Scholars' Lab Blog //Pandemic, Puppets, Peppers: On Writing & Performing a Praxis Program Charter in 2020
Blog //Pandemic, Puppets, Peppers: On Writing & Performing a Praxis Program Charter in 2020

The 2020-2021 Praxis Cohort had launched their charter! Check it out over on the Praxis website.

Part I: Emma Dove

First, let me say that I never thought I could have fun writing a charter. I was wrong.

Recently, I’ve co-written two charters. The first, far more formal, charter is for the graduate student committee of a professional organization. I research and write about medieval prayer books and their users and have been a student member of this organization for a couple of years now. Neither of those things prepared me to write a committee charter, however, and when the time came to do so I found myself scrambling to sound like a lawyer, for some reason.

Co-writing the Praxis Program charter with the 2020-2021 cohort of Praxis Fellows has been an altogether different experience. This charter’s starting point and purpose are different: It is relationships-based rather than rules-based and changing rather than static. Its creation was carefully guided by a common reading of other charters1 and a discussion of goals and ways of working led by Ronda Grizzle, an expert project manager. But its creation was also delightfully organic, and even chaotic. It is the product of six individuals from different disciplines thinking and laughing on Zoom together. That’s probably why there are puppets in our charter.

Yeah, puppets. And also a reference to jalapeno peppers, which I’ll explain in a moment. But the most noticeably odd thing about our charter in its current form is that it has a puppet mascot right at the top. After a discussion on our relationships as group members, the importance of creating things that are multi-modal and accessible, and the reality that we may never meet in person as a group, the subject of puppets came up. You see, one department at the University of Virginia made an introductory video for its incoming and returning graduate students this fall, a small portion of which included a puppet show. I can’t remember who suggested that we follow suit, each making puppet versions of ourselves and filming our puppet-selves reading the charter, but in the spirit of improvisation (“yes, and…”) that we’re trying to embody as fellows and digital humanists, we agreed to go with it, laughing all the way. The process of puppet construction is now underway. Here’s mine:

Emma’s medusa-looking puppet

(In the spirit of transparency and being open to constructive criticism, if you can think of a way to make puppet Emma look better, please let me know.)

The reality of all of us working from home right now is that pets and roommates and families have been wonderfully present in our meetings and, even though we don’t have the benefit of meeting in a common space, we’ve gotten to know one another in part through Zoom-window-sized views of one another’s spaces. Sometimes, home intrudes on work, and that’s how jalapenos made their way into our charter. While I was in our final meeting to discuss the charter before its due date, my spouse was in our kitchen putting away groceries. Through earphones, I heard him laughing at a semi-alarming volume. When I muted myself on Zoom to ask what was going on, he brought three large bags of jalapenos to my desk. “I meant to order three jalapenos,” he said. “And I ordered three bags of jalapenos.” I was unable to hide my amusement from the rest of the group, and I had also noticeably lost focus on the task at hand. Rather than ignoring the situation – the reality of working from home, being distracted by groceries and my spouse, and the absurdity of having 30 jalapenos in front of me – I shared it with my cohort. And rather than telling me that my family and our groceries had no place in our work together, my cohort laughed with me, embraced that moment of levity, and even created a space for my three bags of jalapenos in our charter. Thus, under the “What we expect from one another (Culture)” section of our charter, we have: “To purchase three (3) bags of jalapeno peppers each.”

I am grateful for this team of people, their generosity of spirit, their curiosity and inclusiveness, their diverse interests, and their kindness. Like our relationships with one another, this charter will grow and change. I’m excited to see what it looks like at the end of our year together.

Part II: Savanna Morrison

Never did I imagine in my many years of being alive having an existential crisis over making a puppet.

I have been staring at the pile of clay, yarn, and hot glue that has been sitting messily on the floor around my mountain of books for weeks, simultaneously excited yet oddly paralyzed by the thought of an afternoon of crafting. This probably seems ridiculous. Frankly, I know it is ridiculous. It shouldn’t take a graduate degree to cover a sock in glitter, let’s be real, but yet here I am with my Elmer’s glue stick and wiggle eyes wondering what to do.

