Dr. Jason W. Ellis' Blog on Science Fiction, Cognition, Computers, LEGO, and Pedagogy
Author: Jason W Ellis
I am an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.
I like Syncthing, the continuous file synchronization program. Syncthing helps me pickup and continue my work regardless of the device I happen to be using, because it synchronizes my files across all devices. Think Dropbox but on my own hardware.
Also, I like tiny, low-power computers, like the Raspberry Pi 2. The Raspberry Pi and other lightweight computers demonstrate how even small computers are powerful enough for servers and desktop computing.
When Dropbox became more bloated with the new app design and refusing to offer a lower cost tier for those of us with modestly lower file synchronization needs, I began using Syncthing to create a folder of files synchronized between my desktop computer (at home) and my Surface Go (laptop used at work). I’ve been wanting to add a third node in my personal cloud storage solution, in part as an exercise in Linux and tiny computing and in part as another safe repository of my files. So, it made sense to combine my use of Syncthing with my enthusiasm for tiny computing by adding a third node to my Syncthing setup with a $10 Raspberry Pi Zero W (RPi0).
I picked up a RPi0 version 1.1, a C4 Labs Zebra Zero Black Ice Case with heatsink from Microcenter using their curbside pickup, which cost about $26 total.
I setup the RPi0 as a headless computer, meaning that it doesn’t have a monitor or keyboard attached. I will configure and control it remotely over my LAN.
Before turning to the software and preparing the microSD card for the RPi, I assembled the case and installed the heatsink on the CPU. A case for the RPi0 wasn’t necessary, but I thought it prudent to get one for two reasons: 1) I have a cat and a small thing with a wire sticking out might be enticing, and 2) I plan to leave it on all the time, so a heatsink like the one included in this case kit will help dissipate heat produced by the RPi0’s CPU.
Before powering up the RPi0, I downloaded Raspbian Lite (a lean version of the Linux-based Raspbian OS for the RPi), balena Etcher (to burn the installer image to my microSD card), PuTTY (to SSH into the RPi0 to configure, administer, and install software), and Apple’s Bonjour network printer software (to easily connect to the .local hostname of the RPi0).
Since I installed Apple’s Bonjour software as part of Mitch Allen’s instructions above, I was able to easily connect to the RPi0’s Syncthing web admin page by going to “raspberrypi.local:8384” on my desktop’s web browser.
Before setting up Syncthing to sync files, I wanted to lockdown the web admin page by going to Actions > Settings > GUI where I checked “Use HTTPS for GUI” and added a “GUI Authentication User” and “GUI Authentication Password”.
As a test, I rebooted the RPi0 and confirmed that Syncthing launched automatically at bootup and confirmed that authentication was required to access the web admin page remotely.
Also, I made sure that I had Syncthing running on the desktop computer and the RPi0. Due to some initial problems with syncing, I unlinked my desktop and Surface Go from syncing, and moved the files and folders out of my default sync folder so that the sync folder is empty to begin with.
Then, I added a remote device to Syncthing on my desktop PC and on the RPi0 (both installations of Syncthing have to have the other device added).
First, on each computer (in my case, the desktop PC and the RPi0), click “Add Remote Device” on the Syncthing web admin page.
Second, on the “Add Device” screen that appears, type in the Device ID of the other computer. In my case, Syncthing auto-suggested the Device ID of the desktop PC when I was configuring the RPi0 and vice versa since these devices are on the same local area network.
Third, click on the “Sharing” tab on the “Add Device” screen, and check all three boxes: Introducer tells connected devices to add devices from the other synced devices, Default Folder is what folder is being shared, and Auto Accept will automatically include new folders created or shared within the default shared path. Finally, click “Save.”
After adding each other device on each Syncthing installation, they should begin syncing the default folder. I added one file back on my desktop PC to test this. After that file synced on both devices, I added my files back and they began syncing with the RPi0.
The final step in my setup was to add the Surface Go as another remote device. After starting Syncthing on the Surface Go, I added it to the desktop PC and I added the desktop PC to the Surface Go’s Syncthing configuration. While the Surface Go began copying files, the RPi0 added the Surface Go as a remote device automatically. Now, all three devices sync my files.
A better configuration would be to have the RPi0 off-site so that my files would be protected from burglary or fire. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend Syncthing as a foolproof backup solution that gives you the same sense of security as off-site storage unless you can arrange to have your files off-site (then, I would recommend going further than what I did and have your RPi0’s drive encrypted to protect your files should the off-site device be compromised).
For my purposes, using Syncthing on two work-focused devices and one tiny RPi0 computer server gives me some peace of mind through an additional layer of redundancy.
Now, I want to explore what else I can have this RPi0 do as a headless server!
