e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


new stuff

I have turned in Winter 2007 grades. Term papers from two sections of Comp 2. Portfolios from one section of creative writing. All graded. All done. The huge exhale. Time to move on to new stuff.

This week I need to:
  • finish the 4Cs proposal
  • finish the 4Cs statement for next year's ballot (I'll be running for a position on the nominating cmte)
  • clean my office on campus
  • take a boatload of books back to the library
  • work out at least three times

In May I need to:

  • write the conclusion to the social movements book

...and that's it. Usually I'm alternating between three or four different projects. But the month of May's all about writing this conclusion to what looks to be a great edited collection on the rhetoric of new social movements.


Don't Blame Hip Hop...

is the name of a great piece by Times critic Kelefa Sanneh, one of my favorite music writers. Referring to "recent" critiques of hip hop as anti-snitching and anti-police (Cam'ron's comments on 60 Minutes) and as an artform where so-called offensive language is ubiquitous, Sanneh makes the point:
Even if Cam’ron [et al. are] just doing what sells, the question remains: Why is this what sells?
Sanneh doesn't exactly engage with that important question, but the larger point is that *the culture* doesn't engage with that question. Why do songs about police brutality gain wide and diverse audiences? Why do songs that generously use the word "bitch" become popular? Hip hop's such an easy target precisely because it is often a gutsy and agonistic artform, an artform that eschews liberal niceties. But it is also an extremely profitable--and, often, profit-driven--artform. And of course these post-Imus critiques are nothing new, though they have that "always-newness," to borrow a term Mary Soliday uses to describe literacy crisis rhetoric. The media revels in its own ahistorical forgetfulness. Lyrics nowadays glorify senseless violence (but "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" doesn't), and the music today pushes the bling mentality on listeners (but "diamonds are a girl's best friend" doesn't) and the artists create images that demean women (but Frank Sinatra doesn't traffic in machismo and sexual conquest) and music today's full of sex and promiscuity (but century-old blues songs about backdoor men issn't).

Asking that "why does this sell?" question is tough, in part because so many side questions arise--questions about race and class, questions about police brutality, questions about hatred of women, the aforementioned questions about profit motives. And many folks benefit from the failure to ask this question. Maintain the status quo. Don't ask questions about systemic problems in the culture. Execs at 60 Minutes and other for-profit media outlets benefit from scapegoating. Dismissing rap music as bad doesn't hurt media elites. Calling into question distribution of wealth and power does.

The Times piece makes brief mention of rap mogul Russell Simmons' recent call for the voluntary self-censorship of hip hop lyrics but, unfortunately, Sanneh doesn't offer much of a critical reading of the notion of voluntary self-censorship. It's important to point out that Simmons made a great deal of money from artists that use some of the same language he's now proposing be banished from rap. So I like Simmons' emphasis on summits, conversations, and critical discussions (*within* a community of artists) of ethics and implications. But I think Simmons--who engages in a great deal of admirable and important work with the U.N. and other institutions--is also selling a product now ('ethically responsible rap'), as he did during his days running Def Jam.

And the socially conscious persona is profitable in terms of various kinds of capital: fame, credibility, material wealth. This is why I pointed out a few days ago that I think we need to remember Al Sharpton's and Jesse Jackson's past anti-semitism and past instances of offensiveness. Folks in the public eye create personas for various complicated and contradictory and evolving purposes. Simple observations--Sharpton's right, rap's bad, etc.--don't work. Sanneh's question is a good one: why does this sell? I'd add: why has this always sold? And also: how are other agents also engaged in selling of their own? And this one too: who benefits from these various products?

he speaks

Michael Moore has been quiet for the past two years or so, working on Sicko, his doc about the sorry state of health care in this country. But Rolling Stone has posted audio clips of a recent interview in which MM discusses Iraq, partisan politics in the U.S., and his newfound admiration for Al Gore.


community partners

U of M Dearborn frequently calls itself a metropolitan university, a term which references our identity as a commuter school and, by extension, as a school serving students from across the region. The Civic Engagement Project here has been able to capitalize on the fact that "metropolitan university" has become a buzzword. I got my new Writing for Civic Literacy course, on tap for Fall 07, approved with remarkable ease.

