Archive - January 2015

Gérard Genette on What Art Is
Intellectual Property Challenge
Drive On: Google Drive in the Classroom
Happy New Year

Gérard Genette on What Art Is

I’m halfway through Gérard Genette’s The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence (1994; Cornell University Press translation, 1997). This book sat in a box for several years, in part because I was put off by its mystical title. I could also tell in skimming the contents that Genette had to contend with Nelson Goodman’s Languages of Art (1968, 1976) for a good many pages, and I didn’t want to read bickering over finer points of distinction. It was only a matter of time before my respect for Genette would cause me to set aside these minor reservations. Thankfully, neither criticism has seriously impacted my engagement with this book so far. I should qualify my admiration for Genette, though, for he is a structuralist through and through. I enjoy his careful systematization, while at the same time I can’t help but notice the points where he’s stopping short for the sake of preserving its coherence. It would be criminal to call his scholarship “groundwork” because it is so valuable in itself. One doesn’t build a structure on top of it so much as look around a corner that Genette left less brightly lit. He’s the tour guide that knows his material, and I linger behind to consider a particular detail for myself while he moves the group toward the next stop.

The Work of Art reminded me that Genette’s interests uncannily intersect with mine: narrative theory (Narrative Discourse, Narrative Discourse Revisited), parody (Palimpsests), and the trappings of the printed page (Paratexts). So his turn to textual ontology—what is a work of literature?—comes as no surprise. Actually, he’s well disposed to bring philosophical approaches to ontology into conversation with literary considerations, informed somewhat by an attention to the concerns of textual scholars that comes out of his investigation of paratexts. I love the convergence of all three streams, which I attempted to unite in my article “The Design of Fiction and the Fiction of Design.” Textual ontology is also important to my ongoing work on the short story cycle when dealing with multiple versions of a story in various publication contexts. (What is the ideal work if a story appears in different forms directed at more than one audience?) It even cropped up last semester when teaching a course on conceptual writing, too. Appropriation art and procedural work challenge the traditional ontologies of the work of art. (If I transcribe a radio broadcast and publish it as literature, what is the status of the text I created and had reproduced?)

With that last example in mind, the section of The Work of Art that was most compelling so far explored autographic art that results in multiple products (cast sculpture, printmaking, and tapestry-making). A mold, for instance, is a singular artistic production that allows one to create identical cast sculptures. This is not the same as a text existing in many copies, since the authorial production of a literary work would not have the same material self-sufficiency as the mold. The work of literature is instead ideal (allographic), made of language rather than material, and not coeval with its material forms (i.e., the printed page). But in the case of appropriation literature, cast sculpture might be a fitting metaphor. Take the texts of Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters where radio and television broadcasts are written out and presented as literature. Goldsmith is not copying an ideal text but the actual language recorded. Sure, the transcriptions rely on what he hears, but he is trying to hear (and render) what was said, not what was meant. The radio broadcast of the Challenger explosion, in this way, is like what shapes the mold for a cast sculpture (the resulting text representing an ideal work). There would be some that might debate the ideality of that production: those for whom Seven American Deaths and Disasters is not literature but in fact non-fiction. How is a text literature just because someone says so?, they might protest. But maybe the cast sculpture comparison allows us to reply, how can it be otherwise? The cast sculpture requires the mold to exist, and the existence of the cast supersedes the mold.

Genette, in setting the boundaries of his study, claims that “a work of art is an intentional aesthetic object” or, put another way, “an artifact (or human product) with an aesthetic function.” Goldsmith’s appropriation literature clearly meets the first condition but perhaps not the second (just what is an aesthetic function?), calling into question the equivalence of the two definitions. I understand that Genette introduces the idea of function to distinguish aesthetic objects from natural ones or from tools. He must be aware that aesthetics and functionality have commonly been opposed to one another. But the value of this odd conjunction is to separate physicality from functionality. Duchamp’s readymades don’t change physically when displayed in a gallery; the object changes its function, though, Genette notes. I find that a clear and important distinction while still being skeptical about his deployment of function (the word and concept) here. His later point that the existence of the work of art is “extrafunctional” (what it is is more than what it does) makes sense and is strange, because isn’t the aesthetic function is precisely to transcend (functionality and physicality)? I hope that my confusion will dissipate with the arguments to come in the book, and if not, I can revisit these statements to decide whether to speak of function in this way is more trouble than it’s worth.

Intellectual Property Challenge

Below is a sample post created for the 2015 Spring Focused Inquiry Faculty Institute. My colleagues and I were asked to add five links to the sample text and include an image and video. The activity was meant to test our understanding of documentation of online materials and the ethical use of others’ intellectual property on the web. With that in mind, my group made sure that our image and video were in the public domain or not proprietary and when clicked would open the pages where we found them. We concluded that the links themselves in the text were adequate documentation, meaning a separate list of sources was unnecessary. I wish that linking was possible in the tools that I have my students use to create infographics, which is the one assignment in my section of UNIV 200 where these documentation issues arise. My students typically end up creating an abbreviated list of works cited and credits for images found online, and it would be much less obtrusive to link to these materials. Essentially they’re creating a static product—a single image—that often refers to web materials. Yet the output is easily shareable because it’s a single image and not a multimedia creation. I hadn’t considered the infographic medium in that way before, and maybe that’s worth mentioning to my students.