Looking ahead to the New York City of Print NEH Summer Institute, I wanted to collect some notes and resources together for Science-Fiction-focused locations around the city, including the original Manhattan-based offices for the magazines Amazing Stories and Astounding Science-Fiction, and home and business locations in Brooklyn of importance to the SF writer Isaac Asimov.
John W. Campbell, Jr., who oversaw the so-called “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” joined Street & Smith Publications as the third editor of Astounding Stories in 1937. Located at 79 7th Avenue, the Street & Smith office building where Campbell made his office for a number of years remains largely unchanged as seen in Google Street View from how it appeared in this photo from 1931 and its 1940 Tax Photo (albeit sans the Street & Smith sign).
When the Asimov family came to the United States in 1923, they moved into their first apartment at 425 Van Siclen Avenue, in the East New York section of Brooklyn. In the summer of 1925 they moved one block away to an apartment at 434 Miller Avenue. They moved half a mile eastward in December 1928 to another apartment at 651 Essex Street, above the second candy store bought by his father. In early 1933, they moved to an apartment on Church Avenue, and after a brief stay there they moved to an apartment above yet another family candy store, at 1312 Decatur Street, in the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn. In December of 1936, Asimov’s father sold his third candy store and bought his fourth, at 174 Windsor Place, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, and the family moved to a house across the street.
Due to COVID-19, City Tech (and all of CUNY) shifted its in-person classes to online, distance learning instruction. In this post, I reflect on my current class’s transition to distance learning, show how I have configured my office and computer for screencasting and video conferencing, describe some software and services that support distance learning, and give instructions for uploading a video to YouTube.
My Transition to Distance Learning
For my current Science Fiction (ENG2420) class, this was not too much of a disruption, because I was already leveraging online technologies to support student learning and course material accessibility. I designed the course as a zero textbook cost class, meaning I find resources that I can make available to students via PDFs and handouts, and choose readings that are available freely online, such as the unparalleled Archive.org.
Also, I redesigned some of the course assignments to emphasize the importance of note taking by teaching good note taking practices and evaluating students on the quality of their notes. To support this, I recorded each lecture during our earlier in-person classes and posted them on YouTube after class ended, so that students could use the videos to fill in gaps in their notes and allow those students who missed a class to make their own notes based on the video lectures.
I collect student work via email and on OpenLab, “an open-source, digital platform designed to support teaching and learning at City Tech (New York City College of Technology), and to promote student and faculty engagement in the intellectual and social life of the college community.” I joined the OpenLab team as a co-director of the project this year, but I have been using OpenLab in all of my classes since joining City Tech in 2014.
Now with classes meeting asynchronously online, I have tweaked assignments and the schedule to accommodate students accessing materials and completing their assignments. I hold office hours once a week at a regularly scheduled time via Google Hangouts, and I can hold private office hours by appointment with students. I use email to respond to questions and concerns on a daily basis.
Now that I have reconfigured a space in my apartment to support my class and the many other online meeting responsibilities that I have with OpenLab and other projects, I wanted to share some tips and ideas to help others transitioning to facilitating their classes with distance learning.
I know how easily distracted I am by busy backgrounds, I wanted to provide as neutral a space for my lectures and online meetings. To this end, I appropriated my apartment’s closet as a distance learning and video conferencing studio.
I positioned the Logitech C615 webcam so that I am centered in the frame when video conferencing or recording myself lecture. Above the camera, I positioned a white light to illuminate my face.
I arranged the desk so that my back would be against a solid white wall as pictured above looking from behind my monitor towards where I would be sitting facing the monitor and webcam.
Notice that I taped a small piece of cardboard above the webcam. This blocks glare on the camera lens from the light above that illuminates my face. I was careful to cut and position it so that it is out of frame of the camera lens. Depending on your webcam, be careful not to cover the microphone if you build a similar lens shade.
To the side of my desk, I have a larger lamp that points against the wall and behind me. This reduces my shadow from the desk lamp in front of me.
The end result looks like this:
Software and Online Services for Distance Learning
As mentioned above, I use email and the OpenLab for interacting with students, disseminating materials, and collecting student work. And, I am using Google Hangouts for regular office hours since it is a far easier lift for students than official CUNY supported video platforms like Skype and WebEx.
To create my class lectures, I do the following things.
First, I create a presentation slide deck using Slides in Google Docs.
While presenting my slides in full screen mode, I use OBS Studio, a “free and open source software for video recording and live streaming” that supports Windows, Mac, and Linux, to record a video of my desktop (the Slides presentation) and my webcam video and audio in a smaller picture-in-picture that positioned in the lower right corner of the screen, which produces a video like my recent lecture embedded below.
