This month we are highlighting Brandon Cesmat. Interview by Syndee Wood.
Professor Brandon Cesmat is deep in discussion with a student when I walk in, discussing
Persepolis and thesis statements. The student gazes at him, taking in the knowledge. The relationship
between student and teacher is apparent. Professor Cesmat speaks with passion about
the memoir this class uses. His student’s facial expressions show that not only does
he want to take in what the professor is saying because of class requirements, but
that he is actually interested in what the professor has to say about the book.
Later, after the student has left, Professor Cesmat tells me about his choice for the fiction book for his class. “The thing that makes Persepolis interesting to me,” he says, “is the intersection of family, work, politics, and religion, all in one character. That is rare.” He stops here and makes a connection to Kathleen Kennedy’s Lucas Film’s adaptation of Indiana Jones. “If you think about Indiana Jones, nobody but Jones gets to have that intersection.”
At some point, we begin our more traditionally structured interview.
SW: Tell us about your assignment that goes with Persepolis. Can you explain your approach to the assignment that draws from this book?
BC: “I try to encourage students not to do an evaluative analysis of Persepolis. It’s a bit difficult to keep them from leaping to an evaluative claim. Instead, we try to do an interpretative analysis.” [He expands on the idea of interpretative analysis and speaks about the film adaptation of the book.] “I think the meaning of Persepolis becomes clearer [in the movie] than the book, but that doesn’t mean the movie is better. It means the story was always present with the author. As new opportunities arose, the story grew. You just can’t have one without the other.”
SW: Do you feel that you bring into your classrooms the things you wish you had learned when you were a student?
BC: “All. The. Time. I mean, we teach fourth graders to recognize metaphors but not how to make one. And they are capable. We spend a lot of time in my GEW class with visual rhetoric, taking the time to describe what we see, so we’re familiar with it when we analyze how it literally shapes what we think about it. The concept of foreground, middle ground, and background. If you can get a student researching a topic that they see in their life, they are gonna be better writers I think.”
SW: Why do you use Persepolis as a text for your GEW class? Do you think that this book helps you bring in what you see as missing in traditional education?
BC: “I think visual rhetoric is under taught and Persepolis is the most visual. My other passion is poetry and I don’t see a lot of that in textbooks.”
SW: What is your teacher story? In other words, how did you find yourself a GEW instructor?
BC: “I want to thank--I think her name was Elaine, but her name is always Doc Plasberg to me, forever--at CSU Northridge--I was actually a music major at Northridge, and Doc Plasberg got me interested in literature. Doc Plassberg. She let me draw from my experience and write about it. So later, the momentum was already there, even when she told me ‘no’ about something I had written. I wasn’t going to stop writing, even when she told me I was wrong. After I moved back to SD, I was doing my GE, and Dr Santangelo gave me my Sophomore Composition class. It was in these freshman and sophomore Comp classes where I got my head turned around. The good thing about these teachers is that they knew how to tell me ‘no’ without shutting me down.”
SW: What do you mean about “no”? No about what?
BC: “No about my thesis. Usually they would enjoy the writing. They could appreciate the style, and they could appreciate good content, but they weren’t afraid to tell me where the content didn’t measure up. With Doc Plasberg, it was always a look. With Dr. Santangello, he would say, ‘This is good but not yet.’” [He laughs.] “He would say something like, ‘This conclusion. It just isn’t good. Because of x.’”
SW: What else do you do besides teach?
BC: “I’m adapting some of the poems from my books to an album titled Californoir. It’s something a boy raised with rattlesnakes amongst the boulders of North County might grow up and write. Peter Sprague’s producing it, so it’s authentic SoCal..”
SW: In closing, is there anything in particular that you would like to share with your GEW students?
BC: “I hope someday you will think of me like I think of Doc Plassberg and Dr. Santangelo.”