Map of Richmond, VA (Wikimedia Commons)

Richmond, VA is one of the oldest cities in America and is famous for being the capital of the confederacy. Today, Richmond is a thriving, metropolitan city with much to do and see in the day and night. Richmond is home to many colleges and universities, including Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Richmond, and Virginia Union. There are also several community colleges in the area, including J. Sargeant Reynolds and John Tyler Community College, as well as vocational colleges like ECPI College of Technology and ITT Technical Institute.

Arts and culture in Richmond are thriving. The city is home to the VA Historical Society and the VA Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Science Museum of VA, the Children’s Museum of Richmond, and the VA Center for Architecture. Other interesting historical sights include the Edgar Allen Poe House and Museum, the John Marshall House and Hollywood Cemetery. Monument Avenue is well-known for it’s confederate statues commemorating soldiers such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

Performing arts flourish in Richmond. The Landmark Theater, Carpenter Center, Barksdale Theater and Empire Theater are notable venues for formal performances. For music, the Richmond Folk Festival is a multi-day event that hosts folk, bluegrass and country music every summer. Many smaller theaters and venues throughout the city are home to live music on a daily or weekly basis as well. Finally, the Richmond Mural Project and the RVA Street Art Festival have facilitated the production of murals by nationally and internationally acclaimed artists throughout the city. According to Shane Pomajambo, owner of the Art Whino Gallery and sponsor of the Richmond Mural Project, the murals that were produced during 2014 “continue to build Richmond’s reputation as a go to destination” that invites “exploration of the city.” In addition, this project has beautified many less than beautiful or simply plain areas in Richmond.

Drive On: Google Drive in the Classroom

My breakup with Blackboard is definitive! This semester I’m transitioning to Google Drive as a repository for course files and a means for turning in and giving back student work.

Each student will have a shared folder containing four subfolders: Files by Week, Returned, Shared with Group, and Turn In. They will need to name their files using a set of conventions and store them in Files by Week. Documents they submit for grading must be placed in the Turn In folder where I will pick them up. Graded files will be given back to students via the Returned folder.

The syllabus, assignment descriptions, rubrics, and other documents will be placed in a separate read-only folder that all students have access to. Technically, the course schedule will be outside the Drive environment, since it will be set up as a public Google Calendar as I have been doing for years now. (Maybe I can write a post about this in the future, not only the how-to use Google Calendar but also the why—if students take advantage of its advanced features to stay current in the class.)

I wasn’t able to set up a grade book as a dynamic Google Sheets file that would display grade information for students on an individual basis. The ability to protect cells and sheets is too basic in the Google Drive environment, and I’m leery of its level of security. Instead, I will have my own Microsoft Excel file with grade information, and periodically I’ll have to generate grade reports for each student. Yes, this will be time-consuming, but the benefit is significant: I’ll have control over how grades are displayed to students. In turn these design choices should help students understand how the assessments work together to measure their overall performance in the course. I always get a handful of student questions every semester about what a particular grade means and how it is calculated. Blackboard doesn’t offer a “student-view,” so it’s difficult even to try to grasp what they are seeing to get an idea of why they might misperceive their own grades. (More on these matters in a future post.)

Using Google Drive instead of Blackboard will expose students to the real dynamics of collaboration with others in the cloud. They will need to learn file naming and organization conventions, as well as participate in a group work flow, just as if they were using a shared drive in an office environment. Blackboard is a black box: it gives students and instructors two different interfaces, so that at times one group can’t know what the other is doing or can do, and it automates processes to the point that users lose awareness of the particulars of the system’s procedures and potential.
Black box

If anyone has used Google Drive extensively for sharing work, I would be glad to know of any unexpected problems you’ve encountered in the environment. I have identified two idiosyncrasies that I’m prepared for:

  • Conflicting file and folder permissions. A user can assign one of three permissions to a file or a folder: view, comment on, or edit. The settings for the folder will override those of the individual file, which makes sense, and that’s why I made the read-only folder of course materials separate from students’ individual folders. So I think I’ve contained the problem to occurring only when students don’t configure their Shared with Group folders correctly.
  • Google Drive desktop app versus browser interface. Because some students might already have the desktop app installed, which mirrors the contents of their Google Drive on their computers, I don’t think I should pretend the app doesn’t exist. It offers some powerful benefits that I’ll certainly be taking advantage of. I’m aware of the quirks of multi-platform cloud storage from using Dropbox and Evernote daily. Though not all students will already have the same frame of reference, they can learn—and maybe direct experience is the best teacher.


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