Friday, November 8, 2013

Putting the All in le Joual

The weeks pass too quickly. There are only two times during each week when I find any appreciable time to myself. (When I say "appreciable" I might mean "extended" and not "of a good quality," but one might wonder if they're not the same thing.) Aside from Monday and Friday afternoons I'm out of the house for class, meetings, work, and shows. Those four things take up the bulk of my time, and with that I'm fine. (Also eating. I always forget eating. I should do more of it.) If I'm not running around doing those things I'm probably doing homework. My present life doesn't leave much time for existential introspection, but I somehow manage to do that constantly, as well. This is the mindset from which this entry will spring.

French 137: Studies in French Culture

We've started reading and writing and speaking about Michel Tremblay's La Traversée de la ville. It's some good ol' littérature québécois, meaning the language spoken by all the characters is a weird dialect with which I'm not familiar, having been raised, as I was, on good wholesome Parisian French. These Canadians say things like bicyclette and patate instead of vélo and pomme de terre. It's like American slang has been slowly working its way in. Living among them. Gaining power.

Canadian French, specifically that spoken in Tremblay's works, is called joual. Le joual, (which is itself an accented form of the word cheval, meaning horse) is to Parisian French what a strong Southern or Western drawl might be to someone from the North. (I should note at this point that my information on le joual comes from an article by Hélène Ossipov from the American Association of Teachers of French's The French Review, Vol. 67, No. 6, (May, 1994), pp. 944-953. Here's a link for any interested: You may need some sort of association with an academic institution to access it, but I can hook up those serious scholars.)

It's interesting to understand the French-Canadian culture from the writing of this fellow Tremblay who considers le joual as "le symptôme d'une maladie, d'une dépossession," (Tremblay, quoted in Ossipov, 945), "the symptom of a disease, of a dispossession," and that's really what La Traversée de la ville is about -- dispossession, that is.

Imagine if you sent all your kids to live with your parents in Saskatchewan because your husband was lost at sea, but he might still be alive, and then decided years later that it was time to quit your job at the cotton factory in Rhode Island and go find your kids because you realize your life is a bit of a mess, or you realize what's most important in life, or something. That's kind of how the book starts. Or your life. Actually, if this sounds like an exact reflection of your life, I'd like to hear about it, and I'm sure so would M Tremblay.
Unfortunately I think that's all I have to say on the subject of subjects at the moment. Next time y'all can hear about cognition or drama. Or both. Probably both.

To those around the Clark University area, I strongly encourage you to come see some of the six wonderful student-written plays happening this month in the Little Center. 7:30pm Wed-Sat. I had the honor and privilege of designing the sound for them all, so I hope your ears will be happy.

Here's a link for that:

Peace out.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Russian, a Frenchman, and a Cognitive Psychologist Walk into a Convenience Store...

Let me tell you about psychological research.

For the past several weeks we in Prof. Hawi's research course (PSYC 221: Research in Social Psychology) have been engaged in coding data collected from an experiment on intergroup relations. What's coding you ask? How shall I say this? It takes... a certain type of person to find the enjoyable aspects of coding. (So far, I'm not too sure what they are, but I have faith that they exist.) Coding is basically organizing data into categories. For example, if you asked 100 people what their favorite colors were, you might get 70 who say blue, 10 who say red, 10 who say yellow, and 10 who say green. For your purposes, you might be concerned with whether there's a relationship between the warmth of a person's favorite color and... predisposition to neurosis. Or something. So you'd group them into categories of warm (red, yellow) and cool (blue, green). That was a terrible example; let me try again. Let's try a more qualitative approach.

Say you ask people how they feel about an experiment in which they've just participated. Depending on their responses, you could put them into different categories. One person might say "I really enjoyed it," and be placed in one category, and another could say they hated it and be placed in another.

Coding is one of the areas in which Psychology can readily be compared to hard sciences. I mean, we use numbers, physicists use numbers. Same thing, right?

