Thoughts on Lisa Delpit and Standard English


I feel I should clarify that this post focuses on Delpit’s chapter rather than the other readings or multilingualism as a broader concept.

I agree with Lisa Delpit’s statement in her chapter, “No Kinda Sense,” from The Skin That We Speak about embracing students and their interests wholeheartedly. While I acknowledge this is a controversial position, I’d prefer for my freshman composition students to write about anything under the sun that interests them, including themselves, their hair, their boyfriends and girlfriends—whatever they want—and learn to do so in standard English, than for my students to adhere precisely to topical assignment guidelines that I set forth in whatever version of English they choose. I realize we’re teaching them how to follow assignments, and that’s an incredibly valuable skill, but isn’t it a bit arbitrary to insist that they learn “follow the assignment” skills while dismissing “use standard English” skills as dated and oppressive? After all, I—the instructor—write the assignments. I am white, female, American with ancestry in the country dating back to the Revolutionary War, the beneficiary of a very privileged education, and I have my own set of unique political inclinations and perspectives on the world. I write assignments that I think will interest the students, but I make judgments about that through the lens of my own subject position, and I’m just making educated guesses. Why do I have any more right to demand that the students follow an assignment that happens to bore or alienate them than I have to ask them to use Standard English? My own education has taught me to scrupulously observe prompts and assignments in certain formal circumstances—on the Bar Exam, for instance—but in less formal contexts like ordinary school papers, it’s often best to critique the prompt or even stray from the prompt in the interest of creating a really good piece of writing. Why should I ask my students to do anything different? What’s wrong with making content as light and fluffy as the students please if they learn writing skills in the process? Why should composition courses use heavy-duty social and political thematic content instead of hairstyles, sports teams, cartoons, and breakups? Is it because we’re afraid the wrong person will come across a student essay about braiding customs, judge it as frivolous, and cut our program’s funding?

Of course, I’m never suggesting anyone needs to be a grammar fascist (my usual caveat), and I present the above with the notion that we have a responsibility to our students to teach them how to write in ways that will serve their own future interests. I do not mean to suggest that students’ language skills should be homogenized so that they eventually may become better employees for their employers’ sakes. But if we’re going to encourage them to dream of greatness within the existing system according to its traditional, capitalist, bourgeois, white(?) metrics of success, shouldn’t we equip them to fulfill those desires? Perhaps what Delpit’s daughter says is true, and it really is “their problem” if prospective admissions committees and employers reject her for her nonstandard language style, but if we’re going to embrace that, maybe we should also examine the assumptions we’re teaching about what paths in life are laudable and even satisfactory.

Along similar lines, I am not sure I agree with Delpit’s statement that students don’t speak in class because they are afraid that nitpicking teachers will criticize every little stylistic idiosyncrasy of their speech. Perhaps Delpit is right about that in the context of the first school her daughter attended—a predominantly white, upper-crusty private school—but I think that attitude is the exception by far. Some of my College Now students—high school seniors—struggle to grasp the concept of the complete sentence, and yet they tell me their high school English teachers give them As and praise their intelligence. They have high GPAs and some have even skipped grades with their schools’ encouragement. Some of them turn up their noses at the prospect of attending any CUNY college, let alone a community college, and they dream of being doctors, lawyers, and research scientists. But most can barely crack an 800 on their SATs and are daunted by the prospect of having to labor over a medical or law school application essay; they shrink in horror when I tell them they will have to do quite a bit more work after the application essay if they actually get into medical or law school, not to mention in college. These students are blatantly receiving a lot of welcoming, warm encouragement; they are obviously being told they are smart and should shoot the moon, but most don’t understand basic elements of Standard English. I do not believe that’s because someone is teaching them Standard English in an unwelcoming way; clearly, they are being welcomed, but no one is trying to teach them Standard English.

At what point should these students experience the rude awakenings to the fact that they haven’t been taught the skills they need to fulfill their dreams? When should they discover that college and the world of professional work expect much more work and more standard usage of English than anyone has ever asked of them? Clearly there is some kind of disconnect, some moment of disappointment and despair that probably has a lot to do with the low graduation rate from community colleges in the CUNY system. I don’t have the answers, but I do feel obligated to try to furnish students with some skills that no one has offered them before; at least then it’s their choice whether to learn and use them or not.




