Welcome to Understanding Other Cultures! The purpose of this course is for students to improve both their English skills and their knowledge of American culture. To achieve these aims, students will address a number of salient points drawn (rather haphazardly) from the 1994 movie Forrest Gump. Moreover, we will analyze those points from the perspective of artefacts, the meaning of which students will discover is much larger than only museum pieces unearthed from the sands of the world's deserts (hence the picture above).
In perhaps more detail, students will (a) think creatively and analytically about cultural issues, (b) deepen their knowledge and understanding of other cultures (primarily the potpourri of American culture), and (c) promote communication fluency by interacting with classmates in group discussions.
Sessions 1-3: Course intro; Artefacts
You might well think of something shown in the image to the right when we mention the word 'artefact'. Of course, you might well imagine something completely different, which is — given the immense number of artefacts from our collective human endeavors over the last few millenia — quite natural.
Let's embark on our semester together with an exercise to activate your artefact schema. Our starting point is the seemingly simple query, "What is an artefact?" A helpful set of definitions can be found, unfortunately, on the UNESCO webpage dealing with illicit trafficking of cultural property.
Ah, a bit heavy, I think, so we'll back up and take a look at the grand-daddy of heritage things. This means, of course, the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO, which includes some 1000 sites. (Come now, did you know that? How many can you name?) I'd like you to note that while many are natural, many others are man-made.
In plain words, let's consider artefacts with a worksheet.
Session 4 — the Symbols Unit
An interesting website on ancient symbols.
A thought-provoking article by Ann Swidler (1986) titled "Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies." As you'll recall from class, you have some homework related to this article: questions on Swidler (1986).
Allow me to add a bit more on symbols, good people. For an interesting read from a somewhat different perspective, here is an article by Shantha Rajan titled Role and Significance of symbols: An overview, in which the author introduces a number of Hindu symbols. As I noted, an interesting read.
I grant that it has faded a bit into memory, but five years ago we wree treated to a movie based on historical symbols. I refer, of course, to The da Vinci Code, the trailer for which is to the right. In the off chance that you're not familiar with the plot, it centers on a trove of symbols dealing with the life and family (!) of Jesus Christ, who is, of course, a rather important person (symbol?) in the Christian faith.
As such things are prone to do, The da Vinci Code caused quite a number of reactions although it was ostensibly a work of fiction (although Dan Brown slyly notes that much of what underpins the work is extant. At any rate, the folks at the Discovery Channel provided an interesting documentary (some 45 minutes in length, but it is worth your time, I think).
One last thing, Gentle Students: You likely saw a more recent film that included a great deal of material about symbols. Think large, blue creatures and islands floating in the air. The title of that work is also a common thing on the Internet now — might you have an avatar? If so, what kind of avatar is it?
Sessions 6-7: Our Friend, the Library
Why might I have paired Mr. Gutenberg — who lived some 500 years ago — with something as contemporary as YouTube? Well, Gentle Student, the answer comes in two parts: both mark steps along the path of disseminating information, and both also represent methods of archiving information for later access. The former, of course, had important implications for the spread of literacy as books, a rare and quite expensive commodity, became both more common and less prohibitively expensive.
The archiving function, however, is the one on which we will spend our week.
One of the more remarkable efforts at archiving material is The Internet Archive, which is, as the name suggests, an online library featuring the various media to be found on the Internet. Among the recent developments (chronicled by our BBC friends here) is the provision of millions of public domain images via flickr. While the sheer size of the archive is impressive, the fact that they are tagged and thus easily searchable is most helpful. Thus, your homework today today includes a visit to the Internet Archive book images, which number 2,619,833 as of this writing. Go ahead, folks, and search for two or three things!
As you might imagine, one challenge of any library is constraints on space. With traditional artefacts such as books, you need shelves and a book-friendly environment, of course. the Library at Alexandria. For a slightly dramatized introduction to the original library at Alexandria, we'll let historian Bettany Hughes tell the story.
However, happily, the idea did not perish with the destruction of the original library. This next clip is courtesy of the National Geographic Society (hint: you might take a look at the website, the link to which is in the Reference material in the right sidebar).
One of the modern incarnations of the Library of Alexandria is, of course, the Library of Congress in the US. This massive repository contains in excess of 150 million objects, including books, music, and many 'non-classified' objects.
In an upcoming session, we will examine artefacts related to one aspect of visual media - namely, movies.**************************************
Session 8 (or so) — The Silver Screen
History of Movies — Have you ever wondered by the movie industry is referred to as "the silver screen"? (If not, pretend you have.) The reason, of course, is that photographs originally used silver emulsion on the glass plates and, later, the nitrate film used for negatives. Second question, folks: when did movies first appear?