Depending on the study one's conducting, anything can be coded -- from how well participants performed the tasks asked of them to whether the researcher was suspicious that the participants knew the true nature of the experiment.

From these values one can determine if the experiment is proving unreasonable in terms of what's asked of participants, whether certain data should be considered abnormal, etc.

There're a lot of steps on the road to writing (much less publishing) research. You've got to plan a study, get it approved by an IRB (internal review board), actually conduct it (making sure to get enough participants to yield enough data), code the data, analyze it, and make inferences about the results. Hopefully your study is reasonable or, as psychologists would say, valid. As in, did some of your participants have wildly different experiences while participating in the study? Did you control for all the variables you could? Of course not, that's why you have to write about it in the Discussion section of your write-up.
This ties in with my Cognitive Psych class (PSYC 120), as well, for which I've had to write two lab reports so far. They're fairly simple, short pieces which use data collected from the class. As with learning how to write any type of paper, especially those of the academic variety, it's all about the practice. Hopefully one will write a fair number of lab reports during one's tenure, and will learn this necessary skill through repetition alone. Actually, no; that won't happen. If you repeatedly make gross errors on your papers and never learn from your mistakes, you won't get very far in that department. Hopefully you'll realize that it's necessary to change your behavior, or go somewhere more suited to your abilities. Ostensibly we're all here to learn. Learn what? Learn how to make friends, mostly. How to get along with others. How to live. But also how to write lab reports.
Two or three times recently I've told people that if I had to do it over again, I'd be a political science and a philosophy major. Truth is, I wouldn't do anything differently, I just want to clone myself and do more. The thing is, everything at this school is pretty accessible if one applies oneself. I'm not saying life in general is easy but, once you're in the door of opportunity, people expect you to be there, and they have little reason to throw you out unless they don't like you.
French (FR 137: Studies in French Culture) has been either ridiculous or extremely reasonable; I can't tell. I have reading and at least one assignment due for every class. Last week I had a paper and a presentation due on the same day. Crafty like the fox I am, I was able to combine the topics and talk about the effects of WWII on France. Again. It's a topic that doesn't really go out of style in French class -- France during The War. Or maybe it's just that I always try to shape papers to fit my areas of interest. For example, with my other class, Modern Drama (TA 153).

Prompt excerpt: "In 4-5 pages do an in-depth analysis of [a play we haven't read in class] using the critical 'lenses' we have discussed in class." We vaguely touched on existentialism a couple of times. Which I took to mean I could write an entire essay on the subject as it relates to Chekhov's Ivanov. Can I help it if I identify with grace-fallen 19th century Russians and their coming to terms with their universal power and identities? Because I do, and I can't. I also re-watched the movie Clerks this weekend, and was sorely tempted to do a comparative analysis between Ivanov and Dante, the lead in Clerks. And myself, obviously. I didn't, but it took every ounce of will I had.
It's said that you should write what you know. I know a little about existentialism, I know less about theatre, less about cognitive psychology, and far less about French. But you should always keep writing.

Here's a good one: Malin comme un renard: Crafty like a fox. Are foxes crafty? Maybe "sly" is better.
Anyway, I'll be going as the Invisible Man for Halloween, so you may or may not see me around on that day.

A bientôt.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Another Year, Another Holler

"The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,"
Let us sound our barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the school.
Uncle Walt never went to college, but that didn't stop him from feeling. Indeed, I think that's what I would say the primary occupation of a poet of his sort would be titled -- a feeler. Esquire. Because why not? He could put it on a business card, 'Walt Whitman, Feeler, Esq.' And it'd be okay because he's a poet, and they're weird like that.
But here's the thing, how do we find a balance between feeling and doing? How do we not just stand and gab and yawp, to the chagrin of the hawks all around us, but also get something worthwhile done? Very subjective subject, 'what is worthwhile.' What I think are worthwhile are the courses in which I'm currently engaged. Let me tell you about them.

