Asian American Literature Poetry Videos
The videos on this channel have all been produced by students of Asian American Literature (ICS 24 and ELIT 24) at De Anza College in Cupertino, California.
Asian American Literature at De Anza College is unique for a number of reasons. First of all, almost everyone who takes this course is of Asian or mixed-Asian descent. This fact profoundly influences the dynamics of the course. “Asian Americans” are not simply the object of study; rather, most of the participants in the course are themselves directly involved in producing Asian America, and all participants in the course participate in producing Asian American Literature. Secondly, De Anza College is one of the few places where Ethnic Studies remains strong. Ethnic Studies at De Anza College is housed in the department of Intercultural Studies, and along with World Languages and International Studies it forms the division of International and Intercultural Studies. Like every Ethnic Studies formation in the US, Intercultural Studies has had to ward off repeated threats to its existence. However, ICS has at De Anza College managed to become central to the life of the campus and the experiences of many of its students of color. The relative strength of Ethnic Studies at De Anza allows students and faculty the necessary space to grow and develop without continually fending off attacks. Finally, De Anza College is located in Silicon Valley, a region that is a major hub of migration between Asia and the US. The growth of the Asian American population in the region served by De Anza College has been symbiotic with the growth of Silicon Valley. The region during the 1980s and 1990s attracted many people of Asian descent because of the availability of jobs in engineering and electronics assembly. Meanwhile, from that time to the present Asian Americans have captured a great deal of political power and influence within the region. The Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute housed at De Anza College has been a crucial institutional site for building this political power.
In the Fall of 2013 the Asian American Literature course focused on the production of poetry videos. During the first part of the quarter the class surveyed videos of Asian American poets reciting their poems, and every student in the class wrote at least one poem. During the second part of the quarter students made videos as groups, and each of the videos feature poems written by students in the class.
The poems for this quarter are not the politically-charged poems that the discipline of Asian American Studies demands. Despite the efforts of the instructor, the poems do not directly address problems of race, class, sexuality and/or gender in relation to Asian Pacific American communities. However, this does not mean that the poems are apolitical. The poems contain, very broadly, concern for the people. Not just the people who ride in G-6s, not just superstars, idols, and icons. Rather, the poems all articulate conflicts that actual Asian Americans at De Anza must face.
The students in the class identified two themes that several of the poems share. First, several of the poems articulate homesickness. Many of the students had recently come from abroad, and many of their poems depicted the adjustments they needed to make as they began to study at De Anza. Several second-generation students described the experience of having divided families, with families separated by the Pacific Ocean and parents who are looking back towards Asia.
The second theme that several of the students identified is the theme of the "American Dream" and the US as the "Land of Opportunities." This theme is closely connected to De Anza, which has an exceptional transfer rate to four-year universities. Many students saw themselves or their classmates within a narrative in which they or their families moved to the US from Asia in order to pursue education and the acquisition of a good job. De Anza as an institution places itself within this narrative--De Anza is a place that provides a good chance for students to move on to a prestigious four-year university. Students, like their families, might encounter struggles, but they hope to overcome them in order to achieve success. This narrative of the "American Dream" is very powerful, but it is also very problematic. Future iterations of this class will need to address the complexities and problems that arise from this narrative, which is sometimes discussed in Asian American Studies courses in terms of Model Minority discourse.
The most prominent aesthetic problem that students grappled with is a problem central to the discipline of Asian American Studies itself. How would students create a single video that would adequately represent the diversity of the people who produced the video? The solutions varied. In some cases, students as a group wrote an entirely new poem; in some cases, students included poems written by each member in the group; in some cases, students decided to select one or a subset of poems written by members of the group.
In future iterations of this class, students should become more conscious of three sets of aesthetic decisions:
- Students should consider carefully whether they should make new footage or use found footage. Regarding found footage, students should be aware of the consumerist and touristic aesthetics embodied in much of the footage available on YouTube.
- The tone of most of the videos produced in Fall of 2013 was sad and melancholic. There were a few exceptions, in which there was a tone of defiance or a tone of celebration. The set of possible tones needs to be expanded, and existing tones need further development.
