Michael Prince on Doris Sommer’s Workshop at the Austin MLA

I want to say to our readers that I have been to many conference sessions over my long career and this was the first one where I laughed out loud many times and used a crayon to draw my response to a new idea.  Here is Michael Prince’s description of this remarkable event, which is relevant to teachers at all levels of our system today:

Impressions of the MLA K-16 WG Session “Pre-Texts” led by Doris Sommer

By Michael Benjamin Prince

Some members of the Working Group on K-16 Alliances were unable to attend Doris Sommer’s session on “Pre-Texts: Lessons Learned from Latin America,” and since this was one of the highlights of the convention for me, I wanted to share some impressions. Others who attended may want to add their own comments.

The session began with two “ice-breaking” exercises. These were more than that. The first involved tossing a crumpled piece of paper to other participants while saying our names as we caught the ball. The exercise was fun, but also taught me the difficulty of remembering and doing at the same time (the rubbing the stomach and patting the head phenomenon). The take-away seemed to be that even first order memory needs more than passive attention.
The second activity raised the level of complexity and was very well conceived. We broke into pairs and went through a series of verbal calls and responses, first counting up from one to three in a repeating cycle, so that one had to attend to where in the sequence the syncopation of 2/3 fell. But then we replaced numbers with a combination of sound and gesture. For “one” a member of the pair would substitute a sound-gesture that the other would need to remember next time the cycle came around to the one-beat, and so for “two,” and so for “three.” By the end each pair had made up a repeating nonsense song, which nevertheless had structure and predictability. Here memory and attention had to intensify, in comparison with the first game, and we had some good laughs finding that even such an “easy” game posed real difficulties for just about every pair.

Doris then asked us to consider “what did we just do?” She stipulated that the question was not “what does this activity mean?” a question of interpretation, but instead, what did we just do, a seemingly descriptive question, which, in answering, led us elegantly to interpretation by means of description. The exercise was an object lesson in how a seemingly less difficult question posed to students—explain to me what you just read—gets at interpretation by means of a cognitively more straightforward task. We ended up discussing really advanced ideas such as the thought that what we just did was witness the invention of language out of arbitrary grunts and gestures woven into a recognizable pattern. But the starting point was so basic. This seemed to me an object lesson in teaching reading to our students—since the baseline act of decoding (what did we just read?) is a) difficult, and b) leads inexorably to more advanced forms of critical analysis. The exercise also reminded me of field studies describing the way birds learn songs through imitation.

We moved next to the central activity of the session. Another participant named David Francis, a graduate student in Spanish at Harvard, agreed to read a selection from an English translation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in which a mere petite madeleine triggers an upsurge of tactile memory. The passage can be found here: http://www.authorama.com/remembrance-of-things-past-3.html.

To begin with, David read the passage extremely well read, something with which my students struggle. Nevertheless, I found it difficult to concentrate, since one seldom hears literary language read out loud in academic settings. (This was a topic of another great MLA session on “Poetry and Performance.”) We were given cardboard boxes to fold in half and make into books, along with crayons to illustrate the text we were hearing orally. This compounded my difficulty, since, in addition to missing some of what David was reciting, I am a terrible artist. The woman working next to me was a wonderful artist and came up with an amazing book cover for Proust. It reminded me of the unequal distribution of talents and training, and this brought to mind the fairness of what I ask my students to do, and a way I might activate learning for more of my students. These seemed like techniques derived from third world settings immediately applicable to American classrooms. Once again we were invited to do something somewhat aslant of the normal teacherly assignment. Instead of interpreting the text we just heard, we were given slips of paper and asked to “pose a question directly to the text.” We then “posted” these questions by affixing them to clothespins along a line that had been strung across the front of the room.

Doris used this activity to acquaint us with the way people in third world communities she has served “post” their thoughts and “construct” their books even in the absence of advanced technology and print resources. In addition, the assignment to ask a question of the book, posed directly to the text, put everyone on an equal footing, giving comparative literature specialists who study Proust no advantage over anyone else. Like the question “what did we just do,” this question posed to the book moved us inexorably to advanced critical observations by means of a disarmingly easy prompt—easy and fun!
Finally, we were asked to work in pairs to come up with what you might call a pantomime of a figure of speech in the text. By then we all had copies of the text before us, and we poured over what we had just heard, looking for figures that could be acted out. As each group acted out its pantomime, the other participants combed through the text trying to identify which bit of Proustian language had inspired the play-act. As a result, we read and reread the same text any number of times. It’s easy to see how a similar assignment could lead students to do the same. David Francis was my partner, and we decided to act out the figure of the madeleine, by literalizing another figure, a human being, who would transform himself into a bench, and really be sat upon by the other person. I started as the bench, but when the other participants had trouble locating the passage, I suggested to David that we trade places! Someone took a picture of me sitting on David’s back.

Again, the question arose, not what does this activity mean, but what did we just do?—and again the level of response moved from the descriptive to the interpretative elegantly and inexorably, just as we might wish for our students.
This session gave me many ideas for the classroom, and many ideas about literacy-education in general. I’m grateful to Doris for organizing this panel and would be interested to read any impressions that others who attended may like to share with our K-16 WG.
Respectfully submitted: Michael Prince (January 23, 2016)Pre-Texts Photo IMG_1556


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