French 137: Studies in Contemporary French Culture
Did I mention that I was a French minor? I'm a French minor. This means six courses above Intermediate French. This is two course credits fewer than the major, and does not require studying abroad, something that, alas, doesn't fit into my particular schedule, but of which many many others I know are taking advantage.
The course is taught in French, which is reasonable, and consists mostly of reading novels, writing short papers on them, and oral reports. The literature interests me, which is nice. There's hardly a thing worse than reading something boring in another language (which, I gather, is how some English-speaking people feel about Walt Whitman).
Presently, we're onto our second book, "Beni, ou le paradis prive," by Azouz Begag. It concerns itself with the story of Algerian immigrant parents in Lyon, France, and their children, and is narrated by a young man, a son, Beni. The scene opens on Christmas, and explores the tension between the cultures in a rather humorous way. I'm fairly certain the rest of the book will not retain this tone, which makes it exciting.
We already read and analyzed "Journal du dehors," by Annie Ernaux, which is a sort of sociological-poetical narrative of the narrator's (author's? -- we assume) life in a French housing development ("la Ville Nouvelle") from 1985-1992. I'd recommend it for a zen outside-in look on modern city life. It's also available in a English under the title "Exteriors," translated by Tanya Leslie. I, personally, found this translation to be very succinct, and to capture the same rhythm and feel as the original work, but, of course, the original's (almost) always better.
There's a point or two to be made here about using English translations to aid reading foreign-language material: they must always be taken with a grain of salt, and one should always read the original before the translation, if only to see if one can understand without training wheels. I always keep a French-English dictionary on hand (an actual book that I can carry with me), but I also have a super-cool French-only 'Larousse' dictionary if I'm looking for an in-depth explanation of a French word. These things come in handy when you ask Google translate the word for "skunk," for example, and you get five different words that all mean different things, and only one actually refers to the animal for which you're looking, and then you find out in class that the colloquial French word for skunk (une mouffette) is actually a word that means 'polecat' (un putois), and you want to sort things out. For example.

Psychology 120: Intro to Cognitive Psychology
Think about what you're reading right now. Think about what it means, what it looks like, why you know what it means and looks like. Are you doing it? Then you're cognicising. Or, cognizing, which is actually a verb. (The verb 'cogitate' means to think, and finds its roots in Latin, as seen in the phrase cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am") but doesn't fully capture the essence of cognitive psychology. Now it's relevant multi-field history fact dropping time: Descartes originally formulated his famous proposition in his native French as "Je pense, donc je suis," (1637) before he translated and arranged his work into Latin (1644).
Topics covered include memory, sensation, and what the different parts of the brain do.
The class is also home to top 40 Radio Hits. Sort of. Our professor, Igor Bascandziev, prefaces each lecture with a song over the speakers while people are coming in. If there's music playing you're on time. It's pretty relaxing.

Theater 153: Modern Drama
In this class, we read plays, we talk about plays, and we watch film versions of plays. There is no unnecessary part of this class. Each play is required reading for anyone pursuing a career in theatre. We've gone over Chekhov's "The Seagull" and "Uncle Vanya," which I thoroughly, melancholily enjoyed, as well as Ibsen's "A Doll's House." We've just embarked on the Theatre of the Absurd, a favorite subject of mine.
Tune in next time and I'll tell you about a secret mystery course of mystery in which I am also enrolled.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What Happens to a Raisin Deferred?

Recently our Play Production class (TA 127) got into Boston to see the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." This was a great show, led primarily by the force of the actors. That may seem like an obvious statement, to suggest that a play is pulled along by the actors, but consider that there're so many elements which can bring a show from "barely watchable" to "can't tear my focus away." Let's play the "explain these various elements game." Otherwise known as the critic game. (My favorite game.)

