Thus Was It Written: Student Writing That’s Illmatic or [sic]…

Too often in teacher discussions about student writing we complain, paying too much attention to student writers’ spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, and faulty reasoning. We derisively speak in terms of what’s supposedly broken or ill-informed about their writing and pathologize their triple exclamation points and wild use of emoticons as something in need of fixing or treating. Teachers behave more like doctors, dentists, and nurses when we approach the writing of our students as if it’s diseased, regarding the battery of “diagnostic exams” and “essay clinics” prescribed and administered as a cure for perceived language impairments and seek to eradicate the contagion of slang usage in drill-and-kill writing labs.

Of course what I’m saying is not so different than what’s been said by many, many other composition scholars for over four decades now, which is why I’m so discouraged by the perennial nature of the pedagogical myth that two semesters of English Composition can—or should—completely erase the graphic representation of what a person thinks, feels, and believes. Despite all empirical evidence to the contrary and all the reams and reams of quantitative and qualitative data that’s been researched and published on every variety of longitudinal analysis, large sample experiment, and ethnographic case study, it’s common that composition and rhetoric professors must still endure ideas reflected in videos like this:

Yeah, right… Whatev!  ¯\_()_/¯

This problem is taken a step further by the insertion of the word “sic” after examples of student writing to indicate everything that’s wrong with the supposedly unwashed, uneducated masses—and not in a way that merely implies the specificity of the words belonging to them. Originally meant to designate the “thus” in sic erat scriptum of the Latin phrase “thus was it written,” the insertion of “[sic]” is meant to indicate a verbatim transcription of a person’s wording, but is also used as a means of ridicule, designed to call attention to other people’s errors in writing and derisively draw a distinction between “us” and “them”—in reference to the class of college professors as opposed to the classrooms of students with whom we’re charged with sharing our love of learning. To my mind, the only real writing and composition classroom mistakes that occur have to do with the presumption of teacher superiority and the notions that scholarly betterment is a one-way street, and the knowledgeable transfer of becoming well-versed in the arts of rhetoric and poetic language moves in a single direction.

Nasty Nas said it best 20 years ago; it ain’t hard to tell. Young folks can and do know how to tell their own stories. They prove it every day, in fact, on their devices and with their thumbs. And they’re thinking too. Faculty ought to be meeting students where they are in order to help get where they need to go. It’s the professor’s job to go there with our students and let them show us how they’re writing—more vibrantly and colorfully than ever before.

An iPhone snapshot I first posted on Instagram, taken March 2014, outside the Charles W. Chesnutt Library on the campus of Fayetteville State University.  Fayetteville, NC.

iPhone Instagram taken outside the Charles W. Chesnutt Library on the campus of Fayetteville State University (Fayetteville, NC – March 2014)

One of my goals is to see more regional and public HBCU’s like Fayetteville State University, develop greater openness to the possibility that the teaching of writing, at the very least, is the work of all faculty members, regardless of discipline and across every department. Moreover, I’d like to spread the word that the flourishing of rhetorical agency for students is a dialogical process where professors must listen as much as they lecture. As more people begin realizing that African American English (AAE) is a legitimate language, they can better understand that writing with AAE in mind is a particular form of communication that deserves expression and not suppression. Fayetteville State is fortunate to have fluid and unabashed speakers of the African American rhetorical tradition through leaders like our current chancellor. It’s affirming for students to see that they too can make it—and without feeling as though they have to play their Blackness to the left. I’d like to see larger segments of the professoriate from outside the gates of HBCU campuses, beyond the field of composition and rhetoric to rethink the conversation about what’s supposedly so [sic] about Black students’ home discourses being applied as an authentic expression of themselves.

After all, wasn’t Charles Chesnutt among the first to articulate a scholarly theory about vernacular forms of AAE’s literary value and cultural rigor, even as he served as a member of the teaching faculty and head of the university during his tenure at Fayetteville State?

Even the most glowing feedback written by students about English department professors in course climate evaluations are scrutinized more harshly for grammar and spelling (unlike, say for instance, those written about professors in Economics, Chemistry, History, Computer Science, Psychology departments). This despite the fact that students appropriately perceive the rhetorical situation that is the “course eval” as a largely informal, perfectly casual, necessarily ungraded personal expression of their class interactions as a learning experience—and not as an examination. At an HBCU and a century after Charles Chesnutt sought to make similar arguments in his own writings, it is the height of irony that so few HBCU’s recognize the origins and legitimacy of Black English varieties as African Diasporic language expansion, especially since this idea has been embraced by research-based and writing-intensive programs at predominantly white institutions, dating back to the 1970s (at least in theory, if not always in practice).

