• 2013-2014 Winner: “The Limits of Applying Ethical Theories to Literary Analysis” by Joanne Kim

    Date: 2015.04.06 | Category: Uncategorized | Response: 1

    The Limits of Applying Ethical Theories to Literary Analysis

    While philosophy and literary studies are two entirely different academic disciplines under the humanities, ethical theories can be extremely useful in justifying the stance we take in moral issues brought up in literary texts. Ethics mainly works towards evaluating the moral permissibility of actions in nonfictional scenarios; however, the treatment of the fictitious characters and plot in literary texts as having verifiable existence allows us to use the ideas of philosophers in interpreting complex issues presented in novels. For example, applying ethical theories to Toni Morrison’s Beloved enables us to use a methodological approach in thinking about the moral permissibility of Sethe’s attempted murder. For this paper I have chosen the two theories of Kantianism and Utilitarianism, due to their contrasting deontological and consequentialist viewpoints that enable us to see two vastly different ethical approaches to this issue. I argue that while the Utilitarian and Kantian approaches to determining the moral permissibility of Sethe’s actions initially appear to lead to contrasting conclusions, both theories condemn her action. The novel, however, presents a much more ambivalent picture of this issue, and the limits of the ethical approach to fully capture this ambiguity is due to its unjustified deeming of historical context and the identities it forms as irrelevant. First, I will give a basic summary of the two theories and use passages from Beloved to apply their logic onto this situation. By addressing possible objections to each application, I will illustrate how the contrasting ethical theories both lead to the same conclusion. Finally, by looking at the novel’s own approach to this moral issue through its treatment of the murder scene, I will explain the limitations of employing this ethical approach.

    Kantianism is a form of deontological ethical theory, which judges a given action not by its consequences, but rather by its adherence to given rules. Its central philosophical concept is the categorical imperative, which states that one should only “act according to the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become universal law” (Kant 30). The second part of the categorical imperative states that human beings must not be used as a means to an end, but rather as ends in themselves, meaning that they must never sacrifice themselves or sacrifice others for themselves. We have a duty as rational human beings to understand our maxim, or the motivation behind the action, and to ask ourselves whether we would truly want it to become universalized. Because we must act out of duty, the categorical imperative remains in force over subjective considerations and specific circumstances. Utilitarianism, unlike Kantianism, is a consequentialist moral theory, meaning that actions are evaluated solely on its consequences. John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham are the greatest contributors to the development of utilitarianism. The doctrine’s Greatest Happiness Principle states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill 21). Mill argues that when calculating measurement of utility, and performing what he calls hedonic calculus, both the quality and quantity of the pleasure or pain that the action causes should be put into consideration. In short, all actions should be directed towards achieving the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people.

    A Kantian would argue that Sethe’s attempt at murdering her children was not morally permissible. While he does not directly address the killing of one’s own children in his text, we can apply his statements regarding suicide into this situation. He applies the categorical imperative and identifies the maxim behind suicide as wanting to end one’s life out of self-love when the predicted future threatens more evil than it promises satisfaction (30). He argues that this is not permissible because it violates the second part of the categorical imperative; by taking your own life, you are using yourself as a mere means to achieve your end of reducing suffering. We can apply this to Beloved’s murder because Kantian theory, as it is a form of deontology, evaluates an action based on the motives behind it. Sethe’s maxim behind attempting to kill her children is the same maxim that would prompt suicide. For example, when explaining in detail what happened on the day Schoolteacher came to take his slaves back, she explains that her “plan was to take [the whole family] to the other side where [her] own ma’am is” (Morrison 240). She is referring to where souls go in the afterlife, as her mother has long been dead. Like Kant’s example of someone considering suicide, her maxim behind her action is wanting to end her children’s’ lives due to her belief that staying alive promises much more suffering than it does any happiness. Because the moral permissibility according to Kantian theory is based on the motivations behind the action, we can apply Kant’s explanation for how suicide goes against the categorical imperative to this scenario. Sethe’s action is wrong because it uses not only herself, but also her own children as mere means to achieve the end of escaping slavery.

    One possible objection to the above argument could be that her action is a considered form of paternalism. Kant argues that one “cannot do good to anyone according to [one’s] definition of happiness (except to the young children and insane)” (453). Sethe truly believes that happiness is impossible to achieve in an enslaved state. When Beloved tries to make her mother pay for the handsaw, Sethe tries to explain by describing the almost inexplicable horror that is slavery: “That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through it and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own.” (Morrison 295)

    Because she truly believes that slavery is the worst possible state to be in, she acts according to her own definition of happiness in killing her children. The objection could be that since Beloved’s young age qualifies her as an exception to Kant’s statement and therefore enables Sethe to morally apply her definition of happiness onto her daughter. However, this objection does not work according to Kant’s definition of paternalism. Paternalism consists of two elements: interfering with one’s autonomy and doing it to benefit the patient. (Kant 76). While Sethe does impose her definition of happiness on her children, her actions cannot completely qualify as paternalistic because murder would not benefit Beloved, as it is failing to respect her as a person. This objection fails because we see by Kantian logic that her action is morally impermissible due to its inability to treat her children as ends in themselves, which again violates the second part of the categorical imperative.

    In order to approach this moral issue from the ethical standpoint of Utilitarianism, we must shift our attention from the maxims behind her action to the consequences brought on by Sethe’s action. During her stream of consciousness after realizing that Beloved is the reincarnation of her dead baby, Sethe explains to the Beloved why she had to kill her. She explains that if “she hadn’t killed [Beloved] she would have died and that is something [Sethe] could not bear happen to her” (Morrison 236). Whether Beloved’s anticipated death is literal or a way to describe the horrors of slavery is not explicit; however, Sethe still believes that the experiences that her daughter would have had to endure were more painful and that ending her life was a way to spare her that pain. By evaluating her decision through a utilitarian perspective, her action seems to be justified because she acted according to what she believed would reduce the overall quantity of pain by sparing her children of the incomparable agony brought on by slavery.

    This can be complicated, however, with the failure of Sethe’s foreseen consequences to match up with the actual consequences. Not only did Beloved fail to get to a happier place, but Sethe’s action may have arguably caused more misery for a larger number of people. Paul D certainly believes this to be the case, as he claims during a debate with Sethe. As he argues, he tries to get her to understand the immorality of her actions by reminding her that her “boys gone…one girl dead, the other won’t leave the yard” (194). While her children have not had to endure slavery, her attempt at murder has brought pain to the community and affected a larger amount of people by invoking a sense of fear both in her children and community. This brings up a problematic aspect of classic utilitarianism, which is the issue of how much consideration should be given to foreseen and actual consequences. Bentham clarifies this issue by explaining that “it is not to be expected that this process [his hedonic calculus] should be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgment” (Bentham 128). The principle of utility is not to be used as a procedure or decision-making guide that can be consciously applied to help make choices, but rather as a criterion for determining the moral permissibility of an action. That is not to say that the Greatest Happiness Principle should not be considered in the process of decision-making, but rather that the actual results following an action are what must be considered during its evaluation. Therefore, this objection is successful in showing that utilitarian principles would actually consider Sethe’s murder of Beloved wrong because of the criteria’s consideration of actual consequences.