The first thing we noticed was the set, as modern tradition would often have (curtain raised, world of the play exposed, audience waits for the action to happen on by). This was a hulking, nearly 1:1 scale apartment on a raised rotating platform. Most of the action took place in the livingroom/kitchen, which sported a sofa, a dining table, a record player, an oven, a sink, some chairs, and you get the idea. Rotate 120 deg. clockwise and we find the bedrooms, sparsely furnished, but one with a couple stacks of books on a desk. Rotate again and we find the side of the house, containing a solitary window, outside which lonely individuals will stand in half light. Personally, I really dig this sort of stage engineering. I've seen one high school and one college production which used a rotating stage, both requiring either actors or stagehands to move the thing. It's much smoother with a motor turning underneath, but I wouldn't discount the feel of the actor-driven set -- it just depends on what you're going for.

Next up, we've got the lights which turn up at the start like a pop concert, in sync with a rap track (leading to the uncomfortable laughter of the audience). I'll be more detailed: there were three walls of lights on the stage, surrounding the house, most pointing at the audience. I think I counted 94 total at intermission. This was an interesting set up, compared with the previous production we saw at the same theatre, "Invisible Man," a play which deals with similar themes as "Raisin" (I say "Raisin," but I don't mean to refer to the musical adaptation which goes by this monolexical title, but which I'm sure is great. (I also say "monolexical" and I hope that's a word; if not, I'd like to coin it and would like to know who I should contact about royalties)). That is to say, racism, bigotry, and dried fruits. If I remember correctly.

But the acting was solid. The one guy I felt like I wasn't getting enough from was the guy who played the ghost of the grandfather (who didn't get a credit in the program (because, I assume, he was actually a ghost who couldn't tell anyone his name)). I felt his portrayal was... transparent?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Experiments of a Psychological Nature Part 1: The Dawning of the Age of Experiments

Last week was a hectic one, what with final preparations and performances of the latest CUPS (Clark University Players Society) play, Sarah Ruhl's "Melancholy Play." It was a rousing success and every performance was more fun than a barrel full of monkeys (a thing which isn't very much fun at all, but is, in fact, rather depressing).

Today I've just turned in homework for PSYC 108 -- Research Methods, which involved the planning of an experiment on the nature of perception of personality. Some original research on the subject, which piqued my interest, was conducted by Solomon Asch, whom I would recommend reading. Asch's most famous experiments were conducted on conformity, as you may be aware. If you're not aware, please allow me to inform you. First conducted in 1951, the Asch experiments took average people, put them in a room of strangers, and made those people change their opinions. How interesting, I hear you cry. But what if I told you the experiments were conducted with lines on paper? That's right: lines. Interested now? ... I'm not explaining this very well, so I'll consult my Social Psychology textbook: "The experimenter shows everyone two cards, one with a single line on it, the other with three lines labeled 1, 2, and 3. He asks each of you to judge and then announce out loud which of the three lines on the second card is closest in length to the line on the first card" (Aronson, et. al. 2013). The experimenter presents another set and then another of the same style. Eventually, the other people in the room blatantly give incorrect answers. Because the participant is at the end of the line, he answers last, and frequently was induced by NORMATIVE SOCIAL INFLUENCE to choose the same incorrect line. If you guessed that everyone except one participant in the room were confederates, you're correct. Bravo.

Another sort of normative social influence is exhibited at the end of George Orwell's "1984," but most people would argue that it's an example of conditioning. I say it's both, so there. "1984" is all about social influences. And politics, and English, and stuff. It's a pretty great book. One of my top 10 books.

This is not what my class experiment is about. That experiment is on perception, not conformity. Unfortunately I can't say much about it because it would compromise its integrity. In fact, I may have said too much already. This blog post will self destruct in 10 seconds...
It's a pretty simple study though; participants will read a story and answer some questions, which'll enable the measurement of perceptions of personality. Just vague enough to work.