- Voice recording was of uneven quality. Students should consider more carefully the vocal delivery of the poems and the significance of the vocal delivery.
In some ways the videos of this quarter represent an advance, but in some important ways the videos represent stagnation or regression. The class was slightly larger, and the videos of De Anza students became some of the primary texts of the class. Instead of writing a single poem, students wrote two poems, the second departing from or developing the first. As a result, overall, the quality of the poems improved, with some poems articulating complex relationships between the poets and traditions that claim them.
The quality of the videos, however, was very uneven. In several cases, the videos do not do justice to the poems. This problem was particularly acute with regard to the quality of the voice recording and the delivery of the poems.
In some cases, the groups decided to record poems that did not address problems faced by De Anza students and their communities. In the published poems, although differences according to race and national origin were frequently addressed, socioeconomic class, gender, and sexuality were rarely or never thematized in the videos. Several of the poems that were not published courageously addressed issues around socioeconomic class and gender, but the video groups decided not to highlight them in their videos.
The topic for the videos for the previous quarter was tradition, and many of the videos
focused on festivals and celebrations. The videos for this quarter departed from the
previous videos by focusing on the topic of everyday culture. Initially, most of the
students in the class had a generally negative view of everyday life, life with no
time, consumed by traffic, school, and work. Students departed from these initial
impressions as they developed artistic representations of the everyday lives of Asian
American students at De Anza.
Politically, the poems this quarter advanced from the previous ones insofar as socioeconomic class was a major consideration. In some ways, the poems represent an initial development towards a working class consciousness among the students. The class was not a Silicon Valley Literature class insofar as many of the students were receptive to critiques of technology and many students documented working lives outside of high-paying tech jobs.
Thoughts on gender, on the other hand, were underdeveloped. In the student interpretations of the poems the focus was on issues that both Asian American men and Asian American women face. Meanwhile, many students ignored issues specific to different genders, in effect erasing gender difference and deferring solutions to problems related to gender. It is possible that the focus on issues related to work and school obscured the influence of gender in shaping the everyday lives of the students. In the future it might be worthwhile to compare and contrast the experiences of gender at work and school with the experiences of gender at home.
Aesthetically, the quality of the poems was very high, with many containing unheard and unexpressed thoughts of Asian American students. Initially, when confronted with the topic of everyday life, most students wrote poems which simply chronicled a typical day, from waking up to preparing to leave home to going to school and, in many cases, going to work. Students then expanded on specific moments in order to produce new poems. In several cases, the student groups wrote entirely new poems for their videos.
With regard to the videos, several groups expanded the range of artistic possibilities. One group created their video by making a pastiche from two Chinese films. Several groups switched voices so that the poet was not the one who recited the poem, and in several cases the images that the groups used departed significantly from the content and original context of the poems. In one group still images were dominant, and in the future poems might be accompanied by student illustrations.
Technically, there was an overall significant improvement in the sound quality and the delivery of the poems. Marty Kahn and Yuki from the Technology Resources Group provided crucial technical support to the class. A problem emerged, however, when Sony Music Entertainment blocked one of the videos on copyright grounds. In the future, some class time might be well spent in discussing the basics of camerawork.
The poems this quarter were the result of a sustained effort in the classroom to focus
on gender and socioeconomic class through the categories of wage work and unpaid housework. Prompts
for student poems asked them to concentrate on gender and socioeconomic class, and
several class discussions revolved around interpreting poems in terms of gender and
socioeconomic class. A significant amount of class time was devoted to conceptualizing
videos and writing video descriptions in terms of gender and labor. At some point
in the future the Asian American Literature class should concentrate on topics around
Aesthetically, there was some unevenness in the quality of the visual aspect of the videos. In the future it will hopefully be possible to incorporate a structure within the class so that more experienced film-makers can provide advice for less experienced ones. For example, more experienced film-makers can let less experienced ones know how to lower the volume of the music so that it is easier to listen to the poem. It should also be made clear to people who are reciting another student's poem that they need to internalize the poem to the extent that the recitation sounds like they are speaking their own words. In some cases this might require the poems to go through a collective editing process, and at the very least this will require close interaction between a poet and a voice actor.
