English 407 §001 / English 516 §001
Topics in Language & Literature
An Interdisciplinary Laboratory on Multiple Meanings
TTh 1:10-3:00 G444A Mason Hall
chalice-faces AMBIGUITY
Overview Course Contract & Components
Readings    Contract
Calendar    Participation
Supplementary Materials    Web Exhibit
Disability accommodations    Art Work
ambigf12@ctools.umich.edu    Ethnography

Eric Rabkin, esrabkin@umich.edu & 734-764-2553
Office: 3243 Angell Hall
Hours: TWTh 3:10-4:00, & by appointment




Course assumption: Ambiguity is fundamental to natural language and thus to art and all social behaviors. Do you see what I mean? (The word “see” in that question does not mean “use your eyes,” although its meaning in that question has a deep evolutionary connection to one’s eyes. “See” is thus ambiguous in that question, because the question could have been meant to ask, “Are you using your eyes to read this question?” Now, highlighting the meaning of “see” as “understand,” what meanings can you “read” in the graphic above?) Sometimes we notice ambiguity quite readily: "I walked down the street and turned into a drugstore." Sometimes we have to think twice to realize that something is ambiguous: "Flying planes can be dangerous." Sometimes we almost can't believe that something is ambiguous, but it is: "I love you."

Course goal: To recognize, enjoy, create, resist, and use ambiguity for more effective communication and organizational behavior.

