All posts by Sarah Schuster

Making “Bread Money”: The Art and Labor of Turkish Roman Musicians

The Faculty Fellows Seminar held on October 17th was led by Sonia Seeman, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology in the Butler School of Music. Dr. Seeman presented the group with a series of works that tied together several years’ worth of research and writing on the music and musicianship of Turkish Roman (“Gypsy”) communities. Dr. Seeman’s new project, titled Bread Money–Musical Movement: Narrating Turkish Roman Musicians’ Lives, seeks to offer a that explores music as laboring activity, her person- and family-centered narrative to complement her previous book, Sounding Roman: Musical Performance and Representation in Western Turkey. Seeman opened the seminar first by asking the group what in the readings left them with questions, with the need for clarification, or the desire for expansion, as well as a broader question: what is it we, as academics, narrativize?

Seeman noted that her project began with a reimagining of what goes into research, and what goes into narrative. Sounding Roman had left her with an abundance of stories, relationships, and connections to the people whose music and lives she had researched. Yet she found that only some of these depictions fit into her first book and some of her academic articles. Seeman discussed how she needs to consider her accountability not only to a scholarly community, but to the communities she represents–as well as to a more diverse reading audience. Musician families hold a mythic status for Turkish Roman communities, Seeman noted, and she seeks to both relate the mythic and the everyday realities. Seeman described the project as a “quilt” of stories, motives, and material, some of which were still in the process of being sewn together.

Many Fellows commented on Seeman’s use of the term “aesthetic labor” to describe the work of Turkish Roman musicians. Seeman noted that most Turkish Roman musicians come from musical lineages–musicianship, in other words, is seen as a family trade, and as an aesthetic trade first and foremost. Though music is frequently seen in Western culture as a pursuit of leisure, Turkish Roman musicians see the act as something to make “bread money,” or money that “puts food on the table.” Their labor, though aesthetic, is still skilled labor, requiring years of training and practice, usually from childhood. Some Fellows questioned whether this conception of labor has been shifted even further by technology, reimagining the bounds of music distribution.

Technology was a further consideration for Seeman’s overall project. Fellows discussed Seeman’s interest in expanding her book project into a hyperlinked text, or a larger digital repository and resource to scholars and students. But Seeman noted that she wants to balance providing an open digital archive with creating an immersive and engaging narrative. Such considerations led her and the group to thinking about Seeman’s own place in the narrative. Ethnomusicology, as she noted, often placed the researcher in the position of being a participant-scholar. Becoming part of the cultural landscape was important to Seeman’s understanding of her musician subjects and of the music that they play. But the process of participating, as Seeman noted, additionally opened up new stories, new avenues, and new friendships–all of which, the Fellows agreed, deserved a place in the ultimate story.

Gothic Care and Keeping: Sir Walter Scott’s Stewardship

Samuel Baker, Associate Professor in the Department of English, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on October 11th. Dr. Baker presented the Fellows with a project-in-progress on Sir Walter Scott and “stewardship,” which encapsulates Baker’s conception of Scott’s ongoing influence (and active fostering, during his time) of cultural history. In the manuscripts he distributed to the seminar, Baker argues that Scott, and to an extent, poets like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, and Ann Radcliffe, each participate in an ethos of “spectral” or gothic care, charging contemporaries and future generations to become “stewards” to British national culture.

This “ethos of stewardship,” Baker notes, pulls together various threads of their contemporary moment to produce our current culture. Scott, an antiquarian, lawyer, folklorist, and Tory, based his literary landscapes off of his studies, seeing himself first and foremost as an editor of antiquarian literature. His literary persona was in turn deeply bound, as Baker argued, to an ethics of care that entreats readers to engage with Britain’s past, and also Britain’s future.

In the seminar, Baker characterized his reading of Scott as “reparative,” citing work by Steven J. Jackson (in the edited volume, Media Technologies) and Eve K. Sedgwick (in her book Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity) on new attention to appreciation. Baker connected Scott’s antiquarian aspirations with the simultaneously “gothic” and “georgic” poetry of Burns and Wordsworth, who likewise mediate an ethos of care for their readers. Baker solicited the Fellows’ thoughts around this connection and thus continued the seminar’s ongoing conversation on audience-specific writing. While Baker admitted he enjoys presenting his research to a broader audience, he usually leans towards more academic and thus more specialized forms of writing. Baker and the Fellows discussed the virtues of “portrait” vs. “landscape” writing, and the Fellows expressed a particular interest in the broader “landscape” question of how Scott has influenced today’s notions of stewardship–whether national, religious, economic, or ecological. They agreed that this topic could speak to a wide range of audiences.

 

Who Can Tell What Story?: Ethical Concerns in Theatre Education

Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Department of Theatre and Dance Dr. Sara Simons led the Faculty Fellows seminar held October 4th, beginning with a simple question: who can tell what story? As an educator of future theatre teachers, Dr. Simons noted that her interest in investigating the classroom came from both theoretical and practical concerns. For Simons’ students, the ethics of who can best present a story and whether stories can be told across identity markers quickly become issues of importance in high school theater classrooms. Simons’ students value exposing their own future students to plays and stories from a diverse range of writers and voices, yet many also question how to teach such perspectives. But such conversations are not limited to theatre education, as many Fellows noted.

