At Computers and Writing, attendees usually only sing together during a round of karaoke. During Professor Meg Noodin’s keynote talk, however, conference attendees sang a traditional Ojibwe children’s song, “Giizis Binoojiyag,” in unison. As conference attendees squinted at the Anishinaabe lyrics projected on the screen, doing their best to echo Noodin’s mellifluous verse, the room instantly filled with the warmth of song, bringing a seemingly “lost” language to life.
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Sound clip via Courtney Danforth
Noodin, a linguist, poet, and activist, brought energy, clarity, and compassion to her keynote – “Weweni, Take Care” – at this year’s Computers and Writing conference. A Wisconsin native, Noodin first shared the history of the Ojibwe, tracing the ways in which Anishinaabe words often contain multitudes of meaning. The word for “language,” for example, encompasses not only literate activity, but also an awareness of how words sound and the ways in which sounds impact meaning. Star stories in Anishinaabe also impact the ways that stories are told; perhaps most strikingly for the Computers and Writing audience, a teacher in a star story is represented in a warrior pose with a strung bow-and-arrow, ready to shoot knowledge into the world. Through Noodin’s examples, it became clear that studying Anishinaabe was a way into re-considering the multimodal possibilities of writing itself; exploring other cultural and linguistic traditions brought to light the clear affordances that linguistic diversity can offer in both conference and classroom spaces.
One of the most powerful moments of the talk was when Noodin shared a recording of a poem, “Aabjito’Ikidowinan,” by Heid Erdrich. Accompanied by an animation of the verse’s words (see below), the recording communicated most powerfully the ways in which digital media could be leveraged to capture not only the possibilities for creative expression in language, but also to make more visible linguistic and cultural traditions that may otherwise go unacknowledged and forgotten. Noodin, in fact, described efforts from other organizations to encourage Ojibwe youth to re-capture their cultural traditions, but their approach to create a website with each “dead” language pictured next to a coffin, was both strikingly macabre and rhetorically ineffective. Noodin’s approach of sharing living and breathing examples of Anishinaabe verse does the powerful work of showing how little-known languages can establish strong connections within communities.
Acknowledging the conference’s audience even more directly, Noodin transitioned her talk into a discussion of how her own digital publishing practices have worked towards reflecting traditional Ojibwe verse. She described the fascinating tension between publishers’ expectations of what online poetry publications should look like and what Noodin’s vision was for sharing and disseminating her poetry. Specifically, the publishers for Noodin’s first book of Anishinaabe poetry wanted recordings of Noodin reading her poem – which Noodin embraced – but they didn’t want her to sing her verse. Rather, they asked her to read the poems without song. The audience chuckled in appreciation at Noodin’s tongue-in-cheek imitation of the kind of “MFA poetry reading” she was expected to do; she rehearsed a spot-on recitation of the slow and deliberate, almost-whispered, self-consciousness of “serious” poets. Although Noodin obliged and read her poetry for the publisher’s website, she created her own recordings of her verse and sang them in traditional style to continue honoring and maintaining the traditions she found essential to reciting Anishinaabe.
Noodin’s keynote proved to be one of the most refreshing highlights of the Computers & Writing conference. When Cindy Selfe stood during the Q&A and declared that Noodin “came closest to capturing the spirit of this conference,” I couldn’t help but notice the nods and murmurs of agreement around the room. While Computers and Writing may be a conference purportedly devoted to leveraging technology to teach writing, it’s more so a conference about people mentoring, guiding, and helping each other leverage powerful communicative tools. We take care of each other – “Wenweni” – and I hope that this conference continues to move forward with this spirit of compassion in mind.