The paper memo: a genre of the (future?) technological apocalypse

I don’t really even bother to teach my technical communication students the format of a traditional paper memo. It typically includes the quaint “MEMORANDUM” as the first line, which strongly reminds me of the equally quaint “FACSIMILE COVER SHEET” on faxes I used to send to the U.S. armed services in a past life.

Email and scanning technology have made the memo mostly obsolete. Distribution lists are about as common as the secretaries who used them to calculate the number of Xeroxes they had to make. Then, in a Vanity Fair piece on the Sony Hack, I read this:

Suddenly it was a pre-Digital Age at Sony. Whoever hacked the company had not only stolen its internal data; they had wiped out everything in their wake. Sony’s e-mail system was down and out, so employees were forced to communicate by paper memos, texts, phone calls from their personal cell phones, and temporary e-mail addresses. The studio’s executives were reduced to using BlackBerrys unearthed from the basement of the Thalberg building.

Perhaps there is some value to teaching the old ways, a kind of “duck-and-cover” digital rhetoric that prepares students for technological apocalypses. Maybe one day I’ll even bring in a typewriter reminiscent of the antique I used to painstaking peck out my middle-school reports (it had an LCD display of your column number!!). A unit on cursive penmanship might also come in handy, though my long string of penmanship “D” grades would necessitate a guest lecturer on that particular topic.

Takin’ you to school! La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008) and Waiting for Superman (2010)

So I have been way too busy these past couple of weeks to write any entries, but I am back on it since it is spring break and I suppose I can spare (waste) an hour or so to write about some films I’ve seen.

La journée de la jupe (en: Skirt Day) (2008)

Dir. Jean-Paul Lilienfield, 87 min., at a free screening, French with English subtitles

Just as a lead in, I was talking tonight about two different types of education films that are common in our society. In category the first, films where a white teacher starts a job at an “inner city” school (with all of the negative connotations that our society associates with that pejorative term) and the white teacher eventually teaches black and Latino troublemakers that life is oh so much sweeter when you embrace white, middle-class value systems–examples: Freedom Writers (2007), Dangerous Minds (1995). In category the second, films where a beleaguered high school teacher takes brutal revenge on the nogoodnik students by transgressing the boundaries of a professional educator, mainly in the form of hitting, intimidating, and even killing the students–examples: One Eight Seven (1997), The Substitute (1996).

Skirt Day is a little from category one and a little from category two, minus the stupidness. In fact, the only comparison between the former films and the later is that Skirt Day highlights how smart films can be that cover the tightly intertwined factors of societal and classroom tensions. Skirt Day, as one of my friends at the screening said, could take place in any country because of the universal nature of the problems that students, teachers, and administrators face: problems of racial tensions, misogyny, classroom and street gang violence, gun control, teacher burnout, administrative unresponsiveness, etc. etc.

Sonia (Isabelle Adjani), an overworked and unappreciated teacher, receives no respect from the foul-mouthed students in her drama class. While students are harassing the poor volunteers who actually try to participate, Sonia notices two students acting suspiciously in the back of the classroom. She approaches them and confiscates Mouss’ (Yann Ebonge) backpack, and in the struggle a handgun falls to the floor, which Sonia picks up. Mouss tries to wrest the gun away, a shot goes off, and Sonia ends up as a hostage taker, simultaneously teaching a class on Molière at gunpoint while negotiating to voice her grievances with the teaching system and the rampant misogyny and violence afforded female teachers and students in her school.

Our guest speaker, a student from France who prepared an excellent discussion session, talked about some of the cultural values and ideas that this film seeks to comment on, including the sensitive nature of immigration, the concentration of poverty in Parisian suburbs, and also some positives about the French education system as well (including their strict adherence to the separation of church and state).

For anyone who is an educator or has volunteered in schools (especially in Chicago), you might be very familiar with some of the challenges and frustrations the anti-hero Sonia faces in this film. There was some commentary on whether the situations portrayed in the film (e.g. vulgar language, classroom violence, screaming arguments between teacher and student) are commonplace or artistic license, amplified to drive home a point. For anyone who has been in CPS and seen not just the triumphs, but also the grinding reality of the daily force-of-will showdowns between students, teachers, and administrators, this film is an education in how public schooling truly is a difficult and consuming endeavor, and how a school environment free of such distractions and dangers is a blessing to those fortunate to experience it, not, as our society sometimes likes to believe, a public guarantee for all. 

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Dir. Davis Guggenheim, 111 min.

In yet another in a string of slick documentaries targeted for moviegoers who feel just enough compulsion to try to learn something, but lacking the fortitude to sit through a documentary film that doesn’t have lots of animation segues, Waiting for Superman will tell you about the problems in our education system.

I’m not going to once again open up the “what makes a documentary film work” can of worms, but this film doesn’t have it. That’s not to say that there is not a lot of great stuff buried in this film.

Here’s what works: interviews with innovative educators who are trying new things like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee. Narratives of students and parents struggling to obtain a good education, in their own words.

Here’s what doesn’t: bossy voiceovers accompanied by what amounts to cutesy educational cartoons, cramming meaningless statistics and visualizations down our throat. Here’s a stat: 60 percent of the time, 100 percent of your audience either isn’t paying attention or knows enough about rudimentary descriptive statistics to know that your stats are garbage filler designed to fog up the mind of the viewer. Just leave the infographics at home please.

Still, the interesting discussion about educational reform, societal factors that impact childhood education (which is everything), and a different take on teachers unions (which is no doubt very unpopular right now) make this film worth seeing. I won’t get into my union opinions, but there are negative sides that deserve exploration, and this film gives a somewhat unbiased platform for those issues.

I meant to write about this film a couple of weeks ago when I saw it, but totally forgot. However, I remember enjoying it quite a bit and thinking that it was worth the spot in my Netflix cue.

That’s all for this week friends.  I will hopefully be writing at least two or three more times this semester, but who can say…