Before I can post the video to YouTube, I like to edit it (though, editing isn’t absolutely necessary). I like to use Shotcut, a “a free, open source, cross-platform video editor.” After trimming the video, I then upload it to YouTube, get the video’s sharable link, and embed the video with the link in my class’ OpenLab site.
OBS Studio and Shotcut have steep learning curves, but each have extensive online documentation and there are communities of users online who share tips and advice about how to setup and use these powerful tools.
In some cases, you might not even need a computer. iPhones with iOS and Android phones can use video recording software that’s built-in or with an app to record and edit video, and there’s a YouTube app for both platforms that you can use for uploading the resulting video.
In the next section, I will show you step-by-step instructions for uploading a video made on a computer to YouTube.
Uploading a Video to YouTube
Once you have a video ready to share with students, the following step-by-step guide for uploading your video to YouTube shows you how to upload and share a link to your video.
First, navigate to YouTube.com and login to your account. Then, click on the camera icon in the upper right corner and then click “Upload Video.”
Second, drag-and-drop your video from your computer into the center of the window that opens, or click on “Select File” to navigate to and select your video file on your computer.
Third, while your video is uploading and processing (updates are shown along the bottom edge of this window shown above), fill out the Title and Description boxes and choose a thumbnail for how the video will initially display before the play button is pressed. Then, scroll down the window.
To comply with the COPPA law, select if your video is for kids or not. Then, click Next in the lower right hand corner.
Fourth, you can skip the options on the Video Elements screen and click Next in the lower right corner.
Fifth, select the Visibility option for your video. The most versatile choices are Public (this is what I choose) and Unlisted. In these cases, you will have a sharable video link that you can send via email or easily embed in a webpage. Private is also an option, but you have to choose who is permitted to see the video, which requires students having a Google account and you knowing those accounts to grant permission to each one. After making your selection, click Publish in the lower right corner.
Finally, highlight and copy the video link on the resulting screen, or click on the copy icon on the right to automatically copy the video link to the Clipboard. Click “Close” on the lower right to return to your list of videos on YouTube. With the link on your Clipboard, you can go to email, OpenLab, or another platform to paste and share the video link with your students.
On OpenLab and WordPress-based sites, pasting the link into a post or page will automatically embed the video so that students can simply navigate to your class site and watch the video on the class site instead of going over to YouTube as an additional step.
If you’re working on transitioning your classes to distance learning, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and frustrated like Miao Miao below. Just don’t give up. We’re doing good work for our students, and it takes time to think through and implement distance learning. Also, it’s okay to let your students know that this is a work-in-progress and things might change based on what works and what doesn’t.
Mark Noonan, my colleague at City Tech, is running an NEH Summer Institute on the topic, “City of Print: New York and the Periodical Press.” I’ll be contributing to the Digital Methods Workshop on Wednesday, June 24 with my experience working on the City Tech Science Fiction Collection and using digital tools to make archival materials available to students and researchers. See the link below for all the sessions and apply to join us in Brooklyn!
City of Print: New York and the Periodical Press
(NEH SUMMER INSTITUTE) (June 21 – July 3, 2020)
New York City College of Technology-CUNY will host a two-week NEH Summer Institute for college and university faculty in the summer of 2020 (June 21 – July 3).
Applications to participate will be accepted via our online application system until March 1, 2020.
The Institute will focus on periodicals, place, and the history of publishing in New York. As an institute participant, you will take part in discussions led by cultural historians, archivists, and experts in the fields of American literature, art and urban history, and periodical studies; participate in hands-on sessions in the periodicals collection of the New-York Historical Society; visit sites important to the rise of New York’s periodical press, such as Newspaper Row, Gramercy Park, the New York Seaport, the East Village, and the Algonquin Hotel; and attend Digital Humanities workshops.
You will also be asked to read a rich body of scholarship and consider new interdisciplinary approaches for researching and teaching periodicals that take into account the important site of their production, as well as relevant cultural, technological, aesthetic, and historical considerations. Sessions will be held across New York City including New York City College of Technology, the Brooklyn Historical Society, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Pace University, and the New-York Historical Society.
We encourage applicants from any field who are interested in the subject matter. Scholars and teachers specializing in periodical studies, journalism, urban history, art history, American studies, literature, and/or cultural studies will find the Institute especially attractive.
Independent scholars, scholars engaged in museum work or full-time graduate studies are also urged to apply.
On Thursday, 9/19/19, the OpenLab, which I joined as a Co-Director this academic year, is hosting an Open Pedagogy event on “Beyond the ADA” at City Tech in the Faculty Commons at 4:30pm. We will lead a discussion about issues of access, including those related to disabilities, while looking beyond compliance to dynamic, inclusive, and supportive pedagogies that enrich learning for all students. OpenLab’s theme for this academic year is “Access.”
