After examining the transformation of the science writing genre from the research laboratory to mass media, I gradually explored the humanities and the space available to the class here on the Serendip platform and in our bi-weekly class meetings. I had no prior background in the humanities before taking the Literary Kinds course and was only left with some baggage from high school and the Emily Balch freshman writing seminar. The initial challenges lie not on the content of the readings, but were at the heart of the culture of the English classroom and the backgrounds of the authors we have been reading.
The Literary Kinds course became a new experiment, appearing disguised under the humanities discipline but gradually resembled those in the science laboratory in its approach to learning. I was making observations on the intellectual and individual relationships that were formed in class and began testing a melting pot of diverse ideas and backgrounds. My initial hypotheses on the expectations and type of work were rapidly rejected. My philosophies on the humanities discipline have inevitably evolved to dismiss the stereotypes I have heard and admitted.
My tongue is “jumbled and jangled”1. Growing up speaking Arabic, English, and French, I am most self-expressive juggling between all three, casually in conversation. I relate feelings and emotions with specific language expressions that are meaningless if not incomprehensible when translated. The importance in the phonetics in the Arabic language allows me to translate my emotions in the stress of the sounds in words. Saying “stupid” in Arabic is not only the same word for “ass” but also has an “h” sound that resonates from the roof of your mouth, as if having a bundle of red chili peppers scorching one’s throat while shouting out a sharp “HHH’OT!”. I cannot however participate in a serious, intellectual discussion in Arabic but rather speak English, my language of education, from which I have learned the big words and forms for argumentation. First learning French from TV or overheard conversations between my parents, I speak it to communicate my work and education to those who do not understand English. All three languages have become inevitable pieces to my language and cultural puzzle that intertwine to translate my thoughts and ideas to others.
"That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
"Yes." Billy, in fact had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
"Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why."
(Slaughterhouse Five, Chp 4, pg.97)
In Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a gutter appears in the form of the novel. Breaks between thoughts and ideas, rewinding time, switching settings are clearly shown by a "..." in between short stories. I'm not sure if the "..." break was used for formatting reasons, one of many possible icons of a break, or if it was intentionally chosen as an ellipsis to point at the untold information. Either way, it breaks the train of thought, filling up the missing storylines with blank space and a "..." for one to ponder. Sometimes, the breaks are used to fill in with an extra piece information, breaking from the flow of the story to note on a detail. It is also used to point at a switch in setting. It makes the reading very conversational, as if Vonnegut is just filling in on the story in conversation with random, not necessarily in chronological order, events. According to Vonnegut himself, the book is "jumbled and jangled...because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre" (pg.24). His intentions in the breaks therefore emphasize the inevitable lack of structure in a novel about a war, against war. The text break emphasize the blanked memories of Vonnegut and the other Dresden bombing survivor O'Hare as they try to reconstruct what happened and the information on the war that probably should not be shared.
The radio recording "Listening Beyond Life and Choice: The Civil Conversations Project" reminded me that I have to speak up in class even when I do face the faintest disagreement. Frances Kissling, a dedicated activist on ProChoice abortion, refrained from speaking about women's rights to an abortion and focused on the underlying problems of discourse between two entities with different ideologies. In her years of activism, she was faced with the lack of constructive dialogue between her ProChoice side and the ProLife activists and described how there may not be a possible common ground when there are deep differences between two groups. One has to acknowledge their position in a debate and have the "courage to be vulnerable with person who you disagree with".
Although I was not in complete disagreement with the "dreams as a reality" discussion in class on Tuesday, I did however was very questioning (in mind) about the topic. I sat back and listened, trying to understand how one classmate may think of dreams as a reality (of multi-realities?). In reference to Kissling's radio discussion, there was no way for me to set a common ground for understanding when I did not share my (slight even if not deep) differences and idea on the topic.
All genres have gaps of indeterminacy as each reader creates an account of their own. As a particular choice of words, a Google-search click away, an abrupt ending to a short story, or the space between comics panels, gaps appear in all genres and are to be filled by the reader. A text is subject to a reader’s interpretation as the reader fills in these gaps through uniquely drawn connections and meanings that are relevant to him or her. Whether the text appears as an online blog, an academic journal, a short story, or a graphic novel, a unique reading experience will be created as one completes the missing story in a text. As we continue engaging our class discussion on literary genre, it may be agreed upon that we all have had different readings of a text and that gaps of indeterminacy will prevail.
Reflecting on our experience thus far in exploring literary genres, I have come to value the open space that is created for our learning. The seminar “genre” of the classroom allows for multi-way discussions with our professor Anne Dalke, peers, and visitors. The peer-to-peer activities and group blackboard brainstorming channel a collective group effort in breaking down the understanding of the literary genre and provide an open platform for shared ideas. In some sense, the classroom has grown to be a “gift economy” of mutual learning. Also, the digital platform provided by the Serendip course website is a great way to extend our class discussion outside the three hours of weekly classroom time. The weekly online reflection has been a useful exercise to participate in the digital writing movement and to reflect on the past week’s class discussion and readings.
Image above: Persepolis, capital of the Arachaemenid kings of Persia, now located in the province of Fars in southwestern Iran.
I have come to realize that I enjoy reading comics. I am more of a visual person and tend to be a slow reader, but what I found to be most intriguing about reading comics is the suspense in the gutter: the space in between the frames that calls for your boundless imagination to be filled. As Scott McCloud describes it in Understanding Comics, “human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea” (66). The gutter allows for an imaginative, individualized experience as one sways their eyes from one frame to the next, connecting the trails of an unfinished story in their own mind.