(Re)Constructed Memories of PowerPoint

14 10 2008

          Tufte has made me reflect on the best PowerPoint (PP) presentations I have seen. The first one I remember was not, I don’t think, an actual PP presentation. At least seven years ago—maybe longer—I attended a Children’s Literature conference at the University of Redlands where Sheri O’Sullivan gave a presentation entitled “The Hero was a Girl.” It became the impetus to a number of my research projects since.

          At that time, I had been pretty well versed in Joseph Campbell’s analysis of archetypes, especially that of the hero quest. Indeed, his The Hero with a Thousand Faces is probably one of the most influential works I have ever read. I like how he finds the same storytelling structures throughout cultures; this implies that humans are essentially the same as these stories flesh out similar hopes and desires.

O’Sullivan, however, drew from Carol Gilligan’s feminist theories to argue that the hero quest was different when the hero is a girl. She used numerous examples from Young Adult Literature to bolster her case, and I was intrigued since I was familiar with most of the works she cited.

Her presentation was also powerful. While I cannot remember whether she used a computer slide show or overheads (I suspect the latter), I do remember the points, largely because she followed many of the techniques any good presenter follows. First, she framed her discussion in outline form, telling us what she was going to present. Then, she gave us a copy of her paper so we could follow along. Her paper was engaging, and it outlined Gilligan’s argument before O’Sullivan applied it to the novel The Moorchild. She then recapped the information and opened the topic for discussion. Her use of frames—announcing, repeating, following a linear structure, the hard copy, the summary—all helped make the information memorable she also had samples of books spread out on a table as visual aides and for closer examination. I can still hear her voice and see her leading the discussion. In all, she did everything “right”—Tufte would have enjoyed it.

The second PP presentation that made an impact on me was one I saw about five years ago. A newly minted Ph.D. graduate was giving a teaching demo to get a position at my college. She presented on Emily Dickinson (ED), a poet I had up to that time struggled with. However, Dr. Veltman used the PP with confidence; she also seemed to know her topic well, and she had timed her slides to match her off-slide material. She used many of the bells and whistles of PP such as various transitions, as part of the job requirements demanded a skill in current technology. I learned more about ED in those twenty minutes than I had in quarter-long English classes, and I had a lot of fun. Dr. Veltman did not just follow the slides, though; she engaged us through activities and questions, so we became part of the learning. I remember almost everything that was on the slides to this day and have since become much more of a fan of ED.

Both of these presentations have stayed with me long afterwards; both also influenced my thinking. A large part of this is because both were engaging, something I have tried to do when I get up in front of people. I realize sometimes PP can be a crutch, but it can also be a powerful tool when it’s used well.



13 10 2008

          Norman Klein’s The History of Forgetting offers some interesting and challenging ways to think about how history is made, forgotten, and remade. One phenomenon to consider is “distraction,” in which a false memory is actively allowed to replace an actual one in plain view, so that the false view revises (and revisions) the memory.

          I have seen this in my family. My mother and her sisters will recall certain childhood memories and different versions. As they talk (and sometime argue) over the event, they start revising it until they all have similar accounts, none of which matches the earlier version but one which allows a sense of peace and unity in their relationship. This makes me wonder how much of my family history I can trust, especially since they were the only one with access to the information. The original memory is erased, or maybe layered, under a new one.

          Especially intriguing to my project is his notion of how “popular memory makes for a very uneasy form of research. . . . What else can a history of collective memory be but a rigorous diary about unreliable documents?” (7-8). His discussion of how the past is “reinscribed and relocated” raises issues of how this is done through film. I suggest that most of us get our “facts” about history and other cultures through film. Thus, we know about the Holocaust and Hitler through cinematic representations, both fictional and documentary. I think I know something about Maori culture by watching Whale Rider, and something about Victorian times by reading and watching Dickens. If we as a culture view these things, then do they become our collective memory? Does film thus erase even as it reveals? Is this a different type of “social imaginary,” but one that also “contains an evacuation” (10)? Are we always doomed to repeat the past if it is always erased?

          Klein’s theory would suggest this, for if “the best way to lie is with the truth” (12), then film is at once the best liar and the best truth-teller. Whale Rider, for example, shows the Maori culture as one in trouble—the younger generation is forgetting its past and therefore is unable to live in the present. Only by embracing parts of the present—allowing a woman to become the next chief—will they survive. We view a film like this and root for the changes even though we get little understanding of the rich Maori culture or why the traditions were so patriarchal. We thus become culprits in changing the way we view the culture—as one that needs to change to fit our modern views—and we erase some of the elements that may have made it valuable in the first place. The film becomes our memory, for when I think of New Zealand and the Maori culture, I think of this film and its powerful images (Pai crying during her concert, her calling the whales, her sacrifice, etc.). The film is the only memory I have, for I have never even been to NZ, and it becomes my paradigm. Thus, erasure and construction occur at the same time, and my knowledge of this does not diminish the film’s power to implant these ideas.

          Political movements succeed to the extent they can erase and construct memories. Even when we remember a specific event—such as 9/11—we constantly reinterpret it in light of our culture’s understanding of the event. Large numbers even seek to erase 9/11 by blaming our government and denying that the planes did the damage. The moon landings have had similar conspiracy theories: Did we really see Neal Armstrong take that small step? Countries such as English that have forced subjects such as the Irish and Welsh to actively forget their languages engage in such erasure. Religions do the same. I remember seeing a Muslim cleric telling a reporter that the Jews have never had a presence on the Temple Mount; in the background, trucks could be seen carting away the archeological evidence of the Jewish history there. Erasure. Distraction. Identity. Fiction.


          Klein has given me some things to mull over. I am not sure if I agree with all of his points, but he does offer some useful terms and a framework for understanding that culture may be as much about what is not remembered as what is.

