A Subtle Racism in World Cup Advertising

So we're halfway through the first week of my First-Year Writing course themed: "Rhetorical and Discursive Constructions of the World Cup." It's probably too early to make evaluative assessments of the course design, but judging by the quality of student responses, interest seems to be high. Our first whole group assignment involved an analysis of ESPN's "Time Zone" commercial, which presents a series of vignettes of people from various World Cup nations gathering together with their friends and compatriots to watch some football. The message is obvious: the World Cup is a shared, global event that brings people together locally, and because of that, creates a shared, global identity. The affirming slogan, "Every 4 years the world has one time zone," which closes the ad, explicitly makes this argument.

To be fair, my initial response to this commercial was wholly positive. As a matter of fact, the "shared, global experience" narrative, including having to wake up at odd hours to watch a game, is one of the main reasons I enjoy the sport. Taken together, however, the messages of this commercial tell an interesting, and somewhat problematic, story.

You may notice some of the national representations presented in "Time Zone" from Western media's more cartooney stereotypes: Fans in Rio de Janeiro dance and cook food on a rooftop. English fans meet at a pub. In Ghana, men literally use a bicycle and a car battery to power a single, meager television set (no mention of the $10 million the Ghanaian government afforded the national team to help in their preparations). Subtle, atonal strings reinforce the image of Japanese fans. The script could almost writes itself, assuming the script based its understanding of non-US life strictly on the basest of generalizations.

According to my students, the more interesting messages involved the portions of the commercial showing how fans in the United States and Mexico participate in this global community. The single US fan, a white man based in Seattle, is seen running along the street, setting up his out-of-office voice mail. Working off cues of location, suit, gender, apparent age, and the fact that he was leaving work, students inferred that the character was comfortably employed at a tech or software firm. Conversely, the section based in Guadalajara, Mexico, shows a young boy running (hurried movement is a common theme across the scenes) an extension cord through the city streets, tossing it over a wall to his friend's yard where food is cooking on the grill. (In Mexico, as in Ghana, fans must improvise to get access to electricity, apparently.)

For certain, borrowing power via extension chords is a lived reality for some residents of Mexico - but it's also a reality for people living in the United States. My students recognized this, and initially viewed these representations as examples of many possible realities. However, it is unlikely that all, or even many, US-based audiences would read this commercial with such nuance. Instead, a binary of economic class is created, with the US framed as economically superior. This is not insignificant, nor is it a coincidence.

According to Alsup (2001), "each culture, to some extent, misunderstands the other and thus defines it through a series of stereotypical lenses that don't accurately reflect reality" (p. 42). From that perspective, it can be presumed that a large portion of ESPN's viewers will interpret the representations of Mexico and the other nations in this commercial as indicative of the entirety of those nations and people.

This is how discourse can functionally reproduce racism.

While the larger themes of ESPN's "Time Zone" commercial are positive ones - unity, camaraderie, shared interest, etc. - the subtler messages portraying ethnic, racial, and national stereotypes ossify over time and can prove harmful when uncritically presented and reproduced.

Alsup, J. (2001). An English educator speaks across a disciplinary "Contact zone." English Education, 34(1), 31-49.


Teaching Writing through the World Cup

The original plan called for me to teach a dedicated section of Rhetoric & Composition I as part of the Department of Engineering's bridge program. (R&CI is the first part of the FYC sequence in the Writing Program at the University of Texas - Pan American.) This bridge program, partially funded by an NFS grant, would provide select students transitioning from high school with an opportunity to get a head start on their college course work. But Engineering wants the class taught during the Summer II session, when I'll be out of town. Naturally, I found this out just a couple weeks ago, and so I passed the course design off to another instructor, and went about swiftly developing a new design for the traditional R&CI course section I would be assigned to. Not wanting to simply plug in the course I had designed and used earlier in the year (which would have been easy enough - mostly just revise the calendar), I decided now would be as good a time as any to try out something I've been wanting to do since I got into the profession: teach a course themed on the World Cup.

This is not just an excuse to watch the games during class time (although, we most definitely will). It's an honest attempt to blend a significant contemporary cultural event into my approach to FYC, which relies on elements of discourse communities, genre study, and social justice pedagogy. Furthermore, events like the FIFA World Cup are ripe for critical investigation because they rely heavily on concepts of identification, capital, simulacra, and yes, rhetoric. (In some ways, I used the University of Kentucky's Craft Writing project as a model for thinking about this course design - just don't tell Jeff Rice.) Therefore, I contend that the World Cup, and soccer more generally, can serve as a useful vehicles for investigating objectives common across most college writing courses. In fact, there already exists a line of scholarship about the beautiful game as an academic topic, although admittedly little of it has focused specifically on writing. So, while acknowledging the disciplinary strain insisting FYC courses act as RhetComp intro courses emphasize writing about writing, I also want to capitalize on the idea that students are more engaged in writing work when they have a topical interest in what their writing about. Longer term goals include fleshing out potential usages of global football as a metaphor for teaching, thinking about, and doing writing.

