Thursday, November 19, 2015

Writing Race: Claudia Rankine's "Citizen" in the Creative Writing Classroom

I'm teaching a new Creative Writing class this term that lets students explore mixed-genre, blurred-genre, hybrid, experimental forms.  It's been a learning experience for everyone, but so far both students and I have loved it.

One of my assignments is called "The Race Memoir Digital Storytelling Project."  Yes, this is a sneaky way to get students to express themselves about race and ethnicity in our culture, as it personally affects their lives.  You might think that this could be a total disaster.  You might be right.  But then, as a professor, I've learned the value of taking risks, even though the discomfort can be alarming.

It's been an unexpected context to this assignment that current events have brought race, ethnicity, and human rights so out in the open that it has penetrated my college students' world in powerful ways outside the classroom, and they have not only been shaken awake by those events, they are hungry to find a way to write about them, to respond, to take part.

A couple of caveats: 

First, this IS an Advanced CW course, so these students are accustomed to workshopping, freewriting, independent work, and most importantly, reading the work of other, established writers as resources and teachers.  

Secondly, I purposely placed this assignment toward the end of the term, when the workshop members have bonded, created a community, and established a tough, resilient level of trust with each other.  

Thirdly, I have put myself into the mix on a regular basis: I do most of the assignments with the students and present them with my crappy first drafts (I don't workshop them, but I give them my experience with the writing and my own brief critique).  

Finally, for this class, I "taught" my own book, Bad Indians (never having done this before, I was nervous; I didn't want to appear self-serving, but I learned a lot about multi-genre construction through this text, and wanted to pass it on)I presented the book as one of the many sample writings we read, and created an assignment based on the book's collage technique (I call it "The Bohemian Rhapsody Assignment" - like the Queen song, students had to construct a piece out of 3-4 different genres).  I presented myself as a guest author who came to class to read a few of the pieces and to answer questions from them about craft, topic, research, and personal involvement.  To my relief, this went over very well - students liked the faux-interview aspect. This reading was also a way into the topic of race/ethnicity; it makes the issue of race immediate, models how vulnerability is often a key element in creativity and powerful writing, and raises the stakes in terms of investment - I let students see that I am invested in this discussion, that this discussion about race is going on all around them in very legitimate ways.  Bad Indians also signaled a shift into the most intensely personal material that the course was moving towards. 

Most importantly, I chose an amazing text as our exemplar: Claudia Rankine's Citizen.  

In a particularly glorious instance of serendipity, this image broke just as we were deep into Rankine's work:

The woman, later identified as 23-year-old  Johari Osayi Idusuy, is clearly reading a copy of Citizen behind DT.  Not only that, but she is a Black woman making a political statement at a widely televised, recorded event.  The power of Claudia Rankine's text in this context provided interesting fodder for discussion in class!

Some words about Citizen: An American Lyric.  This book requires time.  It is not something that can be read quickly.  It introduces my all-white class to a world in which they are strangers, and they required translation, immersion, reflection, and guided exploration.  We looked at the text over a total of 2 weeks (six class meetings), during which we sometimes simply asked questions and attempted to answer them, focused on the vocabulary necessary to read the book (we started off with a list that included privilege, micro-aggressions, race, racism, and power), and soaked up the multi-genre moves made with photographs, art, white space, different forms of text.  I assigned several interviews with Rankine, including an excellent video interview from the LA Times Festival of Books.  During this time we also did many freewrites, using a line from the book, or an image, as a jumping-off point, or a response to either one.

We also went to Rankine's website to view some of the "video essays" - digital storytelling - that evolved for her out of the work in Citizen, in partnership with her (white) husband, John Lucas.  Clicking on the link "Situations," we were taken into powerful images and events through the lens of microaggressions and invisibilization, silencing and anger.  Rankine's treatment of these situations via video/voice-over/text is intense, and jarring, and dislocating.  Just what I like best.  Analyses of these 'texts' helped prepare students for the power of combining visual texts, audio material, and movement.

This is a great segue into the Digital Storytelling Project itself, moving us from the immersion experience to some articulation of experience in a multi-genre form. 

I'm pasting in the assignment as it has evolved (this is my first time teaching the course, so I'm playing almost everything by ear).  It may evolve some more.  Please write to me and let me know if you try it, what you did differently, suggestions you have, or off-shoots.  One thing I can't emphasize enough is the importance of the 1-minute Practice video; having tried DSP in other courses, I've learned that students will put off exploring iMovie too long, and end up supremely frustrated at 2 a.m. trying to figure it out.  Unfortunately, there's no way to bluff your way through iMovie; either you did the work, or you didn't.  Requiring a Practice video at least a week ahead of time threw workshop participants into the project AND paved the way for an excellent group discussion in class of tips, shortcuts, problems, ideas, and crowd source brainstorming.  (It also alerted me to a student with real concerns about technology, and I arranged for a private tutorial with our IT guy which helped enormously!)  I ended up opening a forum on Sakai for students to exchange questions and solutions outside of class, as well.

