Decolonization, ePortfolios, and Students of Color

Though I have had some reservations about ePortfolios, I am more turned off by the ways ePorts get used rather than with the actual ePortfolio technologies available.  These platforms are already pre-packaged and pre-formatted so I am deeply disturbed when faculty create a master template where students (or staff) just input data.  It amazes me that ePortfolios can become just another 5-paragraph formula so quickly.   Here is what I mean by a template:

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The box wrapped in a gray line is called the top navigation bar of an ePortfolio.  You click on a word/item and then you get a series of corresponding ePages that have another series of left navigation options.  What happens in many of the classrooms that I see is that teachers set the topics of the navigation bar to match the requirements of the department, state standards, etc.  Students just load in their work, almost like sifting recyclables into the correct bin.  While that kind of automated sifting is an important task for one’s daily household chores, it most certainly does not qualify as digital literacy or even LITERACY.  For me, it is simply tragic that this sifting passes mustard for writing classrooms.

This sifting into digital templates is yet another kind of standardization and corporate cloning.  That kind of ePortfolio robs students of even minimal levels of digital design in already pre-formatted platforms.  The technology actually allows you to remove the line around the box, thicken it, shadow-box it, color it, round its ages, make buttons, add a background color, etc.  You can do the same with the left navigation (click here for my own ePort as a sample).  You can have multiple backgrounds in all of these spaces. The examples are so countless that you need an actual design plan.  In fact, most websites start with a sketch, a practice that stirs significant conflict since far too many teachers do not see sketching as composing and writing.  I am always so wonderfully surprised when I hear web designers talk about their design choices in the same way that an interior designer does.  It makes sense since we are, in essence, designing a space.  So if students are not allowed to think about any of these design elements for themselves, then can we really call their work an ePortfolio? I remain stunned that writing teachers do not think design has any part of literacy in the 21st century.  While that fact alone is not shocking, such teaching practices are especially violent for students of color.

The images of smiling, happy students of color are masterfully manipulated in college marketing for every brochure, poster, and college webpage— images that, once again, are not controlled by people of color. The overall saturation of images in a multimedia era has not meant anything positive for people of color.  When you do not control the resources, you certainly do not control how your image is portrayed.  I am talking about decolonization here: what might it mean for people of color to (re)imagine their image inside of  the violence of a visual/media culture that denies them this kind of self-determination?   Self-determined visual cultures will be vital for digital literacies in the 21st century, all the more so given the stunning number of college teachers who use educational technologies to strip students of their own cultural-visual rhetorics.

Giving students control of their own visual image has meant that I have had to introduce a little CSS in my class. It’s not that difficult.  While many of my rather crotchety colleagues might seem to think that the sole focus of college writing in the 21st century is grammar in print texts, I know better than to trust such systems and teachers. I am disappointed by how many remain intent on denying my students the REALEST and most basic of human rights/literacy in the 21st century… self-determination.

African Women’s Fashion Design as Rhetoric and Inspiration

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The bangles, the earrings, the intricate patterns, the textile expertise, the brilliant pops of color as THE accessory, the bold color all over and all around, the depth of brown skin tones spanning all shades, the beads encased on long necks, the necklaces draped over the shoulder or all the way down to the stomach, and then, for a grand finale, an African female designer in a self-designed African print dress takes a bow… I love all of it. I am talking here about African women designers of contemporary African fashions.

It is NOT my intent here to showcase new clothes to buy. The slideshow that opens this post (featuring some of my favorite designers) is not a shopping list. Many of these designers do sell their fashions at their websites and can be commissioned to create something for you from one of their collections. Their prices are much more reasonable, respectful, and human— in terms of human labor, skill, and textile design— than what you will see during any visit to a NYC Bloomingdale’s or Saks, neither of which are places where I ever shop.  I am interested in much more than fashion for purchase, however, when I follow contemporary African women designers.  Their work and presence are much bigger than that.  As of now, they are not so fully commodified as to represent the kind of fashion cartel like what we get with Prada and the likes.  When DBU showcased her amazing jewelry at 2011 Africa Fashion Week, the impact was not represented by exotic gems stolen from Africa (since colonialism, the utterance conflict-free diamonds, for instance, is simply an oxymoron… there can be NO such thing as a CONFLICT-FREE natural resource if it is taken from Africa.)  For DBU, it was the color, craftmanship, originality, ingenuity, and stunning impact of her jewelry that carried the day.  I would wear each item, exactly as she has them layered and paired, wearing all black clothing just so you can see the jewelry better just as she has it here:

We live in a world of colors and patterns that communicate their own histories, desires, and visions and these women designers give me a world that I like to look at and be part of.  When I watch the bodies adorned in sequin patterns in the designs of someone like Eredappa (shown below), I am as drawn to what she is communicating as I am to the graphic techniques of Mickalene Thomas with her works’ rhinestones and intricate patterns. That Eredappa attempts to mesh beadwork alongside local, Nigerian fabrics to make multidimensional design seems well aligned with how Thomas also constructs her visual world.