A bit more about that "contemporary cultural event" concept: A significant part of my teaching is to help students use writing to move into the disciplinary communities they hope to enter into as professionals. With regards to the World Cup, it is likely that few, if any, of my students will formally move into that particular community, but I would counter that in many ways, some are likely already a part of it - as ardent followers of particular teams and as practitioners of the game itself. Even if not on the pitch, members announce themselves as part of this community through a variety of shared and individual discursive acts, including supporters groups, blogging, visual art, naming practices, national identification, gender performance, and social media, among other things. In fact, I would argue that world football fans are a larger part of their discourse community than most professionals are with the communities related to their jobs - there is is an investment based on cultural, familial, and identity, and not simply economic transaction, that permeates the global football culture, and I think that's important.

Here's the link to the current version of the course syllabus. Take a look, if you like, and tell me what you think, challenge my claims, and offer suggestions in the comments section below. If you'd like to participate in some way (such as responding to students via Twitter), please let me know that, too, and we'll figure something out.

Rhetoric & Composition I: Rhetorical & Discursive Constructions of the World Cup


Place in El Paso

Last week, before she and my wife left for our new home in the Rio Grande Valley, my daughter, EGMonty, and I had a short but profound conversation about place, identification, and dwelling. It went something like this:

EGM [to me]: So, you're from Massachusetts.

RWM: Yup.

EGM: And Mommy is from the Valley.

RWM: Yup.

EGM: And I'm from El Paso.

RWM [after a pause]: You know what? You're right.

OK, so perhaps this exchange was more name association than rhetorical investigation, but it did reveal something that I had, up to that point, drastically underestimated: my own daughter's sense of place. More specifically, about her ability to construct a place-based identification.

In "Inventions, Ethos, and New Media in the Rhetoric Classroom," Nathanial Cordova (2013) asserted that "rhetoric has always been the art of inventing, constructing, and cultivating these essential human relationships of dwelling" (p. 161). Cordova's idea, I think, speaks to the concept that individuals rhetorically create the meanings of their locations, particularly when those locations are ones that those individuals associate with their own identifications. Put another way, places mean to us what we say they mean.

I never had the experience of moving as a child. I spent (fortunately, some might say) my childhood in the same house and home that I was born into, and in line with the American mythology of upward mobility, I lived in that house until I left for college. My daughter,conversely, has already lived, over her first five years, in three different places in two different parts of Texas, and as a result, she has been able to develop a much more mature understanding of what it means to leave a place that one has associated as part of their identification. This isn't altogether remarkable - EGM has already visited some four times as many states and places as I had when I was her age, a part of her biography that has unfolded largely by her parents' design - but it was still came as a surprise to me that she had been thinking about our impending move in such a complex and personalized way.

EGM doesn't have much recollection of the fact that she was born in, and that our family used to live in, the Rio Grande Valley, so she doesn't view the move as a move back. For her, El Paso is where she is from. Now, what that will end up meaning for her over the course of her entire life is something I will have to patiently wait for her to reveal to me.


IRB Equitability

My plan is to spend a good chunk of this weekend completing a project proposal that I plan to submit for approval by the Institutional Review Board, which at UTEP is part of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects. This, in and of itself, is not spectacular - I have gone through this process three other times, twice as the principle investigator. It is, however, my first time approaching the proposal process after having what I believe to be were a series of insightful conversations about the nature of the IRB process, the nature of projects involving humans as research subjects, and of the nature of institutional compliance.

Most of the conversations involved arguments about which disciplines should be required to complete the formal IRB process for each project, versus those that could reasonably expect a lower threshold of acceptance with their projects. Generally, it was asserted that the strict IRB procedure was in place for sciences like biology and psychology, where human participants might be subject to physical or severe mental harm. However, for research in Rhetoric & Writing Studies (and other disciplines unrepresented in these particular discussions), which can also use human subjects, the likelihood of personal invasion was considered significantly lower. Some of these arguments were made by folks representing RWS.

I bring this up not just to recap the content (I will say that there was little agreement on the Stanford Prison Experiment), but to articulate upon the difference. First off, in defense of my discipline, it would be short-sited to claim that the type of human research done in RWS is inherently un-invasive. Writing, in addition to being a mode of communicative discourse, is also a personal act that is representative of an individual's thought processes. As such, when studying and analyzing writing, particularly student writing, researchers must proceed with caution and due respect for their subjects' contributions. Secondly, by mandating that everyone complete the same (or at least similar) approval processes, the Institutional Review Board is facilitating equitability among researchers and academic disciplines, a concept that those disciplines still arguing for their disciplinarity should embrace.

