From the C to the Chi

April 15, 2012

Coffee Beans and Indie Films

Filed under: Uncategorized — Wilson Chen @ 2:33 pm

I’m actually quite embarrassed about how little blogging I’ve been able to do in recent months.  It’s easy to tweet articles and information, no matter how busy I am, but blogging–at least for me–is a “slow things down and reflect” kind of activity, perhaps contrary to how many others perceive blogging.  Well, a cup of Alterra coffee this morning helped to jump start my day–to be exact their Delta Mud blend, which to me is a perfect balance between smokiness and richness in flavor (not too dark but still very robust and full-bodied).  Alterra Coffee from Milwaukee is environmentally conscious and roasts expertly, producing many blends and types of amazing coffee.  I think it’s fair to say that Milwaukee is a severely underrated coffee city, and my favorite spots there are Alterra, which are throughout the city, and Cedarburg Coffee Roastery, which is in the Milwaukee Public Market.  (If you like dark roasts, definitely try Cedarburg’s Nicaraguan Segovia!)

The highlight of my weekend was catching the skateboard films featured as part of the Asian American Showcase at the Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago.  These were short films about skateboarding in both the U.S. and Asia, and the program, “Animal Style,” was curated by Martin Wong of Giant Robot magazine.  This was actually the world premiere of these films, and Martin Wong, director Wing Ko, producers, writers, and many featured skaters were on hand to answer questions and talk about their work.  I loved the films about Los Angeles and Chicago!  Never having really skateboarded myself, I found it so fascinating to see city architecture (and the entire urban, concrete, built environment) from the perspectives of skateboarders.  Here is a trailer for one of my favorites from the festival, The Working Man, set in L.A.:

Isn’t L.A. so incredibly beautiful in this film?  Major props to Tadashi Suzuki, Wing Ko, Thy Mai, Carlos de la Garza, Chin Yi, and many others (don’t mean to leave folks out) for producing such a stunning visual and aural experience!  The soundtrack and the visuals worked perfectly together.  The Working Man will also be screened as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May.  You can find details here.  Also, those interested in Chicago or skateboarding or both should definitely look out for Wing Ko’s The Brotherhood:  Chicago, which tells a moving story about Chicago skateboarding history through the lives of Jesse Neuhaus, Steven “Dread” Snyder, and Eric Murphy.  Again, I had the privilege of seeing this at the Asian American Showcase, and I really, really hope they eventually have film screenings across Chicagoland.  It’s a great story and a part of Chicago cultural history.  I’m thrilled I was among the very first to see it at its world premiere.  Many thanks to Martin Wong for curating these films and bringing this collection to the Chi!  And thanks to Tim Hugh for his remarkable work in coordinating once again the Asian American Showcase at the Siskel Center!


February 26, 2012

Wiki Wiki Redux

Filed under: Uncategorized — Wilson Chen @ 12:56 pm

Wikipedia, despite its relative newness, has already lived a rather interesting academic life.  For many years scholars and teachers dismissed or belittled it as a potential source of knowledge.  (Well, certainly not all scholars and teachers, but a good number it seems.)  But in recent years–in this era of crowdsourcing, open-source knowledge production, and the continued proliferation and ascendancy of social media tools–a growing number of academics are writing about Wikipedia and other kinds of wikis as incredibly powerful learning tools.  I remember when Professor Gardner Campbell visited our campus back in March 2010 and conducted a workshop on “Wikipedia in Teaching and Learning.”  While his approach and even the title of his workshop encountered some resistance among participants (especially among those uninterested in Wikipedia or even hostile toward it), one valuable pedagogical lesson I learned from this lively session was that instead of simply discouraging students from reading Wikipedia or hastily dismissing it as a forever flawed resource, perhaps a better approach to Wikipedia (and its promise and pitfalls) would be to guide students in how to write, edit, and improve Wikipedia entries.  That is to say, instead of simply criticizing students for their passive, uncritical reception of what they read on Wikipedia, perhaps I should help them not only to develop their critical reading skills but also their writing skills–by guiding them in how to create and improve the knowledge they find in places like Wikipedia. 

"Wiki Wiki Express" sign at Honolulu by miss rogue/tara hunt, 2007 (Creative Commons License)

It is a relatively easy exercise for me to bring up on a classroom projector somewhat flawed, misleading, or incomplete Wikipedia entries on, say, individual U.S. authors or particular literary movements about which I have detailed knowledge.  To be sure, pointing out such flaws and pitfalls has value, as it is essential that students develop these sorts of critical reading and information literacy skills.  But what if I were to challenge a class of 25 American literature students–many of whom are bright, creative, and even intellectually ambitious–to write/rewrite/rethink a set of Wikipedia entries pertaining to subjects they are currently studying?  This allows them to have the experience of creating knowledge for an audience broader than just their course instructor and, if done well, what they produce could have public, communal, civic, and intellectual value.  Instead of lamenting all of the problems of wiki-generated knowledge (problems that are real and have consequences), maybe it would be more constructive to empower students to contribute meaningfully to these bodies of knowledge that, without strict hierarchical or gatekeeping structures, invite their participation. 

Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, in their MacArthur Foundation Report, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (2009), go so far as to argue the following: 

“To ban sources such as Wikipedia is to miss the importance of a collaborative, knowledge-making impulse in humans who are willing to contribute, correct, and collect information without remuneration:  by definition, this is education.  To miss how much such collaborative, participatory learning underscores the foundations of learning is defeatist, unimaginative, even self-destructive” (29).

Concerning the rather complex question about the extent to which Wikipedia can or should be used by students as a reference, Davidson and Goldberg refer to Alan Liu’s incredibly helpful “Student Wikipedia Use Policy,” which he developed for his courses at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  I will likely cite this for my classes next term.  If you’re not familiar with this document, it is definitely worth checking out.  You can find it right here.

February 21, 2012

Re-Tweeting the News

Filed under: Uncategorized — Wilson Chen @ 6:58 pm

Blogosphere as a network of interconnections, Jenna Greenbaum (Wikimedia Commons)

A colleague recently forwarded to me a thought-provoking article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the challenge of “news literacy” in this age of the Internet.  This was a piece by Renée Loth, “What’s Black and White and Re-Tweeted All Over?:  Teaching news literacy in a digital age,” and I should also mention that you do need to be a Chronicle subscriber to get full access to the article.  Loth tells us that since 2007 the State University of New York at Stony Brook has been developing its news-literacy curriculum and that it aims to enroll by 2013 a total of 10,000 students (over this stretch of time).  Gen Ed advocates might appreciate knowing that this news-literacy course currently satisfies two undergraduate core requirements for graduation, in the areas of humanities and history.  It seems clear that having such a course count as core credit gives these skills academic recognition and also drives enrollment in these courses. 

Loth explains that Howard Schneider, the key intellectual figure behind this initiative and also the founding dean of their School of Journalism, believes that “the skills traditional journalists learned at the knee of some grizzled veteran editor are required of everyone in today’s media mash-up.”  That is to say, continues Loth, basic journalistic skills are now “the habits citizens need to learn and employ as they navigate the wilderness of new media.”  Quite convincing, I must say!

What I found perhaps most provocative and suggestive in Loth’s piece was her take on the significance of what appear to be simple acts of forwarding, sharing, or re-tweeting news items: 

“As people increasingly share stories, videos, and tips through their networks, they are no longer just news consumers but news producers.  There’s even a neologism coined to describe the shift from passive consumer to active producer:  ‘presumer.’  It confers an added obligation to evaluate what amid the clutter is worth sending on.”

While I’m not terribly enthusiastic about the neologism “presumer,” I can honestly say that when I share a news piece on Facebook or via Twitter–unless it is from a news source that I completely trust–I cross-check it against a couple of other sources.  When the information comes from a blog or another less formal news source, I do verify the story against other sources (e.g., a local newspaper online, a news station’s feed, etc.) before passing it along to others.  So, yes, I do take responsibility for this act of sharing.  Now admittedly I’m a somewhat anxious person who strangely finds pleasure in checking, double checking (and, in the spirit of disclosure, maybe even triple checking!) things that other well-adjusted individuals don’t necessarily worry a whole lot about!  But if we take seriously this notion that, enabled by social media, we are now co-producers (or at the very least active and empowered distributors) and not simply passive consumers of the news, then we all need to recognize the burden of this responsibility.  Stony Brook, through its curricular initiative, is effectively issuing a challenge to Gen Ed programs around the country:  What are we doing to inculcate the critical reading, evaluative, and information fluency skills that have become so essential not only to students, journalists, and researchers, but also to everyday citizens sharing messages on Facebook?  

For more information on Stony Brook’s news-literacy initiatives, visit the website of their Center for News Literacy.

October 10, 2011

Table Tennis, Polish Food, and New Media

Filed under: Uncategorized — Wilson Chen @ 12:59 am

I should mention up front that I’m not suggesting any deep thematic connections among these three items in my title, but I will say that a good part of my weekend activity involved precisely these things!  I did some intense table tennis training on Friday–yes, for real, 2 hours of footwork and multi-ball training that left me exhausted!–and then on Saturday morning my wife and I played in a table tennis tournament sponsored by the Wood Dale Park District.  The tournament really didn’t go all that well for me, but it certainly generated an appetite!  The true highlight of our day was discovering that afternoon an amazing Polish restaurant in Wood Dale called U Gazdy.  At the server’s enthusiastic recommendation, we tried the Highlander Style Pork Shanks (with sauerkraut and potatoes) and the Highlander Pork Tenderloin Escallops (baked with smoked cheese on top and served in a mushroom sauce).  I love it when servers are passionate and knowledgeable about the food they serve, and it actually irks me when they seem indifferent or lacking in basic knowledge about the dishes they are bringing out.  This server was terrific, and he described in great detail many of his favorite dishes.  Here is an iPhone pic (sorry, low res) of the ridiculously huge but delicious pork shank, with the sauerkraut underneath: 

There is also a wonderful Polish deli right next door called Helen’s Deli, and we picked up some freshly baked kolacky and a meatloaf for later! 