I like that the term "metropolitan university" sends the university in some cool directions, including out onto the street, and I'm heartened by the fact that our writing program is receptive to teaming with Civic Engagement. Down the road I envision designating a few sections of first-year comp as community-based research/service learning sections. Ellen Cushman spoke positively about how this "special section designation" model works at Michigan State, allowing students interested in such things to self-select.

We're starting to build community partners. St. Peter's Home for Boys is looking for more creative programming as well as general support for the work they do (literacy work, teaching life skills, helping the kids transition to independent living) with kids who come from abusive homes and become wards of the state. Possible projects for the Writing for Civic Literacy class include generating content for their website, and doing research and creating talking points for their legislative advocacy. A second community partner, Beyond Basics, is a literacy initiative at Title 1 elementary schools in Detroit. They put together homemade, d-i-y storybooks in their "publishing centers" at the schools. They tutor kids at the schools. Super cool stuff, and they're in need of a newsletter. Another potential project for students in the course next fall.


the local

Today I work my way through two stacks of papers from my two sections of Comp II. Students have been researching local issues all semester, blogging about those issues, creating visual representations of those issues, conducting interviews, and writing in a variety of genres about what is happening in their neighborhoods. But the final papers, and the assignment that they answer, take a relatively traditional approach, adopting the genre of the academic essay, citing sources, making an argument.

Some write about blight and public school closings in the city. Some write about art and culture, tackling graffiti and the Heidelberg Project. Some stay very close to home, offering analyes of preservation efforts at Lake St. Clair and the quality of recycling programs in various suburbs and the need to clean up the Rouge River. Some are interested in state-wide concerns like shifting policies in the high-stakes world of standardized testing.

Of course I'm disappointed in some of the papers (with one more round of revision, this could have packed more punch, I sometimes find myself saying), but I also see some effective rhetoric. And I've also learned a few things about what's the haps around Metro Detroit. I'm interested in the topics that students choose to write about and the ways that emphasizing "the local" creates more personal investment. "News," to many first-year students at my institution, usually means some kind of abstraction, something happening in a distant place. Distant, that is, from their own urban or suburban communities. I'm glad that the students have been to school-board meetings (including the one in Detroit where an outraged citizen pelted board members with grapes) and interviewed persons on their city councils instead of just pulling articles from the library's databases.

I've never been a big believer in The Research Paper, at least when the term references a genre invented solely for the classroom and a process that involves index cards and ProQuest and lectures about plagiarism. But I've gotten more confident in the value of *using* research for broader purposes: namely, mapping and writing one's community, and intervening in local "issues."



For many people I've talked with in the last day, some of the confusion, horror, and shock has made way for anger. Mostly, of course, anger at the killer. But also, anger at campus police. Anger at the media. Anger at health care providers. Anger at bad leads. Anger at slow response times. Anger at ineffectual technologies. Anger at the killer's parents. Who is to blame? How can we create a narrative that has some semblance of order? Anger makes sense. Anger lessens the chaos. Anger brings noise to deafening silences.

A friend last night suggested to me that all who have hindered access to good mental health care have blood on their hands. Students in my creative writing class, many of whom are education majors, expressed anger at campus administrators who failed to keep a place of learning safe. Students in my comp class were angry with reporters on the VT campus who were looking for tears and other marketable images. And I'm angry that both guns were purchased legally after a court deemed the killer an "imminent danger." And I'm angry that despite that fact, talking heads on tv will claim that only guns purchased illegally bring violence and destruction. And I'm angry at the heavy rotation of the "multi-media manifesto" or whatever NBC's calling it ("We sat on it all day" while authorities looked at the video, says an NBC exec, defending his journalistic ethics. Wow, all day...and it just happened to be during prime time when you decided it was appropriate to "break the story.")