While reading through the suggested texts informing the background of our discussion, I reflected on my personal, workplace, and classroom experiences relating to access.
My first memory of disabilities relates to my Uncle Pat. After returning from Vietnam, he started a family in Walnut Grove, Alabama and worked for the railroad. While at work cutting an in-service rail, another truck accidentally bumped his truck, which ran over him and left him a quadriplegic. On visits, I saw first hand how he overcame him disability through mobility with a puffer-controlled electric wheelchair, but the constraints of 24-hour nursing care and accessible buildings were also obviously apparent. Nevertheless, he always trounced me at chess–I just had to setup the board and move the pieces.
In my hometown, Emory Dawson was another quadriplegic that I knew through Boy Scouts. His injury originated from the Vietnam War and he had some shoulder mobility, which enabled him to drive his own van with the aid of a suicide knob and special controls for brake, throttle, and shifting. In addition to Scouts, Mr. Dawson was involved in many social groups and charities, and he led an active life to support them. I don’t know if it was *the* factor in its construction, but a fellow Scout took on the building of a concrete wheel chair ramp for a rank-level project at Troop 224’s hut in the back of Lakeside United Methodist Church on 341 Highway and Mr. Dawson visited our meetings on occasion.
When I worked in Technical Support at Mindspring Internet in Atlanta, Georgia, I was tasked with working with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing via a telecommunications device for the deaf (TDD). With a single line of LCD text and a running paper tape, I communicated with deaf customers to solve their technical support issues. Unfortunately, many customers had their TDD in a different room, different floor, different part of the house, than their computer. This introduced a tremendous lag between what I wrote questioning or instructing and their response following a result. Also, I was given this extra task to supplement my lower-than-expected phone support numbers (It’s my understanding that Mike McQuary pushed raw number of support calls over the quality of calls and successful resolution of customer issues–valuing quantitative measures over the qualitative effects of those measures on customers and employees). So, I was on the phone with one customer and on the TDD with another customer. Over time, I got better at switching my attention between customers, but more often than not, the customers on the TDD got the short end of the stick as my phone call numbers were given priority by management (QA Brian: “You’ve got to take more calls or you’ll get fired.”). It was an unfair situation for the deaf and hard of hearing customers.
When I began teaching, I worked with a student on the autistic spectrum. This was a challenging situation for the student as the reported accommodations couldn’t support their success in the classroom, and I took it on myself to provide additional support to help the student progress in the course. I was advised that there was only so much that I could do to support the student, and I should have, in retrospect, dialed back my professional involvement. Nevertheless, this student did help me recognize another side of student needs and the impediments to access that students on the spectrum encounter. I have adjusted my syllabi to be more accommodating to students–self-reporting or not–through multiple activities and assignment adjustments on a one-by-one basis (as long as course learning outcomes are always met).
Another student had a severe vision impairment and had reported accommodations, including a phone with magnifying app for reading text and a student volunteer note-taker. While the classroom and supporting material could be adjusted to support the student when present, outside life prevented the student from attending some classes. This led to testy encounters between myself and the note taker, who felt their time being wasted, and follow-up conversations between myself and the student to facilitate peace between the student and note taker so that support would be maintained. Of course, life outside of school was creating a different kind of access problem for this student–getting to campus was a hurdle in part due to the student’s vision problem and the issues that can come up in one’s personal life that lead to problems, such as not having someone to help you navigate from home to campus.
I’ve come to realize that there are things that I can do to help as an instructor–those things that I have control over, such as pedagogy, syllabi, assignments, activities, and one-on-one support, and there are many other things outside the classroom that I don’t have control over. Also, the Open Pedagogy event conversation and the work that we can do together to increase access and lower barriers–in the classroom, online, on campus, and in our lived world–for students and faculty with disabilities is something that we must endeavor to accomplish.
An Astounding 90 Years of Analog
Science Fiction and Fact: The Fourth Annual City Tech Science Fiction
Date and Time: December 12, 2019, 9:00AM-6:00PM
Location: New York City College of Technology, 285 Jay
St., A105, Brooklyn, NY
Almost 90 years ago, Analog
Science Fiction and Fact began its storied history as one of the most
important and influential SF magazines with the publication of its first issue under
the title Astounding Stories of Super-Science. During that time, its fabled
editors, award-winning writers, recognized artists, and invested readers played
roles in the development of one of the longest running and renowned SF
magazines, which in turn, influenced the field and adapted to change itself.