So on Sunday I finally cracked open The New Media Reader (the primary text of our faculty-staff New Media Seminar) and dived into the reading for this week, an excerpt from Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) by Theodor H. Nelson.  This selection was quite long (relative to the previous readings) but equally provocative.  I especially enjoyed the piece from Nelson that was first published in Computer Decisions in 1970, “No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks,” in which he argues that “computer-assisted instruction, applied thoughtlessly and imitatively, threatens to extend the worst features of education as it is now” (307).  There is a romanticist strain in this article, as Nelson more or less suggests that we are born with intellectual freedom, curiosity, creativity, etc., but then a highly bureaucratized educational apparatus, often invested in dubious or arbitrary pedagogical sequences, gradually extinguishes all of our intellectual passion.  Hence, Nelson argues that it makes no sense to continue these flawed practices in “computer-assisted teaching” (310). 

Now this is certainly not to suggest that Nelson is against “computer teaching,” but instead, to point out that he sees in computers truly transformative potential, where we can in a sense liberate the mind from “the stifling and insulting setting of existing school systems” (311).   Is this too broad, too sweeping, too “black and white” an argument?  Probably, but it should make for a good seminar discussion on Wednesday.  I will say that I greatly appreciate Nelson’s observation that the “usual attacks on computer teaching tend to be sentimental and emotional pleas for the alleged humanism of the existing system” (309).  As Nelson and others remind us, we really should think carefully and precisely about what it is that we are defending.  Is our existing system all that humane or all that effective?  Perhaps it is a fear of an unknown digital (or hybridized) future that leads us to defend so passionately educational practices that, in other conversational contexts, we can also be quite critical of. 

An aside:  For those feeling a bit overwhelmed by blogging, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc., I thought you might enjoy this video clip from IFC’s Portlandia.  It’s called “technology loop,” and it’s just too funny!

September 25, 2011

Musings about Wikis and Our New Media Seminar

Filed under: Uncategorized — Wilson Chen @ 2:28 pm

Until our New Media Faculty and Staff Seminar at BenU this semester, I had nearly forgotten how enjoyable it is to participate in a weekly seminar with such smart, committed, quirky, and insightful colleagues from a whole range of disciplines.  (Let’s see–I know our group currently includes Mathematics, Theology, Nursing, Literature, Information Technology, Business, Library & Information Science, Biological Sciences, Psychology, Communication Arts, Education, and Computer Science.  Please forgive me if I’ve left out a discipline or two!  Indeed this is a “dream team” for the sorts of intellectual conversations I’m most interested in!) 

Last week, in addition to discussing the conceptual issues raised by Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay, “As We May Think” (esp. his fascinating mid-century understanding of the “memex” and the “Emersonian” qualities of his vision for science), we talked for a bit about using wikis in undergraduate teaching.  I do suspect this is an underutilized technology at many institutions, including ours, and I’m leaning toward having my American literature students construct on a wiki a study guide for one of their upcoming exams.  Since this would be a pilot project, I’m likely to make it a partial (vs. comprehensive) study guide–possibly focusing on just one unit of the course.  It would be interesting to see how 27 minds work together and what they ultimately come up with.  And of course I look forward to tracking the history of changes to the document in order to see what sorts of thinking become visible as a result of this use of technology. 

Wiki Wiki Shuttle Bus in Hawaii, by Christopher Warsh (Public Domain)

Last year at the 2010 Scholarship of Pedagogy Symposium sponsored by the Associated Colleges of the Chicago Area (ACCA), I found very helpful a presentation on the use of wikis in sophomore Organic Chemistry.  Professor J. Brent Friesen (Dominican U., Department of Physical Science) gave a very insightful presentation, “OChemOnline:  A public access Wiki to extend organic chemistry laboratories in time and space.”  He suggested that using this wiki helped to create a more “research-rich environment” (nice phrase there) for sophomores studying organic chemistry.  Students not only could connect/compare their current experiments but could also connect/compare their experiments with those done by former Organic Chemistry students at their university, as well as similar experiments undertaken by students at other universities.  You can find OChemOnline right here.  By the way, my colleague Cheryl Heinz presented as part of the same ACCA panel on teaching , and she gave a brilliant presentation on using eTexts, eReaders, and iPads in undergraduate ecology and biology courses. 

