Wednesday, March 29, 2006

More on reader response

For HUM 221 students who want a better idea how to go about doing Monday's reader response paper --

"Reader response" is a both a literary theory and a way of teaching literature. According to Edgar V. Roberts and Henry E. Jacobs, edtiors of Literature (an imaginatively titled textbook we used to assign in English 112 at SCI), it allows "readers to bring their own personal reactions to literature, but it also aims to increase the discipline and skills of readers" (1967). How can you go wrong with that?

A lot of English teachers like reader response theory because it allows students more creativity than other approaches to literature. In reader response, you don't have to play like you're an expert when you're not and don't want to be. I also like it, especially in a course like Native American Cultural Studies, because it allows us to approach a work of art from a different culture and to examine our own cultural assumptions while we're doing it.

On the tip sheet linked to my faculty page, I've given you three questions to ask yourselves as you do a reader response: (1) What in the work jumps out at me? (2) What in my background makes me respond that way? (3) What passages in the work can I quote (or describe if it's music or visual art) analyze my response? Roberts and Jacobs suggest a similar approach:
The representative questions of the [reader response] theory are these: What does this work mean to me, in my present intellectual and moral makeup? What particular aspects of my life can help me understand and appreciate the work? How can the work improve my understanding and widen my insights? How can my increasing understanding help me understand the work more deeply? The theory is that the free interchange or transaction that such questions bring about leads toward interest and growth so that readers can assimilate literary works and accept them as part of their lives. (1966-67)
There is a lot of good stuff on the internet, too.

One essay I've returned to several times over the years is by David S. Miall of the University of Alberta in Canada. It's entitled "Empowering the Reader: Literary Response and Classroom Learning" (click on "Online Essays," and open the seventh item in the directory). Miall explains how you reader response can help you hang onto some of the enjoyment of literature while writing about it for a class. He has a subsection titled "Which would you prefer: A trip to the dentist or doing some poetry?" (Surveys he did at Alberta might suggest good news for dentists!) Most important, he has some advice for people who are responding to a text in a classroom setting:
Given a new text, such as a poem, students might start by being asked to notice the most immediately striking aspects of the text: what, for them, stands out, seems interesting or puzzling, or feels different. A class of students undertaking this task will pick out much of the foregrounding [by which he means "stylistic high points" like images, themes, imaginative use of language] in the text, even though they may not recognize what specific features they are responding to, such as alliteration, or a metaphor. Secondly, students can be set to examine how the features they have noticed repeat, contrast, or otherwise relate; they can begin to articulate how the text seems to divide into larger sections, and how the sections as a whole might be characterized. So far, then, students will have picked out significant foregrounding, and begun to build a sense of the form of the text. Both these activities are enhanced by putting students together in small groups where they can compare their findings and discuss agreements and disagreements; at this stage, students often learn more from each other than they would from the instructor.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ira Hayes, Cowboys, Horses, Dogs

HUM 221 students --

In class the other day, we listened to a cover of "The Ballad of Ira Hayes" by a singer-songwriter from San Antonio named Tom Russell, who has a home page you might want to give a listen to when you're on a computer with a sound card. Here's some more information on Russell and his version of the song, in case it helps you with the "listener response" essays I've assigned for Monday. If you need to see the lyrics again, covers by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan are available on the internet.

Russell's version of Ira Hayes is on his CD "Indians Cowboys Horses Dogs." He introduces the song with a monolog, in which he talks about an Osage Indian chief named Bacon Rind, who was immortalized in a series of give-away drinking glasses during the 1950s, and Chief Seattle, who is known for a famous speech in the mid-19th century.

Bacon Rind lived from 1860 to 1932, and he was principal chief of the Osage Nation during the early 20th century. He was immortalized in a set of Acee glasses given away with a fill-up at Knox Oil Co. gas stations in Oklahoma during the 1950s. You can usually find a picture by looking for Knox Indian Glassware on eBay. Talk about commodification!

Chief Seattle wasn't a chief, and his speech may never have been given. But he was a leader of the Salish Indians around Puget Sound, and the city of Seattle was named for him. Dated in 1854, the speech wasn't written down till it appeared in a newspaper account written in 1887 by a Seattle physician who heard the speech 30 years earlier. Its historical accuracy has been sharply questioned, by an archivist who has studied the available written records, and a heavily romanticized, New Age-y version appeared in the 1960s. So we've got commodification with the Bacon Rind glasses, and expropriation with Chief Seattle's speech. Whatever its origin, both versions have gone into popular culture.

In his song, titled "Bacon Rind-Chief Seattle-Ballad of Ira Hayes," songwriter Russell quotes from the 1887 version of Chief Seattle's speech:
To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors -- the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.
There's also a brief MP3 sound clip available on line.