Seal Woman

10 10 2008


Words & music by Mary McLaughlin


Over the waves, you call to me

Shadow of dream, ancient mystery

Oh how I long for your sweet caress

Oh how I long for your gentleness


Torn between sea mists and solid land

Nights when I’ve ached for a human hand

I’ll come to you while the moon shines bright

But I must go free with the first strike of light


Over the waves, you call to me

Shadow of dream, ancient mystery

Oh how I long for your sweet caress

Oh how I long for your gentleness


(incorporating YUNDAH, a traditional Hebridean chant; on Celtic Voices: Women of Song CD)

 Hear the song:

Seal Woman

I love this song, with its haunting melodies and rhythms which speak of longing and lust. It reminds me of my trip this past summer to the mystical coast of Scotland.

Mary McLaughlin explains:

There is a legend in the Scottish and Irish islands that tells of of “silkies” or “selkies.” These “seal people” assume human form, come to the land to mix with humans and then return to the sea in seal form. This version of the sealwoman chant comes from the Outer Hebrides and I learned it from Joan Mills via Frankie Armstrong in a singers’ workshop. I’ll never forget the magic of standing in a candle-lit church and hearing 20 fine singers lift their voices in harmony to sing the “Yundah” chant. I wrote the sealwoman song to try to capture the ambivalence of the seal people—on the one hand, attracted to human life and, on the other, valuing their own free existence in the waves.




In Orkney mythology, the seal woman, or selkie, becomes a woman by putting aside her seal skin. If she does not put the skin back on, she generally is condemned to live as a human; sometimes, she chooses to do so and marries a fisherman, but she must eventually go back to the see. Human males who find the skin can enslave the selkie. She is often the source of tragic romances.

The story captures some of the mysteries of those who live along treacherous coastlands; danger and the unknown loom at every horizon and in every fog-enshrouded inlet. The seal, which often follows fishermen, has a knowing look and can be mistaken for a human, but the myth, I think, also comes from the desire of men to control women and from the need to explain our connections with each other and with nature.

The selkie fulfills the archetype of the Trickster. According to Lewis Hyde,

Trickster is a boundary-crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the grey-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. . .Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox. (Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, & Art [New York: North Point, 1999], p. 41).



        John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish, based on the book by Rosalie K. Fry, plays with these paradoxes, as do the films Selkie, The Seventh Stream, and Sea People. As with most works in which a male director adapts a work by a woman, the male’s point of view becomes dominant. The selkie, as the Other, destabilizes the boundaries between animal and human, nature and human, the wild and civilization. Her longings for the sea echo our longings for Nature, for the freedom to swim and frolic without the cares of the world.



She ties us to our mythical past, and points to the mysteries in life—mysteries that may appear at any time if we are open to them. Her journey to land, and back to the water, is a different kind of journey than the more traditional epic quest, as hers is usually much more personal. She thus offers a different type of archetypal journey, a more spiritual one, that may be worth exploring in light of Gilligan et al.’s discussions of the female quest.



6 10 2008

For some reason, in thinking about the woman wanderer, I have been thinking about this poem by Plath.


Sylvia Plath

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Gathering Ideas

3 10 2008

In order to get more punctum for my buck, this week I explored my classmates’ blogs to see what others are doing and find some inspiration. This is so new to me—I’ve resisted the My Space and Face Book phenomenon thus far, finding little particularly interesting beyond appeasing basic voyeuristic appetites. I also have an older PC which takes FOREVER to load Youtube and similar sites.

Being more of a hard-copy, printed text person, it’s a real stretch to find visual ways of thinking. I love how Nancy uses poetry and pictures on her pages, and Wil and Brian have some of the most hard-hitting pictures that truly are worth a thousand words. Jonathan’s so creative. Tamar and Chris are on another planet altogether—one day I hope to have half of their expertise! I’m getting to the others, but I have decided at least one thing—I can now justify getting a new computer!



The Woman Wanderer

30 09 2008

Several years ago, I heard Sheri O’Sullivan give a talk at a conference about the “woman wanderer.” She argued that for female characters in Young Adult novels, the outcomes of the hero quest differ than for male characters. I found this intriguing, ineffable, and true. When I perused the numerous stories of the quest, the males got to either rule (Beowulf) or gain empowerment. Joseph Campbell’s research supports this.

            However, female characters do not get to rule. Instead, they face a choice: They may either leave the culture as they are too changed by the journey to fit in, or they may return to their passive roles; the quest becomes, for them, a way to achieve personal growth but not a way to triumph within their society.

Hero with a Thousand Faces

Hero with a Thousand Faces


            This is true in works by men (The Wizard of Oz, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, e.g.) as well as by women (Tuck Everlasting, The Moorchild, A Wrinkle in Time). Even strongly feminist writers such as Lois Lowry follow this motif (Gathering Blue, e.g.), leading me to wonder if there is some cultural/societal mechanism that reinforces some dichotomy, or an internal mechanism that causes writers to follow these motifs in quest stories.

            When these works are made into films, either on the big screen or small, the male directors, as far as I can see, recast those elements which might have made the heroine’s journey more heroic. For example, in Tuck Everlasting, Winnie is older than in the book (12 years), allowing her to pursue a romantic relationship with Jessie. However, the book’s younger Winnie has to overcome more obstacles since a 12-year-old is less likely to be heroic. Thus, the film, while adding romantic interest, weakens Winnie’s transformation. Similar changes are made in other works (The Tombs of Atuan, A Wrinkle in Time) made into films. The more I collect such works, the more I see that O’Sullivan is right, and the more I want to explore why this might be so.


Sauerkraut Recipe

23 09 2008

“Our heads are round so that thoughts

can change


 –Francis Picabia