    While the application of these two ethical theories indicates that Sethe’s action was very clearly unjustified, the novel takes a much more ambivalent stance. This inconclusiveness is presented when Beloved’s murder scene is being described. While there are many parts throughout the text where the reader is enlightened as to what Sethe’s crime was, it is not described in detail until later. When the schoolteacher and his entourage arrived at 124, they see Sethe in the shed where is in the process of killing all of her children. She was the most valuable slave but was no longer worth taking back since “she’d gone wild, due to the mishandling of the nephew who’d overbeat her and made her cut and run” (Morrison 176). Through attributing her clearly deranged actions to her past, the novel portrays Sethe as a victim of the trauma that left her feeling like there was no other choice. Kantianism and Utilitarianism consider this history of slavery extraneous, as the entire branch tends to disregard historical context and investigate situations as individual scenarios. The novel, however, considers her victimization as extremely relevant. The novel is not, however, in anyway justifying her action and claiming it is morally permissible, but rather portraying it as a complicated ethical issue. What is right and what is wrong is not the main question; this distinction is both senseless and meaningless in this context. Unlike our previous application of Kantianism and Utilitarianism, there is much more ambiguity regarding the situation.

    Sethe’s logic behind her decision to murder her children can be represented as the use of the Greatest Happiness Principle because she believed that she was reducing the overall quantity of pain her children would have had to endure had they been brought back to Sweet Home. Despite the fact that her reasoning is utilitarian, Utilitarianism would still condemn her action as wrong because of its consideration of not the foreseen consequences, but rather the actual effects. Kantian ethics provides another way of determining the justifiability of her actions. While the employment of Kantian logic nonetheless leads to the same position on this debate, it does so by showing how Sethe’s actions violate of the second part of the categorical imperative that prohibits the use of anyone as a mere means. Both deontological and consequentialist ethics, despite the fact that they are very contrasting in the criterion they use to evaluate the moral permissibility of an action, lead to the same conclusion. The novel, however, takes a much more complicated stance, where right and wrong have very little perceived meaning. This difference is due to the fact that the historical context of slavery and Sethe’s identity as a victim that is a result from her enslavement are considered extraneous according to the ethical theories. Because context is important from the perspective of literary studies, the deeming of historical context and identity as irrelevant is problematic. This reveals a severe limitation of using an ethical approach to this issue, as it fails to capture to true complexity and ambiguity of moral justifications through its approach to ethical issues as individual scenarios.



    Works Cited:

    Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907. Print.

    Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993. Print.

    Mill, John Stuart (1906). Utilitarianism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. Print.

    Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Print.











  • 2012-2013 Winner: “A Defense of the Legalization of Homosexuality in China” by Junmeng Zhu

    Date: 2013.12.17 | Category: Uncategorized | Response: 0

    A Defense of the Legalization of Homosexuality in China

    Homosexuality was accepted in Chinese history and major Chinese literature. However, there has never been a time like now when this complex issue is exposed to the society directly, igniting controversial debate. Since there were considerable and various historic, social, governmental, cultural causes, the issue is now becoming really complex. Some people detest gay people violently because they think homosexuality is a mental disease, which is a misunderstanding. Except for those who totally cannot accept it, interestingly, most Chinese people take a position of acceptance but do no support of legalization. Importantly, it is the traditional culture of “family” that makes people so anxious when talking about homosexuality. However, with the research on homosexuality having gone on in China, it is now the time to make it possible to legalize homosexuality in China. Although it must be admitted that China is lacking for several conditions to establish a complete law system for homosexual community, homosexuality should still be legalized in China for four reasons. First, since homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality, it should be protected by statute laws like heterosexual relationships are. Also, it should be legalized for the responsibility on the heritage of the valuable Chinese traditional institution: respect and acceptance, which is even more important today.  Third, legalization is needed because of the uptrend of visible homosexuals and their urgent needs of legal protection. Lastly, there will be considerable benefits gained from the legalization of homosexuality.

    In order to understand the problem of legalization of homosexuality in China, it is important to address the context of the debate first. Basically, there are two main reasons why Chinese society is against homosexuality. First of all, the misunderstanding of homosexuality is a problem in China when achieving the legalization of homosexuality. Though there are many scholars who concentrate on research of homosexuality in China now and they are showing efforts to make the Chinese public notice and admit the existence of homos, it is still really hard for the whole society in China to actually know them. Some Chinese still have the impression that homosexuals are abnormal. Certain amounts of people think homosexuality is a kind of mental disease or disorder. Some even think homosexuality can be “cured” by some medical treatments. This misunderstanding is a pity, in that it shows that even though China has become the second economically strong country, its humanistic construction is still incomplete. The mistaken impression of the LGBT community is difficult to change because of the absence of mainstream media, such as newspaper, TV programs, and radio in the homosexual issue and the absence is from the ambiguous position of Chinese government. A solution to solve this problem is to let media have legislative evidence to make their argument, not always ignoring this issue. Thus, the legalization of homosexuality is really important and the Chinese government should start doing this. It is natural to be homosexual. The idea that homosexuality is abnormal should never become a reason why some people are against it.

    Second, the influences of ethical and philosophical systems have blocked the legalization process in China. In America, a great number of people who are offended by homosexuality are influenced by their religious beliefs, which built their moral rules toward many issues. However, since China is not a country with a particularly or historically homophobic culture, the most influential view that blocks the society’s moral permittivity of homosexuality is the strong conviction of family meaning parents and children.  The deep conviction about family is a result of the culture of Confucianism that dominated Chinese official and mainstream values in the long history from Han Dynasty to Qing Dynasty. In one of the representative works of Confucianism Daxue(The Great Learning), the family is put on the second place in the process of achieving a man’s political dream just after a series of steps to refine onself (修身齐家治国平天下) (Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought, 3). The influence of Confucianism is so profound. In the article China The Greenwood Encyclopedia of LGBT Issues Worldwide , there is a true statement about the current Chinese social situation: “ The institution of marriage is so deeply rootead in China that sometimes marriage becomes a public matter instead of a private matter: parents worry about it; neighbors talk about it; colleagues offer suggestions, and everyone looks for different ways to be helpful.”  (Steward 361)You can imagine, for homosexual people, how high the pressure is. To contrast the idea of ,“family”, the purpose of a partnership is not only procreation, but also the exclusive commitment with your partners. Can’t homosexual people form a normal family? The answer is yes, and to achieve this, the admission of their relationships in law is necessary. They can have a family with a commitment from two partners, and they can have children. Some people are worried about the risk of raising a child for homosexual couples. However, they do not need to and an example proving this is given. There is a popular speech video on supporting the legalization of same sex marriage in Iowa State on weibo (Chinese micro blog).    It was delivered by an excellent student Zach Wahls at University of Iowa who was raised by a lesbian couple. He states, “my family isn’t actually different from yours. Not once have I been confronted by an individual who realized independently I was raised by a gay couple because the sexual orientation of my parents has zero impact on the content of my character.” Homosexual couples have the ability of raise a child as usual and the fact that they are gay does not influence their children to be gay. Consequently, a responsible government should offer the legislation on homosexual partners’ relationship in order to provide them with a chance to form a real family.

    Furthermore, there are several main reasons defending the legalization of homosexuality. First of all, homosexual love is also from human nature. Homosexual people will meet someone in some situation. They will get to know each other. They will feel a passionate sentiment toward the right person, and then form the thought in their mind to spend the whole life with that person who has the same gender. However, the love is the same as heterosexual one. Love is just love, without reference to genders. Dr. Michael J. Sandel, best known as the Professor of an online Harvard course named “Justice,” affirms that “the love of humanity is a noble sentiment.” Love is one of the most wonderful things in the world making generations of people expect it since the start of history. Since marriage is an institution that honors, recognizes and protects love, if love is present, it should be legally protected in the form of marriage. Thus, the legislations should protect homosexual and heterosexual relationships equally.