The Fourth Annual City Tech
Science Fiction Symposium will celebrate “An Astounding 90 Years of Analog
Science Fiction and Fact.” It will feature talks, readings, and discussion
panels with Analog Science Fiction and
Fact’s current and past editors
and writers, and paper presentations and discussion panels about its extensive
history, its relationship to the SF genre, its connection to fandom, and its
role within the larger SF publishing industry.
We invite proposals for 15-20 minute paper presentations that explore
or strongly relate to Analog
Science Fiction and Fact. Please
send a 250-word abstract with title, brief professional bio, and contact
information to Jason Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org)
by September 30, 2019. Topics with a connection to Analog Science Fiction and Fact might include but are certainly not limited to:
of the magazine’s editors, writers, and relationship to other SF magazines.
of the magazine to the ongoing development of the SF genre.
themes, and concepts in the magazine.
of identity (culture, ethnicity, race, sex, and gender) in the magazine.
of color in the magazine.
writers in the magazine.
and the magazine.
studies of cover and interior artwork.
and the magazine.
approaches to studying the magazine.
and the Humanities bridged in the magazine.
approaches to teaching SF and/or STEM with the magazine.
This symposium is held in
partnership with Analog Science Fiction and Fact and its publisher Penny
Publications. It is hosted by the School of Arts and Sciences at the New York
City College of Technology, CUNY.
The Annual City Tech Symposium on
Science Fiction is held in celebration of the City Tech Science Fiction
Collection, an archival holding of over 600-linear feet of magazines,
anthologies, novels, and scholarship. It is in the Archives and Special
Collections of the Ursula C. Schwerin Library (Library Building, L543C, New
York City College of Technology, 300 Jay Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201). More
information about the collection and how to access it is available here: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/sciencefictionatcitytech/librarycollection/.
I had the distinct honor to join the conversation about science fiction and society on Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio Show on May 30, 2019 (season 10, episode 22). The episode is about Creating Science Fiction, with Gale Anne Hurd, the producer of The Terminator and The Walking Dead. I shared some thoughts on Hugo Gernsback’s formula for “scientifiction,” H.G. Wells and Sir Ernest Swinton’s legal fight over the modern battle tank, the power of SF to engage social issues and debate, and my personal, lifelong relationship to SF. You can listen to the episode here or embedded below:
About the episode from the StarTalk website:
The Terminator, The Walking Dead, Aliens, and a lot more. Those are just some of the producing credits for this week’s main guest on StarTalk Radio. Neil deGrasse Tyson sits down with producer-extraordinaire Gale Anne Hurd to explore what it takes to bring great science fiction to life. Neil is joined by comic co-host Chuck Nice, science fiction expert Jason Ellis, PhD, and volcanologist Janine Krippner, PhD.
Because science fiction comes in many different forms and through many different avenues, there are many ways to get into it. You’ll learn how Gale’s childhood love of Marvel comic books and science fiction novels translated into a career “making what she likes to see.” She tells us how she served as a science fiction consultant to her local library to make sure their stock was up to date. Jason shares why not being able to see Star Wars in the theater sparked a rebellious love for science fiction.
You’ll hear about the history of science fiction and how it combines the STEM fields and the humanities. We debate if science fiction informs the future of every technological invention. You’ll find out about a lawsuit H.G Wells brought upon military figureheads because he claimed they stole his idea from one of his science fiction stories. Explore using science fiction as social commentary. Discover more about the famous kiss between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura, and how William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols purposely flubbed takes to make sure it stayed in the episode.
We take a deep dive into Dante’s Peak as volcanologist Janine Krippner stops by to share her take on the film. She explains why she thinks it’s still the best volcano movie even with its flaws. Gale gives us a behind-the-scenes look on how she fought for even more scientific realism to be in the film but encountered pushback from the studio. Neil also confronts Gale on the famous scientific inaccuracies of Armageddon. Chuck shares his love for The Expanse, we discuss Interstellar, and Neil tells us about his involvement in The Europa Report.
Lastly, you’ll also find out the differences between creating science fiction for television and film. According to Hugo Gernsback, the father of science fiction, sci-fi should be 75% romance and 25% science – is that still the goal? All that, plus, Jason caps it off with a story on how he was criticizing the film Sunshine right in front of director Danny Boyle’s family.
My Aunt Lettie Ann Cook passed away on May 17, 2019. I flew to my hometown to fulfill her request that I speak at her funeral and serve as a pallbearer. Her husband of 54 years, William Cook, who I knew as Uncle Doc, had preceded her in death in 2015.
They were both good people, who I and many others miss. I am reminded of fun-filled childhood pool parties at their house–one being particularly memorable during which I used a snorkel face mask for the first time and I played with my cousin Mark’s bad-ass Boba Fett action figure. That was probably around 1981. Or, learning from Aunt Lettie Ann how she made ceramic sculptures. Or, learning from Uncle Doc how to melt lead for my pinewood derby racer, use a scroll saw and drill press, and work with wood to make storage chests and other things. Or, enjoying cookouts featuring Aunt Lettie Ann’s great home cooking at their house after they moved from Brunswick to Hortense. And above all, reveling in their open door hospitality.