History of TV — This is a medium that even predates me, folks. I have a very vivid memory of watching some of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and the picture on our TV was, of course, black and white. At that time color TV was unusual, but it soon became the standard.
The Digital Screen — Silver is out and pixels are in. Welcome to our brave new world, people, as we briefly consider the recent spread of digital forms of storage, which have largely replaced silver-based forms of storage.
Session 10 (or so) — Audio Artefacts
Ironically, the preservation of sound has had a much shorter history than has that of images or physical artefacts.
As a bit of a technophile, I quite enjoy the various technological innovations over my lifetime (and before, of course) that have been labeled 'cutting edge' and then 'old-fashioned'. Among them you will find a host of inventions, most of which were destined for very short lives. A couple examples, folks, the first of which is one I remember well from my childhood.
You might well have come to the conclusion that if we (read: 'people') can build it, then someone, somewhere, will turn it into a museum. This clip takes us to the 8-Track Museum in Dallas and a guided tour by Bucks Burnett.
Let's go back to about 1998 or so, a time when Bruce Willis still had some hair. Really. In a major hit movie, Bruce and a cast of misfits was tasked with saving the world from destruction by the mother of all asteroids. Of course, that would mean the end of the world or, in biblical terms, Armegeddon. Prior to blasting into orbit to save the world, Bruce and crew present a list of demands of minor things they would like (since they were heading off to save us all).
Session 11 (or so) — Music in the US & Japan
Totally audacious, that heading — how can we possibly cover such a broad range of music in a scant hour or two (or even 10)? Obviously, we can't, but I'd like to at least consider some of the audio material from these two countries that has been preserved.
Here we have a quick tour of some very old (and not so old) musical genres from Japan.
Music in the US is something I'm much more familiar with, of course. Among the significant contributions were blues, jazz, country and western, and a host of recent sub-genres (house, anyone?). OK, I really don't know much about 'house', and jazz is much more interesting, anyhow. Let's begin with a fine quote about jazz from the New York American: "Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras." [Smile.] Indeed, such a horrible thing, jazz.
Do not despair, Gentle Student, for Ken Burns — a most accomplished filmmaker — gave us an in-depth look at jazz, which appears here courtesy of the fine folks at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
One of my personal favorites and an iconic piece, Take 5 was one of many pieces by Dave Brubeck and his various bands. This particular rendition is from 1963 (notice the striking fashions and the black-and-white images).
Session 12 (or so) — Copyright Protection & Infringement
Let's begin this session with a look through a timeline dealing with law and technology.
A couple final notes: Although their legal standing might be in question (see 'copyright' immediately above), music streaming websites are quite popular, and I freely admit to using one regularly. My favorite is one called Grooveshark, and at the moment I'm listening to a group called Emancipator.
The second note for today: I'd like you to devote some time to considering how technology and music have happily coexisted over the last two or three generations (of people, not technological innovations). Your homework today is thus to speak with at least one relative about his or her use of technology in listening to music. My suggestion is to speak with your parents or grandparents about their listening habits (e.g., types of listening devices, types of music). Yes, it might cost you a phone call, but treat this as a grand learning opportunity!
Session 13 — The Classics - Why?
As you remember well (happily?) from your high school days, the so-called classics were an integral part of the curriculum. Indeed, that is true in the US as well. However, I must confess that I never enjoyed most of the Shakespeare canon much, but I quite enjoyed the course I took in graduate school about classical Japanese.
Let us consider the scope of the canon, good people. What types of narratives constitute the canon of a language? For your enjoyment, here is a worksheet on the number of types of stories.
It seems to me that we've devoted a considerable amount of time to things American and things Japanese, but the world is much, much wider. Thus, minions of mine (OK, what recent cultural artefact am I referencing here?), your homework today is to dance home and find enough material to talk about a canon of cultural work from another culture (I also would be happy with a 2-page report; yes, that would be two plus the title page). Allow me to provide a thread that you might follow: take a glance at the list of recent Nobel Prize winners in literature. Where are those fine people from? What languages were used for their works?
Session 14 — History and the Truth, A Volatile Pair
"To the winner go the spoils" has long been a consequence of that ghastly enterprise we call war. That phrase, incidentally, has its origin in the image to the right, one of many by Thomas Nash, an early and very influential political cartoonist. Nash is closely and correctly associated with Harper's Weekly, and influential political magazine that unfortunately ceased publication in 1916. Just for your enlightenment, here you'll find a nice collection of the work of Thomas Nash.
The story is not unique to the US, however. Throughout history the victor (or at least the dominant class or group) had authored the primary narrative to suit its purpose(s), be those benign or more nefarious. One of the more skeptical looks at this came courtesy of George Orwell, who penned such works as Animal Farm and 1984, the trailer for which is linked here.