Importantly, this is not a matter of false equivocalness - scholars in RWS know full well that the type of research we do must be thoughtfully planned, rigorously applied, and carefully assessed. So, for my fellow RWS researchers, the next time you find yourself completing the mountain of paperwork required by your local IRB, I implore you to embrace the process: not only will it help ensure the reliability of your project, it will also aid in the larger arguments about our disciplinarity.


Chris Hayes and word choice

This past weekend, Chris Hayes, host of the MSNBC show Up, provided an editorial comment that has already begun to leak into the national political conversation. Here's the most relevant portion of his commentary:

“I feel… uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.”

Unfortunately, rather than facilitate a national debate on the power of language use, Hayes instead sparked a rather predictable bout of partisan outrage and name-calling (which may have actually lent a modicum of validity to his attempted point, not that anyone noticed that aspect). Most of these criticisms iterated that, in bringing up this issue the day before Memorial Day, Hayes demonstrated unsympathetic judgement and poor timing. I would tend to agree with this line of assessment.

This is not to say Hayes's point is completely without merit. For as long as there has been communicative discourse, organizations, governments, and individuals have purposefully employed specific language and rhetoric in order to achieve desired results. (For example, domestic propaganda is now a thing again, apparently.) But if the conversation Hayes attempted to start is one worth having, and I think it is, then it would be equally worth having at another time.

A savvier way to discuss this topic, perhaps, would have been to talk about the myriad ways that laudatory and jingoistic language can and have been used to rationalize certain political and military actions, and to save the "uncomfortable" qualifier for a diary entry. Instead, Hayes's point has resulted in a slew of ad hominem attacks and flag wrapping, with his kernel of a pertinent political discussion getting lost in the malaise. It is more than a little ironic that in an attempt to critically consider word choice, Hayes made such an unfortunate linguistic decision of his own.

Update #1: Chris Hayes released this "statement"/apology. The comments section is as you would expect.

Update #2: Hamilton Nolan, at Gawker, articulated support of Hayes's original point.


Note: This post originally ran on MerrySwankster.

Everyone’s favorite rock music revisionist, John J. Miller of the usually-respectable National Review Online, is at it again with the list makin’ and the tellin’ everybody how the world is. Miller is pertinent to this and other music-interested outlets mainly because hes the talking head who tried to appropriate a bunch of your favorite rock songs and recodify them as “conservative”, all in an easy-to-read list format. You know “Sympathy for the Devil”? It’s totally about preventing gay couples from having hospital visitation rights. (Or something.)

Miller’s original post was so popular/notorious/mind-numbingly ill-conceived, that it spawned the obligatory sequel. (The rationale being, I suppose, that like Hollywood blockbusters, every loathsome, under-calculated piece of crap that gets any attention at all deserves a second act.) In his most recent incarnation, Miller went to criticizing the unwanted fruits of his own labor, manifested in a recent article in the Journal of Popular Culture by Michigan State’s Michael T. Spencer. If you thought Miller was out over his head when writing about music, you should just see this guy take on academia!

Miller began by attacking the journal itself, pointing to a few article titles he clearly does not understand as proof of the inherent wrongness of “liberal-arts scholarship”. Take it from someone who’s actually read more than just a few titles: the Journal of Popular Culture is fun, interesting and without a doubt, academically thorough. It gives attention to matters that the academy traditionally ignores, and provides a platform for up-and-coming academics. Of course, phrases like the one’s I’ve just used all translate into “not conservative”, so it’s no surprise that JPC doesn’t fall into favor with Miller. It should be likewise unsurprising, then, that Miller misconstrues the bulk of Spencer’s article.

“Yes, it’s about me”, Miller asserted early on, which proves that someone told Miller what the title of Spencer’s article was. Had Miller actual read the article, he would maybe have picked up on Spencer’s actual intentions, such as questioning Miller’s “methods of analysis” (pg. 601) and understanding conservative reappropriation as “terms of authority and control over popular culture” (pg. 602). Stepping back, it is revealed that Spencer was concerned with how, “new conservatives are now producing ’scholarly’ work that attempts to blur the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘low’” (pg. 608). Furthermore, it should be noted that when Spencer argued that new conservatives have been, “investing meaning in rock music through a dialectical process of negotiated use”, he was absolutely on the money (pg. 603). The appearance that Miller only understood how (maybe) seven of those quoted words were employed does not mitigate the accuracy of Spencer’s claim.

