street,

who bears the abuse

of executives and salesmen,

who smiles at secretaries

rushing past his ragged presence.

 

 

My father once told me:

Don’t trust these men with no purpose.

They seem harmless, he said,

but look hard and you might see

your own fallen image

fading across their faces.

 

 

So I turned my head and walked away.

But one night, in winter rain,

an old man mumbled,

spare change...

and I stared into his bloodshot eyes.

 

 

Water dripped down his face

like sweat, and his busted nose

broke the dark,

perhaps the proud wound

of a forgotten middleweight fight.

As I handed him some coins,

didn't he lower his head,

bless me, call me brother?

 

 

Now I love to look for those

whose faces and clothes deceive us,

this bum standing up

to the insults of the crowd,

who leaves us shaking our heads

and talking to ourselves

like men lost in the heart

of New York, in an almost memorable past.

 
 
 
KIRPAL GORDON: You’re bringing me back to the 34th Street where we first met---in publishing---in 1979 & now all these years later you have created the life that poem suggested was possible to you, a life of looking closer, of not being afraid to discover yourself in the face of the other & sharing the methodology & the results.


 
JODY SWILKY: The transitions I have made in my writing and film work have been possible in part because I have worked for several decades in an institutional department that within a few years after I arrived let go of artificial and unproductive divisions such as writer vs. critics, literary vs. popular,  high vs. low culture,  and aesthetic vs. political. There has always been a visible group of people within my department and the broader institution that supported and encouraged work that did not preserve artificial boundaries that limited the possibilities for expression and creation, among them the role of writer-critic. (And there have been resources and awards for connecting writing to teaching.)
 
 
In the early 1990s, soon after I arrived at Drake, a coalition of senior and junior faculty advocated throwing out the well-established curriculum, those containers informed by periodicity and nationality, replacing this common curricular form with a more rhizomic structure—all courses connected by the interdependence of reading, writing, and recent developments in theories of discourse and culture, and courses branching out and building on each other. We underscored students becoming close readers and serious writers, rather than exposing them, primarily, to periods of literature and particular author-figures.

 
We intended the emphasis on reading and writing to engage students in multiple genres of writing, to engage canonical and non-canonical texts in the same course, and to gain a sense that close reading and serious writing is valuable in the here and now, as well as preparation for life and career after graduation. Having gone to graduate programs that enabled me to work in multiple genres of writing, often for the same course, I valued such experience and applied it to designing courses that asked students to produce similar projects in courses such as “Reading and Writing Place,” “Storytelling as a Social Practice,” “English in America,” “Reading, Writing, and Making Documentary,” and “Writing within and against Academic Discourse.”

 
I believe that students taking classes through my department are being given the opportunity to read and write in ways that encourage creatively critical attitudes toward texts and the world.   What students miss in coverage, they get double in opportunities to learn to be close readers of texts, and to try out and develop different approaches to writing sanctioned within and outside the academic institution.

 
It is probably a commonplace today to claim that meaningful teaching requires that teachers take a philosophical attitude towards their work. To be philosophical about teaching means to be aware of what one is doing and why, which necessitates having, what Cy Knoblauch and Lil Brannon, two of my comp mentors, have described as “an exploratory and reflective attitude towards ideas, issues and questions” pertinent to how people learn and how they develop as learners. In addition, a philosophical stance towards pedagogy requires that teachers gain awareness of the values, attitudes and beliefs that inform different teaching methods—those contrasting philosophical perspectives “on language, on meaning, on communication, on learning, and on the ways of assisting learning.” Awareness of the philosophical dimensions of teaching, Knoblauch and Brannon contend, makes instruction “sensible and deliberate.”
 
 
 
I encourage the students I work with to take an attitude towards learning similar to the philosophical stance that Knoblauch and Brannon advocate teachers adopt towards pedagogy. I ask them to work towards developing this stance as readers, writers and speakers because learning is a process of exploring issues and ideas, coming up with provisional understanding and reformulating beliefs through thinking, which is not likely to happen when teachers locate themselves in the educational process primarily as figures who profess knowledge that students passively internalize. What more meaningfully serves the goal of students developing a philosophical attitude towards learning is a pedagogy that underscores reading, writing and speaking as means for producing and revising thinking, that makes the classroom a social space in which students are expected to be active participants who collectively interpret, discuss and debate issues, and that positions the teacher in different roles necessary to facilitate and complicate such learning.          
 
 
The complications and difficulties my teaching poses for students have to do as much with matters of (un)familiarity as with ideology. Students I have worked with at Drake have had a variety of educational experiences, and they exhibit different degrees of interest in and resistance to the demands of my teaching. I have found it counterproductive to perceive students to be generally anti-philosophical. Rather, it makes more sense to think about their differences and potential as well as their limitations, and therefore recognize that only some students present extreme resistance while others already show interest, and many have the potential to become more philosophical about learning.
 
 
The most meaningful way I know to counter student resistance to my teaching is for students to see themselves change as readers, writers and speakers, and in so doing, attain some genuine understanding of the value of their learning. I ask them to engage in the processes of revision and re-visioning. The first activity focuses on deepening one's interpretations and arguments; the second, on seeing how they might interpret and argue differently. I ask them to write and respond to each other’s work each week, often for each class, and to understand that their individual and collaborative work is produced and shared so they can see different possibilities for understanding texts and the world, become more insightful at interpreting their own and other students’ writings, and appreciate how thinking can change and deepen through hard work. As someone responding to what they say and write, my responsibility is not only to offer questions that help them deepen their thinking and consider others ways of understanding what they write about, but to provide questions and commentary that help clarify for them the meaningfulness of any genuine changes in their thinking and writing.          
 
 
I am not suggesting that the method I have outlined nullifies student resistance to developing a more philosophical stance towards learning. A pedagogy that asks students to become more responsible for their learning requires that many of them unlearn the way they have become accustomed to performing in the classroom. However, my experience leads me to believe that the different degrees of confusion and discomfort students experience can eventually be perceived as productive if they receive support and gradually recognize they are gaining something significant through their struggles. They will always need to know that what they say matters, but it is reasonable and necessary to increase expectations for their persuasiveness as they move through this transitional process. That is why I believe in starting out where students are, rather than where they “should” be, and gradually complicating the challenges of learning. And those students who eventually perceive their abandoning of ingrained behavior as more than simply giving up how they have learned to perform, they will have begun to understand differences in the values, attitudes and beliefs that inform teaching, and thereby have become more philosophical about learning.

 
KIRPAL GORDON: One could also say that you’re facilitating students in their building “a room of one’s own,” midwifeing their birth into a fuller self, what once was called soul-making. You’re reminding me of that Cassandra Wilson line from “Running the Voodoo Down,” “In this quiet place I own, worlds are born.” So how can Giant Steps reader see your film, stay in touch with all of that you do & when you will next be in their city or town?
 
 
JODY SWILKY:  I get what you are saying about those lyrics.
Now for a radical shift: the DVD is available on the web at http://littlesalsaontheprairie.com.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to catch up with you and share with your readers the projects I have been engaged in for several decades.
It was a pleasure.





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