A footnote: Most of the material on the internet identifies Peter LaFarge, who wrote "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," as a "Naragaset" Indian. There are good biographies on a Bob Dylan fan website put up in Germany and Wikipedia online, user-written encyclopedia. But I suspect it's a misspelling of the Naragansett tribe, who lived in what is now Rhode Island during the 1600s. The Encyclopedia of Native Music (Tuscon: University of Arizona Press, 2005) flatly says he was Naragansett.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

HUM 221: Health care, cultural issues

A proposed spending cut in President Bush's budget proposal for the coming fiscal year reflects how cultural issues can be overlooked by the U.S. government. Whatever you think about Bush, this kind of thing has been going on since George Washington was president (and our next leader before him, King George III, wasn't too swift on Indian policy either, come to think of it). A story picked up today by The Guardian (U.K.) gives the details.

According to a story by Angie Wagner, a reporter in The Associated Press' bureau in Las Vegas, Bush wants to "zero out the $33 million allocation for urban Indian health clinics." In addition to the politics of the issue, which are (as always) debatable, Wagner touches on cultural issues when she quotes American Indians who say the clinics offer services that are culturally unique. It is this angle that is overlooked by the proposed budget cut. Wagner says:
In Bush's 2007 budget proposal, it is suggested that urban Indians can go to community health centers instead, since those centers are slated to receive a $181 million increase that would build or expand 300 sites.

Alex Conant, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, noted the increase and said: ``Urban Indians, like all Americans, continue to benefit from the president's initiatives to make health care more affordable and available.''

But Wagner also quotes health care providers who say many Native Americans need types of care that that their culture into account:
Community health centers are already ``stretched to the limit,'' said Amy Simmons, spokeswoman for the National Association for Community Health Centers. The proposed program expansion isn't designed to meet the needs of urban Indians, Daniel Hawkins, the association's vice president for federal, state and public affairs, said in a recent letter to Bush.

``My fear is losing our Indian identity,'' said [Susette] Schwartz, the Wichita [Hunter Health C]linic CEO. ``We would be able to stay open, but would lose our Native American programs.''

At the Wichita clinic, which also operates as a community health clinic, urban Indians receive free services and prescriptions. Some 2,700 Indians visited the clinic last year.

If the funding is dropped, urban Indians there could get health care from the community clinic. But they would miss the cultural connection they enjoy now because most Indian workers would lose their jobs, Schwartz said.

``We have so many people who don't know exactly why they're so messed up and out drinking and abusing until they talk to someone who understands Indian history. There's generations of anger that only someone who understands can connect the dots,'' Schwartz said.
Another perspective was provided by Cynthia Jurosek, a patient and temporary employee at the Indian Health Board in Billings, Mont., said:
``All these urban clinics, they belong to the Indians,'' said Jurosek, a Crow Indian. ``It's where they can go and feel good about themselves. They're treated with respect. And that's what I will lose here.

``I will lose people who are truly interested in helping me get well.''
Again, the politics of the issue are debatate. But it's another example the U.S. government hasn't ever known quite what to do about American Indians.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Writing about the arts

For HUM 221 students --

A draft of a tip sheet I'll post to my faculty webpage on how to write about the humanities. I'll post more suggestions on ways to go about it as we go along, but I wanted to put something up ASAP for people who want to get started now. -- pe

When we’re writing about the humanities, we’re basically writing about works of art created by human beings. Even when we’re dealing with philosophical or religious ideas, they’re apt to be presented in some form of artistic expression -- an essay or story for example. The American Heritage Dictionary has two definitions of art that we’re concerned with here:

  • Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature; and
  • The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.
Under the second definition, it adds “[t]he study of these activities” and “[t]he product of these activities; human works of beauty considered as a group.”

The arts are varied. In Humanities 221, we touch on literature, religion, architecture, visual and performing arts in Native American cultures, and we focus on cross-cultural communication processes and culturally determined assumptions and beliefs in diverse cultural settings. In other words, we cover a wide range of artistic and cultural expression.

But there are several things the different forms of artistic expression have in common, and that fact can help us when we go to write about any of them.

For one thing, the humanities are not rocket science. There’s nothing like a “right” answer you can look up in the back of the book. Karen Goslik of the Dartmouth Writing Project explains:
Humanities as a field of study deals with questions for which there are no definitive answers. Consider the questions that have haunted the humanities for centuries: What is justice? The nature of friendship? The essence of God? The properties of truth? While scholars in this field certainly hope to address these questions in ways that are compelling and authoritative, they don't write first and foremost to establish consensus among their peers. In other words, they do not expect to create in their work a reliable, scientific truth.

Students of the sciences may well find this frustrating. Writing in the humanities is not about finding the answer, it's about finding an answer. The humanities concern themselves with the construction and deconstruction of meaning. They have as their center not the interpretation of hard evidence, but the interpretation of texts.
Keep that in the back of your mind – it’s “not about finding the answer, it's about finding an answer.” Here’s something else to keep in mind. Writing about the humanities is writing about texts. Goslik explains:
Evidence in the humanities is textual. In other words, scholars in this field work most often with written documents, though films, paintings, etc. are also understood as "texts." Humanities scholars read texts closely, looking for patterns, examining language, considering what is not present in the text, as well as what is.