This is not to say that all students, regardless of race or color, should not also be required to become more proficient writers and speakers of the Language of Wider Communication (LWC), as well as develop some conversational proficiency and literacy in a foreign language. It’s vital that creative professionals be fluent in all conventions and practices of both “standard” and “nonstandard” forms of at least 2 languages. Linguistic diversity is something to be celebrated without one or the other being placed at the bottom of some false pecking order, ranked according to outmoded 19th century taxonomies. If students are frequently encouraged to think and speak and write in their home dialects as an avenue towards LWC mastery, in all classes, across every major, throughout their matriculation, well into their careers, they’d develop more confidence to cultivate their professional voices and become the types of lifelong learners we endeavor to promote. This will help our students seek out audiences of their peers who are meaningfully engaged with the communicative conventions, which they can help shape within their chosen communities. But this can only happen if more HBCU teachers are willing to see misspellings, not always in terms of orthographical errors, but pedagogical opportunities to explore questions of rhetorical agency. Such morphological leaps are meaningful and teachers themselves miss out on the chance to become more savvy interlocutors because of their own dialectal limitations.

The alter/native rhetoricity of AAE is of material significance. The historical and cultural experiences of Black writing matters and it deserves to be understood and valued, not denigrated and eradicated. To slightly paraphrase and contextually reframe John Edgar Wideman’s appraisals of Chesnutt’s considerable cultural contributions, when professors are insensitive to the materials they assess, they misinterpret student writings on the basis of superficial detail and consistently fail to respond to its deeper meanings.  We—the teachers of HBCU students— end up failing Black students and institutions in a great many more ways than we realize.

"WTF are all these red marks on my paper supposed to mean???"
Student: “WTF are all these red marks on my paper supposed to mean???”

The “happy accidents,”  which we too often seek to obliterate through the obsessive correction of errors, only manage to inhibit students’ explorations into phenomenological abstraction. Over-correction places unnecessary prohibitions on students’ abilities to ask new questions and academically traverse uncharted, bleeding-edge territory and begin assuming agency over their written language to produce papers that aren’t [sic], but illmatic.

Alas, I suspect, it’s much easier (and less time-consuming) to grade ever-growing stacks of student essays and research reports with fat, red circles, and line-item edits for every other sentence through the insertion of archaic editor’s proofing marks; thus subsuming the writer’s ideas and Black student identity with a cultural eradicationist’s pen, pointed toward displacing unfamiliar viewpoints with concepts and structures that seem less strange to our traditional print literacy standards—at least to our scholarly eyes, lest they be considered in transgression of “proper English” or deemed in violation of the most egregious of all academic writing sins and get marked… awkward.

We miss so much when we refuse student rhetorical agency or try to fix and fit their thoughts into our boring little Blackboard boxes. I believe many fear what ensues when seemingly disparate things are literally con/fused to ignite tiny rhetorical explosions that give rise to linguistic innovation. These are the sparks of intention that bring forth invention. Expression that is both eloquent and meaningful demands the element of amusement and play. Without them writing is petrified, stagnant, and dies (not unlike the Latin we so enjoy inserting into our own, more scholarly publications and used by us more erudite, professors-types ;-) This is why the rhetoricians and compositionists I respect and pattern myself after teach and embrace diversity in written and spoken language.

As for my own part, I’ll do what I can to keep English Composition alive and ill.

December 3, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, Colors, composition, computers, conventions, design, digital literacy, education, fragrance, higher education, hip-hop, history, literature, media, rhetorics, social media, teaching, technology, visual literacy, writing, YouTube. 7 comments.

#Ferguson: What’s White and Wrong with Obama’s AmeriKKKa

As heartbreaking and unjust as it is, the #FergusonDecision provides an opportune time for us to remind our respective families and communities during this Thanksgiving that the struggle for liberation among Africans in America hasn’t been so much about the giving as it’s been about the taking. This give/take has been the fuel in the engine behind US social strivings toward becoming a better, more robust democracy.

Black man, head thrown back and wailing in grief as family and loved ones try to console a father's grief.

Grieving father of slain black teen, Michael Brown.

This constant push/pull have been stirring and shifting in every direction with, for, against, and all around us for some time. We would do well to remind those around us that the supposedly discrete bookend events we attribute to 1954-1968 (or the time representing the push for Black Liberation commonly referred to as the Civil Rights Movement) was but one well publicized episode within an ongoing continuum of struggle. African descended peoples have had to fight for their lives since the founding of this country up until the present day to demand the acknowledgment of our collective humanity and respect for our basic right to exist freely, despite the centuries-long refusal by the dominant centers of white power and privilege to recognize as much because the push for civil rights has been far worse than the pulling of teeth.