This quarter the class returned to the topic of culture, but with a slightly different approach. Students wrote poems about the moments when they became educated about their culture. There were three shifts this quarter. First, students participated in the Salugpongan project with several other classes. Because of the need to allocate time to this project there was little consideration of poems aside from the ones written for this class in previous quarters and the poems that the students produced this quarter. Second, each student wrote three poems instead of only two. Finally, there were several sessions where students critiqued aspects of the poetry videos from previous quarters. The critiques were particularly focused around musical and visual transitions.
As a result of the focus on De Anza poetry videos certain visual tropes began to emerge. For instance, text for key lines and words became more prevalent, there was an opening shot of the sky, and there were many scenes from bedrooms and from around the De Anza campus. The emergence of tropes also put innovations into sharper relief. This quarter one of the videos featured jazz music and poems read in a jazz rhythm, a departure from almost all videos produced in previous quarters. A large portion of one of the videos was edited as an anime music video.
The class turned to the topic of gender and sexuality, with mixed results. The poems this quarter give indications of what is possible to discuss in public and what kinds of experiences can be made public. In an echo of the Winter 2015 poems, several of the poems described gendered divisions of labor in the household. Marriage and career expectations from family were common themes, as well as differing degrees of control that parents exerted over the lives of sons and daughters. Exceptions to the common themes, though, show limits to what can be comfortably recorded and made publicly available. Only one of the videos concerned dating, and the topic of sexuality more generally is not developed in the poems.
This quarter there was a more sustained attempt to integrate analysis of the course themes and the relationships of poems to each other into the video descriptions written by students. Visual tropes continued to be developed, such as the use of communications devices, filming in parks and the living spaces of students, and the re-cutting of feature-length movies. One innovation was the creation of a draw-my-life-style video.
There is a continuing struggle to have students engage meaningfully with each others' work. In the future, considerations of aesthetic traditions and the development of aesthetic traditions should become a more explicit goal of the class as it becomes easier for new poetry videos to consciously reference and depart from previous videos. Musical traditions should receive more attention, and will possibly be the opening topic in a future class.
Fall 2016 and Spring 2017
Since this course shifted to an emphasis on producing poetry videos, a much larger proportion of the students who have taken it have been international students, and in particular international students of Sinophone descent. Two very large processes have created the conditions for this shift in student demographics. First, like many colleges and universities in the US, De Anza College has increasingly relied on tuition paid by international students because of insufficient state funding. In order to maintain the scale of academic programs and the numbers of course offerings and staff, the college is forced to boost its enrollment. Second, the flows of surplus into cities in Asia--via both extraction from agricultural workers and mining as well as the flows of labor from rural areas into manufacturing, construction, and domestic labor--has created a class of people in those cities who see higher education for their children in the US as the best option, which in turn creates a major flow of surplus value from underdeveloped areas of Asia into the US educational system.
Because of significant demographic shifts in the composition of students who take this course, certain constraints and possibilities have emerged. A constraint is that the family income of most of the students, on paper, is very high. In order to qualify for a student visa to the US, students must demonstrate to a consular official that his or her family is able to pay tuition and living expenses. The sums involved, in countries such as China and Indonesia, are far above the median annual income for those countries. Some international students receive support not only from their countries of origin but also from family members who are working in the US or who have settled in the US and accumulated wealth in US dollars. Likewise, for many of the students whose families are from Vietnam and the Philippines (countries that have produced a flow of immigration to the US caused by the economic effects of US war in Asia and the family preference system for immigration to the US), the incomes of the families in the US are far higher than the median incomes of the sending countries where the students or their parents were born. It would thus be an analytical mistake to take the poems produced by these students as representative of their countries when the students, for the most part, come from families that represent a narrow class-fraction in relation to their countries of descent.
