Thursday, November 15, 2012

When work isn't work

Sometimes, my job becomes a grind. There are too many meetings that feel unproductive, too many students needing something from me, and too many assignments waiting for me to stick a grade to them. I feel burdened and forget the joy. This is how I've felt for the past few weeks, my enthusiasm dying a bit under the weight of my semester. Along with my students, I've been doing the countdown to fall break, a week that falls way too late in a semester, arriving after thirteen weeks of class. It's taken tons of my energy to get through the last couple of weeks, having not only to cajole myself into participation, but finding that I needed to also don a bit of a cheerleading outfit to keep both myself and my students going.

Fortunately, though, the air cleared a bit today, most likely because I knew that next week meant a week of break, a week devoted to relaxing, hanging with family, laughing, soaking in hot springs, cooking, reading, and hopefully doing a bit of my own writing. I could breathe relief. And with that sense, nothing felt onerous. Not even a meeting.

Today, I spent an hour and a half meeting with a small group of faculty and administrators to put together questions for a revised Student Opinion of Instruction, an evaluative device that has been through lots of operational snafus over the last couple of years, proving of little use for either constituency. Together, we hashed through language, discussing what we were needing to learn from such categories as Effective Communication and Flexibility in Approaches to Teaching. I enjoyed not only hearing my fellow faculty member's reactions to certain questions, but also found it instructive to hear exactly what Deans wanted to know when it came to measuring any of these categories. We debated a bit at times, but most of the time there was a natural consensus, a supportive atmosphere of revising and collaborating to put together a useful measure for students to evaluate instructors. With ease, we came up with next steps to get input from all faculty and from students before finalizing the questions. Dare I say, an enjoyable meeting.

Today, after plowing through some innocuous assignments and a bit of tedium, I found myself with one last pile of grading to finish before I could officially declare things caught up for now.

Fortunately, it was a pile of digital stories. As I began watching them, I became awed by my students. They triumphed with an assignment that gave me great anxiety because I had never taught it before--I had only created one digital story more than two years ago. I feared the project would tank, that students would struggle and not be able to produce a digital story. I had no exit strategy for the assignment--it had to succeed.

Even though I had support of two colleagues who were piloting this project in their classes, even though I had a multimedia graphics person who could be of some assistance, I felt alone, watching my students stress at times over all aspects of their digital stories. They worried whether their story was worth telling. They struggled with developing narrative arcs that contained an inciting incident and transformation. They grappled with all the dimensions of storytelling. And then they battled with movie technologies that I knew little about. I watched them lose parts of their story and have to rebuild the visuals. Yet, they never complained.

Once my students got going, they got going. Their stories are beautiful. Not only are they narrating with an attention to pacing, with an attention to the affordances of audio, they are heeding all the instruction about visuals focused on throughout the semester, clearly demonstrating their attention to the power of visuals as a way to enhance narrative. Their choices are thoughtful and their use of silence through a black screen or a static visual is artful. These students got their rhetoric on.

Most importantly, though, I am honored by their courageous stories and willingness to share them with each other, with me. A project like this would fail at the beginning of class because it needs trust, not only in each other and in me, but trust in their ability to compose.

My students inspire me. I am thankful for this batch of grading to sit with, to linger with, to replay, because I want to listen to their stories as I watch them again and again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Night

It is election night, and I am alone in my basement with a world of friends. Originally, I imagined going to my neighbor's house to watch the election returns, a party in the making.  But due to the anxiety all my friends seem to have surrounding this election, most people I know have chosen to sit this through alone in their homes, only surrounded by pets and a partner.

One television station is not enough for me. While Rachel Maddow holds my center stage, my steady barometer calling things carefully and cautiously, I also dash quickly between the Huff Post, NY Times, and my local news station, comparing results, happy when they all align.

In between reads of the electoral tally, I shift to Facebook, wondering what friends have posted, hoping to catch a bit of the optimism train. It's electric. When I post the win of Elizabeth Warren!!!, only to see friends Like it immediately and post their own cheers for her win, I realize I am at an election party, thrown by social media.

We high five each other in small status screens. We cheer with our ENTHUSIASM!!! and are careful not to celebrate too quickly.

And while the mantra is too close to call, I will remain steady, hopeful, ready to celebrate online.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cycling to Hope--Rising from Ashes

Today I spent in happy documentary land, watching three very different films at the Starz Denver Film Festival. T. C. Johnstone's beautiful film Rising from Ashes chronicles the spirited journey of the Rwandan cycling team, coached by the fallen cyclist "Jock" Boyer. It is a story of triumph, as the former cycling champion Jacques Boyer, who recently was released from jail and is suffering in his own despair, finds his own path out of darkness as he brings a sense of hope to a group of Rwandan cyclists who have survived a history of genocide.

The film features a group of cyclists who were children during the years of the Rwandan genocide. With Boyer's training and encouragement, these group of cyclists find a way to transform their pain into  a chance for not only them, but also their country, to heal from the scarring of its past. As the young men cycle their way into competition, one of them, Adrien Niyonshuti, shows the most promise. With coaching and long hard training, Niyonshuti earns a spot at the 2012 London Olympics in the mountain biking race. One of the most poignant moments of the film (and there are innumerable moments) is when Niyonshuti's friends, family, teammates, and fellow Rwandans watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, with Niyonshuti marching into the stadium carrying the Rwandan flag. At this moment, Rwanda is more than a country torn by genocide.

By the time the film ends, you want to cheer for the possibilities that cycling provides for these Rwandan men, whom like Boyer, are "rising from ashes" of their past.

Performance Makes a Film--Casting By

When I go to the movies, it's usually the performances that drive the film for me. Sure, a film needs a good story, cinematography, and a host of other cinematically related musts, but without the right combination of performer to role, the film can't shine. The unsung hero of this matchmaking affair is the casting director, and it is Tom Donahue's documentary, Casting By, that makes this argument.

Donahue's central premise in the film is that the casting director has not gotten the attention she deserves; movies would not achieve success without these agents of vision providing the right fit for particular roles. The film centers around the story of Marion Dougherty, a casting director whose 50+ year career included casting such notables as Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Al Pacino, Glenn Close, Robert Redford, Jon Voigt, and Bette Midler in the early stages of their career. 

Throughout the film, various actors, casting directors, and film industry notables proclaim the brilliance of Dougherty. Jon Voigt owes his casting in Midnight Cowboy to Dougherty's belief in his potential to be a star. Bette Midler credits Dougherty's casting of her in the film Hawaii (the role of a missionary) as the ticket that gave her enough money to move to NYC and begin her rise to stardom. Dougherty relied on her intuition, and it was that intuition that made her suggest Dustin Hoffman, an unknown NYC dramatic actor be cast for the role of Benjamin in The Graduate. 

Dougherty not only had a huge influence on the careers of numerous stars and ultimately the success of numerous films due to the right combination of actor and role, but she also helped influence innumerable other casting directors, earning her a deserved place of honor in the Academy. Unfortunately, despite a series of petitions and pleas from top directors and Academy Award winning actors and actresses, the Academy denied a request to honor Dougherty with a special Academy Award for all her years and successes as a casting director.

This film serves as that award, even if Dougherty did not live to see it (she died at age 88 before the film was completed). If you are a film lover, Donahue's testament is pure delight, filled with innumerable clips from award winning films that were touched by Dougherty's gut instinct of casting. From now on, when I watch the credits roll by to note the soundtrack and place of film, I will also be watching for the Casting by credit, now knowing what a star role he/she plays.