All posts by Gary C. Woodward

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Thank you very much, but The Governor of Florida would prefer to tell your story his way.

Active Listening in the Classroom Heather Syrett.

An age-appropriate accounting of the multiform American experience is an educator’s duty.

These days a possible run for the Presidency means becoming the voice of widespread grievances held by potential voters. It’s a bit too early to know, but Governor Ron DeSantis’ and Florida’s legislative leaders seem to have mapped a path that includes taking on the educational establishment.  There appears to be no end to the state’s interest in laying down curriculum rules distinctly at odds with best practices known to schools of education, teachers, librarians and curriculum specialists. An age-appropriate accounting of the multiform American experience is an educator’s duty. But the Governor seems to favor gag orders that omit inclusion of all of the state’s citizens. Among other goals, he wants newer but widely accepted representations of gender off the table in most school classrooms.  In addition, DeSantis has replaced a university president and most of its board with fellow social conservatives, demanded the removal of “inappropriate” library books, disallowed a high school AP African American Studies course, and is attempting to dismember various diversity initiatives. He clearly prefers narratives that pull us back to the less aware years of the last century, when homosexuality was mostly not acknowledged, or insights about social injustice were limited to a few heroic figures. And forget about introducing students to what we now understand are the many sources of systemic bias. He treats this aspect of organizational life as if it were mere speculation rather than settled social science fact.

Here’s the thing. Building a description of anything in everyday language is not a neutral act. The vast and largely accepted literature in the Sociology of Knowledge reminds us that narrative cannot help but come from perspectives shaped by the particular experiences and values of a given community. Narratives evolve with shifting preferences. The question is less if there is a perspective, but which ones are in play at any one time. These systemic preferences—some harmless and some pernicious—are built into the rhetoric of human communities.


To progress beyond these limitations requires awareness.  Going the other way to denial leads us to banning rhetoric if it is “woke,” meaning that they may consider newer narratives that acknowledge more fluid definitions of gender, racial discrimination, or the situational ethics of the founding fathers. All are unsettling to anyone who mistakenly understands learning as a static enterprise dealing with “knowns” that are oversimplified into immutability. And so it follows that if a student is made to feel uncomfortable through discussion of a specific topic like the many form of the American family, a teacher is presumably supposed to retreat to some safer topic. Ditto for any topics touching on gender identity in the early elementary grades.

How does all of this look like in the classroom? One teacher in Palm Beach County recently changed her plans for a discussion about the first American woman to fly in space to omit the fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian. The teacher feared for her job if that detail was included. The same frightening logic is evident in the recent decision of a Florida College to cancel a scheduled appearance of the U.K.’s renowned King’s Singers. Someone discovered that a member of the acapella group was gay.

This land of swamps may have even more than it knows.

To be sure, no one wants to expose children to more than they can comfortably understand. And Ron DeSantis has imposed more gag rules on teaching professionals than the courts may accept. But hate bills against a lot of groups are fouling the very idea of education in the Sunshine State.

We can hope we have less to fear than we think from doctrines that pretend not to see. As Communication Theorist Marshall McLuhan once noted, school is a place where children can ‘take a break’ from their education via the mass media. For better or worse, our social and public media are infused with contemporary attitudes that are easily absorbed. And there are alternate ways for children to find their way to understanding the nature of social relations, even if they start with unfairly branded books like Todd Parr’s The Family Book, or Justin Richardson’s and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three.

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Notes From the Sound Stages

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The best parts of this 700-page volume come early, with observations from people working in often-ignored theater crafts that make the talent look good.

A new book, Hollywood: The Oral History (Harper, 2022), is compendium of hundreds of interviews with film industry figures–familiar and unfamiliar–more or less organized by topic. It is indeed an oral history, because these folks recorded their thoughts in conversations archived by The American Film Institute.  Nearly 400 industry people are quoted in various parts of the book.  Many are no longer with us, but academics Jeanine Basinger and Sam Wasson have put together a panoramic range of interviews that offer compelling details about filmmaking, including the years before sound. Producers, directors, crafts people and actors offer candid memories of their work under the old studio system, or the newer one-off pattern of film production that has replaced it. Posterity is the beneficiary here, with more than a few people anxious to correct the record offered by studio publicists or on display in the final credits.

Basinger and Wasson work to correct the common impression that it is simply stars and directors who make screen magic.  At least the book starts in that frame of mind, until later sections succumb to long passages from directors and producers who have some scores to settle with actors and studio heads.

The best sections of the 700-page volume chronicle the memories of “the studio workforce” including the people working in the too-often neglected theatrical crafts that make talent in front of the camera look good. Amazing talents doing the work of costuming, set design, makeup, photography, and music all chronicle some of their efforts on various projects, reminding us of just how collaborative filmmaking is. This redirection of attention is important because our endless attention on actors us obscures the sometimes brilliant visual and audio details that give films their memorable attributes.

As examples, costuming, makeup and lighting require great amounts of time and convincing invention.  But these folks mostly labor in obscurity.  One costumer notes that Edith Head at Paramount got scores of Oscars, some for clothes that others in her department actually designed. Credit is also due to whoever was able to turn Tom Hanks into Elvis’s manager, “Colonial” Tom Parker for the 2022 film, Elvis. Similarly, making effective use of light in specific scenes is its own art. Years of watching a colleague teach film lighting made it clear that it is possible to turn film into a convincing three dimensional medium. Official recognition usually goes to the Director of Photography. But unnamed scene or lighting designers may have added just the right magic.

In the recent past these amazing talents have gotten insufficient recognition from the Motion Picture Academy, which builds the all-important Oscar ceremonies more around  directors and the talent dressed for a fashion show. Production and post-production people who make it all work—directors of photography, film editors, Foley artists, music arrangers, set designers, and others—have gone barely recognized in the yearly television spectacle.  Giving their awards at an earlier ceremony or during commercial breaks are bad habits that this year’s planners say they intend to correct.  Imagine your own organization’s faux version of the Oscars–and there are many– where only the prettiest people receive most of the attention.

Basinger and Wasson use most of the book’s space quoting the impressions of stars, directors and producers. Much of the talk is about co-workers who were good collaborators, and some who were not. Among others, the tragically overworked Judy Garland gets a noticeably rough ride here. But I would have liked to have read more about the challenges of a cinematographer facing the task of lighting a particular scene, or the solutions developed by a sound editor to salvage dialogue that can’t be “looped” in post- production.

There’s an old saying that all of us have two vocations: our own fields of work, and as witnesses to the many worlds of the entertainment business.  So it makes sense that we should want to be smarter about how the narratives we love or hate came to be.

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