At the end of the term, I'll ask students if they'd like their projects to go public.  It's important to me to leave them the option of keeping such personal work limited to the workshop.  But it's also important to me to point out that writing has work to do in the world, and they are part of that work now.

The Race Memoir: Digital Storytelling Project
English 305/”Writing Outside the Lines”
Deborah A. Miranda
Washington and Lee University
Fall 2015

Three deadlines: 
  • 1-minute Practice DSP, screened in class on 11/9 
  • in-class workshopping of your narration for DSP, 11/16 and 11/18
  • in-class screening of your DSP, 11/20

The 1-minute Practice DSP, due 11/9
Familiarize yourself with the DSP resources listed on Sakai: 
  • ONLINE IMAGES-MUSIC-SOUNDS Creative Commons Licensed and Royalty-Free 
  • Using “Audacity” to Record Voice-Overs 
  • Video, Images, and Audio Located on the Library Website 
  • How to Move Your iMovie to an External Drive 
  • 7 Elements of Digital Storytelling (also see

View other digital storytelling projects by beginners!  Watch several times: for content (what’s the story? how much narrative is there?), again for materials (still photos? video clips? graphic lettering? music/voiceover?), again for techniques (transitions effects? pacing? titling?). Write down anything that might work for your own video. 

One of my favorite collections is from TheNative American Health Center. 

View this iMovie tutorial (iMovie 2015; one of many tutorials available on YouTube - Your computer may have a previous version of iMovie; in that case, search YouTube for that version’s tutorial.  It makes a difference); there are also short individual tutorials on specific techniques.  Search for them. 

Create a ONE MINUTE iMovie (or other video software) using the prompt “race.”  Text is not as important as the practice you’ll get, but the text should matter.  You may use freewrites or thoughts about Citizen if you like.  The purpose of this practice video is to allow you to explore iMovie and get a taste for the intensity and time that DSP takes.  Requirements: 

  • Include still photos, a video clip, music, and/or vocal narration. 
  • Try out various transition effects. 
  • Experiment getting text on the screen. 
  • Upload links to your iMovie onto Sakai; use the folder in “Digital Storytelling” file. 
  • During class screening, be prepared to share specific challenges, explain techniques, and brainstorm with your workshop peers!

AND . . . 

The DSP Project, due 11/20: We’ve spent two weeks reading and discussing Citizen as creative writers, scholars, and members of the same nation and culture from which Rankine writes.  You now have:
  • a notebook full of freewrites and writing assignments about her book, the online videos by Rankine that complement Citizen, your responses, your own life and subject position.  
  • a digital collection of collage materials you’ve been saving up: scanned still photos, newspaper articles, music or sound effects, archival items, ephemera and video clips relating to your topic.  These can be your personal items combined with those from the internet, library collections, Creative Commons materials, etc. Since you’ll be using a MacLab computer all or part of the time, store them in the cloud for easy access (use W&L’s Box if you don’t have your own storage). 
Utilize these materials to help generate your Race Memoir. Your goal is to craft a finished piece of written material that you can use as narration for a Digital Storytelling Project of about 3-4 minutes duration.  If your written piece ends up being longer than your DSP can accommodate, make sure you can excerpt a section of it for your DSP that holds up alone.  
You will turn in a hard copy of your written narration/memoir as well as a fairly polished draft of your DSP.  (You will be able to revise both before turning in as part of your final portfolio for the class, but what you screen for us on 11/20 should be a solid nearly-finished effort that reflects the amount of time we’ve put into this project). 
Your final project will be a 3-4 minute DSP that speaks to your personal experience with race and/or ethnicity.  What have you experienced?  What have you witnessed?  What are your concerns?  What are your realities?  How do race and/or ethnicity impact you as you walk through your daily world, either here at W&L/Lexington, or back home, or in your life as an athlete, choir member, daughter/son, employee, bystander, customer? 
iMovie Workshop: 

We have a REQUIRED basic iMovie workshop with IT meister Brandon Bucy scheduled for Friday, November 13th, during class time.  Meet in MacLab 101 at Leyburn Library.  Brandon will also give you a quick tour of the library’s Video Editing Suite and explain how to check out headset microphones which also give good audio when connected to a computer. 

[If you want to use a different software with which you are already familiar, that’s fine.  See Brandon for any questions that come up. Attend this workshop anyway for the DSP techniques discussed.] 

Remember to store your digital collage materials in the cloud or on W&L’s Box for access during this workshop; you’ll be using your own materials.   

You may also contact Brandon Bucy for an individual help session, or send him a quick email with a question, at .  He’s available and ready to assist!

1 comment:

  1. Deborah, I really love your work. Would you consider writing a post for THE MIX- ( about your course? Carol Hand (Anishinabe) and I co-edit this blog weekly.


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