America’s Got…

This post is a total digression into pop culture. I started out writing something else, but I kept veering towards the following subject, so I’m just going to post it in case anyone’s interested. I really ought to have my own blog for this sort of thing.

Yesterday, curious as to why Gwendolyn D. Pough’s white students were offended by Alice Walker’s “Each One, Pull One,” I took another look at the poem. I didn’t find it offensive, of course—far from it, but I did think about what a powerful poetic image the whiteness of the White House is in this and other poems and literary works (cf Tupac), and the effect that Obama’s election and reelection has had on the impact of those works. I’m sure plenty has been written about this subject, but as I was mulling over ways to approach it, last night’s episode of The Voice came on and cleared matters up for me.

I sometimes get invested in talent shows like The Voice and America’s Got Talent, maybe because I have a network TV antenna and no cable, or maybe because these shows are an antidote to graduate school—but I think the real reason is the pleasure of watching a performance, forming my own opinion, and then immediately getting to see four different critical reviews of that performance. I get to compare my own tentative, half-formed thoughts about aspects of the performance (e.g., Miccichi’s “but something about this bothers me”) with those of the judges right away, which is a fun and productive process. I keep trying to think of ways I can incorporate something similar into my teaching. I also enjoy watching the judges’ often fine execution of what graduate students call “shaped speech”—structured, economical, critical interpretation designed to be both candid and kind, brutally insightful yet encouraging, taking into account all the nuances the speaker needs to recognize to be sufficiently thorough. The speech appears to be authentically extemporaneous given the live format, but who knows. As a scholar, I find it a fascinating window into a contemporary mode of popular rhetoric. I generally like the example that Adam, Pharrell, Gwen (though frankly I prefer Christina’s insights), and Blake set for how to be both honest and kind on the fly. “Honest and kind on the fly” sounds easy, but I’d argue it’s a skill, and one that requires study and practice closely tied to our goals in the composition classroom.

But more to the point. Last night, the 24 judge-selected semi-finalists were cut down to 12 finalists; viewers voted on 8 finalists, and the judges chose the other 4. In spite of the diverse races and balanced representation of gender among the judge-selected semi-finalists, all 8 of the viewer-selected finalists were white and 6 out of 8 were men. It’s too complicated to get into the details, but suffice to say that the voters passed over some extraordinarily talented women and African Americans in favor of young white men. It was obvious and egregious, although I’m not inclined to blame the show itself. While NBC is certainly pulling the show’s strings, the fault seems to lie squarely with the voters; I don’t know statistics on the show’s voting demographic these days, but it would seem to be largely adolescent, white, and heterosexual. Is it also female, and this group is voting for the youngest, whitest boys it finds the most sexually attractive (or accessible)? Incidentally, all 10 acts in the finals of this summer’s season of America’s Got Talent consisted of men, and 9 of them were white (viewers also voted for these). Are the demographics of these audiences askew because these shows have been on for so many seasons and significant portions of initially interested viewers have moved on? Could this be a red state/blue state phenomenon somehow?

Oddly enough, these shows arguably also offer a forum for some marginalized groups to gain more acceptance. Drew Lynch, a comedian with a rather severe stammer, was first runner up in this year’s America’s Got Talent, and I daresay his success challenged mainstream perceptions about disability for anyone watching. At least two current The Voice finalists diverge from traditional, rail-thin pop-star body types. One of these two, Jordan Smith, is also a white man who defies gender norms in multiple ways, most notably by singing Beyonce and Adele songs, and he’s the clear frontrunner. On the other hand, Jordan Smith’s skill is so irrefutably superior to the competition, perhaps he’s an example of someone who has had to work twice as hard and be twice as good as the heteronormative, more conventionally-embodied contestants. At the same time, both Drew Lynch and Jordan Smith are white men, and I wonder if they would have been washed out the door if they were not. Or, would they simply never have tried to walk in the door in the first place?