Uncle Doc died suddenly in 2015, and I was regrettably unable to return for his funeral. Before Aunt Lettie Ann died, she asked my dad to help me fly down and speak at her funeral as I had done for my Granny Ellis in 2012. The week before last, I said these words for her:
Remembering Aunt Lettie Ann
My dad tells me that my Aunt Lettie Ann had asked him while she was still lucid that I speak at her funeral. I’m saddened that it’s on this occasion that I am speaking with you today, but I consider it an honor to do this small thing for her.
I wanted to begin by sharing with you a seemingly mundane yet meaningful dream that I had three weeks ago, the night after I learned Aunt Lettie Ann was back in the hospital. To be honest with you, I don’t put much truck in dream visitations or other forms of clairvoyance, but this dream’s timing and content unnerved me.
The dream begins with me standing in the foyer of Aunt Lettie Ann’s fine house on Baker Hill Road. I see her descending the steep stairs slowly and carefully with her hands clutching the railing, but her face is beaming, and she says that she’s so glad to see me. After sharing a big hug, she tells me that I need to eat. Leaving me to sit at the extended dining room table with low sunlight entering the windows, she fusses in the kitchen to quickly prepare something for me. Then, while plying me with her delicious home cooking, she asks, how are you doing, how’s my sweet pea—that’s Yufang, my wife, what are you both up to? Answering her questions, I never got to ask how she was before I was suddenly awake.
That dream lingered in my mind throughout her ordeal. I hoped that it was more like a good memory than a kind of goodbye. I can say that it brought back many happy memories of Aunt Lettie Ann showing her unconditional love and care, such as birthdays and Christmases, visits to see her when I was at home from school or work, and times that she hosted me when Uncle Doc, who you might have known as Bill or Wilbur or grandpa or dad—helped me on Scouting projects. And, it reminded me how she demonstrated her love and care in other ways, such as wanting to know how you are and what you’re up to—listening equally about your triumphs and failures, your good health and bad, and even your daily trifles—before sharing her own, in which she emphasized the positive over the negative and made light of her own troubles; needing to take care of you and make sure that you’re comfortable and well fed; giving deeply personal gifts—in fact, thinking to get Christmas presents for our cats Miao Miao and Mose who she didn’t even have a chance to meet; and above all else striving to make you feel loved and special. However, Yufang told me that it is more than that—the feeling of being loved by Aunt Lettie Ann remains with you even after you say goodbye and you carry her love with you wherever you might go next. I think she’s absolutely right.
I share with you all a tremendous sadness that Aunt Lettie Ann is no longer here to love and care for us. I know we will all miss her great big hugs, her delicious cooking and get-togethers, and her looking out for us. However, I am deeply heartened to know that her love is still all around us, because we each carry it in our hearts and memories. I encourage you to cherish Aunt Lettie Ann’s love as a celebration of her life, an enduring remembrance of who she was, and a reminder of the kind of person who we should all strive to be.
During today’s class, we will conclude your discussion of Marjane Satrapi’s two groundbreaking graphic novels, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2000 and 2001/English translation 2003) and Persepolis 2 (2002 and 2003/English translation 2004).
First, I need to give you two reminders:
–Round 3 of blog posts are due by midnight on May 9 from Clifford, Andrew, Marla, and Sandra. The rest of the class has until midnight May 14 to post their comments. If anyone is missing any of their previous blog posts or comments, they also must be completed by midnight, May 14. A reminder for the students: these instructions and the blog schedule are on our OpenLab site.
–Their research projects are due at the start of class on May 14. They will need to have their bibliographic sheets ready for submission, and the order of individual presentations will be randomly-determined at the start of class. They can access the instructions for this assignment, as well as a template for the bib. sheets, on our OpenLab page.
Now, to begin our discussion today, let’s consider the relationship between private histories (individual and familial) and public histories (recorded, published, recognized, shared).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines history as:
A written narrative constituting a continuous chronological record of important or public events (esp. in a particular place) or of a particular trend, institution, or person’s life.