But figuring all that out that would require actual reading, and reading’s an old man’s waste of time when all you want to do is rawk. Spencer investigated Miller insofar as the latter was the creator of a specific artifact that fell within the larger scope of the former’s interests. Or, allowing me an out-of-context misappropriation of popular culture that would make John J. blush, Miller is not a unique and beautiful snowflake.

This is not to say that Spencer’s article should be free from all dissent, and given that it was published in a reputable academic journal, I expect that the author would welcome warranted and well-though critique. For instance, I would have appreciated a greater emphasis on the role that contextualization plays when interpreting or critiquing artifacts of popular culture. Further, Spencer could have given Miller some benefit of the doubt. Surely he never expected his original list to be much more than a tongue-in-cheek attempt at rallying the base, right?

But Miller’s criticism offered nothing approaching these, and by attacking the academic-ness of Spencer’s writing, he ventured into a discourse community that he’s willing to chastise but not understand. (I’ll spare the reader the details of the academic journal process, but rest assured that Spencer’s article was vetted more thoroughly and with greater purpose than any of Miller’s posts, and to be fair, the post you are presently reading.) Towards the end of his rant, Miller lulls into a tired lament for the students who just want to rowk if not for nerds like Spencer assigning too much homework. He suggested that the increased amount of content published on behalf of academic study over the past sixty years or so is proof of the whole system being watered down and less effectual, and not, you know, a good thing that more people are presently permitted to engage in academic discoucrse.

Another ironically-funny school yard jab offered up by Miller was the claim that Spencer didn’t “add much to the conversation”, which can best be understood as another attempt by Miller to posit himself as the authoritative voice on everything: he decides what rock songs are about, and he decides who’s opinions on the issue matter. But his most egregious erring is the implication that it is he, not the people actually working at schools, that knows what’s best for academia. It’d call this another example of Miller’s hubris, but that this point, wouldn’t that be redundant?


Book Review: Last Call by Daniel Okrent

Note: This post ran concurrently at Beer Journal 

Daniel Okrent

I'm not expert in the field, but it seems to me that a good history book will accurately report on past events. A very good history book will accurately report while shining new light and by providing new insights. And a great history book will do those things, plus provide a lens for readers to use past events to interpret their modern worlds. Last Call, a singularly-focused tome by Daniel Okrent (Slate interview), former public editor of the New York Times and inventor of Rotisserie Baseball, falls into that last category.

In roughly 400 digestible pages, Okrent intricately detailed an era that school children across the nation can name, without focusing on the main points that most readers would already expect going in. Sure, Al Capone, Andrew Volstead and William Jennings Bryan get their due attention, but so do lesser-known noteworthy characters (in every sense of the term) Carry Nation, Al Smith, Billy Sunday and Sam Bronfman, none of whom are unjustly deified of damned. Places, such as the French-owned (and thus, prohibition-free) islands off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, are rightly treated as potential protagonists.

Perhaps just as important in this reviewer's estimation is the overall non-judgmental tone of Okrent's narrative, which does not fall into the predictable pratfalls of stereotyping the different people or events as simply "good" or "bad", but instead focuses on which were more effective and/or lasting.Okrent leaves it up to the reader to apply the lessons of prohibition to modern contexts. And there are many opportunities to do so. How you interpret these lessons is largely likely determined upon your present ideological slant.

For instance, modern day conservative talking heads like to remind everybody within earshot that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and that it was his party that freed the slaves. However, it is rarely mentioned that they are also the party the that installed big government Prohibition and, as a result, the federal income tax, two aspects of modern society that conservatives like to rail against. Furthermore, during the Prohibition era, Prohibitionist politicians aligned themselves with the KKK and had their campaigns supported by mobster and bootleggers, all groups that where able to make hay (and money) once alcohol was outlawed. Liberals might appreciate the way progressive politicians and privative citizens worked together to pass the 21st Amendment, but the good vibe can only last so long before remembering that modern day Democrats are too impotent to get Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed, let alone an entire Constitutional Amendment. What's more, the repeal itself took the flip-flopping of 17 senatorial votes, a prospect that should frighten any political party in the majority.

According to the sticker on the book cover, Ken Burns is working on turning Last Call into a PBS documentary chock-full of cameras panning over still photographs (it already has a Facebook page). That program is already listed as a must-see not just because of Burns's involvement, but because Daniel Okrent provided source material that is both thorough and vivid enough to provide surprises for history buffs that thought they already knew everything there was to know about the largest restriction of personal freedom in recent memory.

Orkent, Daniel. (2010). Last Call: The rise and fall of prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner.

Indie Bound