And truth be told, that recognition has never ever occurred because the majority of white people woke up all of a sudden one day and decided to hand over a giant silver platter with Freedom sprinkled all over it. Though to learn the history of civil rights as told through the lens of our failed education system, you would think all of White America suddenly realized, “Here ya go black, brown, yellow, and red folk… Why don’t you take a little of this extra freedom. We ain’t using it right now and thought you might like to have some…” 

The facts clearly demonstrate something far more complicated because freedom was never given freely. It had to be actively seized upon—taken, as it were—through struggle, in spite of the imminent threat of death, certain violence, and utter destruction of everything about how the entire American system had been set up.

It’s important we make clear the understanding that the modern Civil Rights Movement as we have come to think of it was much more so about US national security than it was the modest capitulation of rightness over whiteness, let alone a sincere desire for white churchgoers and clergy to answer MLK’s immanent critique of Southern America’s version of Christlike behavior. (After all, “Christian identity” has long been a cornerstone of white supremacy while Sundays have and will likely always remain the most segregated day of the week.)

Workers for civil rights and freedom understood that if the US federal government really wanted the political economy of a capitalist system to prevail over the Cold War, the social apparatus would have to concede to the idea that money and the allocation of public resources and accommodations should have to carry the same value across the entire citizenry, regardless of color. Otherwise, global capitalism would be a hard sell as the vast majority of people of color around the world watched white cops sick German Shepherds on little girls wearing bobby socks and beating up on fully grown men who dared to do nothing more than be treated equally in the eyes of the law. All that being said, American style racism made Stalinist Russia look almost kind in comparison for the world of Asians, Africans, and Latin@s observing our political system from elsewhere.

Let’s take that in for a moment to be clear. What is at stake here is the threat to the survival and existence of people for one reason and for one reason only: Human beings were getting killed every day because they were deemed to be the wrong color. #Ferguson today. That it’s still a point of contention that Black lives actually matter in Obama’s America, is the most damning evidence to date that the push for civil rights is not nearly over and does not belong in a museum, to be placed on a shelf and held up as an artifact from a previous era for us to nostalgically recall as if we’ve all arrived.

And for all Obama’s eloquence and virtuosity with African American speech performances, the president’s consistent refrain pertaining to “the rule of law” and “zero tolerance for property damage” proves that having an African American president is not only insufficient for solving America’s racial problems, but proves that having a black Commander-in-chief is a solid win for those in favor of the status quo regarding the problems of racial profiling and other forms of institutional discrimination based on color.

This is why I take such strong issue with those who excuse Obama’s tendency to “give a little to both sides” when discussing race. In my mind, criticism for the ethics of Obama’s rhetoric should not be held back when it’s questionably applied to matters related to existential threats to black survival.

November 26, 2014. Tags: , , . #BlackLivesMatter, African Americans, Barack, Barack Obama, children, civic culture, civics, Civil Rights Movement, economics, family, history, masculinity, media, Obama, politics, race, racism, rhetorics, social media. Leave a comment.

New Jimi Hendrix Postage Stamps

It looks like an album jacket.

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The back of the sheet is almost as good as the front.

IMG_2200.JPG

October 31, 2014. Tags: , , , , . African Americans, art, design, history, rhetorics, visual literacy. Leave a comment.

Middle Passenger Seating?

What does one do with this kind of ignorance? Sometimes all we have left is poetry.

Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1985 by Emma Hayden. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
Source: Collected Poems (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)

September 17, 2014. African Americans, cartoons, history, politics, race, slavery, visual literacy, visual rhetoric. Leave a comment.

#Grateful for the Life of Maya Angelou

Last week we lost another great one: Maya Angelou. Or, rather, Dr. Angelou, as she preferred to be called. When it came to addressing her by her honorific/title, nobody got a pass — not even Oprah.

Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wake Forest University where she was Professor Emeritus and resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from her latter years up until her final passing. As a longtime North Carolinian, it seemed I was never more than one degree of separation from the artist-activist and attended several of her lectures and guest appearances over the years.As a public figure, Angelou was a towering presence — a descriptor that goes far beyond her once elegant frame. In her role as private citizen, apart form her public persona, I had a few occasions to partake of her charm and wit, though I also gleaned how Angelou could pose a rather intimidating — and at times downright disagreeable — presence.

It didn’t take much to note that Dr. Angelou would have no truck with any type of behavior she viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate. She had no problem whatsoever with instructing those around her in the correct manner by which they should conduct themselves in her company if they ever found themselves in the unfavorable position of not living up to her exceedingly high standards. Like all of us, she was a work in progress and maintained her strong ideals as something she expected herself and those around her to be continuously striving toward. Angelou was perfectly transparent regarding her own struggles to become a good Christian and decent human being.