Moving on to this week’s readings!  Up for Wednesday, 9/28/11 are Norbert Wiener’s “Men, Machines, and the World About” (1954) and J. C. R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960).  I am especially interested in discussing Wiener’s warnings about the gadget becoming an idol for uncritical worship.  (Wiener–“There is a very real danger in this country in bowing down before the brass calf, the idol, which is the gadget.  I know a great engineer who never thinks further than the construction of the gadget and never thinks of the question of the integration between the gadget and human beings in society.”)  With Licklider I’m deeply interested in his 1960 vision of human-computer symbiosis, and wonder how we might connect his prescient vision with our understanding today of the ease with which we (humans/citizens/consumers/scholars/students/etc.) can use, say, Web 2.0 technologies.  Those of us teaching Writing 101 at BenU surely recall anthropologist Mike Wesch’s very helpful 5-minute video on the significance of Web 2.0.

September 18, 2011

Integrative Learning and Digital Tools

Filed under: Uncategorized — Wilson Chen @ 10:34 pm

Teachers and scholars attending general education conferences, symposia, and meetings would surely confirm that “integrative learning” is one of the most talked about learning goals in higher education right now.  That is to say, there is a desire to help students integrate knowledge and skills acquired in different educational settings–in various courses and across different academic disciplines, in the curriculum and co-curriculum, inside and outside the classroom, in internships and work environments, in community service, in lived experience, in athletics, and in previous formal learning experiences (whether it be high school, other universities attended, community colleges, professional work environments, etc.). 

The website of the Inter/National Coalition For Electronic Portfolio Research,

To what extent, then, do certain digital tools allow us both to track and to encourage the integration of the learning that is taking place in such diverse places?  Professor Kathleen Blake Yancey (Florida State U.) visited Benedictine U. in Lisle, IL just this past week, and over the course of several richly detailed, illuminating presentations, made a persuasive case for the many benefits of electronic portfolios in undergraduate student learning.  I found that some of her most insightful examples concerned individual student efforts to integrate learning that was taking place (or had taken place) in very different settings.  In her public presentation, “Learning by Design:  The Role of E-Portfolios in Fostering Intentional Learning,” Yancey was deeply interested in the curriculum that students actually lived or experienced (vs. focusing simply on the curriculum that we, as educators, delivered), and suggested that e-portfolios could help make visible key connections, transitions, and developments that were taking place in a student’s learning experience.  The process of archiving student work and then sustained student reflection on the archive could potentially lead to many important observations about how a student has acquired knowledge and skills.  It seems, unfortunately, that crucial connections, transitions, and developments in student learning too often remain invisible to us as educators, especially when they occur outside of course structures, and hence we end up missing out on many insights into how and what students learn.   

I found this line of reasoning quite persuasive, and it reminded me of Professor Randall Bass’s talk last spring, “E-Portfolios and the Problem of Learning in the ‘Post-Course’ Era,” delivered at the annual conference on assessment sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).  Bass emphasized the importance of the “intermediate stage” of learning, the processes that take place before “expertise” is developed, and suggested that certain digital tools could help make these intermediate practices more visible to us.  One example Bass cited was the use of wikis, where one can easily see and track changes that take place over time.  And many have touted the benefits of student blogging, which can certainly allow students to document learning that takes place inside, outside, and between courses. 

I agree with both Bass and Yancey that this sort of documentation does appear to be one of the most promising features of e-portfolios (which potentially bring into one electronic entity many digital tools that are now available).  That is, e-portfolios may allow students to make visible certain processes of learning that are often effaced in the sorts of work products we tend to see most and even be preoccupied with.  Perhaps then we should focus significant energy not only on designing course structures that foster the integration of knowledge and skills, but also on developing digital environments that encourage integration and chart student learning, a great deal of which, it seems, is taking place outside of and between courses.

August 1, 2010

Hens, Pork Steaks, and Chimichurri

Filed under: Chicago,Culture,Food,Oak Park-Forest Park-River Forest — Wilson Chen @ 1:40 pm
Swingbelly’s (Eggs and Produce) at the Forest Park Farmers Market

Some weeks ago I was involved in a lively discussion with several colleagues about how best to introduce a group of international students to different kinds of American cuisine.  Our concern, it seems, was that these international students would too easily find confirmation of the popular, global image of the U.S. as simply a crass fast-food nation and possibly miss out on some of the most exciting food trends in recent U.S. history.  Of course we gushed about the cultural diversity of the culinary scene of Chicago and the burbs.  (Before too quickly dismissing the suburbs think Chinese and Korean food in Naperville, Indian and Pakistani cuisine in Lombard, Jewish delicatessens and restaurants in Skokie, Middle Eastern fare in Bridgeview, and the list just goes on and on.)  We also thought it was important to give these students opportunities to shop at local farmers markets and even interact with the farmers instead of just relying on mainstream supermarkets.  While our farmers markets might not be all that impressive to students coming from countries with long, rich culinary traditions (e.g., China, France, Algeria, Korea, etc.), at least this would be a nice sampling of some of the recent shifts in American food culture over the past couple of decades.  Whenever I talk about this interesting moment in U.S. gastronomic history I can’t help but also think about some of the highly influential books in recent years that really have made such a difference in what and how Americans eat. I’m thinking of works like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation:  The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001) and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma:  A Natural History of Four Meals (2006), both of which have fundamentally shaped how I view the production and preparation of food.  Not to neglect other important authors on this subject, but if you’re interested in how food is produced and haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, please do consider picking up a copy from your local library.  (Or order the audiobook on your iPod!)  The entire book is illuminating, and even a single chapter can significantly change one’s view of the U.S. food industry.  At any rate, Pollan’s work certainly gives us ample reason to do more of our shopping at local farmers markets.    