This is a broad definition of what we usually think of as history. On the one hand, it includes “record of important or public events” as well as “a person’s life.” The former tends to mean the events that shape all of our lives, such as presidential elections, wars, and national tragedies. It is recorded in newspapers, magazines, journals, books, documentaries, and other media. The latter switches from larger events to the individual. Of course, biographies and autobiographies of celebrities, politicians, scientists, etc. are about individuals and they concern the larger history that shape our lives as those recognized individuals contributed to our society and culture in some way–good or bad. But it can also be about individuals like you and me. It can be about families, too. The stories of these private histories are pass along through oral traditions (storytelling) and recorded in oral histories (recordings of interviews with persons and families about their experiences, struggles, and memory of events), life writing (diaries, journals, letters, postcards, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies, and today, social media and other digital writing).
Considering these two meanings of history, let’s call the “record of important and public events” a public history and the smaller scale history of individuals and families a private history. Let’s explore the interaction between these two types of history. Rosenzweig and Thelen present one way of framing the relationship between public and private histories:
When we approach the more familiar content of academic history, we need to investigate how in their intimate relationships individuals used and did not use, went along with and defied larger “historical” trends. At this level the dichotomy between “intimate” and “national,” public and private, dissolves into dynamic and reciprocal interaction. Respondents more often mentioned public experiences than private ones as the most formative of their lives, but they mentioned those public events most often as intimate experiences. What they remembered was the personal contexts in which they engaged the public events (teachers and students in a fifth grade class weeping when they heard of Kennedy’s assassination) or their own participation in those events (fighting in a battle in World War II). They often drew personal meanings when they recalled public figures as the most important individuals in their lives. In distinguishing between those experiences that still live in active memory, passed on orally from individual to individual because people believe that they continue to provide meaningful anchors for the present, on one hand, and those experiences now remembered only in writing—in books, written by professional historians—Pierre Nora draws a more important distinction than that between personal and national pasts. What matters is whether something lives for participants in the present.
In other words, walling off public from private pasts doesn’t make sense. When not forced to choose between family and national pasts, half the respondents who wanted their children to learn their family heritage also wanted their children to learn their national heritage. They connected these heritages, intimate with public, each time they toured a museum or visited a site with family or friends, each time they reenacted a battle or showed objects they had collected to others. They named both national figures and family members as influences; about the same number of people in the national sample (24) named John F. Kennedy as a formative influence as named their grandfathers. Many worried about how larger historical developments—economic insecurity, waning of discipline—might have eroded the family, turning it into a source of disintegration instead of support. Respondents gave meaning to large phenomena like immigration or economic depression by describing how they had changed and been changed by passage through those experiences.
A fundamentally historical culture centered on individual participation would invite members to explore just how individuals conform to and resist larger historical trends, how the rhythms and narratives of family life fit or do not fit those of changing power and institutional arrangements in the larger society. It would envision individuals as more than examples of large and impersonal cultures and institutions. It would take seriously how they live lives and meet needs in relationships driven by forces different from those that power institutions and cultures. (Rosenzweig and Thelen 196-197).
Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life: Columbia University Press, 1998.
Rosenzweig and Thelen explore the relationship between individuals’ private histories and the larger public histories, the larger events, that they experienced. They find that private and public histories inform one another–the former giving context to the latter. They interact in deeply personal ways that shape the memories of ourselves and those around us. Public history influences private history, and public history is captured in private history in complex ways.
Rosenzweig and Thelen mention Pierre Nora, whose work might be helpful for our thinking about the private histories and public histories, or put another way, memory and history.
Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic-responsive to each avenue of conveyance or phenomenal screen, to every censorship or projection. History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism. Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again. Memory is blind to all but the group it binds-which is to say, as Maurice Halbwachs has said, that there are as many memories as there are groups, that memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand, belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claim to universal authority. Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects; history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and to relations between things. Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative.
At the heart of history is a critical discourse that is antithetical to spontaneous memory. History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it. At the horizon of historical societies, at the limits of the completely historicized world, there would occur a permanent secularization. History’s goal and ambition is not to exalt but to annihilate what has in reality taken place. A generalized critical history would no doubt preserve some museums, some medallions and monuments-that is to say, the materials necessary for its work-but it would empty them of what, to us, would make them lieux de memoire. In the end, a society living wholly under the sign of history could not, any more than could a traditional society, conceive such sites for anchoring its memory. (Nora 8-9)
Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire.” Representations, 26, 1989, 7-24.
An important term that Nora uses is lieux de memoire. What does this mean?
[A] lieu de memoire [site of memory] is any significant entity, whether material or nonmaterial in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community. (Nora xvii)
Nora, Pierre. “Preface to English Language Edition: From Lieux de memoire to Realms of Memory.” Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, edited by Pierre Nora, Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. xv-xxiv.