    What’s more, it is special that in Chinese history, the acceptance of homosexuality is greater than in Capitalist countries. This is mainly because China does not have a religion that opposes homosexuality. Referring to many historic records and literature in different historic time in China, there are a number of instances of homosexuality that are accepted by people centuries ago when China was still an autocratic country. For example, recorded in the great work of Bangu, a famous historian in Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), one day the emperor Ai (reigned 6 BCE–1 CE) woke up next to his favorite same sex partner Dong Xian. The emperor got up, however his sleeve was pinned by Dong. The emperor thought he could not wake his favorite up. So he cut his sleeve to go. The term “断袖”(cut sleeve) then refers to homosexuality in China. These relationships were not only accepted but also recorded as admirable stories. Since ancient time, Chinese people have had the institution of respect and acceptance. What Chinese should do is to preserve the good institution. Since China is in a much more developed society than ever before and since the role of legislation is a symbol of a well-developed country, China should agree to legalize homosexuality.

    In addition, there is an urgent need for the legalization of homosexual relationships because of an uptrend of visible homosexual people and a society that still has discrimination against gay people in many areas. The internet plays a significant role in the campaign of queer people. The internet offers a place to let homosexual people be visible in a relatively private and safe way. The internet is so powerful a place that homosexual issues are discussed. There are websites for gay people to gather, there are blogs defending the legalization of homosexuality, and there are homosexual couples telling their stories. With the increasing number of visible homosexuals, homosexuality is no longer so minor that the whole society and the government do not realize it. The formation of the new term “出柜” particular for homosexuals means the visible trend that homosexual people are braver than ever and they tend to tell their family and friends about their sexual orientation someday in a more proper way.  Also, Youjian Wu who is a mother of a gay and now an activist who helps gay people “出柜” in a proper way is evidence that there is a need of some kind of recognition or help from homosexual people. They strive for equal rights. The reason why there is an urgent need is also because the visible homosexual people are under discrimination. So far, in China, there is no such discrimination to death like Americans did in the history. However, if you are gay, you will be under the risk of losing your job, the situation of losing your, “friends”, and the possibility of a break out from your nuclear family. Those are things that are more severe than physical abuse. To achieve a peaceful social condition without fear for them,having a clear legislation of the admission of homosexuality is necessary. Though at first the legislation may not totally prohibit those abuses, the law at least can be a proof when their rights are abused and when they are unequally treated.

    More importantly, the legalization of homosexuality brings many benefits to homosexual people and to family relations. First, it can contribute to reduce health problems, mainly HIV\AIDS for gay people. Yinhe Li, one of Chinese most famous sociologists and sexologists states in her blog that more than 40% of HIV was transmitted by heterosexual contacts and only 5% was transmitted by homosexual contacts in China. However, the problem is that 5% is higher than the proportion of homosexuals in the society. With the limited permittivity and without the guarantee of legislative authority, gay people cannot find their stable partner. Suppose homosexual relationships and gay people’s rights are protected by law like heterosexual relations. If they need to perform responsibility to their partner and if their rights are protected, they would like to keep a stable relationship too. In addition, with the legalization of homosexuality, gay people will tend to be more visible, so that there will not be tragedies that the heterosexual partner of homosexual people find out their partner is homosexual after they have married each other. These heterosexual partners are innocent, but they must undergo the miserable experience because their partners do not have the right to declare their sexual orientation under high pressure from family or the society. According to the two benefits, Chinese government should enact a statute for homosexuality.

    Though there are ideas both for and against the legalization of homosexuality all over the world, there are certain people think that government should get out of the business of any kind of relationship or marriage no matter whether it is heterosexual or homosexual because, they think, government can never represent every single person in the society and the government does not have any rights to impose a general idea to its citizens. However, the recognition of a relationship needs to be completed by governmental law since a marriage or a legal relationship is not only a personal choice but also a social recognition and honor. It is true that family is about a core value of your own family, but since we live in a society together with other people, the acceptance and the others’ blessings become important. Especially in China, governmental decisions have more meaning than American ones under the special situation of Chinese democracy. Hence, it also becomes much harder to let the government respond to these complicating and contested issues. Thus, recognition of the government in China is pretty important for homosexuals. They need the legal support to define their social position in Chinese society.

    There is some homosexual people share or talk about their experience online in some groups where the supporters of them will also go to.  There is a desperate situation that when there is a boy saying that he happens to like a boy. Most of the responds are saying “decide after think it over. The way is so hard to go. ” These comments are from those supporters. Can you tell how sad this is? Even the supporters are not confident about the future of the homosexual people and they are subconsciously persuading the people to abandon their love towards the same gender. In reality, the situation reflects the famous Chinese saying: “We are like the fishes living in the dark, deep sea where no one can get close to us so that we can protect ourselves.” If the society cannot rationally accept homosexuality, hopefully, legalization of homosexuality can promise them a better future. Under the complicated social situation on the issue of homosexuality, a more realistic suggestion is to enact some minor statutes referring to homosexuality and gradually enlarge the content of them.

    Work Cited

    China. Hongwei Bao. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of LGBT Issues Worldwide. Ed. Chuck Stewart. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. p355-373. Word Count: 9868

    Zach Wahls. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/blogpost/post/zach-wahls-iowa-student-with-two-moms-discusses-life-post-viral-success-video/2011/12/01/gIQAaUrsGO_blog.html January 31, 2011

    Michael J. Sandel http://www.justiceharvard.org/2011/02/episode-12/#watch

    Yinhe Li.同性恋与艾滋病(Homosexuality and AIDS)2012-11-30 http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_473d53360102eqfm.html. Blog. Web.

    Indiana University, Early Chinese Thought [B/E/P374] – Fall 2010 (R. Eno)

  • 2012-2013 Winner: “Does What You Like Define Who You Are” by Malie Fujii

    Date: 2013.12.17 | Category: Uncategorized | Response: 0

    Does What You Like Define Who You Are?

    The reliability of one’s popular culture preferences as true indicators of his or her identity is a matter that relies heavily on perspective.  Some view an individual’s cultural interests as insignificant factors in determining identity, pointing instead to innate elements of character as the traditionally dominant mediums of personal definition and asserting that common interests among groups do not always signal a universally definable identity. However, when approached from a perspective that focuses on individuals rather than culturally-categorized groups, preferences can provide revealing information about an individual’s character, ultimately serving the external purpose of communicating and facilitating interpersonal understanding amongst individuals. With change being one of few things that holds constant in today’s increasingly diverse cultural landscape, personal definition is more important than ever. As society morphs from a unified picture of traditional Americanism into a vastly varied medley distinguished by difference and dissimilarity, individual identity has entered into the spotlight of social scrutiny, with historic emphasis on unanimity and conformity now holding less of a presence in modern culture. This newly diversified state of society calls for a new and necessary means of social unity. With the spotlight on this modern emphasis on individualism, the nature of social and individual identity composition is important to clarify: interests define identity not by creating it, but by reflecting it.

    When considering “what you like,” it is important to think about the scope of an individual’s preferences rather than zeroing in on just one particular tendency of interest. It may be easy to single out a person as a sports fan, a Beatles fan, or a science fiction fan, but shallow labels like these cannot even begin to provide a holistic depiction of an individual’s ideology. As Gary Westfahl claims in his article “Ways of Defining Personal Identity, and Popular Culture: Two (Largely) Unrelated Subjects,” while “one might imagine that science fiction enthusiasts would at least be united in supporting the American space program,” the diverse reactions within the sci-fi community in response to events such as the Columbia space shuttle tragedy suggest that although fans may have similar interests, their individual points of view vary significantly (Westfahl). Because different people hold varying stances on a multitude of facets of popular culture, only a consideration of the multiplicity of an individual’s interests can provide an accurate understanding of the forces acting on a person’s identity. It is this notion of individualized multiplicities of interests that subverts attempts to apply universal assessments of character to seemingly monochromatic groups.