Fortunately I live quite close to one of the most respected and established farmers markets in the area:  The Oak Park Farmers Market that takes place on Saturdays.  The vendors are carefully chosen and truly excellent.  You can read about it here.  However, as much as I love the Oak Park Farmers Market and will continue to sing its praises, I would like to talk here about a lesser known, just emerging, high quality farmers market in neighboring Forest Park, which takes place every other Friday afternoon/evening on the corner of Des Plaines Ave and Jackson Blvd, in the Howard Mohr Community Center parking lot.  In fact, just this past Friday, with about $25 in hand, a credit card, and a camera, my wife and I visited the Forest Park Farmers Market.    

Swingbelly's at the FP Farmers Market

Our first stop was the egg guy, or rather, the guy with the hens out front, the eggs tucked away in a refrigerator on his trailer, and a colorful sign labeled Swingbelly’s.  I later learned that his name is Chuck Barman.  Swingbelly’s Chuck Barman was just the friendliest man, and he sold us a dozen wonderfully large brown eggs at a very reasonable price and threw in a free acorn squash that was humongous.  Chuck explained that he made a career change a couple of years ago due to the economic climate, and decided to open up a farm.  He had with him several gorgeous young hens from his farm in Indiana.  While they were temporarily kept in a cage on their visit to Chicagoland, Chuck mentioned that on his farm he lets his chickens roam free during the day and then brings them back to the hen house in the evening.  He liked referring to them as “wild chickens.”   

Next up was one of our favorite vendors, Jake’s Country Meats, a pork specialist from Michigan.  Over the past few weeks we’ve enjoyed his smoked pork sticks (healthy, lowfat sticks of ham–sort of an alternative to Slim Jims and beef jerky!) and his tender pork chops.  This is a family-owned business committed to “natural pork raised without antibiotics,” and you can read about Nate and Lou Ann Robinson’s farm and family on their website.  This is one of the friendliest meat vendors I’ve met, and we learn something about pork (how to prepare it, the differences between different parts of the animal, etc.) each time we visit.     

Jake's Country Meats

This time we purchased two pounds of pork steak, which we plan to marinate overnight in the chimichurri sauce made by the amazing Co-op Sauces company from the west side of Chicago (the next stop in our tour).  I should also mention that when you let folks know that you’re writing a blog and ask permission to take pictures, the vendors/farmers are extremely forthcoming and engaging. 

Pork Steaks from Jake's Country Meats

Our decision to go with pork steak (vs. pork chops) was inspired by the barbecue chef at the market, who was grilling on site “pork chimichurri kebabs”–strips of Jake’s pork steak prepared with Co-op Sauces’ chimichurri sauce!  For just $3 you could snack on a freshly grilled kebab of generous size and homemade cabbage slaw.  The swiss chard in the slaw was from a produce stand at the market–Brockway Farm of Illinois.  All of the food was donated by the farmers, and the proceeds of the grill went to the Forest Park Food Pantry.

The Grillmaster at the FP Farmers Market

Pork Chimichurri Kebabs and Fresh Cabbage Slaw

All of it was just delicious, and following our meal we made our way over to Co-op Sauces for the chimichurri sauce that we needed for our own pork steaks.  Right now our favorites are their chimichurri and Alabama white barbecue sauce, as they go well with so many different kinds of food.  Co-op Sauces, based in the Humboldt Park area of Chicago, is a pretty amazing company.  They use ingredients (peppers, horseradish, etc.) from urban community gardens, and their mission statement tells us that 50% of the proceeds from the sales of the sauces “go directly to supporting Co-op Image’s free youth art education and entrepreneurship programs on Chicago’s west side.”  Time Out Chicago recently did a feature on the terrific work of Mike Bancroft and Co-op Sauces.  Read it here.  If you have a few minutes and want to be inspired, check out this YouTube video about Co-op Image:

Co-op Sauces' Mike B at the FP Farmers Market

Mike B shares his booth with the bread shop Crumb, which you see in the background of the photo.  (My wife is a big fan of Crumb’s flavorful focaccia.)  Before leaving the market we also purchased zucchini from Brockway Farm and lamb patties from Mint Creek Farm.  Once I finish this blog post we’ll be spending some time in the kitchen!  For the days/hours of the market see their Facebook page here.