I don't know what anger will accomplish. I don't know when feelings of peace will be possible. One of my students on Tuesday referenced the Amish country shooting from last year and expressed admiration for the forgiveness that the Amish community expressed so quickly. I suppose that paradoxes will continue to be part of our collective consciousness. And I agree with Nels that maybe words can accomplish something...even something small. That *maybe* words (angry words, words that ask questions, words that build identifications with others) can be healthy or helpful.



Blogs may not be the best arena for trying to articulate the horrors that unfolded in Virginia yesterday. Still I feel compelled to say something. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a loved one in such a senseless and violent and monumentally hurtful way. I can't even imagine being part of the Virginia Tech community this morning, processing the theft-destruction of 33 lives.

Perhaps because I don't have kids of my own and have devoted my life to academe, even just the thought of mass tragedies involving college students makes me wince. I saw several times the trailer for We Are Marshall--the film about the plane crash that killed the football team from West Virginia--and each time thought to myself, no way do I want to sit through such a film and inevitably imagine being a professor and facing such trauma.

I pray that those in Blacksburg can find strength in community and begin to feel some sense of peace and security despite the violence and chaos that's been visited upon them.


Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

Kurt Vonnegut had more fun with language than most of his peers, exploiting all the possibilities that fiction-writing offered. Famously, Vonnegut, a WWII vet, blended real experience and fantastic narrative in his great novel Slaughterhouse Five, but his irreverent Breakfast of Champions, in which Vonnegut mostly eschews reality in favor of surreal cultural critique, was my favorite.
Breakfast of Champions came out the year I was born, 1973. Here's what the novel has to say about schooling, juxtaposed with a crude rendering of "1492":
Some of the nonsense was evil, since it concealed great crimes. For example, teachers of children in the United States of America wrote this date on blackboards again and again, and asked the children to memorize it with pride and joy: The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.
"Why can't you teach nice books?," a neighbor once asked me when I lived in Hamilton, Ohio. I was teaching a Politics and Literature class at the time. Vonnegut understood the answer to that question. His books weren't nice but they inspired readers to blend experience and imagination and recognize the surreal quality of modern life. They also inspired quite a few readers to write. Rest in peace, Kurt Vonnegut.


don imus flap

One of the productive functions of both shock-jock radio hosts like Howard Stern and higher-order parodic texts like South Park and Jon Stewart's program is their often brilliant ability to check the powerful, the pretentious, and the haughty. They can put the absurdity and hyposcrisy of politicians and celebrities in sharp relief. At times, they use the tropes of, say, racism to strip racism's potency. Take, for example, the recent episode of South Park in which Cartman suspects the Arab-American family who just moved to town of terrorism and interrogates members of the family. Offensive? Some think so. But the show's humor worked on multiple levels: the dumb fart joke (which came into play thanks to Cartman's preferred method of torture), the parodic (the graphic illustration of how quickly a racist mob mentality can overtake individuals and communities), the signifyin' (the show's co-opting of racist logic--"Muslims are threats to public safety"--to signify how insidious and stupid racism is).

What kinds of humor, parody, and critique underscored Don Imus's use of the phrase "nappy headed hos" to describe the Rutgers Womens Basketball Team? Was Imus, at any level, engaged in signification? Was the joke funny?

One of the problems is the issue of power and agency. Howard Stern and the South Park guys deflate big egos and big pretentions. Mel Gibson, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleeza Rice. Is there a racist and sexist element to parodies involving the latter two figures? Often, there is. But their powerful positions provide a context for the potentially offensive content. Does membership on a college basketball team constitute "public figure" status? As their press conference illustrated, these are young women, aged 18-21, who didn't necessarily sign up to be part of the Warholian media circus. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh used to say horrible things about Chelsea Clinton's physical appearance. Part of what makes the Don Imus line unfunny (among other things) to many is this issue of power and agency.

And on the other hand, that line of reasoning positions members of the team as disempowered victims--and I'm not sure they would want to be positioned as such. Drawing the line between who is and who is not a worthy target of parodic ridicule gets tricky. How about Sanjaya from American Idol? He's just a 17 year old kid who is called "Mowgli" on a regular basis and can log on to the web each week and read about how Americans hate him, fear and loathe what they perceive to be his sexual orientation, and think he lacks talent. "He DID sign up for such ridicule," most would say, "and he's getting rich and famous," but I wonder if he signed up for the racism or if the money and fame excuse the homophobia.

