Sunday, September 4, 2016

Of Queens, Athletes, & Images: Kicking off the Semester

Hank Willis Thomas
The first weeks of school have been about building a classroom culture, about learning how we will learn together. This includes the protocols, practices, and vocabulary (our inside language!) that we will use. One of the practices I use, which I introduced to all four of my classes this week, is called “queening” - a way of reading a text (or set of texts) to make meaning. 

Queening, a process I adapted from the UMOJA Community, consists of four overlapping recursive stages: Quoting, Queezing, Quonnecting, and Queening.

Quoting happens when we observe a text - a poem, essay, book, song, or work of art - and simply identify direct evidence. It’s noting key words, phrases, images, or sounds. In a poem or other written text, that would be an author’s exact words. And just as writers quote each other, artists quote each other, too - think of the way Picasso quotes African art or how Kehinde Wiley does the same with classic art. Musicians quote each other all the time when they sample and remix sonic elements from each others’ music. So quoting isn't limited to what we traditionally think of as texts. 

Queezing (from the word “squeeze”) has to do with explaining what the evidence from the quotes mean. It’s interpreting the objective evidence. Basically, queezing is coming up with a claim that ties the data together. I like the term because it suggests action, that intellectual work of “crunching” evidence into meaning. 

Qonnecting has to do with making associations across texts, finding relationships and noticing patterns between different text, even across genres. Quonnection might be about linking what we see to what we already know (schema), too. For many of our writing projects, quonnecting means looking for how assigned readings are in conversation with each other. 

Queening asks thinkers to figure out, through another layer of queezing, the idea that binds texts together, comings up with larger claim that quonnects a set of texts (or how texts interact with what we already know - schema). Basically, queening means coming up with the thesis, the idea that rules over the quotes, initial queezings, and quonnections. 

Queening - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires - the first image comes from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland and  final slide is an image  from Jean-Michel Basquiat's "Crown" series. 

To illustrate the “queening” process, we examined photography by Hank Willis Thomas, observing the evidence in his photos: people playing sports, dark skinned people, two individuals facing off in a football stance on a football field, cotton, Nike footwear, chains, a basketball. Those are quotes of a visual text. We also noted what was left out of the picture: the rest of the basketball player, obscured faces, and a black void instead of the background one might expect. What's left out of a text is also evidence. 

After queezing meaning, i.e., trying to figure out Thomas’ point, students came up with varied readings of the texts. We argued back and forth which “quotes” they used to “queeze” their interpretations, their claims. I helped them see the difference between “claim” and “evidence” and asked them to reason how they got from “quote/evidence” to “queeze/claim.” 

From Hank Willis Thomas' Branded
I used our discussion to point out how our brains process data almost instantaneously. In many cases, folks (myself included!) jump to claims (queezing) almost immediately after taking in the a text, taking the “quote/evidence” step unconsciously. Many students realized that noticing evidence (experiencing the quotes) happens quickly, beneath the level of awareness. 

Beyond distinguishing between quote and queeze, between evidence and claim, I had to slow down students’ conversation enough to make their thinking visible, how it is we move from quote/evidence to queeze/claim.

As the semester progresses, we’ll take a closer look at how we jump from evidence to claim, how reasoning relies on a funky mix of assumptions, logic, unchallenged conceptions, and our own schema to construct claims. Our task this semester to make visible this often invisible process. 

After exploring our initial readings of Thomas’ photos, I introduced a different set of “texts” to see if they could “quonnect” his project to current events: Colin Kaepernick’s staying seated during the playing of the national anthem and Gabby Douglass’ not putting her hand over her heart during the Olympics. Folks were quick to say that race and professional sports binds all the texts. They easily named a the topic, and with minimal prodding, they were able to make new, more sophisticated claims about the images. Here are a few: 
  • The history of African Americans still implicated in contemporary sports. 
  • Black minds, voices, and opinions are not as valued as is their physical labor, i.e., being athletes or entertainers. 
    From Hank Willis Thomas' Branded 
  • Athletics is practically a form of slavery. The circumstances and consequences are at completely different scale. However, being “uppity” gets punished. 
Making connections between texts compelled students to think more deeply about their original readings; their claims were informed and complicated by considering multiple texts. They came up with more significant claims. This deepening is important because all of ourwriting projects ask students to synthesis several texts (including their schema) to come up with claims worth exploring and reading.