Brockway Farm at the FP Farmers Market

July 20, 2010

Steppenwolf and the Gift of Chicago Theater

Filed under: Chicago,Culture,Theater — Wilson Chen @ 6:17 pm

Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago by McDuff (public domain)

I didn’t realize how much I loved theater until I moved to the Chicago area six years ago.  While I attended many memorable productions in Los Angeles when living in Southern California, theater was really an occasional treat and not something that regularly factored into my monthly activities.  This has gradually changed since my wife and I have been living in Chicagoland, and I can honestly say that I now go much more frequently to stage performances than to the movie theater.  Here’s a sampling of the plays I saw between last summer and this summer:   

  • The Tempest (Steppenwolf Theatre)
  • The Piano Lesson (Court Theatre)
  • The House on Mango Street (Steppenwolf Theatre)
  • Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Court Theatre)
  • Up (Steppenwolf Theatre)
  • In the Red and Brown Water (Steppenwolf Theatre)
  • The Brothers Size/Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet (Steppenwolf Theatre)
  • The DNA Trail (Silk Road Theatre)
  • Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater at Victory Gardens)
  • A Parallelogram (Steppenwolf Theatre)

The Goodman Theatre by Jeremy Atherton, 2006 (Creative Commons License)

Wow, that’s ten plays in just over a year, and in a perfect world (without a 50-hour work week and such) I would have seen so many more!  Of course it’s quite obvious from this list that my wife and I are passionately devoted to Steppenwolf Theatre, which has become such an important Chicago cultural institution since its establishment in 1976.  I should mention that I’m also extremely fond of many other theaters in the city–including the Goodman TheatreSilk Road Theatre,  Court Theatre, and others.  But I find myself frequently returning to Steppenwolf, eagerly anticipating their new productions, and thanking my lucky stars for the good fortune of being only 10 miles away from performances that I think might even be worth flying into Chicago for.  The very first play I experienced at Steppenwolf was Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel–a wonderfully insightful play about an African-American seamstress in New York in the early 1900s–and then several years later in 2009 Lynn Nottage received the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her riveting play Ruined, which deals with the issue of sexual violence against women in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Ruined was produced by the Goodman Theatre, another treasured Chicago institution, and I had the good fortune of seeing that production as well.   

Perhaps what I’m now most excited about is Steppenwolf’s newest ensemble member, the gifted playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the Brother/Sister plays recently performed at Steppenwolf (In the Red and Brown Water/The Brothers Size/and Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet).  A young, openly gay African-American playwright from the graduate program in drama at Yale U., the 29-year-old McCraney also has a strong Chicago connection in that he attended college at DePaul University.  I absolutely loved the entire Brother/Sister trilogy, which brilliantly wove together drama, dance, music, and African mythology in a series of stories set in an African-American community in the bayou in Louisiana.  I was especially struck by how the plays deftly explored issues of gender and sexuality within frameworks that were both mythic and sociological.  It seems to me that Steppenwolf has made a commitment in recent years to diversifying its programming, and I believe Tarell McCraney will be a key figure in the Chicago theater scene in the years to come.  Here are some engaging video clips with McCraney talking about his work:

Right now you can still catch Bruce Norris’s insightful and engaging A Parallelogram at Steppenwolf, which runs through August 29.  I saw a preview performance earlier this month and had the privilege of participating in a post-show dialogue facilitated by the play’s director, Anna Shapiro, and Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Martha Lavey.  It was such a treat to be able to converse in this way with two visionaries in Chicago theater.  They were still in the process of making adjustments to the play, and I’m really curious as to what the final product looks like.  While I had some issues with the play, I found it quite engaging and provocative.  I think we’re on the verge of becoming season subscribers!  Just gotta pay off that credit card debt first.   

This weekend we’ll be going to the Goodman Theatre to see The Sins of Sor Juana, a story about Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz, the seventeenth-century Mexican nun, poet, and intellectual.  Looking forward to it!

June 28, 2010

Straight Outta the Basement: Ping Pong Players, Hipsters, and Celebrities

Filed under: Chicago,Culture,Oak Park-Forest Park-River Forest,Sports,Table Tennis — Wilson Chen @ 6:30 pm


Table Tennis, Rio de Janeiro, 2007 Pan American Games by Wilson Dias, Agência Brasil (Creative Commons License)

I often tell people that there’s quite a table tennis (aka ping pong) scene here in Chicagoland.  When they look perplexed or humored by my observation, I persist in explaining that there really is such a “scene” and that it’s not one taking place in people’s basements or garages (along with the Foosball machines)!  In the Chicago area, there are places to play competitively every single night of the week, and lots of serious players visit 2 or 3 different TT clubs every week.  Some–certainly not everyone–play in full TT gear (e.g., Butterfly or Killerspin jerseys, brand-name table tennis shoes, expensive cases for their paddles/blades, multi-compartment athletic bags to carry extra balls, blades, rubber sheets, Gatorade, etc.).  In other words, it’s just like any other sport with its emphasis on equipment, name brands, etc.  The good players in the area tend to know about each other if they don’t personally know each other, and it’s not uncommon for a newcomer at a club to be asked, quite casually, what his or her USATT rating is.  That’s the USA Table Tennis governing body, which assigns ratings based on tournament performance.  (Of course I don’t have a USATT rating, since I’ve never played in a tournament, but I do play at a club once or twice a week.)  As you might expect, the sport has a very diverse and global following, and many of the best players in the Chicago area are immigrants from places like Poland, China, India, Ukraine, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.   