The pattern of discourse in the humanities usually goes like this: a writer makes a claim, supports that claim with textual evidence, and then discusses the significance of the passage he has just quoted. This pattern of claim / textual support / discussion is repeated again and again until the writer feels that her argument has been made. What distinguishes the humanities from the sciences and the social sciences is that each claim is supported and discussed before the next claim is considered.
In other words, says Goslik, you don’t have to wait to discuss your findings under a separate heading at the end of the paper; instead, you discuss them as you go along.

You’ve done something like in high school English classes, right? When you wrote about a poem or a short story, you were analyzing a text. What may be new to you is this idea that a “text” isn’t just words. It can also be a movie, a painting -– or any other form of artistic expression.

Let’s go back to the dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “text” as the “original words of something written or printed” but also as “[s]omething, such as a literary work or other cultural product, regarded as an object of critical analysis.” It’s with that second meaning of the word that we’re dealing with in HUM 221. A Navajo sand painting can be a text. So can a powwow dance, a squash blossom necklace, a song, a musical composition or a story of how the world was created.

I'll add to this as we go along, but I wanted to get it up on the web for students who want to get started early.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Antique dulcimer in Illinois

  Posted by Picasa In my last post, headed Historic dulcimer pattern in Carolina, I linked to a photo of a dulcimer on exhibit this month in Boone, N.C. Its pattern traces back to the 1880s in West Virginia.

Well, a dulcimer of that same general pattern turned up in west central Illinois in the early 1900s. It was brought here by a family who moved here from the Greenbrier River country in eastern West Virginia and settled across the Mississippi River from Keokuk. In 2002 Leslie Williams of Orlando, who grew up in Hamilton, Ill., e-mailed me:
... I can remember the "dulcimer" being a part of the decor of the house. In due course I heard my Mother play the instrument and was fascinated, but unable to play in her style. She used a "noter" and a piece of very springy steel, although she preferred a turkey quill. The instrument was made by a, now forgotten, luthier in West Virginia for my Grandmother. She was 18 when the luthier presented the instument to her in 1902.
Williams sent me the photo you see above. The instrument's shape is very much like those made by Charles Prichard of Huntington, W.Va., who flourished from the 1880s till his death in 1904. Was he the luthier? Perhaps. But the sound holes are different -- Prichard's were the traditional heart shape, and this dulcimer has diamonds. It's a mystery.

Perhaps it was Prichard. He was still alive in 1902. Perhaps it was someone who traced his pattern ... that's how it got to North Carolina. Dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith, who is a retired journalist and knows how to spin a good tale, explains in his book Appalachian Dulcimer Traditions how in the 1880s a "Stranger from the West" stayed overnight with Eli Presnell of Beech Mountain, N.C., and allowed him to trace the pattern. It has been handed down in the Presnell and Glenn families since that time.

Related postsI found a hard copy of another email from Les Williams and A historic Carolina dulcimer pattern on March 4.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Historic Carolina dulcimer pattern

There's a picture of one of Clifford or Leonard Glenn's dulcimers in the current (March 2) issue of The Mountain Times, a weekly published in Boone, N.C. It's part of an exhibit "Instrument Builders of the Blue Ridge" in Boone put together by the Watauga County Arts Council and the Mazie Jones Gallery. Also pictured are some gorgeous fiddles.

“Leonard’s son—Clifford Glenn—he is now part of the older generation of instrument makers,” Mark Freed, folklorist for the Watauga County Arts Council, told The Times. "He is one of the last guys around who are making the old-time style of banjo and dulcimer.”

The dulcimer pictured is a pattern that's been in Glenn's family since the 1880s. Ralph Lee Smith, the dulcimer historian, has traced it to a maker named Charles Prichard who flourished in West Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mine, which doesn't have the inlay around the soundholes that shows in the newspaper picture, is dated July 19, 2002. The Glenn family dulcimers' dimensions are exactly the same as one of Prichard's, as Ralph likes to demonstrate in classes at Western Carolina University.

A milestone -- we're No. 1,125,742!

I just registered Hogfiddle with Technorati, the search engine that specializes in blogs, and received the following rank: 1,125,742 (0 links from 0 sites). Described sometimes as the Google of the blog world, Technorati tracks the number of blogs that link to each other and, more importantly, the number of people that visit each registered blog page. Hence the pecking order. Technorati explains:
In the world of blogs, hyperlinks are ... significant, since bloggers frequently link to and comment on other blogs, which creates the sense of timeliness and connectedness one would have in a conversation. So Technorati tracks the number of links, and the perceived relevance of blogs, as well as the real-time nature of blogging. Because Technorati automatically receives notification from weblogs as soon as they are updated, it can track the thousands of updates per hour that occur in the blogosphere, and monitor the communities (who's linking to whom) underlying these conversations.
So ... it's a start. More important, the Technorati home page is a good place to start surfing the blogosphere.