Monday, September 29, 2008

CCK08 Connections

Well, it's about time I got off the dime and wrote something longer than 140 characters...

For the past couple of weeks I've been following along haphazardly with George and Stephen's Excellent Adventure, aka CCK08. Now, my attitude towards theories of teaching and learning mirrors that of M. David Merrill (see P. 59, #10), so I've been letting a lot of the heavy discussion pass by. But last week's notion of overlapping networks has sort of stuck. I'm a big fan of James Burke's "Connections" series, where he shows how seemingly-unrelated things are actually deeply intertwined. I like that sort of thing, even when the connections are a bit tenuous.

John Connell writes about a young man expressing himself through the medium of music and video, linking it to the notion of "postliteracy." In the comments, Jenny Luca asks whether it is just literacy, as practiced in the 21st century.

In the video John lnked, a young person is playing Pachabel's Canon on an electric guitar. I've seen the video before (as have several million other YouTube viewers), but this time the context caused some lights to go on.

John describes the video as having "low production values." I disagree. The video is very well-made for its purpose. The image is well framed. If you are a fairly-skilled guitarist wanting to learn this piece and you have the tabulature, this video gives you very useful information without attempting to be a typical "guitar instruction video." The scene is backlit so strongly that it is almost washed-out. As a result, the player appears in a golden halo of light, with few details of the room discernable. The player's identity is obscured to the point that even gender is not obvious. The hat is pulled low over his or her face, concealing his or her identity except probably to a few close friends. Instead of the typical amateurish "sitting back from turning on the camera" and "reaching forward to turn it off", there are opening and closing credits (with music!)

As an example of a YouTube video, it's *extremely* well-done. Or to put it another way, it demonstrates the "literacy" of making video for YouTube guitarists

The video is also ironic in the connections it makes - and breaks. Pachabel's Canon is a venerable piece of classical music that requires only moderate playing ability, but the modern rock arrangement in the video requires a fair amount of technical skill. In addition, the fast legato arpeggios are played with a sweep-picking technique that mimics violin bowing (many rock guitarists are fans of the great 19th-century violinist Niccolo Paganini).

Now - how many folks are geeky enough to pick up on that bit of irony? Probably not a lot. Was that connection intended by the young performer? Almost certainly not. And that brings us to the connection between Norse Sagas, the Bible, and Weezer.

You might dimly recall from some grade school literature unit that the Medieval Norse (aka Vikings) wrote these long, bloody poems called "sagas." (It would also be accurate to describe them as "bloody long" poems.) The sagas made great use of a literary device called kennings. A kenning is a metaphorical set-phrase such as "sea-steed" (sailing ship) and "swan-road" (ocean). But the kennings were not just general poetic riddles; they had very specific cultural connotations - baggage, if you will. So a kenning that refers to a shipwreck doesn't refer to just any shipwreck, but the shipwreck that tragically took the life of the young man who was fleeing his father's undeserved wrath and and and... they packed a lot of meaning and emotion, these kennings. You can think of them as a sort of cultural zip file. The listeners (sagas were originally an oral tradition) "got" the deeper references because they were literate in the context of their culture.

I'm thinking that this cultural awareness is a pretty key concept.

For example, a great deal of Western culture (and I don't mean rodeos) is based on the Bible. But a lot of folks nowadays aren't all that familiar with The Book. Case in point, the phrase "The writing's on the wall." Where does that phrase originate? The situation has gotten to the point that schools are starting to teach classes called "The Bible as Literature" in order to acquaint students with their greater cultural heritage. These students may not understand "mene" but they sure understand "meme."

So what does this all mean? Good question. I think I'm still constructing that.

Oh - for a different take on Pachabel's Canon (complete with its own set of musical memes),watch this.

This post was lovingly handcrafted in Notepad, since Blogger's crummy WYSIWYG editor doesn't work right, and doesn't put target="_blank" in its hyperlinks. And folks wonder why I don't post more often...


John said...


Great post - you get me thinking about some issues I missed. As for the 'low production values' thing - it was not meant to be a criticism - far from it. It was in the context of that imaginary conversation with the BBC - from their point of view, the video definitely has low production values - but like you I agree that it is perfect for its context.

John Connell

jenny said...

'Literate in the context of their culture' - I like it!

SkyDaddy said...

Thanks for the comments, John and Jenny. Context is so important. It seems to me that until very recently context was taken for granted, since people tended to live in homogenous communities. Yes, people were exposed to other cultures via movies, TV, National Geographic, newsreels, and so on, but that only reinforced the sense of "otherness" of those cultures.

But now, online, we can come (virtually) face-to-face with folks with whome we have very little in common. How do we deal with that?

FWIW: A lovely harp version of the Canon:

I'm a guitar player. I have a little lap harp, but it really fights me. Everything is backwards. I'm used to reaching down towards the floor for the high notes, not up towards my face. The thumb plays bass, not treble, doggoneit!

Glen said...

I like the kennings as cultural zip file. Your observation is a little cultural zip file in itself. Tks.

SkyDaddy said...

I'm a little bit suprised no one has picked up what I think is the obvious (to me) missing bit: How can we effectively communicate and collaborate across cultures unless we have some minimal cultural literacy? Whether that's working with someone on the other side of the Equator, or talking with your teenager.