The Ghosts of Tom Joad

Our current unit is on research and the uniquely symbiotic relationship between VCU and Richmond. Our unit is “about” a lot of things—education, urban schools, neighborhoods, history, the riverfront: you name it and we’re touching on it in some way. I love this unit. It’s fascinating, it’s challenging, and (frankly) I love the content. I love Richmond, and I love VCU.

The content, however, is not centrally what this unit is about. This unit is about voice. My students come to VCU from a huge spectrum of distances, and they have very nebulous and strange relationships to the city. Some have grown up in our suburbs; some have no idea what lies beyond campus. This last phase of class—the last two months we’ll spend together after a year in one anothers’ hair—is slowly honing in on the question: what is your role in a community you might leave in four years? What does it mean to have a voice here?

I can’t answer this question for myself, much less for them, but I can put them in a position to think about it. This is, in my current thinking, the best we can hope from our jobs as educators: to put students in a position to think and to think well. It is not easy.

As they begin to formulate their concerns for their final research project on our city, I can’t help but remember something we did in the fall that is slowly unfurling in a pattern that is not what I intended, but is lovely all the same (another goal of teaching: beauty in happenstance). I noticed the pattern largely because today my students taught class on the controversy surrounding the renovations to Monroe Park, our closest neighboring green space. As students debated any responsibility we might have for Richmond residents who frequent the park during the day, I remembered an exercise we did on homelessness during the fall. To illustrate how one narrative can be changed by the voice of the narrator, I gave them three versions of “[The Ghost of] Tom Joad”: Woody GuthrieBruce Springsteen, and Rage Against the Machine (those links are to previews of the songs—I highly recommend listening to each in its entirety).

The three are a testament to the power of voice to shape a story. Our narratives of poverty are complex and deeply tied to our narratives about our selves (for people of every class). These stories, even within an individual, aren’t singular. It’s my hope that as my students begin their final projects, they’ll see that each issue they explore is equally polyphonic. 

“In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that the conditions prevailing in our urban…”

“In recent years it has become increasingly apparent that the conditions prevailing in our urban centers present many of our most critical national, state, and local problems. However we may view the social, political or economic issues facing our nation today, we are aware that our future depends in large part upon the wisdom with which we attack and solve the dilemmas of our cities. Problems of education, health, transportation, communication, industrial development, manpower, political organization, and social improvement do now, and will in the future, compete for attention. It is therefore important that we anticipate the possible role of the university in the solution of these problems.
Within this context, what should be the role of the public, urban university? Shall it restrict its activities, in the traditional sense to the discover of new knowledge and to the teaching of knowledge, old and new? Or must the urban university of the future as an instrument of society accept a responsibility for putting the knowledge to use? Is not the urban university the institution through which the state must work toward the solution of many of its critical urban problems in the future?”

Wayne Commission Report, 1967.

“Not to know more at the end of the day than in the morning is a failure of love.”

“Not to know more at the end of the day than in the morning is a failure of love.”

-Donna Haraway, keynote address at the Kindred Spirits conference, Indiana University in 2006.

A wonderful address, one I am still thinking of 6 years later. Thankfully, I took copious notes.

Haraway is the only keynote speaker I have ever seen invite the entire audience to the after party. A faculty member in the English department immediately leapt up to negate the invitation. This was not well received.



Today my students and I started an extended unit on Richmond: its geography, history, and present. Over the next few weeks they’ll study every aspect of our city. I’m a bit overwhelmed right now, as I start to pull together materials for our project. We inhabitants of Richmond are incredibly lucky. Our city is incredible, and its seemingly limitless artists, scientists, and scholars have produced a tremendous cache of materials for the interested reader. I’m barely able to narrow the materials down to fit into the time left between now and the end of April.

There’s so much to study, in fact, that VCU’s Dr. John Kneebone teaches a course on Richmond in the 20th century; I can’t wait to spend some of my faculty tuition remission taking this class.

