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Stalnaker Lecture combined the media, poetry and rhetoric

Welcome to the Stalnaker Lecture. What can I make for you this evening?

I’d like a culture sandwich with poetry, filmmaking, adaptation, literary criticism and a dash of multimodal media, please. Oh, and do you have fresh documentaries in today?

Jody Swilky, professor of English, reflected this idea in last Wednesday’s annual Stalnaker Lecture, combining today’s ever-changing media culture with the timeless arts of poetry and rhetoric. Swilky used multimedia, literary interpretations and even his own documentary experience in this year’s multifaceted presentation, “Composing Culture: Working with Words and Images.”

His writing career of over 30 years in the making, Swilky’s divergent approach to the lecture kept the audience rapt. Attendees experienced vivid graphics, poetry excerpts, literary critiques, documentary clips, PowerPoint slides and even Oscar-nominated films.

“It was the way he presented it,” first-year Shannon Nugent said of Swilky’s purposeful integration of differing media. Nugent also said she found the use of the slide shows and the videos especially interesting.

Swilky took special care to document and elaborate on the cultural role of documentaries for which he has first-hand experience.

Written and co-produced by Swilky himself, the independent film, “A Little Salsa on the Prairie: The Changing Character of Perry, Iowa,” takes viewers inside Perry’s Latin community.  During the presentation, Swilky played several clips of the film, focusing on one woman’s struggle with acceptance in the Latin and Anglo communities, both as a Mexican and as an American.

“This is our representation of their concerns and interests,” Swilky said, referring to the film’s director and co-producer, Kent Newman.

The final scene Swilky showed of the documentary portrayed the ever-changing demographics of the town, as Perry’s white community and Latin community gathered together to take part in the Latin tradition of “posada.”

Next, Swilky focused on the inclusion of filmmaking in writing and language arts classes, including a powerful scene from the Oscar-nominated film “Winter’s Bone.”  Academic filmmaking, Swilky said, forces students to adapt to the new media culture being studied, presenting both challenges and opportunities to approach language from a different viewpoint. Body positioning and camera work, he said, replace the bang of a novel, and defining characters described in multiple chapters must be artfully portrayed in just a few moments during a film.

Again returning to the structure of learning in today’s English and rhetoric classes, Swilky declared the need for pitting ideas against each other in poetry.  A culture of darks and lights, talls and shorts and ins and outs, according to Swilky, would force to make their ideas and their words face off.

Swilky connected decades of his own work to famed poets such as Ezra Pound, selecting passages from Pound’s poetry to bolster his own ideas about effective poetry.  In particular, Swilky detailed the technique of “animating the inanimate object” or breathing new life into simple, objective words by connecting each word to its predecessor.  He presented this idea by reading several of his own poems to the audience.

First-year student Raquel Rivera said that Swilky had a wide view of perspectives, referring to the professor’s approach using multiple genres, writing strategies and mass media.  This year’s Stalnaker Lecture sparked chatter among the audience, marked by the lively camaraderie at the dessert reception following the presentation.

Would you like to add a multimedia cookie and a new cultural perspective to your meal?

I’ll take a multimedia cookie, please.  I just gained a new cultural perspective, though, so no thanks.


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