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.

Gregor Samsa is OMG so Cute

Well, it was bound to happen. Quirk Books is digging into the  public domain for its cutest literary remix to date. Franz Kafka‘s The Metamorphosis becomes The Meowmorphosis. According to Quirk, through the “haunting illustrations and a provocative biographical exposé of Kafka’s own secret feline life, The Meowmorphosis will take you on a journey deep into the tortured soul of the domestic tabby.”

Cute as deformity. Cuteness as existential dilemma. Cute as allegory. Cute as catastrophe. Cuteness as borderland identity.

How exactly might the cute kitten figure in Kafka’s existential template? In the original text, Gregor Samsa is transformed into a horrible giant insect, a loathsome creature from which all human beings feel utterly alienated. As Gregor becomes more and more disgusting to those around him and increasingly unable to communicate, the limits of human toleration are reached and Gregor must find peace within the confines of his disgrace. As a cuddly misfit par excellence, ridiculously vulnerable in its state of motherless destitution, the cute kitten reigns supreme in the anthropomorphized universe of loveable outcasts and inferiors.

The literary mashup of Kafka’s classic is due out this Tuesday.

May 7, 2011. cute, kittens, literature. Leave a comment.

How Racists Cynically Exploit “Cute”

This anti-abortion billboard targets a black community in Oakland, California.  It’s  just been recently covered over because the actual mother of the little girl featured in the ad complained so much to the press that it led to a bit of an outcry.  The mother of this child obviously didn’t think she was signing up to support the suggestion that her child is in any way unwanted (though she gullibly signed the modeling release form).

Similar billboards have appeared in Atlanta, Georgia and Brooklyn, New York too.  I can see why the mother was so offended.  It’s a slick political tactic that appeals to certain religious and nationalistic discourses promoted in the African American community.  The idea that black people are endangered or are otherwise inherently self-destructive (as though there is some perfectly coherent racial “self” to destroy in the first place) is a common white supremacist trope that — perhaps not too surprisingly — circulates throughout some all-black discursive communities, like barbershops and beauty parlors, not to mention far too many black churches.

Of course, blacks are no more endangered than the rest of humanity, but it’s hard to convey that to our folk when we only see social disintegration on a daily basis while, unfortunately, lacking a critical analysis that myopically attends to a world view which highlights personal agency as the end-all-be-all of human interactions. Such assumptions are mistaken because they ignore the various forms of structural and social violence that occur routinely within and across black communities — of which this billboard is a perfect case in point.

Most insidious about this billboard campaign is the suggestion that black people don’t love their children like everyone else (and by “everyone else” I mean white people). And because of this underlying pathos, I believe the billboard’s combination of words coupled with this particularly cute image is patently racist. Moreover, this ad is clearly designed to garner culturally conservative votes from the typically liberal African American voting block. This is a wedge issue similar to that of gay marriage, which has proven to be an effective political ploy to encourage portions of the African American electorate to vote against their own social and economic interests.

Unfortunately though, too many black voters are duped by the disingenuous politics of this conservative agenda. By feigning a concern for the lives and well-beings of black women and children, the right wing can claim to subscribe to a “colorblind” concern for the lives of “all humans” when, in fact, they couldn’t care less. Indeed, if the right wing anti-choice lobby really cared about the lives of women and children — regardless of race — they would make gestational and infant nutrition measures, as well as early childhood education and daycare an integral part of their political platform. If they really cared about women and children, they would make extended parental leave the norm and not just a luxury for the well-situated few. And no woman would ever get fired from her job for being pregnant. Ever.

In the end, it would stand to reason that the only way to reduce abortions is to assure expectant mothers that they will be able to safely bring children into the world without jeopardizing their own futures as well as those of their already living children. Instead, the right wing engages paranoia and fear tactics in order to impede a woman’s right to determine her own outcomes and not be condemned to breed against her will.

The poem below is from 1945 and is called “The Mother.” The Poetry Archive has posted a beautiful recitation of it in Gwendolyn Brooksown voice.

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed
children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches,and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness
I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?
— Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead, You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.

Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.

February 28, 2011. Tags: , , , , . abortion, advertisemnt campaign, African Americans, children, civics, cute, economics, family, feminism, gender, literature, parenting, poetry, politics, rhetorics, sex & sexuality. 1 comment.

kitschy kitschy yaa yaa yaa

I snapped this jpg at  the antique store in Pendleton, SC — not more than 3 miles from campus. These cast iron coin banks cost  $35.00 each. I’m not sure when or where they were made.

Check out the gestures. The nourishing Negress (as Barthes would call her) looks like she’s ready to pitch an epic niggerbitchfit based on the way she’s got her hands on her hips. And the male one — well, I guess he had better have his hat in his hands.

For some reason, this arrangement of these three objects reminds me of “Trueblood and his women” in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Throwbacks of the most grotesque design, they are. (I’m talking about the Truebloods AND the figurines, by the way.) The genius of the Trueblood scene is the way Ellison writes Truebloods’ intricate testimonial as a thing that functions for commodified exchange. It’s brilliant where Trueblood says, “But what I don’t understand is how I done the worse thing a man can do in his own family and ‘stead of things gittin’ bad, they got better” (68). In uniting a critique of Freudian oedipal desire and Marxian material analysis, Ellison depicts the notion of a/cute monopoly. These incestuous circumstances of “keeping it in the family” is taken to extremes and allows Trueblood to capitalize on the sentiments held by Norton, the wealthy white donor to the invisible man‘s college.

These themes connect very closely to the daddy-mommy-me trinity as described in Anti-Oedipus.

December 20, 2010. cute, gender, gesture, kitsch, literature. Leave a comment.

A “Cute Kitten Theory” of Race

“‘You think you so cute!’  I swung at her and missed, hitting Pecola in the face.  Furious at my clumsiness, I threw my notebook at her, but it caught her in the small of her velvet back, for she had turned and was flying across the street against traffic.
Safe on the other side, she screamed at us, ‘I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos.  I am cute’”(Morrison 73).

“We were sinking under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance of Maureen’s last words.  If she was cute – and if anything could be believed, she was – then we were not. And what did that mean?  We were lesser.  Nicer, brighter, but still lesser” (Morrison 74).

Of course many of you will recognize this excerpt  from  Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.  It’s the frequently anthologized scene, sometimes referred to as “The Coming of Maureen Peale.”   I believe this  scene from literature really illustrates my conceptualization of cuteness as a racial rhetoric.

A desperate chain of events ensues because of Pecola’s wish for her eyes to magically turn blue like Shirley Temple and the white baby dolls molded in the screen idol’s image. And, along with Claudia and Frieda, having to constantly hear all the surrounding adults describe the little white girls as perfectly lovely, the fragile Pecola is pushed to the breaking point. The arrival of the wealthier and lighter skinned Maureen Peale exacerbates the situation because of the way she is shown favoritism by the teachers and parents in Morrison’s semi-autobiolgraphical Ohio community in which the novel is set. The girls in the schoolyard are stunned when the favored newcomer proudly and maliciously asserts the ostensible fact that she is cute and they are not.

"Little Flower"

My dissertation is about how, similarly to Toni Morrison, this issue of “cuteness” served as productive motivation for Carl Owens and other African American artists of that generation. Owens was an African American artist and illustrator, known for a certain genre of printed paintings.  I think of his most famous image “Little Flower” as the epitome of cute kitten blackness. That the above image could be viewed as agitprop is not necessarily problematic for me. At least not, if we think about agitprop in a nuanced and more complicated way.

December 18, 2010. art, Carl Owens, children, cute, design, dolls, literature. 1 comment.

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