My students are compiling materials to teach class for a day on a local issue. In the process, I’m trying to demonstrate how much work goes into leading class on a small subject. Groups are reading 4 or 5 articles and then teaching class on one image. This kind of assignment is always volatile. Who knows what they’ll do.

As we research I’ll be posting materials here about VCU, Richmond, and their mutual histories. 

Andy Clark, Philip K. Dick, and Zimoun

For class today I’ve brought in images and videos of Zimoun’s sound installations. Our first unit this semester is a long extension of our last from the fall: on technology, human progress, and human identity. Zimoun’s work stands out as an innovative use of simple tech with great effect. 

We’re continuing our ongoing discussion of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and this week we’ll re-examing Dick’s novel through theorist Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs. They’re quite familiar with Clark, having read him in the context of Nicholas Carr, Jamais Cascio, and Neal Postman. This is their first experience applying his writing to something so conceptual. It should be a great test of their ability to make that leap.  

Clark writes:

“There has been much written about our imminent “post-human” future, but if I am right, this is a dangerous and mistaken image. The very things that sometimes seem most post-human, the deepest and most profound of our potential biotechnological mergers, will reflect nothing so much as their thoroughly human source” (6). 

Androids… is indeed post-human, apocalyptically so. Zimoun’s cotton balls, however, seem deeply human: simultaneously isolated and choral, like music, a seamless reach from the creator to their audience. While student responses expressed concern with aspects of our lives that are already dehumanizing, without reliance on Dick’s novel, they also recognized in Zimoun’s boxes the limitless empty apartments of Dick’s post-war suburbia. In the sound generated by the cotton balls they heard the isolated rumblings of anonymous apartment dwellers and a surprisingly effective meditation on the power of many where one would be silent. 

This installation presents a wholly different experience for the students this far into the year. Some have been impressed at this installation’s accessibility for a larger audience (the blind for example), and others feel it’s rendered far less accessible by the lack of discernable context. Though students tend to be accustomed to the use of technology in art, here it surprised all of them. When asked how DC motors might compare to a paintbrush, they hesitated to respond. One student adamantly loved the conceptual nature of the piece—why create something representational, she asked, when a camera can do it better than you can?

Nicholas Carr believes we will adapt to our tools, Andy Clark that they will adapt to us. These technologies, Clark writes “will be less like tools and more like part of the mental apparatus of the person.” Art, like a laptop or a search engine, is a tool for communication and one radically altered by the last century. I’m not one to believe, however, that the changes of our generation eclipse those of the past. Technological change is now what it once was: new, bizarre, and unpredictable. 

In my classes I can see a huge divide between those students who interact with technology passively (those who use) and actively (those who redesign and recreate to meet their own needs). Watching students react to Zimoun highlights this divide. Some see value (regardless of whether or not they like it) here in Zimoun’s concept. They see something thrilling in its potential for redesign. Others simply evaluate the final product for completed worth. Part of my hope is to move more students into the first camp, into a mental habit of seeing a component parts as well as a whole, and a greater tendency for interactivity. 


Clark, Andy. Natural Born Cyborgs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Zimoun : Compilation Video V.2.9 | Sound Sculptures & Installations, Sound Architectures from STUDIO ZIMOUN on Vimeo.

VCU is back in session, and while I have the same students (I love this part of my job), I’m amazed…

VCU is back in session, and while I have the same students (I love this part of my job), I’m amazed that people who seem so familiar can be, with a new subject, totally surprising. Our winter reading is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel I have taught before, but always in an “Intro to Science Fiction” course. This year I’m teaching it as part of an ethics and critical thinking curriculum, which I’m finding demands a shift to a much more focused interrogation of some of the central questions of the novel—namely how we define ourselves as human. It seems like an easily dismissible question. There are not, for instance, androids among us who pass as human. There are, however, some dramatic ongoing changes in how we define humanity, and in debates about abortion and stem cell research it is by no means a settled issue socially or politically.