This semester, I began taking part in UVa’s PRAXIS program, the prospect of which was something that I had been overwhelmingly excited about since the beginning of graduate school and was thrilled about actually getting to be a part of this year. But, as is typical in our current era, the program certainly did not begin as I expected. In fact, it probably won’t end the way I thought it would, either. I had anticipated vivacious in-person meetings discussing python exercises and debating the merits of digital scholarship’s various forms. The reality has quickly become video meetings that, while still vivacious, have rendered my peers and mentors as figments in small boxes on my brightly lit screen, their comments and questions interrupted by sudden power outages and that weird microphone quirk that prevents two noises from happening at the same time that we have all come to know and hate on Zoom.

As a naturally anxious introvert who values the separation between the classroom and my abode at the end of the day, the adjustment to having my home and my academic life, my public and private modes of living, spatially and temporally melt together has been awkward. Having to move back in with family out-of-state to care for them amongst various impending crises has been awkward too. All in all, everything feels totally upended. “Stressed” and “overwhelmed” have become the new normal.

On the one hand, feeling stressed about making a puppet in the current context where so many things seem more pressing has made the act seem superfluous. On the other hand, I feel oddly pressured to “get things right”; my imaginary caricaturish portrayal of my uncanny puppet-self is in some ways the strongest introduction of who I am to a group of people that I deeply respect and whom I’ve hoped for a lot of time would be scholars and creators who I could learn from and collaborate with long-term. The stakes are so terribly low, at the same time that they feel so terribly high.

But where this felt-and-scissors-induced stress has manifested in my life, it has quickly disappeared, unlike so many of my other stressors. What has been particularly striking about my PRAXIS experience thus far isn’t the ridiculousness of worrying about arts and crafts. I should mention that the puppets aren’t a totally random exercise– they came about in a conversation relating to my PRAXIS cohort’s charter, where we were discussing our shared values as people, scholars, and pedagogues. The puppets were a way of thinking through our collective values multimodally, as a way of making our ideas accessible to everyone in the outside world and as a means of communicating our relationships with each other in a way that we found difficult to articulate solely in the written word. What began as a joking “what if…” suddenly turned into an enthusiastic conversation about how we might incorporate puppets, sound, images, and our charter text into a short video. We argued that this act of creativity and joyous silliness would uphold the values of play and experimentalism we had written into the charter.

And this has proved to be certainly true. The childlike joy and absurdity of the project hits me whenever I think about it, and it is that joy that I try to remind myself of when the project begins to feel insurmountable against a backdrop of doctoral qualifying exams and a world on fire. But what has shocked me about this experience above all else is how quickly my cohort has come together to prop each other up and reinstitute that joy in each other’s lives. We don’t know each other very well (yet, anyways), and we have never even been in the same room together. But in every moment that someone has expressed frustration, or has had to miss a meeting, or seems to be having a hard time for whatever reason (I, for one, have expressed all three), all of the other members have rushed to offer assistance, extra notes, recipes, movie suggestions, emotional support, dog pictures, and positive energy. Even the construction of our charter, an exercise I anticipated months ago being dry and straightforward, ended up being a dynamic experience full of laughter, compassion, and excitement over overlapping interests, values, and ideas.

It seems incredible to me that the kindness expressed in even the smallest of gestures could be so powerful. The joy in play and in having a community of interesting and generous scholars and new friends around me has certainly not featured prominently in my mid-quarantine life, and it has been such a shock to my system to have it regularly reinstated. When I feel stressed about my puppet– or graduate school, or my students’ equally upended lives, or the people I know who are at high risk of catching COVID, or the heartbreak and grief and rage and fear people I care about as well as total strangers have experienced over the last few months and beyond that only touches me from a distance– this joy has been a reminder that the complex web of emotions and overwhelm I am experiencing is okay. Making a puppet is not saving the world, by far, but it has returned to me the sense of generosity, excitement, curiosity, and community that brought me to PRAXIS in the first place. It has allowed me to take a deep breath, be kind to myself, learn to take solace in this amazing community of people, and find the energy to be a better friend, daughter, sister, teacher, student, collaborator, and scholar. And if only two months in I have gained the ability to healthily and joyously reinvest my own energy into the world, even if only marginally, then I can’t wait to see how this unconventional year of creating and thinking together unfolds.

Cite this post: Emma Dove and Savanna Morrison. “Pandemic, Puppets, Peppers: On Writing & Performing a Praxis Program Charter in 2020”. Published October 27, 2020. Accessed on .