I have just now finished my first read-through of PrairyErth and will shortly begin to work my way through it again, this time looking at notes I’ve made in the book by passages that might serve well as jumping-off points for writing assignments for my class this fall. So, this seems like a good time to take stock of academic-related work I’ve accomplished so far this summer.
Work on PrairyErth:
As big a book as PrairyErth is (624 pages), William Least Heat-Moon says in more than one place that it contains nowhere near everything he could have included; indeed, one of its chapters is something like a meta-chapter on that very subject, and it concludes with these words: “But, so that I don’t cheat you of the outcome, or at least of its raw material, I include as best I can now a Tristramian answer on the next page. Have a go at it yourself. Perhaps, I having failed, you are to be its author” (599). So, then, this idea–that my students’ papers will be in some sense a completing or updating of this book, rather than a mere parroting back of its contents–will be the assignments’ lodestar.
Now: to get the prompts written.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that my wife has joined me in reading this book and has been making suggestions for everything from which chapters to pay closer attention to, to ideas for prompts and even a website that students contribute writing to as part of their grade for the course. She has not only helped me clarify in my own mind the kinds of things I hope this class will get my students to engage with; her suggestions undoubtedly will make those engagements better than they would be otherwise.
Work on Show Boat:
Many more years ago than I care to admit, I read Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel with the goal of finding a place for it in the book project. A few weeks ago, I ran across the notes I’d made for it and sat down to begin banging out some pages about it, chiefly the oddly-disinterested stance of the narrator regarding the racial background of certain characters who are central to the plot. It was in the course of the writing that I came to realize that the narrator doesn’t merely record the nostalgia-suffused world of the Cotton Blossom‘s performances of 19th-century vaudeville that has its roots in antebellum minstrel shows; the narrator actively participates in the sustaining of nostalgia by being militantly incurious regarding various mysteries. Here are a few of them: that Andy Hawks, the Cotton Blossom‘s captain, may be of mixed race and is passing as white; that his wife Parthenia seems to suspect this and in various ways projects her suspicions onto their daughter Magnolia; and that Magnolia herself, with no direct explanation as to why this is, is powerfully drawn to Julie (one of the boat’s acting troupe who is revealed to be of mixed race) but whose emotional trauma when Julie and her husband are made to leave the boat receives no commentary whatsoever from the narrator; Magnolia becomes, by way perhaps of an indirect response to that trauma, at least culturally of mixed race by taking on the repertoire and singing styles of black singers, which is how she will become famous in her own right as a performer. All of which is to say that this novel, which on its surface seems so straightforward in terms of its plot, is quite complicated in terms of how its narrator situates “herself” relative to that plot. I think there’s also something to the notion that, in terms of its setting on the Mississippi and the cultural world in which the Cotton Blossom‘s theater locates itself, Show Boat is something like a rewriting of Huckleberry Finn‘s titular character’s desire to defer his decision on a course of action regarding helping Jim escape to freedom. Tom’s arrival at the Phelps place–indeed, his own showboating in pretending that he is his brother Sid and, more cruelly, in delaying Jim’s rescue (and knowing all the while that Jim is already free) could be said to be the thematic place where Ferber’s novel picks up. Huck seeks to defer his decision; Tom’s arrival and deep dive into his childhood longing for fantasy, and the Cotton Blossom‘s nostalgia combined with the boat’s technology that allows it to head back upstream (and, of course, paddlewheels themselves are pretty darned nostalgic), allow not just deferral but, even, forgetting.
Anyway. Some of this will make it into the book project in some form or fashion; there seems to be enough here, though, to merit a full-length article or essay.
Work with InspiroBot as a tool for generating writing topics:
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across an article about InspiroBot, and since then I suspect I’ve driven my Facebook friends nuts by posting things it’s generated. InspiroBot’s algorithm allows it to trawl the Web and combine an image with a statement meant to evoke the spirit of motivational posters. However, though the statements are almost always grammatically correct, they are often semiotically adventurous, at least to our ways of thinking. As you’ll see, it quickly occurred to me that writing teachers could put this little toy to use as a source of inspiration for writing assignments. (Also as you’ll see, the language of the original refers to images I included there as examples; those images don’t appear here.):
What makes Inspirobot fun and a dangerously-addictive mind-suck—and a potentially-rich resource for writing assignments—is that, though its utterances are almost always grammatically correct, they are often semiotically arbitrary (just now I generated one that says, “A rocket ship is bad for laughter”) and thus don’t neatly pigeon-hole themselves into familiar ways of thinking about the world and our place in it. Yet, those statements often create the illusion of corresponding to a mindset that is alien to ourselves and to the vast majority of people we know or have heard of. (I say “the illusion of corresponding to a mindset” here because, as a bot that simply trawls the Web for its images and word selection and imposes grammatical order on text, InspiroBot isn’t even positing a consistent worldview, much less engaging in that activity humans call “thinking.”) It’s not that InspiroBot thinks outside the box; it’s just that, because its box is the Web, its box is a whole lot larger than yours is.
The two main ideas I’ve come up with for using InspiroBot in a class are contingent on the nature of the bot’s utterance. Some of them, such as the first two examples I’ve posted below, would seem to lend themselves well to short, in-class writing prompts. Others, though, such as “You must pretend to be objectified,” would require a paper-length exploration. Whichever is the case, though, the common, crucial component to the assignment is to ask the student to assume the statement is in some sense true and to make the case for its truthfulness. You may want to provide them with selections or, in the case of out-of-class assignments, let them generate their own. In the case of the latter, however, just know that a) InspiroBot does occasionally generate very familiar, “Bloom where you are planted” kinds of statements; and b) its statements can sometimes be abrasive and even crude in their sentiment (InspiroBot didn’t have a mama to raise it right).
As I imply in the inset above, playing around with InspiroBot would, I think, also help clarify some things regarding the ideas of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning. So far as I can tell, its algorithm has one guiding principle: “Is the statement grammatically correct?” Beyond that, anything goes; thus, its statements that express familiar sentiments are just as accidental as those that are less familiar. In every sense of the phrase, then, it does not think like us. If we come to think, as we play around with it, that its statements betray a coldness toward others, that’s our projecting onto those statements. InspiroBot itself is as literally indifferent to the meanings of those sentiments as a light switch is to whether it happens to be completing a circuit.
That’s enough of that. If you’re reading this, thank you.