    While the implications of what you like are important to our investigation of identity, it is also necessary to enunciate the process of how exactly these interests define who you are as an individual. One could argue that an interest defines a person by directly accounting for changes to his or her character.  However, the acquisition of this interest must be called into question; an internal foundation of identity was likely responsible for assessing this new popular culture interest and embedding it into this person’s essence of character. Consider an individual brought up in a Christian household who listens to contemporary Christian music. It is difficult to argue that this person’s interest in Christian music is the direct source of his or her religious identity, since chronologically, their Christian upbringing preceded their preference for Christian music. Rather, based on this individual’s upbringing, their music preferences make sense; their religious background is the foundation upon which their subsequent musical taste is built, with this individual’s interest in Christian music pointing to valuable information about their identity. Instead of creating character traits, popular culture interests serve as symbolic indications of one’s inherent identity and provide a method for clarifying an individual’s character based on what one’s various interests imply and define about oneself.

    In contrast with the notion that cultural interests define character by serving as vehicles of individual symbolism, Westfahl argues that only in extreme cases of fandom and scholarship can people be accurately defined by their popular culture interests. In Westfahl’s view, only scholars and fans who are “utterly devoted to varieties of pop culture” are truly definable by the areas in which they focus their attention; popular culture scholars dedicate their entire careers to their mainstream literary concentrations, while fans sometimes become so enveloped in their interests that they engage in extreme behavior such as when “they fill their homes with Miami Dolphins memorabilia, attempt to own every single Barbie doll ever produced, or collect thousands and thousands of detective novels” (Westfahl). According to Westfahl, these scholars and overzealous fans comprise a limited exception of the population whose identities could be predicted based on their interests alone. This element of predictability stems from the extensive time and resources that these individuals dedicate to their popular culture interests, thus making their tastes a more visible part of the identity they convey to society. However, this take on how interests define identity is inconsistent with the concept of interests as symbols of identity that was discussed previously. In the extreme case of fans and scholars, rather than seeing interests as reflections of character, Westfahl sees interests as primary determinants of character. While it is accurate to say that a person may become engaged in a certain type of behavior due to that behavior’s relation to the individual’s main interests, it is more important to note that a person’s inherent character, values, and desires still function as the core foundation from which interests are developed. One wouldn’t know how to assess and acquire interests without a sense of their own self-concept to begin with. Therefore, tastes in popular culture define individuals in a way that describes who they are rather than decides who they are. Although a group may share a common interest, the group generally does not have a uniform ideology that can holistically define its members. With this reasoning, Westfahl concludes that popular culture interests are irrelevant in revealing details about individual identity. Yet, while it is true that not all people who share a common interest share similar beliefs, even on seemingly one-sided issues, we must furthermore investigate the multiplicity of interests that are acting on each individual and their role in defining identity. Consider the television series Glee. While fans of Glee all share the Gleek name, they each hold a different stake with regard to their interest in the series, bringing personal ideas and values about gender, race, sexuality, and other social matters to their viewing experience. These fans can be identified collectively as Gleeks, but beyond this title, they differ greatly on an individual basis in views, interests, and most importantly, identity. With varied influences and components to their identity, individuals within a group undoubtedly differ on certain issues, but still share basic identity elements in common based on their mutual areas of interest. Ultimately, Westfahl’s attempts to apply universal assumptions to diverse groups and to completely dismiss the significance of popular culture interests fail to expose the complexity of an individual’s identity and the factors interacting with it.

    While Westfahl’s broad definition of identity ignores the complicated nature of modern character, a view that focuses on the individualistic state of society more accurately describes how preferences define people. On an individual level, internal forces play a key role in defining who you are based on what you like. People are not exclusively reactant; often the environment that one lives in and the values one has acquired throughout life provide an individual with a core foundation for defining who they are. When confronted with new issues and factors in the popular culture world, an individual’s existing sense of identity examines these external stimuli, assessing whether they are a match or mismatch for a person’s character. It is in this way that interests define characteristics of individuals; interests acquired in this case-by-case basis symbolize a person’s traits, forming a mosaic of individual identity. For example, it can be inferred that a person with strong feminist views is likely to revere a culturally significant woman—Tina Fey, for instance—and reject the antifeminist sentiments of mainstream rappers whose lyrics often depict women as objects of the male gaze. While character assumptions like these do not necessarily imply universal relevance, this illustration reveals that popular culture tastes are often strongly linked with a person’s core identity and beliefs; it is highly unlikely that this individual formed a feminist viewpoint purely because they were influenced by Tina Fey and rap alone. Instead, it is more reasonable that their perspective is determined by internal values and beliefs, which then act as a filter for external cultural influences.

    In addition to the notion that existing internal forces facilitate the acquisition of relevant interests, another important implication of popular culture tastes is that they are valuable tools for communicating identity to others. Brian Cogan, in his article “Pop Culture and Individual Identity,” claims that cultural tastes hold meaningful information about identity. He argues that members of large groups, whether in sports, science fiction, or straight edge, all prove the importance of the influence of popular culture in facilitating socialization among likeminded individuals. Identifying with certain aspects of popular culture conveys different elements of one’s personality to others; in other words, mutual interests serve as a common language with which like-minded individuals can communicate their identities. For example, Cogan describes the straight edge ideology, a subculture of punk rock that emphasizes a substance-free lifestyle, as a popular cultural movement in which likeminded members of the punk rock community see straight edge as a “system where they can feel at home with others with…common belief systems” (Cogan). These individuals adopt the ideology and practices of the straight edge way of life, sometimes even marking their hands with X’s in order to identify themselves with the movement. This simple display of membership to a larger cultural community is more than just an expression of oneself as an individual composed of unique interests; it is simultaneously an external method of communication that allows others in the straight edge movement to recognize common beliefs. Mutual popular culture tastes not only reflect intrinsic beliefs on an individual level, but furthermore facilitate open communication and expression within communities, conveying valuable information about who individuals are in a broader cultural context.

    While some believe that what you like does not define who you are, it is unfair to assess the impact that interests have on identity by looking for group uniformity amongst individuals affected by a multiplicity of popular culture stimuli. It is also inaccurate to describe popular culture preferences as insignificant in defining character, as tastes serve as meaningful reflections of an individual’s own beliefs and values. A person’s identity can be symbolically defined through their preferences due to the fact that their internal sense of identity caused them to acquire their unique preferences in the first place. These elements of character are in turn reflected externally as the tastes in popular culture that are observed by society and communicated within it. Interests act as expressions of identity that allow people to unite over common tastes and the implied beliefs that accompany those tastes, leading to perceptions of group unity, despite seemingly overwhelming diversity. Ultimately, rather than dismissing popular culture interests as uninformative factors of personal identification, we must recognize the key role they play in revealing and expressing the character of individuals.

    Works Cited

    Cogan, Brian. “Pop Culture and Individual Identity.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

    Westfahl, Gary. “Ways of Defining Personal Identity, and Popular Culture: Two (Largely) Unrelated Subjects.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

  • 2011-2012 i.e. Winner: “The impact of tangible evidence” by Rebecca Eskildsen

    Date: 2013.01.18 | Category: Uncategorized | Response: 0

    The impact of tangible evidence


    “What greater superstition is there than the mumbo-jumbo of believing in reality?” –The Lady’s Not for Burning, Christopher Fry

    “What man of us has never felt, walking through the twilight or writing down a date from his past, that he has lost something infinite?” –Paradiso, XXXI, 108, Jorge Luis Borges


    Seeing is believing.  Most people consider that cliché to be true.  In a scientific world, empirical reasoning is often more convincing than theoretical or magical reasoning and even psychological disorders are understood only if they come from a clear succession of events or interactions.  Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” and Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph,” both exhibit various degrees of tangible magical evidence.  Although great influence on a character is generally considered the result of a tangible occurrence, I argue that when dealing with magical realism, intangible aspects in a character’s life have a more powerful impact than tangible ones.