Lieux de memoire or sites of memory are invested with history by our shared experiences and memory of events in the past. They are communal, but the memory supporting the site (whether it is material like a place or nonmaterial like a story, language, or tradition) depends on the sustenance of the memory by individuals sharing and passing on the memory across time. A lieu de memoire is a kind of in-between of public history and private history that depends on individual memory, which takes the place of the milieux de memoire:
Our interest in lieux de memoire where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred at a particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn-but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists. There are lieux de memoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de memoire, real environments of memory. (Nora 7)
Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire.” Representation, no. 26, Spring 1989, 7-24.
The milieux de memoire or real environments of memory are the places, cultures, and events lost to the past that, because of changes in the world from when those things represented the idea now held (the lieu de memoire), no longer represent or correspond to that past. Some examples that we can discuss include baseball, the World Trade Center, and Persepolis [the place in Iran].
The disconnection between the milieux de memoire and the lieu de memoire points the way to our forgotten past. Some of our past is selected to be recorded as public history by historians (and others) based on a variety of criteria and influences, including politics, ideology, hegemony, research interest, etc., while other parts of our past are de-emphasized, erased, and not selected. Private history, or the history of individuals and families, plays such an important role in our better understanding of the past that gets left out of public histories.
Marjane Satrapi combines private history and public history in her autobiographical graphic novels, Persepolis and Persepolis 2. Loren Baybrook writes about it in these ways:
The color fades, and the story of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 unfolds as a contest between private history, which pulls her back to her family, and public history, which has pushed her so far from them. (Baybrook 1)
Marji’s alternation between individual conscience and group consciousness, between private and public history, points, then, to the deeper culprit of civic ruin. (Baybrook 2)
Less militantly and didactically, yet still in that vein, Uncle Anoush affirms to Marji the public ideal of enforcing a “society of justice and freedom”. But only his personal history—a tale of conspiracy and death and escape, but also, as if the film is visually resurrecting the mythic promise of The City of Persians, a tale of Anoush’s journey back to the land of butterflies, floating snowflakes, flying fish, and birds presiding over the destiny of Persia—only this history actually matters to his young niece. Why? Because, as Anoush tells her, she herself matters to that history: “family memory must live on” through her. He gives her a miniature swan to seal her promise “never to forget” this intimate bond to individuals. And then comes a montage of other families’ private histories to affirm this lesson in civics. (Baybrook 2)
Persepolis is a history of private voices surviving—or not—amidst the public ones. (Baybrook 2)
In the passages above, Baybrook explores how Satrapi’s private history is intertwined with the public history in interesting ways. For example, the Islamic Revolution in Iran is ultimately what leads to her leaving her homeland and living in Austria, and the private history of her experiences in Austria (that she doesn’t share with her parents but entrusts to the reader) leads her back to her homeland and the ongoing unfolding of its public history. Additionally, her private history (such as falsely accusing the man looking at her as saying something indecent to her) says something about the individual’s potential to be the oppressor in relation those oppressing her. Finally, the importance of Uncle Anoush’s message to her–“family memory must live on”–gives power and importance to private history. Anoush recognizes that so much of what was happening in Iran before and after the Revolution would be erased from public history. It is within those who live and witness can remember and pass on what they remember so that the private history can challenge, enrich, and correct the official public historical accounts.
Public history and private history are intricately interconnected. Public history helps us make sense of and anchor our private history, while private history gives important context to the public history that one lives through and configures the world we are born into by its having created the setting, characters, and props of our individual history’s stage, which reminds me of one more thing from Shakespeare:
Jaques to Duke Senior:
All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden, and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side, His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (Shakespeare 2.4.1118-1145)
During the final phase of today’s class, we’re going to compare some passages in the graphic novels and their animated film adaptation Persepolis (2007), directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.
What do we mean by the term adaptation? An adaptation is the active recreation of a source text in one medium (e.g., a graphic novel) into a new medium (e.g., an animated film). It can be thought of as a translation of a story from one medium to another, because different languages can imply similar meanings but how they do so in terms of sentence structure, vocabulary, and idioms is quite different.
Each medium has its own unique affordances and constrains. A graphic novel includes images drawn and inked arranged in panels across pages with words providing dialog, interior thoughts and emotions, and narration. The images and text work together to tell the story. Like a graphic novel, an animated film uses images, but instead of being static, they are moving images. Action that might otherwise be implied in static drawings in the graphic novel are given movement, life, and energy. Instead of having to read text as in the graphic novel, the animated film uses character dialog and occasional narrative voice-over. Nonverbal changes of expression are fluid instead of jarring as in the graphic novel. Body language and tone of voice, cadence of speech, and emphasis of speech provide richer and nuanced meaning that might get left out of the graphic novel. Unlike a graphic novel, the film uses music–orchestral soundtrack and popular music–to imply emotional content, set the tone of a scene, and provide cues to the audience of the intensity or pace of a scene.
Now, let’s look at some specific scenes together and discuss them.