The point is that the White House may be less white, but whoever out there (besides me) with the time and interest (and dorkiness) to vote on prime-time American talent shows still votes white and male. Of course, massive institutionalized forms of racism and sexism continue to pervade society and the nation has much bigger problems than who wins The Voice. But this voting audience probably includes people who are sitting in our classrooms, and people who will eventually grow up to create and implement policy. Plus, Shelley was right when he said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; now instead of poets, we have pop stars and people on TV.

Why am I writing about The Voice instead of other examples of primetime network TV that suffer from far more racism and sexism? The Voice really seems to be making an admirable effort to not be racist or sexist, so when the voting public violates the show’s own ethos so outrageously, it feels really sinister. And the show really does make an effort. The judges initially admit contestants onto the program via “blind audition” where they accept or reject each singer before seeing her face and body. The most famous judges are Pharrell and Gwen Stefani—the black man and the woman—and their star power easily outshines that of Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, who have to ham it up to get attention. Before the show jumps the shark in the hands of viewer votes, races and sexes are represented quite well, and the show depicts so much mutual respect and admiration between different categories of people, it’s almost a little utopian. Plus, unlike American Idol or America’s Got Talent, the show takes a decidedly feminine approach to competition. The judges are coaches before they are arbiters, and a good deal of the show focuses on the interactive, intersubjective coaching process itself (process pedagogy, anyone?). Contestants have some power to choose their coaches; selection is mutual, rather than top-down, and the show suggests that the coaches participate in winning and losing alongside their “team” members. The judges/coaches repeatedly advise their contestants to find their confidence, trust themselves, let go, take risks—e.g., find their Voices. Wait, is this show really a composition class?

Which is all to say that when “America” took over last night and decided that THE Voice is The White Male Voice, the judges’ faces seemed to register significant disappointment, and that was at least some consolation. I wonder why the viewers don’t get it.

Wow, much longer ramble than I intended! Much more to say, but I’ll take it to a different forum.


Research Paper Assignment to Workshop

English 2100                Fall 2015

Research Paper Assignment

In our last assignment, we worked with differing critical perspectives on film, TV, and games, focusing on the development of our own opinions or arguments. In this assignment, we continue to work with arguments and differing critical perspectives and we continue to develop our own opinions, but now we also incorporate research as evidence.

Choose a film, TV show, video game, work of visual art, novel, short story, poem, or song (basically, any art form) that claims to represent a true story. In a research paper of 8-9 pages, convince your reader that the film or other artwork you choose misrepresents some significant aspect (or aspects) of the historical events it claims to depict. Events in recent history count.

Your paper should consider why historical accuracy matters (or doesn’t matter) in whatever art form you choose. How does the work rewrite history? Do you think people believe its version of the story is true (as in “Capital-T Truth”)? What motivates the inaccuracies? Were the filmmakers misinformed, trying to make the story more exciting or concise, or did they have some sort of political agenda—or all of the above? Why should we care about the film’s inaccuracies or about the fact that its particular version of history reaches a large audience?

As you research and consider which sources to use, you should think (hard) about reliability and credibility. What makes a source credible? What are the author’s qualifications? Good qualifications can range from traditional expertise (like fancy degrees and professional titles) to close proximity to events (like eyewitnesses). In what publication does the writing appear, and does it give you any hints about a source’s reliability? Does the publication have any standards for fact-checking, accuracy, or other means of quality control? Does the author or the publication consistently produce work with a significant bias? What motives or interests—political or otherwise—might influence the author’s characterizations?


8-9 pages

Minimum of 10 sources, including at least:

3 primary sources

3 books

1 scholarly article from a peer-reviewed journal

3 print sources not available on the internet

These can overlap; for example, if you use 3 print primary-source books that aren’t available on the internet, you’d satisfy all 3 of those requirements (but you’d still need a scholarly article).

Examples of films and TV shows you could use:

Steve Jobs, Lincoln, Pocahontas, The Queen, JFK, Shakespeare in Love, Braveheart, Gladiator, Pearl Harbor, Elizabeth, The Patriot, The Impossible, American Hustle, Marie Antoinette, The Blind Side, The Social Network, The Tudors, Reign, Cleopatra, Ray, The Doors, Straight Outta Compton


Some thoughts on underlife and class participation

This week’s readings on underlife and participation inspired me to think about my Baruch class through the lens of my law school experience.