Quite the imagery, isn't it? Orwell was a product of his time, of course, which coincided with the Spanish Civil War and World War Two. Just for your consideration: remember The Lord of the Rings trilogy and, more recently, The Hobbit? Any idea when the author of those works lived?
Session 9 - The Pendulum Swings (or, "History and the New Truth")
You certainly should have noticed that Nash and Orwell lived some years ago. That fact should not, however, obfuscate the reality that this struggle continues in our modern world, and it will, I'm quite sure, continue to do so in the future.
First, I'd like to examine the evolution of which history is (or, perhaps more accurately, which histories are) taught in US schools.
Second, we'll move closer to home. One country with which you are familiar is Japan, and it has certainly had its share of controversy surrounding textbooks. Just ask, for example, our neighbors in South Korea and China. Our friends at BBC have, as usual, provided well-rounded coverage of the issue with a story on the textbook controversy in Japan.
Here you will find A rather brief overview of the textbook issue by a gentleman that goes by Viet. The images alone are worth your time.
For a recent look at the textbook screening process in Japan, Reiko Koide published a very well-documented article titled "Critical new state in Japan's textbook controversy." The same article is here as a pdf.
Here we have a paper by Aaron Cooley on this whole textbook controversy.
OK, campers, let's talk about your homework for today. (What? You don't want homework?) Too bad. (Hehehe). Seriously, I would like you to include in your reaction journal some thoughts (well-informed and thoughtful, please) about this whole textbook controversy. I do not want some meaningless pablum like "We should think deeply about this issue." No, Gentle Students, you are capable of much more intelligent remarks, and I expect you to devote some of your time and considerable intellect to penning a worthy essay.
The Matrix (the Internet and its Forebears)
Session 15 — The Internet Makes Us ...
Having examined three areas over the last several days, let us then look at the matrix within which images of these artefacts dwell. I refer here, of course, to the ubiquitous Internet.
A small challenge for you, good people: how about giving up your cell phone and all of your other electronic devices for 90 days? One young man that did is Jake Reilly, featured in this interview and in the clip to the left.
In a recent article Nancy McCormack (2010) addressed the question of whether
"Are e-books making us stupid". Specifically, she looked closely at what might become of
libraries as we move increasingly toward reading
e-books instead of paper books. The
abstract is here
In 2008, Nicholas Carr published a provocative article titled "Is Google making us stupid?" in which he ponders the effect of the internet and electronic sources generally on the brain. This paper discusses one source specifically, e-books, and explores whether libraries are acting wisely by moving from print to electronic book collections. The topic is considered from the vantage point of the library and from that of the patron. Specifically, the prospect of an all or largely all e-book future is considered and whether that future means an end to traditional library collections and services. The potential problems for ?gdeep reading?h are also considered, and, specifically, whether e-books can serve as an adequate substitute for patrons who will no longer be able to use electronic collections in the way they once used print. In short, this paper explores whether e-books are making us librarians and patrons stupid.
(mouseover to read it); contact me if you're interested in readng the entire article.
Session 16 — Ye Olde Script Debate
Here, of course, we harken back to the image near the top of this page, which shows an example of one of the earliest writing systems (namely, hieroglyphs). The history of writing is long, yet handwriting may well be imperiled: who among you spends more time with a pen or pencil in hand than with a keyboard in front of you?
Just to whet your appetite, here is one of my favorite clips. As you'll see, it shows the gifted hand of Luca Barcellona at work crafting a thing of beauty.
A remarkable project undertaken by St. John's Monastery saw the creation of an entirely handwritten Bible. Although handwriting a book might sound quite unnecessary in today's hyper-caffeinated world, it represents a reminder that the creation of a masterpiece took far longer than in the 21st century. Lest you need more, here is the link to the official webpage of the St. John's Bible folks.
USA Today marked the completion of the Bible with this story, which included the video in the link to the right.
As you well know from your experience using computers, we have a wealth of fonts available. In fact, you might argue that we have far too many, and I believe you would have a valid point. That notwithstanding, who designs fonts? Matthew Carter is one of a small handful of people who do exactly that.
Session 17 — Preparation for final presentation
I really think you all have figured out what we'll be doing here.
Your homework this auspicious day is simply to prepare well for your final presentation tomorrow.
Other Things If I Think Of Any
Session 18 — Ownership
In this, our penultimate session, we will spend our precious time considering the ownership of artefacts. As our speakers this morning will inform you, this is a complex issue fraught with historical baggage.
Session 19 — Final Presentations
Note, people, that you will not be just passively listening to your classmates as they present the results of their work this week. No, you will be asking questions ... which means it is required that you ask questions. Really. Now you might well ask what this means, which is a reasonable question. I will smile happily if you do two things: (a) ask questions after each and every presentation, and (b) submit a list of questions to me by email. Recall that you have a list of all of the presentation topics, so I expect good, insightful questions.