Sherwin Mendoza - Intercultural Studies

Asian American Literature Poetry Videos

The videos on this channel have all been produced by students of Asian American Literature (ICS 24 and ELIT 24) at De Anza College in Cupertino, California.

Asian American Literature at De Anza College is unique for a number of reasons. First of all, almost everyone who takes this course is of Asian or mixed-Asian descent. This fact profoundly influences the dynamics of the course. “Asian Americans” are not simply the object of study; rather, most of the participants in the course are themselves directly involved in producing Asian America, and all participants in the course participate in producing Asian American Literature. Secondly, De Anza College is one of the few places where Ethnic Studies remains strong. Ethnic Studies at De Anza College is housed in the department of Intercultural Studies, and along with World Languages and International Studies it forms the division of International and Intercultural Studies. Like every Ethnic Studies formation in the US, Intercultural Studies has had to ward off repeated threats to its existence. However, ICS has at De Anza College managed to become central to the life of the campus and the experiences of many of its students of color. The relative strength of Ethnic Studies at De Anza allows students and faculty the necessary space to grow and develop without continually fending off attacks. Finally, De Anza College is located in Silicon Valley, a region that is a major hub of migration between Asia and the US. The growth of the Asian American population in the region served by De Anza College has been symbiotic with the growth of Silicon Valley. The region during the 1980s and 1990s attracted many people of Asian descent because of the availability of jobs in engineering and electronics assembly. Meanwhile, from that time to the present Asian Americans have captured a great deal of political power and influence within the region. The Asian Pacific American Leadership Institute housed at De Anza College has been a crucial institutional site for building this political power.

Fall 2013

In the Fall of 2013 the Asian American Literature course focused on the production of poetry videos. During the first part of the quarter the class surveyed videos of Asian American poets reciting their poems, and every student in the class wrote at least one poem. During the second part of the quarter students made videos as groups, and each of the videos feature poems written by students in the class.

The poems for this quarter are not the politically-charged poems that the discipline of Asian American Studies demands. Despite the efforts of the instructor, the poems do not directly address problems of race, class, sexuality and/or gender in relation to Asian Pacific American communities.  However, this does not mean that the poems are apolitical. The poems contain, very broadly, concern for the people. Not just the people who ride in G-6s, not just superstars, idols, and icons. Rather, the poems all articulate conflicts that actual Asian Americans at De Anza must face.

The students in the class identified two themes that several of the poems share.  First, several of the poems articulate homesickness.  Many of the students had recently come from abroad, and many of their poems depicted the adjustments they needed to make as they began to study at De Anza.  Several second-generation students described the experience of having divided families, with families separated by the Pacific Ocean and parents who are looking back towards Asia.

The second theme that several of the students identified is the theme of the "American Dream" and the US as the "Land of Opportunities."  This theme is closely connected to De Anza, which has an exceptional transfer rate to four-year universities.  Many students saw themselves or their classmates within a narrative in which they or their families moved to the US from Asia in order to pursue education and the acquisition of a good job.  De Anza as an institution places itself within this narrative--De Anza is a place that provides a good chance for students to move on to a prestigious four-year university.  Students, like their families, might encounter struggles, but they hope to overcome them in order to achieve success.  This narrative of the "American Dream" is very powerful, but it is also very problematic.  Future iterations of this class will need to address the complexities and problems that arise from this narrative, which is sometimes discussed in Asian American Studies courses in terms of Model Minority discourse.

The most prominent aesthetic problem that students grappled with is a problem central to the discipline of Asian American Studies itself.  How would students create a single video that would adequately represent the diversity of the people who produced the video?  The solutions varied.  In some cases, students as a group wrote an entirely new poem; in some cases, students included poems written by each member in the group; in some cases, students decided to select one or a subset of poems written by members of the group.

In future iterations of this class, students should become more conscious of three sets of aesthetic decisions:

  1. Students should consider carefully whether they should make new footage or use found footage.  Regarding found footage, students should be aware of the consumerist and touristic aesthetics embodied in much of the footage available on YouTube.
  2. The tone of most of the videos produced in Fall of 2013 was sad and melancholic.  There were a few exceptions, in which there was a tone of defiance or a tone of celebration.  The set of possible tones needs to be expanded, and existing tones need further development.
  3. Voice recording was of uneven quality.  Students should consider more carefully the vocal delivery of the poems and the significance of the vocal delivery.
Winter 2014

In some ways the videos of this quarter represent an advance, but in some important ways the videos represent stagnation or regression.  The class was slightly larger, and the videos of De Anza students became some of the primary texts of the class.  Instead of writing a single poem, students wrote two poems, the second departing from or developing the first.  As a result, overall, the quality of the poems improved, with some poems articulating complex relationships between the poets and traditions that claim them.

The quality of the videos, however, was very uneven.  In several cases, the videos do not do justice to the poems.  This problem was particularly acute with regard to the quality of the voice recording and the delivery of the poems.

In some cases, the groups decided to record poems that did not address problems faced by De Anza students and their communities.  In the published poems, although differences according to race and national origin were frequently addressed, socioeconomic class, gender, and sexuality were rarely or never thematized in the videos.  Several of the poems that were not published courageously addressed issues around socioeconomic class and gender, but the video groups decided not to highlight them in their videos.