Speaking of psychology, I've got a midterm exam in Social Psychology tomorrow. It's going to be on such amazing topics as "what is Social Psychology?" "How does Social Psychology differ from Developmental/Cultural/Clinical Psychology?" and "What do we mean by an overconfidence barrier?" Let's just say that my passing this exam will be my leaping an overconfidence barrier... or something... Maybe, I'm gonna take down that overconfidence barrier... The joke is that an overconfidence barrier refers to peoples' usually having too much confidence in the accuracy of their judgements... I don't know where to go from here... I'll just move on...


And lastly, that paper I have to write for my French Cinema class. That wasn't a sentence, but you know what? (What?) This next sentence will be a sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
That, let it be known, will not help me write the paper.
The subject of the essay will be something like "Describe the place of the unlikely hero in some of the films we watched," or, "French film is an art. What's up with that?" or, "Yo, dude, what's up with all the war movies?"* I haven't really thought about it, but it'll be great when I do.
*I must note that, though the institution which I attend is liberal and progressive, and all that, it still has some standards which I believe would bar the asking of this sort of question. Not all French movies are about The War.


Spring break begins for me after 1:15pm tomorrow, and after I've finished that essay. Enjoy the weather. Or don't. Whatever. Free country. Home of the brave. America. Free association. Woo.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Part Where I Don't Give Away the Endings to a Bunch of Movies

Let's talk about French movies. For the last two weeks my French film class has been mainly about perspectives on the two world wars and their impacts on France and the French. Out of the four films we've seen I can recommend them all for the French film enthusiast, but will discuss the two that most caught my attention and held in my memory.

"Joyeux Noël" ("Merry Christmas") (2005): This is the first feel-good war movie I've ever seen, and make no mistake, it is that. I felt uncomfortably optimistic at the end, since I've been conditioned throughout the viewing of every other war movie I've ever seen to expect nothing but destruction and despair. Possibly the most upbeat ending to a war movie I'd seen previously was that of "Casablanca," and it's really not that happy. Despite the intentions of all the characters to keep their own peace and lives, we have to accept that French Morrocco's police force is still corrupt and there's still a war on. I'm not the type to give away endings to things other than Shakespeare (Tragedy: They all die at the end; Comedy: They all get married; History: They probably all die at the end, but somebody might get married), so watch the movie if you haven't. Casablanca's a great movie. One of my top 100 favorites. Top 50.

But, back to "Joyeux Noël." I felt like Roger Ebert did when he saw the end of "Dead Poets Society" ("I was so moved, I wanted to throw up.") The (American) cover of the movie says it all: "Christmas Eve, 1914..." something something... "Based on a true story" and three guys walking toward the camera: French, German, and Scottish officers. The story is that of an unsanctioned truce between the three armies during Christmas and how we're not so different, all of us, and what's the point of all this fighting anyway? Why don't we sing some songs and play bagpipes and soccer (or, football) and get along? For two hours.

This same perspective of people being similar and not having much reason to fight except to quell the disputes waged between individuals hundreds of kilometers from the action is shared in the other WWI film we saw, "La Grande Illusion" (1937), directed by Jean Renoir, son of the painter. I won't discuss this one much because I felt it went on a bit, but it's worth a look. It's not as touchy-feely a film as "Joyeux Noël," but it's still a fairly sterile look at war. As one of the most famous French war movies, I had to include it in my run-down here, but I feel about as ambivalent to it as I do to "Citizen Kane" (I'll begin accepting the hate-e-mails).

The other movie which didn't bore me for a moment was "L'armée des ombres" ("Army of Shadows") (1969). This was a WWII French Resistance film. (I'd say imagine French MacGyver, except he already exists (Henri Charrière), and they already made a movie about him; it's called "Papillon" (1972) and it's got the two most un-French actors I can think of: Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.) "L'armée des ombres" is about a web of spies moving bombs around occupied France and England, parachuting over the countryside at night, and carrying out hits on guys who blabbed. It's an intensely suspenseful and satisfying film that doesn't have a happy ending. Thank goodness; I thought I'd have to go through my whole life without finding such a picture (you know, aside from "American Beauty," "The Green Mile," "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," and every movie about a physically deformed protaganist ("The Elephant Man," "The Phantom of the Opera," and "V for Vendetta" (which is essentially "Phantom" with political motivation).