However, this shift creates many possibilities as well. The poems produced by students in the 2016-2017 school year show a limited awareness of how the economic conditions in the countries of origin of the poets' families have impacted their experiences at De Anza College. In the fall the topic for the course was caregiving, a topic which was not only current in discussions within the field of Asian American Studies, but which also tied together issues around gender and sexuality that had been the topics of previous quarters of this course. Although the poems illustrated a variety of relationships of students to childcare and eldercare, and although some of the poems mentioned the shift from family-provided care to care provided by workers outside of the family, none of the poems reflected on the economic conditions that would force someone, most often a woman, to leave her own family to take care of a distant one, often in another region of Asia such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, a wealthy city in China, Jakarta, and increasingly Japan and South Korea. In the spring, the quarter began with discussions of travel and migration given the current political climate in the US, but the initial poems and writing assignments showed that many students were considering only political barriers and not economic barriers to mobility. As the quarter progressed the course became more and more focused on positions of different countries within an international division of labor and income as well as the positions of students' families within the class structures formed through the global economic system within both the US and the countries of origin of the students' families. Because of the variety of locations within national class structures that have become increasingly determined on a scale spanning East, Southeast, and South Asia and their intersection with the US educational system, students bring a tremendous wealth of diverse experiences to the classroom.
A task for this class, then, might be to provide clarity about the class relationships between people in Asia and people of Asian descent in the US. In the future versions of this class hopefully students will become more aware of how the economic positions of their parents' countries of origin have impacted their experiences at De Anza. For students whose families have immigrated to the US, most often the decision to immigrate was in response to the lack of economic opportunities in their countries of origin, where a majority consume less than the equivalent of $10 each day. For many of the international students, migrants from either rural areas of their own countries or from less economically-developed countries in Asia do work that their families and their families' cities depend on, but in the De Anza classroom they encounter students whose families are from less economically-developed countries but who now have access to a very high-income labor market. Furthermore, for international students from Asian countries with high degrees of inequality, a powerful motivation for studying in the US would be the hope to also participate in the labor market within the US and from there perhaps attain permanent residency and citizenship.
Future versions of this course should further develop the assignments in response to the changing demographics of the classroom in order to produce high-quality poems and videos as well as analyses of the poems that account for the positions of students within global capitalism. In Fall 2016 and Spring 2017 most of the assignments for the course--a "Telling Your Story" assignment, three poems, short essays, and video production--were heavily refined in order to better prepare students for the analysis of videos that the students produced for their final exam.
With regard to the poetry assignment, a set of aesthetic guidelines are now in place in order to produce poetry in English written by students of Asian descent in the US. The aesthetic guidelines are the product of two somewhat competing aims. On the one hand, the poetry unit now invites students to draw on aesthetic and poetic traditions that they are familiar with from their families and schools and to do some work in defining these traditions in short writing assignments. Because most of the students attended middle school and/or high school outside of the US, their experience with poetry is most likely not an English-language or even Indo-European-language experience. However, the aesthetic guidelines are unabashedly and explicitly modern and vernacular-English, and they are designed to produce poems that will facilitate the materialist analysis that students will be expected to do on the final exam.
In addition to more clarity in the expectations for the poems there has been an increase in the amount of writing about poetry that students do. There are weekly short-writing assignments, and students write essays about their own aesthetic choices and the relationships of their aesthetic judgements to the poems of other people in the class, to previous work that they have written, and to the poetic traditions that they have been introduced to.
Video descriptions have become another important writing tool, and the revision process for producing the video descriptions has become a key part of the exam preparation. The video descriptions, however, are of very uneven quality. There is a need for a more formalized process for writing the video descriptions as well as a generic study of the descriptions in order to identify more clearly to the writers what the generic expectations and patterns are so that the quality of the video descriptions can steadily improve.
Video production has become very smooth, and the wide dissemination of the necessary equipment and the knowledge about shooting and editing videos makes it largely unnecessary to devote class time to these activities beyond voice recording and introducing an editing rubric in order to ensure a certain level of quality for the videos. One troubling development is the discontinuation of Movie Maker by Microsoft, thus eliminating the free editing software built into Windows. iMovie is set to become the dominant editing program, with the program itself setting some aesthetic possibilities and constraints (such as music and transitions provided with the program). While technology for producing images with phones is now very advanced, microphone technology has lagged. Although scheduling individual times for group poem recordings is time-consuming, the technical means might not yet be available to let groups handle the recording on their own.