Best of 2009: Article, Book & Conference

The prompt: What's an article that you read that blew you away? That you shared with all your friends. That you Delicious'd and reference throughout the year.

Again, I'm going to "cheat" kind of and combine two of the prompts so I can get a bit closer to catching up.

This was an interesting one to think about. Especially because I don't make a lot of time to read articles and essays the way I used to. Most of what I read is online and I admit I don't use any kind of social bookmarking system to keep track of it, though I probably should. Most of what I passed on to my friends came in the form of videos, like this one:

What I love about this video is probably obvious to those of you who know my feelings on Twilight and its problematic messages for young girls about love and romance and gender roles. Jonathan McIntosh, the video's creator writes about his reasons behind making the video here. He says,

As an aspiring feminist guy, I wanted to speak out about issues of sexism and gender oppression in media but I wanted to do so carefully and intentionally. That’s why I chose to focus my critique on Edward’s patriarchal behavior in Twilight rather than on Bella’s actions. I didn’t feel it was my place to lecture her on desire (even in remix form), especially since her character is already disempowered by the original screenplay to the point of absurdity. [...] I would like to say that the video is not intended as a stab at the fans. Rather, it’s an argument against the specific way in which romance and gender roles are constructed in the Twilight series. Ultimately, Buffy’s triumph over Edward is only one small part of much larger story: the story of our collective journey towards a world of gender equity and empowerment.

In a year full of Twilight-mania, particularly with he release of New Moon videos like McIntosh's helped remind me that there are voices out there interested in having conversations about why we, as readers and viewers, react so strongly to these representations even though many of us (academics) are not the target audience for the books or films. It's nice to find something bold and brave as a statement and explanation, something to which I can point when students and friends ask for my opinions and feeings about Twilight.

On to books: What book - fiction or non - touched you? Where were you when you read it? Have you bought and given away multiple copies?

It's fitting, I think that I talk about Scott Westerfield's The Uglies series which I finished reading this year. I spent a lot of the summer reading for fun. I was at my parents' house in Florida and had finished a book on the plane so I was looking for something to read. I'd told my mom about Westerfield's series after I read The Uglies for the first time. Since she had all the books, I decided to re-read The Uglies and finish the series. As I was reading, I felt as though Westerfield's stories were the tonic to the Twilight-craze. I traveled to Daytona to score AP exams, taking one of the books in the series with me. I was glued to these books, reading at breaks, lunch, and any other free time. So, I ended up talking to a lot of high school teachers about what I was reading. I hope I persuaded some of them to check it out, perhaps even teach it.

I also read Man Martin's Days of the Endless Corvette which was familiar, sad and hilarious. I really enjoyed this novel for its charming and eccentric characters. It's thoughtful and moves beyond just mixing a bunch of crazy folks together. As a Southerner, the tones and subtleties of Martin's prose feel like coming home. There's an ease to this story, a feeling of authenticity which says a lot about how Martin feels about and his skills at storytelling. There is so much here, it is hard to encapsulate. Though the book was published about 2 years ago, it's still a best of 2009 to me.

Here's an excerpt .

Because it's one of the most well written books I've read I'll mention Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor, which is probably on many industry best of lists. I think it deserves to be there; Whitehead is a damn good writer. This story, this coming of age kind of story is easy to screw up. It can be too self-indulgent, too nostalgic, too formulaic. Whitehead's story is none of those things. Just when you think it might be tipping to that point, you hit the real, emotional part of the novel. It's hard to do this story justice. And while there is tragedy and drama, there's also humor and political commentary. It's about so many things and yet there's no big moment where everything changes; it's like many of our own stories: it just kind of is. We live our lives and we look back and we think about summers and moments and being a teenager but none of us write it quite like Whitehead.

Sadly, it seems like most of the books above I read this summer, which means I haven't read much since classes started. What I did read was academic in nature for research projects on which I'm working. One project was for the FemRhet Conference in East Lansing, which is by far the best conference I attended in 2009. I enjoyed it mostly because it was a chance to be a student again, to learn from colleagues in the field and to reconnect with old friends. The presentations jump started some ideas for me, ideas I hope to build on as I work on other projects. It was a much needed intellectual kick and yet a break at the same time.

well designed vs. clever

Recently, in my visual design class, students pitched their designs to a client. I was impressed with all of the designs, particularly for the students who had been struggling who managed to bring it together for the presentation. The students really got into the project and I think having a client provide feedback was good experience for all of us. What I found, though, was the client responded to clever wording or phrases or pictures immediately. (S)he kept using the word, "clever" in describing some of the design choices and I agree that the students were being clever in some of their rhetorical choices. Some that were clever were not as well-designed, though with too much or not enough white space or with poor font choices, for example. The students who drew each element themselves, the ones who I think have the most design potential, were applauded for their technical abilities, mostly, despite the fact their designs were also creative and innovative. I guess they just weren't clever enough in their tag lines. Ultimately, the client will choose one of the designs to use for marketing purposes.

I started thinking about how often design principles underplay the appeal of cleverness. When I ask my students to recall advertisements they've seen recently, many of them remember clever marketing campaigns or funny lines, which is to be expected. The question remains, however, in terms of visual and digital design particularly is whether something can be both clever and well-designed or does one come at the expense of the other?

Obviously, the context of the work you're producing might privilege cleverness but design still has to be important, doesn't it? I have some investment in this, of course, both as a teacher and a designer. I want quality design to be important, to be the factor when deciding between one design or another. But I know that I, myself, have been wowed by creativity, by cleverness. I suppose clever design can also be good design but I don't think a clever tag line makes up for poor design. These are some things I'm thinking about as I sit at the Watson Conference in Louisville and listen to Janet Murray and Kate Hayles debate about electronic literature, which was quite fascinating and hilarious.