Over the past couple of years, a number of people in the media have been hyping ping pong as the “next big thing” in the U.S. (after soccer, poker, etc.), and I’ve been wondering if this is indeed the case.  So I’ve sketched out a list of 10 reasons (not necessarily in reverse order of importance) why ping pong just might climb its way out of the basement, finally arriving above ground to become the “next big thing.”   

Susan Sarandon by David Shankbone (Creative Commons License)

10.  Celebrities.  Susan Sarandon has done a wonderful job of promoting ping pong globally.  There are those catchy People magazine interviews, and now we hear that she will be involved in a reality show featuring the ping pong club she is co-owner of–see #7 below.  I really believe Susan Sarandon has been a great ambassador for the sport.  There has also been much talk about other celebrities obsessed with ping pong.  Apparently Edward Norton is a serious student of the game and did ping pong training in China while he was filming there.  And not too long ago President Obama ordered a tournament-grade Stiga table for the White House.  Since table tennis aficionados made such a big deal about this purchase, you can read about it here.     

9.  Hipsters and artists leading the way.  Check out the aesthetics of the e-zine Celebrity Ping Pong founded by graphic designer (and ping pong enthusiast) James Cooper.  Look at the amazing woodwork of blade designer Ian Worz.  Follow indie rocker Kaia Wilson’s ping pong training at as she prepares for the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne.  Apparently Judah Friedlander of 30 Rock fame is also obsessed with ping pong, and he made this funny, hip video touting his skills.   

8.  Killerspin Table Tennis (based here in Chicago).  These guys are terrific at marketing the sport along with developing a culture around their equipment and brand.  They sponsor those glam athletes/models (like Biba Golic and Soo Yeon Lee, who are very gifted TT players), and they also sponsor clubs and tournaments.  The Killerspin website is worth a look if only to get a sense of their clever marketing strategies for the sport.   

7.  Spin New York.  Okay, I think this is a big deal.  It’s a swanky table tennis club in Manhattan that features a fancy bar, houses something like 16 high-end ping pong tables, and seems to be a place where celebrities enjoy hanging out.  Certainly it helps that Susan Sarandon is a co-owner.  It’s not cheap, but hey, you can also star gaze!  If you watched Season 2 of HBO’s Nurse Jackie, then you might remember Jackie’s husband, Kevin, hitting a few games over a beer at Spin with his new friend (and Jackie’s lover) Eddie.  It appears that in New York, ping pong is now definitely above ground–with even a tournament in Central Park–although Spin is literally an underground space.  We definitely need something like Spin in Chicago.  

6.  Homegrown talent.  It looks like the U.S. is finally developing some American talent that (hopefully) will eventually be able to compete internationally, or at least make a decent showing in future Olympic games.  It’s no surprise that teen phenoms Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang (among others) are coming out of the San Francisco Bay Area, home to several excellent table tennis academies.  Bay Area clubs like The Top Spin, the Indian Community Center, and Ping Pong Dojo are helping to nurture young American talent by running camps and offering individual coaching.  All of this is helping to bring table tennis out of the basements and garages of America.   

5.  The 40mm ball and 11-point games.  When I was growing up the ball was 38mm, and games ran to 21 points.  Then in 2000 the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) switched to the larger ball, which made table tennis more camera and television friendly.  They also shortened the games to 11 points, which was supposed to make matches (best out of 7 games) more dynamic and exciting.  

4.  Internet technology and social media.  I know this is probably old news by now, but these recent digital technologies really do allow table tennis aficionados to find each other.  And websites like My Table Tennis allow users to share videos for training/coaching/instructional purposes.  One highly skilled defensive player in Australia even offers online coaching to students throughout the world.  And if I want to watch a classic match in TT history, say between Ma Lin and Timo Boll, there is no better place than YouTube.  Finally, there is a plethora of online vendors from which to purchase TT equipment–everything from balls to tables to tools for cutting rubber sheets.     

3.  China’s emergence as an economic superpower and cultural power.  It’s no accident that the 2010 remake of Karate Kid is both set and filmed in China as opposed to, say,  Japan, where they actually practice karate, or the U.S., where the original film was set.  (Remember, the original Karate Kid of 1984 came out during a time when the U.S. was more or less obsessed with Japanese culture.  Hence the exoticized Mr. Miyagi character.)  Even the rise of the multi-talented Jackie Chan can be connected with the global emergence of Chinese/Hong Kong cinema and its influence on Hollywood film.  Ping pong is the most popular sport in China (it’s considered China’s national sport), and Chinese ping pong teams have dominated recent Olympic competition.  Given China’s increasing prominence on the world stage and the popularity of ping pong in China, it’s hard to imagine the sport not gaining more visibility in the years ahead.   