    First, the tangible aspects within the two stories must be defined.  Webster’s Dictionary defines tangible as being “definite or concrete; capable of being realized” (Morehead 667).  Márquez describes the angel with such synesthetic imagery that the reader can picture the angel as seen by Pelayo and Elisenda, with rumpled, dirty wings that are crawling with bugs.  The angel is nearly bald and toothless (Márquez 348).  Márquez’s angel is a supreme example of the contradiction inherent in magical realism.  Considering the typical image of an angel as a heavenly creature, the embodiment of perfection, this angel, while still a magical being, is realistic because of the description of his appearance.  Because of his vivid imagery, Márquez eliminates all possibility that the angel is a mere hallucination or dream to the villagers in the story, and thus the angel is tangible.  On the other hand, Borges’ Aleph is considerably more intangible in contrast to the angel.  As a point that is not seen, but rather is apparently perceived within the imagination, the Aleph is not concrete enough to be fully tangible.  Although Carlos Argentino Daneri believes the Aleph exists in his basement, and tries to bring the character Borges to it, there is no physical manifestation of its being.  However, Borges does make a valiant attempt to understand the Aleph, which is the realization aspect of the definition, bringing up the question whether the Aleph is even capable of being realized.  It appears that while it might be possible to realize the Aleph within the mind, it is not possible to then express that understanding, which will be explained in more detail later on.  With the angel defined as tangible and the Aleph as intangible, the affects of tangibility on the surrounding characters can be examined.

    A marked difference exists between the impact of the magical presence on Borges the character versus on Pelayo and Elisenda.  Upon encountering the angel, the presence of his wings baffles them, causing them simply to ignore the wings entirely and come to the mundane conclusion—due to his accent—that he must be a lost sailor.  Whether their ignorance of angels is due to simplicity or to incomprehension of what they believe illogical is unclear.  Either way, they are hardly affected by the manifestation of magic in the form of an angel, despite the tangible evidence in their backyard.  In contrast, Borges does not attribute the Aleph to anything physical and yet he analyzes it as if he did have tangible evidence.  Despite its intangible nature, the Aleph left the character Borges with more memories and information than he could handle.  Overwhelmed, he entered into a state similar to post traumatic stress disorder:

    In the street, on the Constitución stairs, in the subway, all the faces struck me as familiar.  I feared that not a single thing was left to cause me surprise; I was afraid I would never be quit of the impression that I had ‘returned.’  Happily, at the end of a few nights of insomnia, forgetfulness worked in me again. (Borges 243)

    The most prominent effects of the Aleph, in other words, grip him with fear at the prospect of having to hold in his memory every face and every name, the image of every place and work of art, the ideas of every man and their consequences.  This fear is born out of intangible images within his mind, but it is no less powerful than the fear of being permanently blinded by looking into the too bright sun.  The Aleph has a numbing affect on its victims, temporarily paralyzing their minds.

    Language is also a tangible translation of the more powerful and chaotic thoughts that we wish to express.  In his article, “Magical Strategies: The Supplement of Realism,” Scott Simpkins claims that language attempts to bridge the chasm between reality and realism, especially magical realism, and that it comes close, but it can never truly express the tiny nuances of reality in a satisfactory way.  The most vital shortcoming of language is that it is linear and finite.  Borges points to this problem as the character tries to express his experience with the Aleph.  Everything he saw within the Aleph was seen within a moment, but the language he must use is only capable of linear expression.  The best attempt language can make to fathom the Aleph’s simultaneity is with the transferred epithet claiming that Borges saw everything within a “gigantic instant” (Borges 242).  Only through magical realism can one person perceive as many times and places at one time as Borges the character did, looking into the Aleph.  Language in reality cannot describe more than one experience at a time, which is where the bridge of language between reality and realism crashes down in failure.  Putting a thought or experience into words makes it a concrete, tangible thing.  Yet the Aleph should perhaps never be locked down with words because that defeats the purpose of its being, which is too vast and elaborate for any single library, let alone a few short paragraphs.

    In the short term, both the angel and the Aleph have a positive impact on the other characters in the story, but by the time the Aleph is removed from the lives of Daneri and Borges, and the angel finally flies away from Pelayo and Elisenda, all have sustained various degrees of mental trauma.  In a burst of ingenuity, Elisenda decides to charge outsiders admission to enter her yard to catch a glimpse of the angel living in her chicken coop.  Pilgrims, curious or desperate, coming from everywhere in the world made the family rich for a chance to look at or perhaps touch or speak to the angel for a moment (Márquez 350).  Yet the positive effects grow stale, and the angel eventually causes more stress for the couple than perhaps the money he brought in was worth.  Because he seemed to appear everywhere at once and did not have his own finite point in space—quite different from the Aleph—“the exasperated and unhinged Elisenda shouted that it was awful living in that hell full of angels” (Márquez 352).  For Pelayo and his wife, the relief of the angel’s absence is immediate upon his departure, showing how easily this tangible magic can release its hold on its victims.

    Similarly, the Aleph inspires Daneri to write his epic poem, and in his own mind this is a beneficial effect.  In the short term, it is indeed beneficial, allowing him to put on paper as much about the world he sees through the Aleph as possible.  Unfortunately, what he wrote was too jumbled due to the infinite nature of the Aleph, and could not be captured well enough by finite language to convince anyone to publish his poem.  Daneri had a deep set psychological attachment to the Aleph, believing that he could not write without it, and he was frightened by the prospect of its loss, showing how deeply ingrained this intangible magic was in his life.  Yet as soon as it was removed from his life, he managed to collect his thoughts in a coherent way and his poem was published.  In order for his thoughts to become coherent on paper, he needed to be able to forget the insignificant details presented to him by the Aleph, rather than creating a tangible document of every incoherent experience.  Borges, on the other hand, did not have time to adjust to the blinding quality of the Aleph, leaving his own mind, and by extension his work, suffering from a type of flash blindness.  It takes him only about three days to recover in his short term memory, but at least six months to recover his entire mind, and his work is not presented with any awards as long as his mind is still flash blinded by the Aleph.

    Open-endedness is a common aspect of magical realism.  Close examinations of the characters in both “The Aleph” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” shows all of them to be merely static characters: none of them develop from their original state.  Additionally, they distinctly lack communication about the aspects of magical realism in their lives (Simpkins 143).  If all the characters are static, then one must conclude that the important aspects of the stories are the magical manifestations within them.  Therefore, in “The Aleph,” the long winded recount of Beatriz Viterbo is considerably less important than the history of Alephs that Borges researches in his post script.  Unlike the Aleph in Daneri’s basement, most others referenced in historical texts are within tangible objects such as a goblet, a spear, several mirrors, and the stone columns around a courtyard in the Mosque of Amr.  Therefore there is not much of a conclusion at the end of Borges’ story, as the history of the Aleph is an old and varying story, and cannot possibly be finished just because Borges ended his own short story.  Similarly, although many might consider Márquez’s story to be finished on its last page, since the characters are static, it may be argued that the story is not about their visit from the angel.  Rather it is about the brief years of the angel’s life in which he lived in Pelayo’s chicken coop.  Even if the evidence of the angel’s existence is tangible, the cause for his visit is not because his motivation for arriving where and how he did cannot be fully understood by a reader of Márquez’s story.  The angel’s story did not end with Márquez’s story, nor was there a clear reason for him to leave at that point other than that it was perhaps time for the angel’s life to be continued elsewhere.  In discussing characteristics of narration, Simpkins quotes Márquez’s statement that “realism … [is] a kind of premeditated literature that offers too static and exclusive a vision of reality.  However good or bad they may be, they are books which finish on the last page” (Simpkins 143).  Stories which employ magical realism need not end and so circumvent the common insistence that the story begins at the beginning and that the end clarifies a moral undertone instead of ending abruptly without closure.  The stories about the angel and the Aleph, framed by the people who briefly encounter them but without much closure, are both examples of magical realism due to the lack of a tangible beginning and end.