The rhetorician in me is the part that will miss her most. As a scholar interested in the power of public address, it is her voice and the historical moment it represents that fascinates. Hearing the sonorous tones in her speech will always recall for me memories of the elderly church mothers I grew up listening to and imitating. The first row of churchgoing women took a special liking to me because of my ability to emulate their speaking when it was my turn to read the Sunday School card-class lessons, making me the happy recipient of whatever butterscotch or peppermint hard candies their patent-leather clutch handbags held. The way these white-gloved church mothers pronounced their words with such precision sharply contrasted with the staccato short-hand of my hip-hop contemporaries. Their earnestly delivered announcements of the weekly “sick and shut-in” list and hyper-proper recitations of Sunday scripture were uttered as if each syllable was deserving of its own special pew.

Maya Angelou’s high African American rhetoric, I believe, held audiences with rapt attention in a similar way. The expressivity of Angelou’s speech embodied sonic vestiges of late-Victorian epistolary inflections no longer found in most African American communities. The radical eloquence demonstrated by Maya Angelou’s speaking style effectively operated to appropriate the “master’s language” and audibly articulate black agency in order to subvert de jure segregation and race-based educational discrimination. Her manner of speaking was meant to celebrate the tenacity of African Americans’ collective will not to merely survive, but indeed thrive — and with a flair for the erudite, to boot. With Maya Angelou’s passing this covertly political style of black speech will be missed in mainstream American media. Regretfully, for many, a pithy soundbite and a Hallmark card aphorism is all that is left.

picture of Mahogany greeting card with Maya Angelou quote: "Do not reject. Do not demand. You can have life in the palm of your hand."

Maya Angelou’s “Mahogany” line of Hallmark greeting cards.

Though in my mind — as an African American mother, and a scholar of writing and rhetoric — Maya Angelou posed much too significant a figure for the occasion of her death to be marked with nothing more than a social media hashtag or image file of her glamorous, youthful heyday, accompanied by little else beyond one of her many well-turned phrases. Whereas she was most popularly known for her short poems, I don’t think a cut-paste of “Phenomenal Woman” will do her justice. As Angelou herself often noted, she was clever with words. The subject of her attention to craft was at times a topic of great debate among other African American poets. Whether this is fair to Angelou’s literary contributions, I cannot say. Although I have studied and thought about poetry slightly more than the average American reader, I don’t fancy myself an expert on what constitutes “serious poetry,” nor do I necessarily assume expertise about assessing one poem as “good” and another as “bad.”

As a casual reader of memoirs, however, I most value Angelou’s talent as a writer of the autobiographical form. Of course, her first autobiography is also her most celebrated work.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings powerfully conveys Angelou’s gift for personal narrative. Her socio-historical account of individual capacity for greatness and resilience in spite of childhood trauma is rightfully recognized as a well-crafted memoir. It is through this genre of her writing that Angelou’s prose emerges with a special resonance. She shows herself to be a foremost chronicler of the latter part of the Jim Crow era in her story of growing up in Arkansas. Her rich anecdotes beautifully capture the turbulent times that led toward her fulfilling her unique cultural niche, and prepared her for the space she would eventually find herself occupying in the singular role of vernacular dance performer, civil rights activist, political fundraiser, and occasional agent provacatuer.

Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described "shake dancer"

Maya Angelou as vernacular artist or self-described “shake dancer”

Perhaps because of my own experience as an expat and having once been a young, single mother living in Accra, Ghana, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is by far my favorite of all her autobiographical works. In this book, she describes how she took on the role of personal host and special consort to the likes of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, among many other literary, political, and diplomatic luminaries of the Black Power and African Independence movements — all too numerous to name in this short reflection. Through this richly textured account of Angelou’s decade of wanderlust against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century Africa’s global decolonization movements, All God’s Children proved to be an indispensable companion during my sojourn year following the 9-11 attacks leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angleou’s writing helped me better contextualize what I was encountering in the social and political turmoil I personally experienced while toggling between West African airports, local guesthouses, and gated estate communities. Fed up with stateside jingoism and hawkishness, reading Angelou’s prose provided me with meaning and gave context to the social and historical forces I saw in play. Her writing gave me the much needed explanatory power I sought for a better understanding of the cultural dynamics that I was seeing and experiencing first-hand: the coup d’etat in Ivory Coast, Liberian living conditions at UN refugee camps, and Ghana’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, to name just a few of these life-changing events. Reading All God’s Children offers the perfect vantage point for understanding the ground that was laid by her generation of black woman cultural workers and gave me the strength to return home to North Carolina and assume my local share of the work required for bringing about a more expansive vision of global ethics as a black woman and as an American. Yes. This is what Angelou’s gift was to me, and to us all. She showed us how to strive to become better, more responsive Americans and citizens of the world.

June 3, 2014. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , . African Americans, art, children, Civil Rights Movement, economics, feminism, gender, history, poetry, politics, race, rhetorics, sex & sexuality, style. Leave a comment.

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