Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Teaching English Composition with Surrealism

This is a paper that I did while at the University of Minnesota. I have been using many of these techniques in my own composition classes with some success and I am also presenting some of this at the SW/TX PCA Conference in Albuquerque this February (2015).


Surrealist Applications for Composition-Related Activities


These are just a few potential applications of Surrealism to composition. These are some that I have produced and practiced myself and some that are classic Surrealist techniques. There are many more.

I. Exquisite Corpse, Group Processes and Brainstorming

The most famous of Surrealist writing techniques is the exquisite corpse, which got its name from a line of poetry. “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine.” In the exquisite corpse, a sheet of paper is passed around. Every person contributes to it one line at a time and sees only the line written right before theirs. I have also seen artists contribute to an artistic exquisite corpse, adding to a drawing bit by bit. There are several ways that this could be put to work as a method for brainstorming.
As a brainstorming session or a free write, everyone passes around a sheet of paper, folded or unfolded, writing suggestions on it. Alternatively, each person can take turns putting his or her potential topic in the center of a group and everyone in the group writes down suggestions on that particular topic, and then move on to the next student’s idea. Group work in that case would take on the valence of shared knowledge. Often we tell students during a brainstorming session to write down everything they know about a topic. What if they could be inspired by what their classmates also know about a topic? In this way, brainstorming becomes not a solitary act, but an act of shared knowledge, in which student remind one another of what they already know or help to point one another in various fruitful directions for their research.

II. Chance Operations as a Form of Organization


Is there only one way to organize a paper? Chance operations, most notably rolling dice or drawing cards that relate to certain sections or paragraphs, have been used by a number of writers like William S. Burroughs, musicians like John Cage, and choreographers such as Merce Cunningham. This technique can also work for students of composition, in this case to determine paragraph topic order in their papers. In doing so, it can teach students that there are any number of ways to organize their texts that can produce different results for the reader. Sometimes students organize their papers in the way that is most obvious – such as chronological – but may not be the most effective or even the most interesting. At other times, students may be writing about a series of three subtopics (the most common number in composition) in such a way that it does not matter which one goes first. By playing with the order of their subtopics and paragraphs, they become accustomed to doing rewriting and see it as a form of experimenting with their texts. It also adds an element of play, and therefore of fun, that might encourage more rewriting from students.

III. The Many Uses of Collage Techniques in Writing


A. Collage as Brainstorming and Research

The technique of collage, which the Surrealists borrowed (stole) from the Dadaists, lends itself very well to “spontaneous research.” Having chosen a book or an article to cite, students can close their eyes and point to a passage. Have the student free write on what that passage may mean. Have them do that several times throughout the article or book. Then, to make it a true collage, students may string together what they have written to create a whole, spontaneous text from the day’s class, to see how it all of their writing fits together. This exercise will stimulate their thinking and may also make them more enthusiastic to go back and read the whole article. At the same time, it will help students to generate thoughts and ideas to react to small parts of the text before they respond to the text as a whole. It often helps students if they can jump into a text in the middle, where they might find something that catches their attention, and then go back and read it from the beginning. rather than seeing a book or article as something they have to get through from beginning to end, which may or may not hold any interest for them. In this age of Internet, Twitter, etc., in which most people have very divided attention, it also corresponds to the way that many people actually do read. At the same time, once they respond to a portion of the article, students are encouraged to go back through and see how their understanding of the excerpt that they wrote about corresponds to the overall text, which can also teach them about the pitfalls of quoting part of a text out of context.
B. A Variation on Collage Techniques as a Way to Respond to Texts

This technique can also be used during in-class writings as a way to respond to texts. When a text has been assigned, have everyone point to a passage quickly (don’t think about it) and write for five minutes about that passage. They can do a free association or write directly on the passage. Again the point is for the students to be engaging with what they have read, and also be able to engage with any part of a text.
C. Collage as a Form of Sentence Combining

Many instructors still advocate sentence combining to teach style or to eliminate wordiness. A different form of collage is one where the student/writer literally cuts up a passage and then puts different parts or different sheets of papers together. Beat writer William S. Burroughs is best known for developing this technique as a way to (re)generate texts, but it originated with the Surrealists. This exercise is fun and may give students some energy to do more “traditional” and straightforward sentence-combining to achieve sentence variety. It can also be done with a little more direction, taking a small section of the paper for example, or even cutting apart sentences and then combining them.
A more literal form of artistic collage can also be used, such as cutting apart sentences and then gluing them onto a sheet of paper either in a different order or with sentences overlapping. Theoretically students can do this with a computer, but takes on a different feel and function when it’s done using paper and glue and can shake students out of their usual way of writing and editing. As with a number of other exercises, these can be done as individual or group projects.

The Manifesto as a Form of Argumentation and Group Work

A. The Manifesto Form

In some of my class assignments, I have students work up to writing a research paper by writing a complaint letter, a letter to the editor of a paper, and writing to a the company. This scaffolds learning and teaches the students about writing they do in their everyday life. The manifesto is another form of persuasive writing, a bombastic form of expressing opinions and can be done as a group or individual activity. Mary Ann Caws, in the introduction to Manifesto: A Century of Isms, says that the manifesto “generally proclaims what it wants to oppose to leave, to defend, to change” (xxii). Many students have a strong sense of injustice or at least indignation for what they consider to be unfair. The manifesto, as a form, allows them to express their own opinions, with no need to defend that opinion with research. “Generally the manifesto stands alone, does not need to lean on anything else, demands no other text than itself. Its rules are self-contained, included in its own body” (Caws xxv). As both a text to respond to as well as a text to be produced, it is particularly fruitful in helping students to write their initial ideas out and present them to one another. In addition, the manifesto has a sense of flair unlike any other form of writing and is fun for students to write.

B. The Manifesto as a Step Toward Argumentation

Writing a manifesto can be a good intermediate step, where students think about and state explicitly what their position is on a given subject. Students can then start thinking about social context that this issue fits into. Was this situation merely a one-time slight or oversight, or does it point to a more general problem within society? Having written out their complaint with society or their idea on how things ought to work, students can begin to think about what kind of support they will need down the line for their arguments. Their peers will be able to comment upon their manifestos and argue with them, thereby showing the holes in their arguments through friendly discussion and debate.
C. The Manifesto and Group Work

Generally speaking, manifestos are the expression of a group, although examples can be found of individually-written manifestos, such as those written by the Unabomber or the Discovery Channel Gunman. This can work, then, as either an individual project or as a group project. As a group project, I would recommend small groups of three students, which is a little better than just a pair, but not so big and unwieldy as to create insurmountable problems or disagreements. Ask the students to present potential paper topics to their group and have the group decide on which project they will write a manifesto. If they are really fortunate (or crafty) it might be possible for students to combine their topics of concern into one manifesto. Other techniques described above, like an exquisite corpse or collage techniques, can be used to generate the initial text. D. The Manifesto and Critical Reading

For those who want to teach an aspect of critical reading in their classroom and to introduce alternative texts to students, the manifesto is an outstanding form. Whereas many people think of manifestos in terms of artistic movements, they were also employed extensively by AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s as well as those in the environmental movement, the women’s movement, etc. Allowing students to read such texts, to examine the claims made in the texts and the way those claims are embedded and expressed, and to agree or disagree with them encourages them to read critically. Because the manifesto’s style is so “in your face,” manifestos can be good beginning texts to help students begin to examine and test the claims made.

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