    Magical realism challenges the idea that only aspects that are visually and physically solid are damaging to the psyche.  After comparing the effects of Márquez’s angel to the effects of Borges’ Aleph, I conclude that tangibility has little importance in exerting power over one’s mental well being.  In fact, it may even be suggested that the more tangible the magical manifestation, the less intimidating it is.  The angel did not frighten Pelayo and Elisenda as long as he was completely tangible.  Once he began appearing everywhere in the house at once, as though he had no one physical being, his hosts’ nerves were stretched thin.  The Aleph’s intangibility, as previously state, left the character Borges suffering a type of post traumatic stress disorder, terrified that he would never again be able to forget anything.  He was no longer able to express his thoughts in a coherent manner, as language was too finite and tangible to express the infinite and intangible experiences of the Aleph.  If the Aleph had been something solid Borges could run from, it likely would not have frightened him to such an extent.  As it was, he leapt at the chance for Daneri’s house to be torn down and the Aleph with it.    Finally, the chapter in the lives of the angel and the Aleph close with their removal from the lives of the characters, ending Borges and Márquez’s stories, but leaving the stories of these magical beings open-ended and unfinished.


    Works Cited

    Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Aleph.” The Riverside Anthology of Literature. Douglas Hunt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. 234-245. Print.

    Márquez, Gabriel García.  “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The Riverside Anthology of Literature. Douglas Hunt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991. 348-353. Print.

    Morehead, Albert and Loy Morehead, ed. The New American Webster Dictionary. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1995. Print.

    Simpkins, Scott.  “Magical Strategies: The Supplement of Realism.” Twentieth Century Literature 34.2 (1988): 140-154. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.

  • 2011-2012 Winner: “A Virtual Exchange of Basketball Culture” by Ameen Tabatabai

    Date: 2013.01.18 | Category: Uncategorized | Response: 0

    A Virtual Exchange of Basketball Culture

     In Arts of the Contact Zone, Marry Louise-Pratt reveals the concept of contact zones through several examples she discusses. According to her, a contact zone involves “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other; often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today” (Pratt 591).  Pratt claims that traditionally, contact zones have consisted of negative cultural collisions, but by evolving the idea into an art, this theory can become a productive way to enhance and summon learning. As a result, her theory is applicable to many modern-day situations. Recent advancements in technology have allowed video games to produce contact zones between a game’s identity and the players’ values and interests. Specifically, NBA 2k12 is a modern contact zone that strategically uses animation technology to present basketball culture to people worldwide of all ages. Realism, imagination, history, and education produce an environment that allows the player to experience the NBA culture in their own way, letting their individual philosophy and values influence their gameplay style.  As with all contact zones, NBA 2k12 contains an identifiable collision between two separate cultures: basketball fans playing the game and the NBA. Precisely, the fan culture involves each person’s contribution to the game, and the NBA culture encompasses elements such as teams, players, traditions, and history. As a whole, the core gaming components contribute to the fans’ experience and exposure to the NBA culture, while the gamers’ basketball awareness and interests can influence their playing style.

    In this contact zone, there also exists an “asymmetrical relation of power” (Pratt 591). Since this artifact is a video game, there is a power imbalance between the game developers depicting the NBA culture and the fans playing the game. Sometimes the gamer disagrees with certain parts of the game such as player faces, gear, or ratings. For instance, the gamer might disagree with a player’s dunk rating. Watching that player throw down a monster dunk on TV might sway the gamer into desiring a higher dunk rating in the video game for that player. Also, if a player’s face or gear does not resemble the real-life counterpart, then the gamer would disagree with the rendering of that player model. However, the power imbalance is usually overcome because the game developers eventually address the gamers’ concerns and issue an update. A common concern is the fans wanting more tattoos on the players in the game. The creators address this by responding with, “Every year we get a ton of feedback about tattoos or should I say lack of, so to help solve this problem we worked with NBA to provide us with hi-res shots of any player who has tattoos from every possible angle” (D.I. 3). This example shows the existence of the power connection. In order to fix an issue noticed by the gamer, the developers with the power must first recognize it and then correct it. A difference in power is acceptable here since in the end, the disagreement becomes resolved.

    By producing a visually realistic and statistically accurate NBA video game, the fan can now truly experience the culture surrounding a professional basketball game. To achieve this, the new game “features more dynamic content updates than ever before, from shoes to player models and even court floors – ensuring that NBA 2k12 looks just like the real NBA” (NBA 2k12). Considering how the game can update many visual aspects shows how accurate the gameplay is. For example, if an NBA player starts wearing a headband, the game will update the virtual player’s gear. Or, if a team signs a player that is not in the game, the developers will generate his model and add him to the team. The fact that the designers constantly update the game with changes occurring in the actual NBA shows the attention put on accurately depicting the NBA culture. This certainly adds to the fans’ experience because they are given the opportunity to interact with a representation of basketball that looks virtually identical to the sport broadcasted on television. As a result, NBA 2k12’s realism is an example of Pratt’s theory regarding a transculturation, which she defines as “processes whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (Pratt 595). In this case, the game developers at 2k Sports have implemented transculturation by inventing a video game from the renowned NBA culture. Thus, the game produces a contact zone, where an exchange of cultures occurs between the NBA and the fan.

    NBA 2k12 allows fans to imagine themselves as an NBA player or manager and use their knowledge to change the culture. One of the popular redesigned modes in the game is “My Player,” where the gamer is given the opportunity to “Create and manage [their] dream basketball player’s career – hear Commissioner Stern call [their] name on draft night, play in the all-new Rookie Showcase and negotiate contracts while raking in all-new endorsement deals” (NBA 2k12). Many basketball fans dream about playing in the NBA, but are unable to achieve it due to the high level of talent and physical ability required. They can now vividly imagine it through this game. Instead of picturing in their head what their NBA career would look like, they can now virtually experience their fantasy. Whether their dream involves playing for their favorite hometown team or joining forces with top players in the league to go after an NBA championship, this mode gives gamers the freedom to use their desires to guide their basketball careers. Eventually, the player can see their influence on NBA culture through all the achievements they earn such as awards and championships and historic records they break.

    Similarly, imagination factors into the new “Online Association Mode.” In this part of the game, “For the first time ever, you and up to 29 of your friends can form your own NBA league and easily manage it from your computer or console” (NBA 2k12). Here, the fans can imagine having the job of both an NBA manager and player. They can use their own culture to impact the make-up and success of a team. This involves having the freedom to control any team through trades, free agency, coaching staff, training camps, custom playbooks, drafts, season game, and playoffs (NBA 2k12 Review). For example, one could chose to manage a struggling NBA franchise and rebuild them into an NBA dynasty. Conversely, one could turn an already successful NBA team into a powerhouse through multiple championships. Thus, the gamer’s imagination is a big part of how his/her culture influences the game.