Now here's where I will reveal the ending to a movie (sort of). If you watch the film today, it opens with a parade of German soldiers marching in front of L'arc de Triomphe for about 60 seconds. That scene was originally at the end. The director, Jean-Pierre Melville, kept switching back and forth on which end of the picture the scene should appear. It was only after the cans of film had been delivered to the six Parisian cinemas in which they began showing the film that Melville decided to take his editor and a splicer to each of the theatres and tack the film to the beginning. The first audiences apparently saw the scene at the end. As it looks now, the last scene faces toward the Arc de Triomphe and cuts to black, just where the film begins.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Second Semester of Sophomore Year: Part 1: The Beginning of the Middle

Another semester quickly begun. And so it has gone on for many days now. It's already February, so it's probably reasonable that I get a post up.

Many things've happened already in the three weeks that I've been back to our fair school. Of the most notable:

- I've seen five stage shows, seven films, attended 11 production meetings, and heard 14 class lectures.

- I'm involved in four upcoming Clark theatre productions (Molière's "Tartuffe," Sarah Ruhl's "Melancholy Play," Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis's musical "Urinetown," and Shakespeare's "Tempest").

- I've taken on new classes the likes of which I've never seen before (sort of).

For the next few months I've got these on the agenda:


Psych 170: Intro to Social Psychology

It's rather nifty that I can finally make a course on social psychology fit into my schedule, as it's the area of the discipline that first intrigued me. This course lays down the foundation for other courses in social psychology (read: prerequisite). It's a sort of survey of key aspects of social psychology, including what it is, and what social psychologists do, and why we can't do unethical social experiments that were defining characteristics of psychology in the 60s and 70s. Oh, well.

SCRN 263: French Cinema

This is a class taught in English, just for the edification of all before anymore is said on the matter. It counts for the French minor, but not the major. It was a difficult decision, the day I had to decide to take the 6-course minor instead of the slightly more rigorous 8-course major. I'm sure I'll regret the decision for the rest of my life. I just know it's going to be the thing that keeps me from my work as a theatre psychologist for Cirque du Soleil (is that a thing? I kind of hope that's a thing).

Anyway, it's a watch-movies-and-write-papers class. But it's so much more than that. It's a way of life. Maybe.

I've never taken a screen studies class before, because I was certain my own passion for the cinema would be enough to tide my soul. At this point, I'm not sure if I can claim that the class is giving me a fuller appreciation for France, or cinema, or culture, or things of that nature, but I'm holding out hope. So far we've studied two films: "Cleo de 5 a 7, " identified with the new wave movement, and "La Grande Illusion" a pre-WWII film about WWI. Very different films, both very French in their own ways. One of the first questions we're considering in this class is on the matter of how we can identify a film as "French," but you can take my word that these two films are pretty French.
TA 127: Analysis: Theatre Production

One of the most important classes I've ever taken. Hands down. Every week we go see a show, talk about it, and write a paper about it. I say it's an important class because, for theatre majors, or those interested in the workings of theatre, it's an invaluable opportunity to examine different types of shows. It would be easy enough to get a theatre degree without ever actually seeing a show that you weren't involved in, but it would be like someone trying to write a book without ever having read one. You're going to be rather terrible at your job if you don't analyze other people's methods before diving headlong into "your own style." Now, that's not to say that you should consciously imbue your style with those of others, but, you know, Shakespeare certainly wasn't hindered by it. Just saying.

So far we've seen Trinity Rep's (Providence, RI) "Crime and Punishment," and Huntington Theatre's (Boston) "Invisible Man." Next week we'll be at Holy Cross seeing their production of "Spring Awakening" (comparisons between their show and ours will be drawn, to be sure).
Psych 108: Experimental Methods

This is a research methods class. No other comment at present.

That's all I got. Time for a nap.