Course design: This is a laboratory workshop in which most of the work will be chosen by the students. Each student will develop a course contract, subject to the instructor's approval, sketching out the sorts of work that best allow this course to serve the needs and interests of each student. That contract will include three or four components: participation; the production of a web exhibit of ambiguity; and either or both of two other major projects, the creation of original art of some kind (fiction, video, painting, music, and so on) and an ethnography of some human organization that persists for at least three months.
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Contract: Each student should review the components of the course and draft a one-page contract defining that student's work in the course. Participation will count 25% of the total course grade. Each of the other components of the work (Web Exhibit, Art Work, and Ethnography) should be assigned a weight using the range indicated in the component descriptions below. The total weight of the components must equal 100%. Either or both of the last two components, by agreement of the instructor and student participants, may be pursued as group projects. In that case, all members of a work group receive the same grade although it will contribute more or less to an individual's course grade depending on the weight that individual has assigned to that component in their course contract. For group projects, the deadline will be that associated with the group member for whom the component is most heavily weighted. These deadlines will be determined by adding the weights in the order of the components listed here. For example, since participation (25%) begins as soon as the course begins, if a student has contracted to have the web exhibit count as 20% of the course grade, that web exhibit must be presented to the group in lab on one of the 45% deadline days. Since all ethnographies will round out 100% for any student who elects that component for more than 0%, all ethnographies must be presented to the group in lab on one of the 100% deadline days. A student who elects the web exhibit for 35%, the art work for 40%, and the ethnography of 0% would present that art work on one of the 100% deadline days. Intermediate deadlines match total work percentage at completion to the % deadline dates in the calendar below. Each student's course contract should be discussed with the instructor, several times if necessary, and must be agreed upon by the lab date indicated in the calendar. Once all contracts are approved, specific deadline dates will be assigned. (Sample Course Contract Proposals)
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Participation (25%): This course includes several common readings and other materials that will be discussed in lab. Everyone is expected to participate actively in the discussion of those readings and materials. The lab meetings in this course, however, are not only for discussion and instruction. This course is organized as a workshop and as such we will teach each other. Those who understand how to use a necessary technology (Photoshop, for example), should help those needing one-on-one instruction. Those making discoveries in the field of ambiguity, for instance, while pursuing the three course components below, should make those discoveries known if relevant to the efforts of a classmate. Those wanting discussion about items they are discovering in pursuing the three course components below should seek that discussion in the lab. Daily attendance and active participation, therefore, is both expected and crucial to exploring the breadth of the subject. If collaborating in a group pursuing a course component, one must be fully responsible to the needs of the group. If one must miss a class, the work must be made up, but discussion cannot be made up, so make every effort to attend. If absence is unavoidable, please provide documentation of the reason for it.
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Web Exhibit (20-35%): Produce and post online a web exhibit of 12-20 items (text, image, video clip, etc.) using Flash. Each item should have a 150-300 word label (as that term is used in museology) giving both general information and guidance to understanding that item and a note about the role of ambiguity in the item’s normal functioning. The exhibit should include an essay (1000-2500 words) discussing the role of ambiguity in the domain the items represent. A domain might be anything in which ambiguity can be seen at work: puns, the language of diplomacy, optical illusions, musical phrases, four-panel cartoons, body language, opening lines of novels, shadows in film, Supreme Court opinions, and so on. The essay should include concrete discussion of a rationalized set of 3-6 of the exhibited items. A rationalized set is a group of those items that have a theoretical reason to be treated together. For example, while there may be many kinds of optical illusions, as the labels of a web exhibit of optical illusions could make clear, the essay accompanying a web exhibit of diverse optical illusions might choose to focus on those in which the illusions depend upon uses of shading (like Escher's famous endless staircase) as opposed to those that depend on switching from two-dimensional to three-dimensional codes of representation (like the famous three-pronged tuning fork).
The web exhibit must be done in Flash for two main reasons. First, Flash enables the posting of items in any medium and the creation of an overall site design, including navigation, that enhances the study of those items. Second, sophisticated implementation of Flash requires using that program's scripting language, known as ActionScript. Students in this course need not master ActionScript, but they are asked to come to understand it at least well enough to be able to use and adapt the computer code provided with the extensive instructional examples linked to this syllabus. ActionScript, although usable only in the Flash environment, is a true object-oriented programming language, like Java and C++. While all natural languages, like English, require ambiguity as a feature, most programming languages absolutely exclude ambiguity. Thus, working with ActionScript should not only enable one to create an effective web exhibit of ambiguity but also help deepen one's understanding of the operations and central role of ambiguity in human communication.
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Art Work (0-40%): Produce and post online a work of art, or a rationalized collection of works of art, along with a brief essay (500-1500 words) explaining the role of ambiguity in the art work. The work may be of any type: textual or visual or audible or any combination; static or moving or both; fully original or sampled; purely presentational or interactive. Works of art involve us in many ways. One is by the strategic use of economy, that is, leaving something out so that the audience (reader, listener, player, and so on) will have to fill that absence imaginatively. We see this in the sudden recognition at the punchline of many jokes that there was a silent subtext all along; we see this in the reversal typical of the final couplet of a Shakespeare sonnet; we see this in recognizing the apparent continuity of action in a graphic narrative despite seeing only selected instantaneous frames; we see this in the way video montage generates metaphoric meaning; we see this in the surprise when a close-up tracks out to reveal an unexpected context; we see this when a work treats a focal item (like the doubloon in the novel Moby Dick or the spinning top in the film Inception) as significantly ambiguous; and so on. Too much economy, however, may leave meaning so ill determined that the audience disengages and the work fails. So, ambiguity is a strategic device, one that must be used but must be used with care. Whether you create a one-act play or a Flash animation or a set of Photoshopped head shots or anything else, do so with consideration both for the value of the art and for the role ambiguity plays in generating that value. The former should be evident in the work, the latter explicated in the essay.
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Ethnography (0-40%): Produce and post online a study of some mission-oriented human organization that persists for at least three months. Pay special attention to the current and possible roles of ambiguity in the structure and functioning of the organization. Do not select a general purpose organization, like a family or a nation, that is defined in large part by its ability to restructure and repurpose itself to accommodate wholly unanticipated missions. There are countless possible mission-oriented organizations for this ethnography, including a college class, a residential sorority, a church choir, a marketing team, an assembly plant, a food co-op, a homeless shelter, a reading group, a service organization, a sports league, a political party, a hospital surgical unit, a retail store, a start-up company, and a repertory theater. All human organizations are structured and function through the use of language, which means that ambiguity is inevitable. Sometimes ambiguity is clearly desirable. Erik Larson writes of the adult daughter of the American ambassador to Berlin during Hitler's rise that "Her words were thoughtful, sometimes ambiguous when it was necessary to feel people out" (In the Garden of Beasts 141). Elbert Hubbard's famous parable called "A Message to Garcia" praises employees who can follow a general instruction as worth categorically more than those who require stepwise guidance. While some people do take a legalistic approach to compliance with orders, no one who uses the term "micromanagement" likes to be its object. And yet, as the story of Oedipus makes clear by its use of the Delphic oracle, the possiblity of misunderstanding may have fatal results. In any given organization, one can certainly ask how precisely are the roles defined? How are those definitions conveyed? How are they enforced? For the mission of the organization, should those definitions be more or less ambiguous, and in which ways? How is the structure of the organization itself defined, communicated, and maintained? This ethnography should gather information about one organization. Data could include sample materials that the organization produces (mission-completion products, like widgets from a widget-assembly plant; internal memos; emails; and so on), descriptions of how the organization is structured and functions (by-laws; organization charts; salary scales; and so on), and data that would not necessarily be produced without the intervention of the ethnographer (surveys; interviews; photographs and videos of the organization members functioning; transcripts of conversations; and so on). The aim of this ethnography is to discover and discuss the roles of ambiguity in an organization and to argue how ambiguity might be usefully reduced or increased to aid the organization in its mission.
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Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. "In a Grove" (1922).
Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths. New York: New Directions, 2007.
Chiang, Ted. "Story of Your Life." Stories of Your Life and Others. Easthamption, MA: Small Beer Press, 2002. Pp. 91-145.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.
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T 4 Sep