    By integrating legendary NBA teams, players, and memorable milestones, this game allows fans to relive the NBA’s historic culture. The all-new “NBA’s Greatest Mode” lets the gamer “Experience 15 of the NBA’s most celebrated careers and rivalries, painstakingly recreated in historic detail. Featuring such legends as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and more” (NBA 2k12). This feature is extremely valuable for younger fans that hear about legends and historic milestones because they were not alive to witness the events. Playing with historic teams and legends not only allows the gamer to experience past NBA culture but also to see how the history of the sport has evolved and influenced current players. Often times in sports, comparisons are made between past and current athletes. Younger fans that did not live in that era of comparison would therefore not understand the connections. For example, the media compares Dirk Nowitzki’s unique ability to shoot despite his height to Larry Bird’s style of play. Fans who were not alive during the 1980’s would not understand this comparison. However, NBA 2k12 mode has changed this situation. The exclusive historic game mode brings to life some of the most memorable moments. This effect is seen in Pratt’s theories about her contact zones. When Pratt is discussing her son’s baseball cards as an example of a contact zone, she mentions “American geography and history took shape in his mind through baseball cards” (Pratt 589). NBA 2k12 exemplifies her contact zone because it uses the NBA culture to virtually present basketball history to the fan. Essentially, what makes this mode effective at accomplishing the portrayal of historic NBA culture arises from the high level of detail in the feature’s mechanics. Regarding “NBA’s Greatest Mode,” the developers describe:

    This year, the broadcast of each game is so life-like that you will have a hard time believing you’re not watching old clips from back in the day. The amount of detail we put into making these games fit into their respective era’s is crazy, from the old school baskets, press tables, overlays, camera angles, etc. We also did a lot of work on post process filters; adding sepia and grayscale to display older games, the way they were broadcasted in their day. […] a game from the 60s or 70s will have that “grainy” look and feel. The combination of camera work and color adds to the authenticity of each broadcast and is specific to each era, venue, etc. (D.I. 3)


    Creating the historic style through an emulation of the era’s television broadcasting style makes the game more effective at showing the fan the basketball culture of that time. This occurs because NBA culture not only depends on the sport itself, but also how one experiences it. When the sport is watched on television, the commentary, various camera angles, and broadcasting layouts add to the emotion and livelihood. Inherently, this mode revives memorable events in NBA history for the fans through realistic representations of legendary teams and vintage visual effects.

    Certain strategies employed in this game serve not only as a basketball training tool, but also serves as a resource that provides a learning experience. In fact, research studies currently suggest that video games can become useful techniques to communicate certain ideas. One of the studies reveals:

    In a sense, all learning involves playing a character. In a science classroom, learning works best if students think, act, and value like scientists. Games can show us how to get people to invest in new identities or roles, which can, in turn, become powerful motivators for new and deep learning in classrooms and workplaces. (Paul Gee)


    This study is completely applicable to NBA 2k12. A gamer can assume the role of a professional basketball team and control the players. Thus, they must think like a basketball player in order to accomplish the goal of the team, which is to win the game. As this study points out, a student can learn about science by thinking like a scientist. Likewise, by thinking like a basketball player in this game, the fan is learning about the sport and about NBA culture. When Pratt describes education, she states, “The classroom functioned not like a homogenous community or a horizontal alliance, but like a contact zone” (Pratt 600). Here, she is pointing out how the learning in the classroom unites with the interaction between the teacher and students to create a contact zone. A non-“homogenous” classroom results in many students of diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives. By using the term contact zone, Pratt reveals that this interchange of ideas allows everyone in the contact zone to learn by considering ideas in different contexts or from varied points of view. NBA 2k12 also illustrates this contact zone because an educational environment is generated when the game’s features interact with the gamer’s imagination, knowledge, and interests. As pointed out earlier, the gamer’s involvement in the game determines the extent of the learning capabilities. For example, a gamer involved in trades and free agent signings in the “Online Association Mode” would learn about how the team management process works. Meanwhile, a gamer playing NBA matches would learn information such as basketball rules and players’ names. Similarly, a study of the same subject revealed that learning through video games is resourceful due to “clear goals, customized (and progressing) difficulty levels, and a dynamic learning environment”  (Flannery). NBA 2k12 uses this technique in the “My Player” mode to encourage player development and a successful career. The feature is described as:

    Based on your position and play style, we give you 15 goals at the outset of your career.  In order to make the Hall of Fame, you will need to accomplish 10 of those goals before you retire.  The goals range from ‘Win the MVP award’ to ‘Score 20,000 career points’ to ‘Get 50 A+ teammate grades’ (this one is much harder this year!).  Throughout your career, you’re constantly going to be striving for that next goal that gets you one step closer to your induction ceremony (D.I. 5).


    This note reveals a customized approach to goal setting that allows the player to meet multiple goals in any order. An “induction ceremony” also hints at the player working towards the ultimate goal of joining the Hall of Fame. The study is relevant here because of the universal lesson NBA 2k12 teaches. The gamer learns that in order to become successful at an activity or skill, one must set goals that serve as steps moving towards the ultimate goal. Although the game is merely organizing aspects of an NBA career, it is indirectly educating the importance of goal setting.

    Some may argue that a video game cannot be a contact zone since it only involves interaction between a person and software. This may have been the case in early game development. However, recent advancements in technology have allowed games like this to be considered as a contact zone. The game not only features an innovative, realistic, and imaginative gameplay but also historic modes and learning tools. Instead of just watching an NBA game on television, a fan can now simulate matches by taking control of a team and experiencing the thrill that actual NBA players feel. They can even relive historic NBA moments, and create themselves in the game to play out their dream of being an NBA star. While interacting with the many modes, the gamer is indirectly exposed to a collective idea suggesting the importance of setting goals as guides toward achievements. This results in the game potentially becoming a valuable tool in promoting positive planning about the future. Furthermore, NBA 2k12 is significant and revolutionary because the game changes the way people experience basketball culture.


    [ Note: the abbreviation D.I. (Developer Insight) was used in the in-text citations due to all sources starting with a common title ]

     Works Cited

    Flannery, Brian. Video Game Education. University of Nebraska-Kearney. Web. <http://www2.css.edu/mics/Submissions/submissions/Video%20Game%20Education.pdf>.

    “NBA 2K12 Developer Insight #3 – Art Direction.” NBA 2k Facebook Page. 2k Sports, 30 Aug. 2011. Web. <https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150276157322267>.

    “NBA 2K12 Developer Insight #5- My Player.” NBA 2k Facebook Page. 2k Sports, 9 Sept. 2011. Web. <https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150285386202267>.

    NBA 2K12. Novato, CA: 2K Sports, 2011. Program documentation.

    “NBA 2K12 Review.” IGN. 30 Sept. 2011. Web. <http://xbox360.ign.com/articles/119/1197538p1.html>.

    Paul Gee, James. “What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy.” Editorial. Computers in Entertainment (CIE) – Theoretical and Practical Computer Oct. 2003. ACM Digital Library. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Web. <http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=950595>.

    Pratt, Mary L. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Acts of Inquiry: 589-602. Print.


  • Read-Around Groups

    Date: 2012.10.22 | Category: Uncategorized | Response: 4

    Read-Around Groups

    Guest post by Jessica Campbell

    Over three years of teaching 100-level composition, I’ve held peer review about five different ways. No method is perfect, but this one has been largely successful. This peer review happens a day or two before a “final” draft of a paper is due to me; students bring in their rough drafts. I have done this with the major papers in all classes and also with shorter assignments in 109/110.

    Here are the directions I give the students:

    1. Get in groups of 3.

    2. I will collect everyone’s rough draft and then redistribute the drafts to other groups.

    3. Each person individually and silently reads one paper, marking the paper with questions, comments, and edits.

    4. After 5 minutes, pass the paper to the group member on your right. At this point, everyone reads a second paper. In marking a paper for the second time, insert your own questions, comments, and edits, but also respond to those that the first reader made.