On Friday of last week I asked students to write about a passage in the book that highlights just how socially inept the characters are at distinguishing between humans and others. There are tests, of course, throughout the novel, but very few characters ever take the most definitive test of their humanity: a bone marrow sample. Instead, they are left to muddle through social interaction and to use vague categories as their guide.* The scene is Luba Luft’s arrest and retirement. Everyone in this passage has their own deeply invested sense of how we perform our humanity. Luba’s is method to value art, something Phil Resch is wholly unable to do.

Art, the novel seems to argue, demands empathy from its viewer. Art points us toward an ethical framework. It helps us see and give meaningful consideration to the world.

We’re testing this theory in class. For the last ten minutes of every Monday class I’m giving the students a work of art to look at, and I’m staying silent. I’ve asked the students in those ten minutes each week to take over, to regulate their own debate on something with which they are unfamiliar. I’ve asked them if their performance in this capacity can actually prove they’re human. 

Their responses are fascinating. Even though I’m bowing out of the conversation, they’re constantly looking to me for support. They’re asking one another questions, panicking when they fall into awkward silence, alternately encouraging and arguing with one another. It’s the start of something new and something that feels productive. 

Maman (1999), in Tokyo 2011.

Today I gave them Maman by Louise Bourgeois. The range of their responses was incredible. One class sat in almost complete silence for the full ten minutes, some students occasionally looking up as if to speak and then deciding against it. In other classes some expressed fear and alienation. One student said she wanted to climb it. Several admired the delicate stance of such an enormous object.

Only a couple of students commented that the spider reminded them of the spider in the novel, which Priss and Roy torture. One said quietly that Priss and Roy are right—the spider could certainly walk on four legs.

*imprecise or arbitrary categorizations are some of the most frequent hurdles I run into in the classroom and are some of the hardest habits to overcome.


Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  New York: Del Rey, 1968.

Malchik, Atom. Roppongi Hills, Mori Tower – Maman (1999), sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Feb. 2011. Flickr. JPEG file. 

VCU’s Cobblestone

Today I began to put together materials for my spring course website. We’ll be looking at the history of our school and our city this spring, and I wanted historical images of VCU to post online. In looking through archives I found copies of our old yearbook, Cobblestone, from 1973. The images are amazing. It’s easy to see how remarkable a school VCU was in the 70’s, with vibrant art and social programs.

From the Department of Psychology:

from Art History:

The School of Education:

The School of Community Services:


Communication Arts and Design:

members of the Nyeusi Theater Troupe:


The images are accented with small passages from artists, writers, thinkers, and frequently from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, no doubt in an effort to speak to their project of documenting the present. The present, they realize, is quick to pass:

The impulse toward transience in art explains the whole development of that most transient of art works, the ‘happening.’ The happening, according to its proponents, is ideall performed once and once only. This happening is the Kleenex Tissue of art.

Looking through the yearbook, VCU gives me the sense that it was one long happening: a performance one would be lucky to catch. Today these images look unspeakably nostalgic, and Toffler’s analysis seems to apply not only to the celebrities of his era, but to the people pictured above, as small ambassadors of a university that has changed tremendously in the past 40 years.

“Twiggy, the Beatles, John Glenn, Billie Sol Estes, Bob Dylan, Jacky Ruby, Norman Mailer, Eichmann, Jean-Paul Sartre, Georgie Malenkov, Jacqueline Kennedy—thousands of ‘personalities’ parade across the stage magnified by contemporary history. Real people, magnified and projected by the mass media, they are stored as images in the minds of millions of people who have never met them, never spoken to them, never seen them ‘in person.’ They take on a reality almost as (and sometimes even more) intense than that of many people with whom we do have ‘in-person’ relationships.”

I have searched VCU’s system, and few of the people pictured above appear. Today I am a faculty member at their school, doing a similar job in a now dissimilar campus in a city they might not recognize. Their presence seems like a kind of celebrity; they’re mythic, as is their era.


The passages above come from Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. I don’t know what edition the editors of Cobblestone had, but my own copy is about the right period:

Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970.