Just in case you’ve never seen The Paper Chase, law school’s pedagogical standard is the Socratic Method. In classrooms of 80 to 230 students (at Harvard, anyway), each student is assigned to a seat equipped with a microphone, and the professor cold-calls several students each class with the aid of a seating chart, asking them questions about the reading. In the old days, if a student didn’t know the answer, the professor would then ask that student’s immediate neighbor the same question in an effort to shame the unprepared student, although that practice is mostly obsolete. In the first year, students quake in their boots, study obsessively, and never get an answer wrong or admit they don’t know. In the second and third years, students relax and declare without shame that they didn’t read or don’t know the answer.

The underlife at HLS is fascinating. Nearly everyone takes notes on laptops, and if you sit in the back row, you look out over a sea of screens on CNN.com, ESPN.com, fashion websites, and quite a few wedding-planning websites. At least that’s how it was from 2003 to 2006 when I was a student there; things might have changed (oddly enough, I don’t recall seeing people on Facebook, even though it was born on the Harvard campus in 2003).

Looking at hockey statistics or wedding dresses while the professor is talking about copyright law would seem to fall squarely into the category of “private activities whereby an individual divides her attention between class activity and something else.” As teachers, we might initially view this phenomenon as despicable, and Robert Brooke and Derek N. Mueller offer some compelling counterarguments to our initial reaction. On the most basic level, this kind of underlife is a student’s way of asserting her identity beyond the role of student. Viewing overtly unrelated websites in class also conveys a (deniable) negative evaluation of the course; it tacitly states that the course content is not interesting, challenging, or significant enough to warrant full attention. If we believe Robert Brooke, that tacit negative evaluation is a way to “assert one’s fundamental distance from the classroom roles” and to “show that one can think independently” (147).

While I have no statistics to support this, I always suspected that the ubiquitous web-surfing in HLS classes was more about swaggering bravado than anything else. Law school isn’t easy, and surfing the web in class broadcasts one’s disdain for the purported challenges of the institution; it brags, “I’m so smart, I don’t even need to pay attention in class to succeed. My superior intellect spares me from the pains of earnest effort that the rest of you mortals may suffer. What, you need to pay attention to learn and get good grades?” The circulation of these attitudes then generates a kind of odd peer pressure to surf the web during class; if your classmates see you earnestly taking copious notes, perhaps they’ll think you’re some kind of dummy. Better play it safe and surf the web. That set of attitudes is actually my biggest concern about underlife; maybe students who actually want to relax and pay attention feel peer pressure to perform underlife, and to do so in an inauthentic way.

There is another dimension to underlife that Brooke and Dirk don’t discuss but which law school casts in painfully sharp relief: law school cost me $175,000. At that price, shouldn’t I be treated as the consumer in my educational experience, free to participate or not participate as I please? To some extent, HLS recognizes this, and while subjecting yourself to the Socratic Method is mandatory if you show up to class, showing up isn’t entirely mandatory. I think the sense of being paying consumers of the institution may also motivate students’ rampant underlife. The students have purchased the expensive brandy, so they feel perfectly entitled to drink it in the drawing room or the conservatory as they please (or to dump it into a houseplant).

Baruch students may not be paying quite as much, but they’re still paying. To what extent should we be viewing them as paying consumers of their education? And if we do view them as consumers, how should that influence our demands on them and their participation? Perhaps this is misguided, since college freshmen don’t necessarily know what they’re buying when they buy “college,” and they don’t necessarily know what they want to get out of it (or what they’ll wish they got out of it later on in life). I wanted to mention it, though, because participation has become so much more important to me as a teacher than it ever was as a student; non-participation makes my job as a teacher—especially a writing teacher—really difficult. If students are burning to talk but are too shy to volunteer, then I feel like I’m absolutely giving them their money’s worth by pushing them into participating. But if they really just want to do things another way, should I respect their status as paying consumers, free to pour out their brandy?