    5. Again, take 5 minutes, and then repeat the process a third time.

    6. When all group members have read all 3 essays, begin to discuss them as a group. Your group will fill out one Peer Response Sheet for each paper. That means that the three of you need to reach agreement about the paper’s strengths and weaknesses. Remember that this response sheet will go to the writer of the paper and will help him/her in identifying further revisions to make for the final draft.

    The Peer Response Sheet mentioned in these directions is the product of a discussion held in class the previous day, during which we all look at the prompt and determine what would be the most useful questions to ask about the rough drafts. These questions vary depending on the assignment, but a generic example is below:

    R.A.G.s Peer Response Sheet
    Readers’ Names _______________________________________________________________
    Paper Written By ______________________________________________________________

    1. What are the strengths of this paper? What works?

    2. What are the weaknesses of this paper? What does not work?

    3. Does the paper have a complex claim? To what extent does it reflect the body of the argument?

    4. Does the paper use quotations effectively? Does the writer provide sufficient analysis of the quotations to show how they contribute to the main point of the paragraph and the paper as a whole?

    5. (Writer of paper: insert your own question here)

    To me, this method has two major advantages. (1) The students participate a great deal in producing the questions that they and their peers will pose during the peer review. They therefore get practice in evaluating and editing their own work. (2) All the students, as part of reviewing groups of three, participate in discussions about writing. I have been amazed at the high level of discussion I have overheard from students in their conversations about each other’s papers. Since the writer of the paper is not part of the reviewing group, students feel more liberated in their constructive criticism.

    One pitfall of this method is that reviewers sometimes give very short, unhelpful written answers to the questions on the Peer Response Sheet. It may be helpful to require full sentences and/or remind students that they need to be detailed and to give the writer guidance as to how to address an issue, rather than simply pointing the issue out.

  • Rhetorical Peer Review

    Date: 2012.10.09 | Category: Uncategorized | Response: 0

    (e.g. will be offering periodic posts on a teaching topic throughout the quarter.  To kick off this new series, Lilly Campbell discusses a peer review activity she has used in classroom.)

    Rhetorical Peer Review

    Guest post by Lilly Campbell

    In this activity, I have students bring in a paper from my class or another class that they are planning to rhetorically analyze for their next assignment. This is usually a short paper (3-5 pages). Prior to this activity, we’ve built up a rhetorical vocabulary to work with (each student has written and shared an extended definition of a rhetorical concept) and we’ve also read “How to Recognize a Poem when you See One,” and discussed the idea of tacit knowledge.

    I set this activity up, then, with the goal of helping students to recognize the rhetorical strategies they used in writing a paper that might not have been obvious to them because of their tacit knowledge of writing strategies. What’s useful about a rhetorical peer review, then, is getting an opportunity to hear from another student how their writing has an effect prior to doing a rhetorical analysis of their own work.

    We start off class with a discussion of how rhetorical peer review will be different from the other peer reviews we’ve done so far and the goals of this review. Then, I divide students up into pairs and give them 15 minutes to read their peer’s draft and answer questions on the attached worksheet. After that, they have 10 minutes to share their reading experience with their peer. Finally, we end class by going around and each sharing one thing that surprised us about a peer’s experience of our writing – something we were doing without necessarily realizing it. This helps students to hear from their peers about a range of tacit knowledge that affects their writing approaches.

    Overall, this activity prepares students to critique their own writing by offering an outsider’s view of their work and also fosters meta-cognition about the rhetorical effects of the writing they produce.

  • 2010-11 i.e. Winner: “That’s So Ghetto!” by Pat Origenes

    Date: 2012.03.15 | Category: i.e., Selected Essays | Response: 0

    “That’s So Ghetto!” by Pat Origenes PDF

    Earlier this year, I was hanging around after one of my classes ended for the day.  Few, if any, of us had regularly scheduled meetings afterwards and were often prone to aimlessness after the bell had rung, like so many bits of tapioca suspended in the room, waiting to be consumed by conversation or group impetus towards the door.  My friend Lisa and I were eavesdropping on a conversation among some classmates when the oft-used phrase, “That’s so ghetto!”, was tossed out.  Lisa, ever the champion of the oppressed, immediately objected.  “That’s inappropriate,” she admonished.  “You shouldn’t use that word.”  I accepted observer status as the looks of confusion turned to understanding and then to protests.  Our peers claimed that no racist line had been crossed; the word was not being used in relation to an ethnic group – it was only being used in reference to something of low quality.  Later, I looked up the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online and was somewhat caught off-guard.  I don’t know exactly what I had been expecting, but I had never considered how old the word was or its origin.  I fall into the same league as my fellow students; within the last few years, I have told people, “I used to live on the ghetto side of Greenlake.”  I’m pretty sure that the Greenlake demographic is mostly Caucasian and not particularly poor; I was only conveying a sense of poverty (that is, in relation to the other side of the lake).  What is happening here?  Why does it evoke such emotion from some people while others say it without a second thought?  A single word, yet many meanings and disparate reactions.

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  • 2010-11 Winner: “Literal and Metaphorical: Racial Themes in Harry Potter” by Kayhan Nejad

    Date: 2012.03.15 | Category: Selected Essays | Response: 2

    “Literal and Metaphorical: Racial Themes in Harry Potter” by Kayhan Nejad PDF

    Ostensibly, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series creates a world oblivious to race, one in which those of any background can rise according to their abilities alone. However, beneath the surface, Harry Potter encompasses deep-seated racial themes and constructs a complex and highly stratified racial hierarchy. Although the novels depict certain antiquated racial logics, they also ask “questions about cultural, national, and ethnic bias” as well as highlight the “horrors perpetuated by those who pursue [racial purity],” offering a multilayered criticism of the very racial stratification that the series upholds (Whited 8,1). Harry Potter preserves traditional racial attitudes through its narrow emphasis on the White and the Anglo-Saxon, but turns around to challenge these same themes through its depiction of an entirely new, metaphorical racial hierarchy of magical creatures.

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  • 2010-11 Selected Essays

    Date: 2012.03.15 | Category: i.e., News, Selected Essays | Response: 0

    The editorial committee of e.g., UW’s online journal of 100-level writing, is pleased to announce the winning essay for 2010-11:

    Kayhan Nejad, “Literal and Metaphorical: Racial Themes in Harry Potter

    This essay was chosen to represent excellence in academic writing based on the EWPs four Outcomes. Specifically the essay takes a complex view of of the Harry Potter series by reading the novels at two different levels—the more literal level and a metaphorical level—and in so doing puts the novels in critical conversation with themselves. The paper also engages with the critical conversations surrounding Rowling’s series through a variety of academic sources, including literary criticism and scholarly journals. His essay follows a clearly articulated line of inquiry that leads the reader through a multi-stage argument.

    And our i.e. winner for 2010-11:

    Pat Origenes, “That’s So Ghetto!”

    This essay was chosen to represent excellence in genre writing. Modeled on Beverely Gross’s “Bitch,” the essay constructs an academic argument about the meanings and stakes of “Ghetto” by employing academically non-traditional evidence such as personal experience, dictionary definitions (both “traditional” like the OED and “non-traditional” like slang dictionaries), contemporary media sources, and interviews. The author also makes stylistic choices to target audiences that might fall outside of traditional “academic” audiences and in so doing demonstrates the broad stakes of recognizing the power of language.

    Selections for the journal were made by members of e.g. editorial committee.  All members present at editorial committee meetings offer an opinion on which essays should be selected for publication, except in cases where an editor happens to be the instructor of one of the student submitters.  In this case, the editor does not read, evaluate, or offer an opinion/vote on work submitted by his or her former student.

    The e.g. editorial committee found the above works to be an exemplary piece of 100-level writing demonstrating excellence in claim and communication and proficiency in the Expository Writing Program’s outcomes


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