Simons led the seminar through a series of kinesthetic exercises, many of which she teaches in her own classroom. She began with exercises adapted from Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed canon, asking Fellows to follow a series of commands (walk, stop, jump, say your name), then to reverse those commands–to walk when Simons told the group to stop, to jump when Simons asked the group to state their names, and so on. The Fellows debriefed after the activity, noting the activity established new meanings and rules, forcing each of the participants to think before they acted. Simons framed this activity as a way for her to teach students the process of unlearning their assumptions, beliefs, and automatic responses–something, she noted, that is not only continual, but often bumpy.

Simons asked the group frequently to describe what they achieved in the activity, providing the participants an opportunity to reflect on their teaching as well as on their assumptions around teaching texts from authors of different backgrounds from their students (or their own), among other things. Simons noted that theatre education frequently positions theatre as both “a mirror and a window,” representing both the audience’s experiences and experiences that may never have had. But that view of theatre can be complicated by issues of who is permitted to tell stories of marginalized people, and who is represented in theatre as a whole.

Simons instructed Fellows to assemble into small groups to discuss various hypothetical scenarios around storytelling, authenticity, and representation. Fellows debriefed on the assignment as a group, discussing the ethics of writing or teaching stories from different societal positions and perspectives. Many Fellows noted that academic work in a variety of fields involves working in communities outside of their own, requiring researchers to consider how they are accountable to the communities they write about and what materials they need to elucidate or contextualize. Participants also discussed considerations of audience. In theatre, Simons noted, directors and producers frequently need to consider who the show is for, and whether they intend to expand the audience’s horizons or depict the audience’s own lives–the mirror, or the window. Fellows concluded that academics, writers, and others in creative professions often have to make risky moves to promote empathy in their audience, or in their students. Thus, an understanding of the power dynamics at work–in a piece, a production, or in culture broadly–are essential to teaching theatre, and to teaching and writing as a whole.

The seminar closed with each participant stating their final, one word summation of the discussion, providing each Fellow an opportunity to reflect on what they took from the session. Answers ranged widely, but many stated words like authenticity, empathy, context, and other broad topics, making connections to the concerns of past seminars.

The Way She Was: Writing Eve Merriam’s Life Story

The Faculty Fellows seminar on September 26th was led by Julia Mickenberg, Professor in the Department of American Studies. Building from her previous work on leftist and radical politics in children’s books, Dr. Mickenberg presented a collection of materials that represents her work-in-progress: a book on American writer Eve Merriam. Merriam published a wide range of work from the late 1950s into the late ‘70s, including plays, poems, essays, children’s books, and more, with surprising speed.

Indeed, the breadth of interests, topics, and expressive forms found in Merriam’s work is part of what makes her so fascinating to Mickenberg. Across her career Merriam participated in a number of different literary and political circles, tying together a number of Mickenberg’s own interests, for instance in radical cultures, feminism, children’s literature, and the children’s liberation movement. (These interests are explored in Mickenberg’s books, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2005) and American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream (2017).) According to Mickenberg, Merriam is likely best remembered as a children’s poet, but her influence was felt through a variety of contexts, and a variety of genres. Her legacy was further complicated by the 1973 Barbra Streisand film, The Way We Were. Merriam partially inspired screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ take on the Streisand character, Kate Morosky, providing Mickenberg an unexpected inroad to writing about Merriam herself.

Participants in the seminar were amazed at the amount of ground Merriam covered over the course of her life, creating unexpected communities through her work and presaging the feminist work of Betty Friedan in her political essays from the late ‘50s. Many suggested that readers might similarly want to engage with the fascinating diversity of Merriam’s work, and advised Mickenberg to consider collecting some of Merriam’s writing into a separate edited volume. As Mickenberg noted, Merriam’s “The Diary of a White Liberal Racist” seems remarkably relevant to discussions today about some of the subtler forms that persistent racism takes, including institutional racism, implicit biases, and the benefits that even liberal or progressive white people often enjoy at the benefit of people of color.

Mickenberg’s own project is still taking shape and she is exploring different approaches to telling a life story, including the question of to what extent she wants to focus on narrating and analyzing Merriam’s own life and work and to what extent she wants to use Merriam as a lens for discussing some of the broader historical and cultural developments in which she participated. An enticing facet of Merriam’s story is how many major figures in diverse fields across a long stretch of time she had dealings with, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Norman Lear!

Seminar participants, including several who had written biographies or, in the case of Paul Stekler, made biographical films, brainstormed with Mickenberg about approaches she might take to organizing her materials and deciding upon a through-line for the story she wants to tell. Participants suggested focusing individual chapters on different genres Merriam had written in or on particularly resonant creative experiences she’d had. One participant suggested that  a chapter might be devoted to the  community created around The Club, her Obie award-winning play, which debuted in 1976. Mickenberg has interviewed the play’s producer Mary Silverman, and through the interview, she discovered how tightly knit the cast became during the play’s premiere at the Lenox Theater in the Berkshires. The actors bonded over a mutual connection with Merriam’s script, a satirical take on men’s clubs featuring an entirely female cast. Mickenberg closed the seminar by showing a series of clips from Merriam’s work in television, including a TV spot for the bicentennial anniversary of the American Revolution, and All That Glitters, a 1970s TV sitcom, directed by Norman Lear, parodying men and women’s roles by entirely reversing them. Seminar participants also discussed how writers include themselves in their scholarly work as narrators and as characters. Though including oneself in a biography or paper can be prove risky, participants agreed that Mickenberg’s reference to her research process added something valuable to her paper.