Fall 2014

The topic for the videos for the previous quarter was tradition, and many of the videos focused on festivals and celebrations.  The videos for this quarter departed from the previous videos by focusing on the topic of everyday culture.  Initially, most of the students in the class had a generally negative view of everyday life, life with no time, consumed by traffic, school, and work.  Students departed from these initial impressions as they developed artistic representations of the everyday lives of Asian American students at De Anza.

Politically, the poems this quarter advanced from the previous ones insofar as socioeconomic class was a major consideration.  In some ways, the poems represent an initial development towards a working class consciousness among the students.  The class was not a Silicon Valley Literature class insofar as many of the students were receptive to critiques of technology and many students documented working lives outside of high-paying tech jobs.

Thoughts on gender, on the other hand, were underdeveloped.  In the student interpretations of the poems the focus was on issues that both Asian American men and Asian American women face.  Meanwhile, many students ignored issues specific to different genders, in effect erasing gender difference and deferring solutions to problems related to gender.  It is possible that the focus on issues related to work and school obscured the influence of gender in shaping the everyday lives of the students.  In the future it might be worthwhile to compare and contrast the experiences of gender at work and school with the experiences of gender at home.

Aesthetically, the quality of the poems was very high, with many containing unheard and unexpressed thoughts of Asian American students.  Initially, when confronted with the topic of everyday life, most students wrote poems which simply chronicled a typical day, from waking up to preparing to leave home to going to school and, in many cases, going to work.  Students then expanded on specific moments in order to produce new poems.  In several cases, the student groups wrote entirely new poems for their videos.

With regard to the videos, several groups expanded the range of artistic possibilities.  One group created their video by making a pastiche from two Chinese films.  Several groups switched voices so that the poet was not the one who recited the poem, and in several cases the images that the groups used departed significantly from the content and original context of the poems.  In one group still images were dominant, and in the future poems might be accompanied by student illustrations.

Technically, there was an overall significant improvement in the sound quality and the delivery of the poems.  Marty Kahn and Yuki from the Technology Resources Group provided crucial technical support to the class.  A problem emerged, however, when Sony Music Entertainment blocked one of the videos on copyright grounds.  In the future, some class time might be well spent in discussing the basics of camerawork.

Winter 2015

The poems this quarter were the result of a sustained effort in the classroom to focus on gender and socioeconomic class through the categories of wage work and unpaid housework.  Prompts for student poems asked them to concentrate on gender and socioeconomic class, and several class discussions revolved around interpreting poems in terms of gender and socioeconomic class.  A significant amount of class time was devoted to conceptualizing videos and writing video descriptions in terms of gender and labor.  At some point in the future the Asian American Literature class should concentrate on topics around sexuality.

Aesthetically, there was some unevenness in the quality of the visual aspect of the videos.  In the future it will hopefully be possible to incorporate a structure within the class so that more experienced film-makers can provide advice for less experienced ones.  For example, more experienced film-makers can let less experienced ones know how to lower the volume of the music so that it is easier to listen to the poem.  It should also be made clear to people who are reciting another student's poem that they need to internalize the poem to the extent that the recitation sounds like they are speaking their own words.  In some cases this might require the poems to go through a collective editing process, and at the very least this will require close interaction between a poet and a voice actor.

Fall 2015

This quarter the class returned to the topic of culture, but with a slightly different approach.  Students wrote poems about the moments when they became educated about their culture.  There were three shifts this quarter.  First, students participated in the Salugpongan project with several other classes.  Because of the need to allocate time to this project there was little consideration of poems aside from the ones written for this class in previous quarters and the poems that the students produced this quarter.  Second, each student wrote three poems instead of only two.  Finally, there were several sessions where students critiqued aspects of the poetry videos from previous quarters.  The critiques were particularly focused around musical and visual transitions.

As a result of the focus on De Anza poetry videos certain visual tropes began to emerge.  For instance, text for key lines and words became more prevalent, there was an opening shot of the sky, and there were many scenes from bedrooms and from around the De Anza campus.  The emergence of tropes also put innovations into sharper relief.  This quarter one of the videos featured jazz music and poems read in a jazz rhythm, a departure from almost all videos produced in previous quarters.  A large portion of one of the videos was edited as an anime music video.

Winter 2016

The class turned to the topic of gender and sexuality, with mixed results.  The poems this quarter give indications of what is possible to discuss in public and what kinds of experiences can be made public.  In an echo of the Winter 2015 poems, several of the poems described gendered divisions of labor in the household.  Marriage and career expectations from family were common themes, as well as differing degrees of control that parents exerted over the lives of sons and daughters.  Exceptions to the common themes, though, show limits to what can be comfortably recorded and made publicly available.  Only one of the videos concerned dating, and the topic of sexuality more generally is not developed in the poems.

This quarter there was a more sustained attempt to integrate analysis of the course themes and the relationships of poems to each other into the video descriptions written by students.  Visual tropes continued to be developed, such as the use of communications devices, filming in parks and the living spaces of students, and the re-cutting of feature-length movies.  One innovation was the creation of a draw-my-life-style video.

There is a continuing struggle to have students engage meaningfully with each others' work.  In the future, considerations of aesthetic traditions and the development of aesthetic traditions should become a more explicit goal of the class as it becomes easier for new poetry videos to consciously reference and depart from previous videos. Musical traditions should receive more attention, and will possibly be the opening topic in a future class.

email Email: Sherwin Mendoza

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Last Updated: 11/14/16