Incidentally, one of the famous forms of underlife at HLS is a game called Gunner Bingo. Students who constantly volunteer in class a la Hermione Granger are known as gunners, and their subversive classmates secretly ridicule them by playing bingo games with scorecards gridded with gunners’ names; when a gunner volunteers, her name is crossed off of the scorecard. There’s obviously a lot to do with this in terms of Robert Brooke’s article. But even more interestingly, my law school class converted the subversive legacy of Gunner Bingo into an inclusive game in which every single student was gridded randomly onto scorecards, which were then distributed to every student in the class. This one-time subversive, anti-institutional, distancing game turned into an all-inclusive, mainstream, transparent activity. Interesting, right? I never played; it just wasn’t fun anymore.




Critical Analysis Essay Assignment

This is the second high-stakes essay assignment for my class. Update: I’m thinking of opening this up to TV shows and games as well, and I’d be interested in thoughts on that.

English 2100 Fall 2015

Critical Analysis Essay Assignment

In the first part of this course, we explored narrative, personal, and reflective writing. In this second unit, we are exploring critical analysis, argument, and persuasive writing. Over the last few weeks we have examined debates on contemporary social and political topics in the “Room for Debate” section of the New York Times as well as reviews written by professional film critics about “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Wall Street.”

For this assignment, you are to choose a film and two reviews about that film that take opposing viewpoints. Find these two reviews on www.rottentomatoes.com; you do not need to do any research beyond this website and the reviews to which it links. You should choose one “fresh” review and one “rotten” review. Both of these reviews must be written by critics anointed “Top Critics” on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

In a 6-7 page paper, analyze each critic’s viewpoint, noting the points on which the critics agree and disagree, and take a position as to which argument you prefer. Explain why you agree with one critic over the other, using the film as your “primary source.” You should refer to and discuss particular scenes from the movie to support your claim, just as the critics do. Stylistically, you should think of yourself as a film critic entering into a conversation on equal footing with the two professional critics you use.

How do I choose a film?

You are welcome—and even encouraged—to choose a film you have already seen and already have an opinion about. You should, however, watch the film again at least once over the course of this assignment, even if you’ve already seen it hundreds of times. Be sure to choose a film with sufficient complexity to elicit critical controversy of some sort.

You might choose a film that was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, but didn’t win. Best Picture nominees often prompt extensive critical analysis and a considerable amount of argument between critics. A list of Best Picture nominees and winners is available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academy_Award_for_Best_Picture. Did you love or hate any of these films? Have a look at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.

Or, you might choose a film that won or was nominated for a Golden Raspberry, an award honoring the “worst” films of the year. A list of Golden Raspberry winners and nominees can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Raspberry_Award_for_Worst_Picture. Browse this list for a film that you think is good (there are several films on it that I like) and that you feel does not deserve such disparagement. Chances are that at least one top critic agrees with you, and you are well-positioned to write an essay agreeing with that critic and disagreeing with a critic who gives the film a “rotten” review.

Take a chance with your film choice. Choose a film that interests you and that you do not find boring. We’ll be workshopping your choices and you’ll write a mini-prospectus, so if you’ve chosen a film that will make the assignment too difficult, we’ll find that out early on and can discuss whether you should make a change. If you’re undecided between several possibilities, that’s great! We’ll talk about them in our writing groups and as a class, and we’ll work together to make a choice.

How do I choose the two reviews from www.rottentomatoes.com?

Both reviews should come from the “Top Critics” category on the website. I strongly suggest that you use reviews by critics writing for the New Yorker (Anthony Lane, David Denby, Pauline Kael, Richard Brody), and the New York Times (A.O. Scott, Manohla Dargis, Vincent Canby, Janet Maslin). The New Yorker, in my opinion, is the gold standard for extremely well-written film reviews (even if I don’t always agree with the analysis therein). Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also writes excellent reviews, as does David Edelstein of Slate, and anything written by Roger Ebert for the Chicago-Sun Times is likely a great choice. There are many other good choices to consider: Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal, Desson Thompson of the Washington Post, as a few examples. This is by no means an exhaustive list of great film critics or worthwhile publications; it’s just a bunch of suggestions to get you started.