Get-Acquainted Lab
Review course goals and design
DISCUSS what we mean by ambiguity ("Flying planes can be dangerous"; FamilyCircus120506.gif)

Th 6 Sep

DISCUSS Chiang, "The Story of Your Life"
How to Create and Post a Web Page (including Dreamweaver)

T 11 Sep

Begin Flash

Th 13 Sep

Begin seeking ideas for individual and group projects
DISCUSS Ryunosuke Akutagawa, "In a Grove"
Continue Flash and other technologies (e.g., Photoshop, Audacity) as needed

T 18 Sep

Continue Flash and other technologies as needed

Th 20 Sep

DISCUSS Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, through end of Part II
Continue learning technologies
Lab work (e.g., on web exhibit)

T 25 Sep Deadline for approval of course contracts
Lab work & continue learning technologies as needed

Th 27 Sep

DISCUSS Kahneman, complete
Lab work & continue learning technologies as needed

T 2 Oct

DISCUSS Borges, Labyrinths, Front Matter and Fictions section
Lab work & continue learning technologies as needed

Th 4 Oct

45% deadline
Deadline for approval of any group projects
Collaboration tools if needed + lab work if time

T 9 Oct

45% deadline
DISCUSS Borges, complete

Th 11 Oct

45% deadline + lab work if time

T 16 Oct Study day - no lab

Th 18 Oct

50% deadline + lab work if time

T 23 Oct

55% deadline + lab work if time

Th 25 Oct

60% deadline + lab work if time

T 30 Oct

65% deadline + lab work if time

Th 1 Nov

70% deadline + lab work if time

T 6 Nov

75% deadline + lab work if time

Th 8 Nov

80% deadline + lab work if time

T 13 Nov

85% deadline + lab work if time

Th 15 Nov

90% deadline + lab work if time

T 20 Nov

95% deadline + lab work if time

Th 22 Nov Thanksgiving

T 27 Nov

100% deadline + lab work if time

Th 29 Nov

100% deadline + lab work if time

T 4 Dec

100% deadline + lab work if time

Th 6 Dec

100% deadline + lab work if time

T 11 Dec Summary session
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How to...
"The Basics"
Collaboration tools
Create Your Own UM Web Page
Dreamweaver, Introduction to
Flash, Introduction to
Photoshop Demo 1, Introduction
Step-by-step instructions for U-M systems and software commonly used at U-M:
   Faculty Exploratory Tutorials and Handouts
   ITS (Information and Technology Services; formerly ITD, then ITCS)
   Knowledge Navigation Center
Web design excellence
Talking points...
Abilene Paradox (managing agreement)
Ambiguous Words (Anne Curzan on "(un)packed")
Apophenia (pier-glass)
Cindy Sherman (photo essay)

The Finkler Question (resisting ambiguity)
Gerd Gigerenzer (on the virtues of heuristics)
No Can Food (competence v. performance)
Pareidolia (face)
What Are We Talking About? (cartoon)
When in doubt (Thomas Zurbuchen entrepreneurship blog post)
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This page was last updated on Thursday, 29-Nov-2012 09:17:38 EST .