Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay

 

Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.

“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary

  1. What’s ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.

I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.

  1. Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?

Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:

Visual artworks are central to the project:

  • Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
  • Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
  • Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
  • Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)

Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:

  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
  • José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)

Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):

  • Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
  • Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
  • Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
  • Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)

On to the practical application portion of this post.

The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña

In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.

“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.

In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?

To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.

Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.

The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing

Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.

In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.

Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.

Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.

Takehome Points

Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).

But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.

IMG_2234
“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.
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Pedagogy Under Fire; Or, When Community Members Want A Say Over Your Classroom

I enjoy discussing pedagogy, hence my participation in this site. At the start of every semester, as I go over the syllabus with my students, I create a space for us to discuss why I have made the decision I have for our course. We discuss text choices and order. We discuss assignments and scaffolding. In other words, we don’t just go over the syllabus, we discuss my pedagogical rationale. Students generally feel comfortable engaging with me right of the bat, and they question some of my decisions which leads to further discussion.

I will talk teaching and pedagogy all day long! Why not? It makes us better instructors. This semester, however, I discovered my limits. While I’m happy to partake in these conversations with my students, with other colleagues, and even with parents scouting community college courses for their high school students, I am not compelled to respond to random requests from community members.

The Email

A few weeks into the fall semester, I received the following email:

Concerned Citizen Email

My chosen focus for the class in question is loosely based on an approach I have used before: Narratives of Historical Revision and Historical Recovery. I have written two PALS posts about texts I have taught in various versions of this course: M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! and Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. This past semester, Chesnutt’s was not one of the texts under fire; though this email’s reference to literature appreciation took me back in my mind to my earlier Chesnutt piece. My most recent line up for this course, and the texts with which this citizen was concerned, was Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. 

I thought about different possible responses to address this person’s inquiry, but there were too many factors involved. First, I was teaching 18 units, so all my extra time was already committed to my students. I didn’t have more than two minutes to commit to this odd interest in my course. Second, based on the rhetoric of this email, there isn’t a response I could have provided to appease the writer; going back to my first point, I didn’t have the time for the lengthy back-and-forth debate about my teaching choices that would almost inevitably ensue. Third, this person wasn’t actually interested in my course and didn’t have any knowledge of it. Finally, this email isn’t really about my class per se but about the larger backlash towards higher education.

So I chose not to respond.

Student Activity

Instead, I turned this email into a teachable moment because we just can’t get enough of those! In honor of the American Library Association’s Banned & Challenged Books Week, I put the content of the email up on the board for my students to respond to (and I removed all the sender’s identifying information, like I did here because I’m anti the practice of doxing). At this point in the semester, we had just finished reading the first two texts, the Lorde and the Philip.

I asked them to:

  1. Write out their own initial reactions to the email.
  2. Respond to the concerns based on their knowledge from those first two texts.

My students had endless questions about the email to nearly all of which I answered, “I don’t know.” I did know, at least nothing beyond my own informed speculation. They wondered many of the same things I did. How did this person know what books we’re reading? Why would someone be so concerned about a college class they aren’t taking? But really, the questions suggest they don’t know what the class is about at all, so they can’t have the syllabus; where did they get the list of books from? Who has this much time on their hands? And my favorite, why you? Why are they trying to come after you of all teachers?

For the second question, the response was pretty standard across the board–Ahem. Thank you M. NourbeSe Philip. A paraphrase of all the responses goes something like, if this person had opened Zong!, they would not question how it promotes critical thinking. A direct quote from the in class discussion that was also shared by the room was “I have never thought about something so hard or so much in my life!” I also share those sentiments every time I read Zong! Always to my surprise, however, they also discussed how much they were learning about history. This is one of the purposes of my course focus, but I guess I am always hoping that at some point students will arrive from high school with more knowledge of these huge pieces of history like the middle passage.

Getting Political

Moving back to the first question, because this is where I would like to spend the remainder of this post, the responses varied much more. The similarities were that they spent a lot of picking apart of the email itself in an attempt to address the questions they had about why the person had written it in the first place. For instance, many students pointed out that it wasn’t an American literature course, so why would American classics be the go to texts? They were close reading (yay!) the email to try and figure out how much information its writer was working with.

Where the responses differed had to do with my students political identities and affiliations. I know! I have finally made it to the elephant in the room. This email was really all about politics. And by politics, we are talking about actual politics. When I wrote about Chesnutt as mentioned above, I framed it in terms of literature being political. That can be taken very literally by talking about political parties which sometimes fits the literature, but I normally approach it much more broadly which is how I have always interpreted the concept. This is what seems to be missing from one of the many current wars on education that has encouraged things like the Professor Watch List.

But what exactly was it about these texts that “represent [the] liberal leftist agenda and ideology” my emailer was so concerned about? All five writers were people of color. More than half of the writers identify as LGBQT. There are Lorde and Anzaldúa’s calls to fight the patriarchy. Author’s names and title words appear in languages other than English. The writers challenge dominant historical narratives. These are the assumptions that my more politically liberal students identified. Nearly all of these things would require more than just a glance at the course’s list of books. They would require a bit of research, wouldn’t they? Research where the emailer would also learn these books aren’t obscure and my teaching choices aren’t as radical as they are being treated in the email.

My politically conservative students’ responses were much more nuanced. They too were trying to process some of those go to assumptions, like writers’ race or sexuality being the emailers issue, but were filtering it through their own conservative identities. The challenge they faced, and still face, is America’s dominant two party system where conservative equals Republican and everything that stands for, while liberal equals Democrat and everything that stands for, despite the fight put forth by numerous other political parties.  So my conservative students who support gay rights struggle with it positioned as liberal, which has been recorded more widely about the younger generation. And my conservative students who support DACA and clear paths to citizenship for immigrants of various documentation statuses struggle with the valuing of marginalized voices and experiences as liberal. These values are also apart of their conservative identities.

Ultimately my conservative students were, at the very least, annoyed that their agency was being taken away by the emailer. There were some hypothetical concessions in the form of, “yes, I guess Sister Outsider can be considered liberal because Lorde talks about her lesbian identity and the patriarchy a lot.” The follow ups to this were a whole bunch of buts: “but we aren’t mindless drones,” “but we are in college to be challenged,” “but our political positions aren’t being attacked,” “but we don’t have to agree with every single point; we’re just learning about other perspectives.”

I would place a large part of these students’ responses on who we were reading. Lorde and Anzaldúa are very friendly to readers; I mean, after rethinking the erotic with Lorde, they are ready to engage with her anger. The other part of students’ responses has to do with my pedagogy. I present them with the challenging texts and contextualize the material, but they have to figure out what to do with it.