2.  Immigration and globalization.  I’ve been told (by various sources) that table tennis is the second most popular sport in the world (soccer is first), and that table tennis is the most popular racquet sport in the world.  As the rest of the world comes to America–and brings with it different cultures, languages, and sports–surely these highly popular international sports will find some sort of place in American culture.  Chicagoland is a good example, with immigration from Eastern Europe, East Asia, and South Asia helping to develop the table tennis club scene.  I always find it intriguing that at a place like the Schaumburg Table Tennis Club (a great place to play, by the way), I typically hear about 5 different languages when I play for a 2-hour stretch (e.g., English, Chinese, Polish, Vietnamese, and Tagalog).   

1.  Brain health.  Ping pong is good for the brain, says Dr. Daniel Amen, M.D. and others.  Amen argues that the hand-eye coordination, mental strategies, and physical skills required in ping pong make this sport one of the best exercises for the brain.  He and others refer to ping pong as “aerobic chess”!  And it is a sport that one can play with lower injury risk (compared with many other sports) and well into one’s elderly years.  I play regularly with many people in their 70s, some in their 80s, and one person in his 90s.

June 20, 2010

Storms, Tweets, and Social Media

Filed under: Culture,Oak Park-Forest Park-River Forest,Social Media — Wilson Chen @ 10:30 pm

A very brief but fairly devastating thunderstorm hit Chicagoland on Friday afternoon and was followed by a second round later in the evening.  The 70-mph winds in the Oak Park/Forest Park area (where I live) blew down trees and power lines, and hundreds of thousands of people in the greater Chicago area lost electrical power.  Here are some pics from the Oak Park Journal.  Our neighborhood was without electricity from Friday late afternoon until Sun late morning–not quite two days.  As of Sunday evening, there were still thousands of people in Chicago and the burbs without power, although ComEd expects electricity to be restored to nearly everyone by Monday morning.  

During the drawn out waiting period we gave up on trying to call in to ComEd for updates.  It seemed that everyone was feverishly calling their customer service line, and certainly there were far greater emergencies than what we were facing.  So we patiently awaited text message updates from ComEd, and once we got out of the house and got back online, my wife was able to check the helpful outage map (linked to our ComEd account online), which not only showed the areas without power but also projected restoration times.  And then for the first time in many months, she logged in to her seldom-used Twitter account and began to follow actively the Twitter feed about ComEd repair work.  I think what impressed her most was not that so many residents were tweeting (and sometimes shouting) their thoughts and complaints about the power outage, but rather, that a ComEd representative had created a user profile and was trying to respond individually to the many queries and criticisms about the efficiency of ComEd repair work!  I don’t know if tweeting is a new thing for ComEd customer service, but if you go to the user name “ComEdCustCtr,” you’ll see that (as of Sunday evening) it has only tweeted a total of 13 times under that name.  In any case, I think it’s a good idea (and smart public relations strategy) for ComEd to join the twittersphere and respond to individual queries, complaints, and anxieties related to the power outage.   

Gary Vaynerchuk by Erik Kastner (Creative Commons License)

ComEd’s use of social media actually reminded me of a claim made by Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of Wine Library and Wine Library TV.  In a presentation at RailsConf 2010, Vaynerchuk made the provocative claim that the proliferation of social media was in many ways bringing back the “mom and pop skill set” of a much older generation of business owners.  He suggested that we were in the midst of transitioning from a more fragmented, alienated way of doing business (the kind of impersonal corporate culture that had displaced the mom and pop generation) to a much more communicative model characterized by relationships and more social intimacy (hence the return of the “mom and pop skill set”).  And he felt that much of this new conduct is enabled by social media technologies like Twitter, Facebook, etc., for this, he claimed, is precisely how he built his own business.  While Vaynerchuk may overstate the case, I do appreciate his general point.  And ComEd on Twitter seems like further support for his claim.  If the neighborhood (in this case the expansive “neighborhood” of Chicagoland) is chattering about a store owner, then maybe the store owner needs to come out of his or her shell and start talking with some of the customers–even if it is in the form of “tweets.”   

I only hope that social media technologies like Twitter have the cumulative effect of improving, expanding, and enhancing the communication surrounding such events as storms and power loss. I would also like to believe that social media can expand in helpful ways the dialogue around much less destructive events in our lives!  Incidentally, now a convert to Twitter and with our electricity finally restored, my wife is following from our home the live Twitter stream about the Superchunk concert at Taste of Randolph Street in Chicago!   

Clay Shirky by James Duncan Davidson/O'Reilly Media, Inc. (Creative Commons License)

I’ve also been thinking a great deal about Clay Shirky’s ideas about how social media technologies–by enabling sharing and participation among individuals on a global scale–can give ordinary people so much more power to challenge, scrutinize, and even change institutions and dominant practices that, in the very recent past, could much more easily go unquestioned by the public.  I just finished reading Shirky’s newest book, Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010), in which he addresses these issues.  But perhaps this should be the topic of a future blog post.

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