Saturday, January 24, 2004

Students, Semiotics, and The Spiral of Learning

Today I want to comment on the grand scheme of what I am learning. I should say by way of explanation that this weekend my focus is a peer day on the semiotic analysis of film. For those of you who don't know what a peer day is, click here to go to the Union Institute's website and find out. It came along at just the right moment. I've been reading about criticism, and I've read my share about formalism, structuralism, semiotics, and post-structuralism. What I know now is just enough to be dangerous.

These are terms I have been exposed to before and I have a surface-level memory of the terms, the kind of memory one would have after studying for a terminology quiz. And now, hopefully, my understanding deepens. The problem is that now I'm having to operationalize my understanding of the terms. In other words, in order to write a paper, I have to start really applying the terms. Here is where the paralysis sets in: With my new-found appreciation for the complexity of criticism in general and semiotics specifically, I know just enough to know that I am probably not applying what I know precisely enough. I feel self-conscious and hyper-aware of the risk one takes by putting one's learning into writing. I'm starting to have new and deeper sympathy for my students. We ask students to do this all the time.

This self-consciousness,I think, is particularly evident in college students at all levels, and it's one of the key factors in writer's block. College students are for the first time dealing with incredibly abstract concepts. At the same time, they are learning that the complexity is beyond them. Then, we ask them to write papers and apply these concepts. It's the only way to help someone learn to do so. I just want to acknowledge that difficulty, since I'm teetering at the edge of that paralysis.

I can give a very basic example. In working on my Learning Agreement, I have had to define my methodology for my disseration before I really understand what a methodology is (other than at a very surface level). So, I submitted an early draft to John T., my core advisor, a few days ago, and now as I drive down the road and wonder about his response, I cringe every few miles at how I must have revealed my substantial ignorance by wielding these terms indiscriminately and incorrectly. When I talked about using the bricolage of structuralism, did I fool anybody, or just sound like a fool? It's the same feeling you get when you remember something stupid you said to someone over and over again, cringing each time.

No wonder my students panic. I'm not sure what the cure is for this, other than repeated exposure to the pain. Dewey's idea of the spiral of learning applies here. I remember in my first turn through graduate school reading Walker Percy's writings about semiotics with almost no comprehension. The ideas were so dense, they were impermeable. I didn't come back to those ideas until recently, and even though more than ten years had passed, I had sort of a foundation for understanding, and I'm a tiny bit better.

So today I'm working on semiotics again for that peer day. The first exercise has been to look at an advertisement and determine the signifier, signified, and meaning. Then, we had to look at a scene from the film we'll be analyzing Monster's Ball, and do the same thing. Here's what I came up with:

Exercise #1

Find an advertisement for a product or service that you may be thinking of buying, or may have bought. Analyze the advertisement in terms of signifier, signified and overall sign. Chart your analysis as follows:
Overall Sign

Signifier Signified

Various Hondas People who look like their cars

Meaning: We are our cars, or our cars define our appearance

Now write a brief narrative explanation of the meaning of this advertisement:

The advertisement, “It Must Be Love,” is for Honda as a brand. We see a black screen with two same-size rectangles in the center. On the left appears the signifier, a Honda—say the SUV—and on the right appears the signified, a person who “looks like” the vehicle. Then, as the music plays, the pictures of cars and their owners cycle through, and we see the association between the profile of the car and the lateral profile of the face, or we see the ears sticking out and the open doors of the car. (The ad is available online at: The message to us is: You are your car. Your car is so important that it defines you as a person.

Exercise #2

Choose your favorite or least favorite scene from the film Monsters Ball, or from your favorite television show, or from a social situation you experience, and analyze it in terms of signifier, signified and overall sign. Write it out as follows:

1.) First, write a brief narrative description of the scene:

At the end of the scene where Leticia and Tyrell go to visit Lawrence in jail for the last time, Lawrence apologizes to Leticia at the end. “I’m sorry for all the pain I caused you,” he says, and then he is led away towards us with a guard on either arm. Another guard tries to help Leticia out at the rear of the screen. Crying, she says, “I know my way out.” We are left with the image of the empty room, and in the right-hand rear corner are two plants close together, both alive, but with straggly green leaves. A little closer to us on the right is a single plant, mostly dead, in a black pot. That image stays on the screen for a few seconds before the transition to the next scene.

2.) Second, chart the scene’s signifier, signified and overall sign as follows:

Overall Sign

Signifier Signified

Three plants Leticia, Tyrell, and Lawrence

Meaning: Leticia and Tyrell will persist

3.) Third, now write a brief sentence that summarizes the meaning of this scene:

The filmmaker shows us with this sign that Leticia and Tyrell, though like the two straggly plants they may not seem hardy, will live on and have each other, while Lawrence will die—is in effect already dead—alone.

I'm getting ready to send it in, but I'm antsy, wondering if I really got the picture with the signified and the signifier, especially in exercise #2. Did I really choose a sign, or is it an symbol? I decided it probably isn't a symbol, because I don't need any cultural frame of reference or previous understanding to understand the meaning. But I'm not sure whether I'm blurring the terminology or not. This is the plight of the student.