One review should be “fresh,” or positive, and the other should be “rotten,” or negative. Both reviews should be discuss the film in depth, and the reviews should have some points of clash for you to analyze.

What if I’m feeling truly uninspired and don’t want to choose a film?

You may use “The Wolf of Wall Street” if you use the reviews distributed in class by David Denby and Richard Brody. If you want to write about “Wall Street,” let’s talk about it. Do not choose either of these films if you find them “boring” or have no opinions whatsoever about them. If you’re really stuck trying to think of a film, I’m happy to help.


Wednesday, October 28 – Prospectus due – 1 page (bring 4 hard copies to class)

Wednesday, November 4 – Rough draft due – minimum 3 pages (bring 4 hard copies to class)

Tuesday, November 10 – Final draft due – 6-7 pages (post to the Dropbox folder by midnight)


Low-Stakes Writing; Form and Content

Peter Elbow writes, “The goal of low stakes assignments is not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn, and understand more of the course material.” I agree with this statement and have the utmost faith in writing as a mode of learning; I always engage much more deeply with material that I write about in even an informal manner. However, I struggle with my sense that the “course material” in a writing class is how to produce excellent pieces of writing. Is it more important for the students to learn the thematic content we choose, or is it that they learn how to write well? Of course, these agendas are not mutually exclusive and form and content have a mutually productive and informative relationship; a composition class offers a particularly marked illustration of why that is the case. But if we emphasize the content as a means of achieving goals of improvements in form, does that require us to choose content about writing? I enjoyed teaching Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” Malcolm X’s “Homemade Education,” and Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” but all of these readings serve dual functions of talking about life and talking about writing. I had initially planned my course to focus on a theme of professional and socioeconomic inequalities and related social constructs of identity, but I’ve really put that theme on ice because I can’t think of readings to assign that talk about those issues while also speaking explicitly to writing, being a writer, or language itself. While that isn’t strictly necessary, if we are going to focus on teaching content, then doesn’t the content need to directly address those issues?

On the other hand, I think Elbow is absolutely right when he says we should “use low stakes writing to fumble and fish for words for what they sense and intuit but cannot yet clearly say.” That’s an incredibly important process, and even if the students are phoning it in, they’ll understand the ideas they’re working with better than if they hadn’t done any writing. However, in spite of Elbow’s claim that low-stakes writing tends to be clearer than high-stakes writing, I was much more impressed with my students’ rough drafts of their first high-stakes assignment than with any of their low-stakes work, acknowledging that problems in their low-stakes work product may have resulted from issues with my own assignment design. At any rate, I’m looking forward to trying some ideas from Anson and Dannels’s list of highly intuitive and interesting low-stakes writing assignments.

I take Elbow’s points about criticism and responses to writing; we discussed this issue last week. It’s such a fine line, isn’t it? It’s always important to be kind, under any circumstance, but I made great strides in my college writing by sitting down with difficult professors and asking them to explain each of their comments. It was difficult, and I always had that first instinct to hold my nose, look at the grade, and never think about the paper again, but those professors’ comments had a huge impact on my writing and my confidence. Watching the steady decline of professorial ink on each subsequent essay was really satisfying and fruitful. If I were teaching anything other than Writing I, I’d feel great about letting writing issues slide if the content was there, but as it is, I’ll try to take Elbow’s advice on faith.


First Writing Assignment / Discussion Topic

Creative Nonfiction Writing Assignment:


I borrowed the vast majority of the text of the writing assignment above from Lisa’s first assignment for her 2100 class (thanks, Lisa), including her great example of brainstorming. I tweaked the assignment a little to conform to the slight differences in reading assignments my class has done so far, plus I opened the prompt up to include socioeconomic concerns.

I’m interested in what our seminar thinks about grading rubric and what does (or doesn’t) qualify as “creative nonfiction” for college freshmen. Also, does it make sense to offer them my own corrections and encourage them to revise their papers for a new grade? I want to encourage independent thinking, but I remember advancing my own writing skills by painstakingly working through professors’ comments on my papers in college.

As for discussion topics, I’m on the fence between “Grammar and Style” and “The Past and Future of English Departments,” so if someone else wants to claim one of these, I’m happy to yield.