Of course the story of the Rutgers team has ceased being about members of the team. It never really was about them, although their press conference makes for a nice sidebar. It's not even really about Don Imus anymore. Mostly the story is about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, both of whom have high-profile slurs in their own backgrounds. What does it mean for someone who called residents of Crown Heights a bunch of "diamond merchants" (shortly before an anti-semitic riot broke out there) and someone who showboated that he could even get votes from "Hymietown" and who said he's tired of hearing about the holocaust to enter the fray and call for Imus's firing? Neither Sharpton nor Jackson singled out individuals in their own slurs (the way Imus singled out members of the Rutgers team), but the hypocrisy remains.

And I'm not sure that firing someone sets a desirable precedent. Don Imus's "joke" lacked the funny, targeted a group not in need of deflation like many public figures, and generally was a weak example of the productive possibilities of blunt agonism. But who is qualified to be the final arbiter of any of those things? Not Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, certainly. Plenty of parody--again, most of it is admittedly much better than Don Imus's weak show--not only borders on the indecent but revels on the slimy side of that border. And even if Imus was to fail some kind of objective measure of what is and isn't "over the line" (the cliche used in every discussion of this flap), what justification is there for an outside body (of pundits or religious leaders) in a free society to insist on someone's firing?


catching up

Been slow to blog during the busy past week (a cold and snowy Michigan week), what with Ellen Cushman's visit and all the usual hubbub, so it's probably time to catch up. Only three weeks left in the term and I've got stacks of poems from my creative writers that I'm reading today and reflective essays from my comp students that I HOPE to read today. I love reading student work but I'm ready to focus on two writing projects that need (but don't currently have) my constant attention.

Ellen's visit to Dearborn was great. She brought a fresh perspective and the good ideas just spilled from her during both her morning session with writing faculty and her afternoon session with civic engagement fellows. Ellen suggested my Civic Literacy class next fall complete a needs assessment project with selected agencies in Dearborn and Southwest Detroit to determine what kinds of partnerships said agencies might forge with the university in the future. Since we're only beginning to build campus-community partners, such a needs assessment could make the relationships more sustainable. Thanks much Ellen for the ideas.

Saw Grindhouse over the weekend and I plan to see it again as soon as I can. What a brilliant piece of work. Like Pulp Fiction twelve years ago, Grindhouse looks like nothing else currently playing at the multiplex, though of course the film parodies and salutes 70s b-movies of the action-adventure and monster varieties. I grew up loving these movies on cable (and have recently been Netflix-ing the entire Pam Grier body of work) but, living hundreds of miles from 42nd Street or Times Square, never experienced them "at the show." Grindhouse recreates that experience with a sustained sense of play and humor (crackly screen and missing reels, for example). Loved it.

Back to that student work now, but steadier blogging to follow. I promise.


new course at UMD

English 364: Writing for Civic Literacy
Professor Bill DeGenaro

Fall 2007 T/TH 3-4:15
Cross-listed: Composition 364/Communication 364

In this advanced writing course we will study how activists, community organizers, politicians, religious leaders, and everyday citizens use language to fight for social change. We will examine genres like political speeches, sermons, brochures, op-ed pieces, and websites that engage with community concerns and social issues. As a student in this course you will learn about audience analysis, rhetorical awareness, argumentation, and other techniques that will help you become a more competent writer and a more active community member.

This course has a community service component and will give you the opportunity to perform community service at the agency of your choosing. You might choose to tutor or work with a community literacy agency. You might volunteer at a food bank or soup kitchen. You might wish to work with an environmental non-profit. You may choose the agency and the type of work you do.

In addition to a community service reflection journal and several short, analytical papers, students will design and implement a real-world writing project in collaboration with the agencies where they are volunteering. Writing projects might include informational websites, fundraising materials, or a series of op-ed pieces for the local media.

For more information contact Professor DeGenaro at 313.583.6383 or billdeg@umd.umich.edu. Or drop by CASL 3067 to chat with him.