I especially like to follow youtube-channelers who create their own movies of the African designers that move them.  In close second to that preference are the runway shows that the designers themselves plan and execute, brilliantly showcased in the United States with Africa Fashion Week.  In both of these visual contexts, what you see are multimedia-writers telling us a story… designing us a story.  At the 2011 Africa Fashion week, Korto Momolu (fondly remembered for her time on Project Runway) especially captured design-as-its-own-story with her 2011 collection that tells the story of women’s survival during war using her home country of Liberia as muse:

Each piece in Momolu’s runway exhibit tells its own story and each piece works in specific relation to the previous and following outfits: it is the most visually rich kind of chapter-building that I can imagine.

I like to follow these designers and look at what they are up to.  They inspire me to create anew, to be bold and imaginative, to not tone myself down in a suffocating world of beige, and to rely on my own local languages and cultural expressions for contemporary structures.  This is how I plan to inspire and charge my summer.

If My Syllabus Had a Soundtrack…

segment-of-urban-graffiti-wall-showing-letter-sOne of my fondest memories of junior high school was passing notes in the hallways at the change of classes.  We signed our notes with one big letter “S” instead of our government names. The “S” reflected the following label we gave to ourselves: Super… Sweet… Soul… Sonic… Sister.  And we knew who the other was by the design of the “S.”  Now, of course, we jacked some of that language from Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, a force which we fully claimed as our own. I laugh when I think back on that and how we tried to get some kind of sound into those letters we wrote, usually by including, at least, some lyrics.  Though no one would have thought so, those notes that we wrote to one another were more sophisticated and interesting in their centering of multimedia work than most of what I see in classrooms today.  The idea that classroom spaces could and should include both visual and aural artifacts still escapes most of us.

Fall 2012 was the first time I decided to really situate my teaching in a digital ecology, hence this website.  I have never considered a university’s corporate technology-package a digital ecology of anything except capitalism so I wanted to think about what an alternative might be.  I taught a graduate class so there was still a good deal of print texts but we mixed in multimedia texts into the weekly seminars.  This semester, however, I am teaching a class called African American Women’s Rhetoric and I plan to fully explode what is available on the internet because the texts of this course are very multimodal.  What this means is that I am right back where I started in  fall semester 2012 with these same, central questions:

I feel more confident that I can create a visually-rich learning space for students.  Most of what I have in my head visually, I do not have the skills to get onto the page here though— so “confidence” here is really an overstatement. Yet and still, at least I do have something in my head.  I do not have the confidence of creating an aurally rich site though. It is simply not my strength in the sense that I am not a musician, music theorist, or sound technician.  Of course, I play music, in every class, in every semester that I have taught, but that is too basic for what I mean here.

FrontWhen I asked this question about aural learning and attempted to have this as a public discussion at my university last fall, I distinctly remember a few of the white faculty laughing (and later making jokes for what kind of song I could use on my website, as if they might ever know enough about black music to even step into my office with a suggestion).   Clearly, I do not consider myself, my scholarship, or my questions about digital spaces for youth of color an issue of humor or comedy.  These faculty members seemed to think it was a funny thing to interrogate the meanings of sound in digital spaces as irrelevant or esoteric to the concerns of teaching, technology at our university, and to a multimedia age (yes, this is an absurd response to sound, as in… M.E.D.I.A…. A.G.E… the irony has not been lost on me).  I highlight the fact that these faculty were white, most of whom are compositionists, because I hold their sentiment in stark contrast to what I see as a clear-cut fact: every BLACK revolution, rebellion, resistance movement has been sounded. I mean, after all, Afrika Bambaataa chose to create a soul sonic force.  So what might it mean, look like, sound like to teach a class about African American women’s rhetoric and include the music and the sound of black women’s voices in song, music, or speech in deeply contextual ways?  What might it mean to teach a class, with the large numbers of black female students I always have, who probably have never HEARD black women in a college curriculum because white faculty think that’s a funny idea, even in the multimedia age?  I am clear what side of the revolution these white folk are on and I am clear that I need to get me and my students on the other side.

This clarity that I have here, however, does not mean that I know how to do what I have in mind or how to even think things through differently.  So I am reflecting today about what we were doing as Super, Sweet, Soul, Sonic Sisters. We didn’t just play songs for each other— we took the music and the concept to craft an identity.  That’s what I am thinking about now.  How can this class create an identity with sound— a soul sonic identity?  How can this class embody its own sonic rhetoric as a way to investigate the sonic rhetoric of black women? Students have often told me that they create a playlist with the music from this class so how can I be more deliberate about my syllabus having its own soundtrack?  Needless to say, I have some work to do… and no part of it will be a laughing matter.