how did you understand the term “rhetoric”? How has that understanding changed?

Writer’s Journal 3




Want help with the readings in Writing about Writing?

Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs have created helpful Assist Tags to help you get the most from each reading. Look at pages 58–59 for more details on each tag.

CARS: Territory Look Ahead CARS: Niche Reread CARS: Occupy Read Later Conversation Speed Up Extending Forecasting Framework Making Knowledge Research Question So What?

Look at these readings to see the tags at work:

Chapter 2 — Deborah Brandt, “Sponsors of Literacy” (p. 68)

Chapter 3 — James Paul Gee, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction” (p. 274)

Chapter 4 — Keith Grant-Davie, “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents” (p. 484)

Chapter 5 — Sondra Perl, “The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers” (p. 738)

Then try using the tags yourself as you read the other selections in Writing about Writing.



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DOUG DOWNS Montana State University



FOR BEDFORD/ST. MARTIN’S Vice President, Editorial, Macmillan Learning Humanities: Edwin Hill Editorial Director, English: Karen S. Henry Senior Publisher for Composition, Business and Technical Writing, Developmental Writing: Leasa Burton

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For information, write: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 75 Arlington Street, Boston, MA 02116 (617-399-4000)

ISBN 978-1-319-07112-7

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Text acknowledgments and copyrights appear at the back of the book on pages 903–906, which constitute an extension of the copyright page. Art acknowledgments and copyrights appear on the same page as the art selections they cover.




Writing about Writing is part of a movement that continues to grow. As composition instructors, we have always focused on teaching students how writing works and on helping them develop ways of thinking that would enable them to succeed as writers in college. We found ourselves increasingly frustrated, however, teaching traditional composition courses based on topics that had nothing to do with writing. It made far more sense to us to have students really engage with writing in the writing course; the best way to do this, we decided, was to adopt a “writing about writing” approach, introducing students directly to what writing researchers have learned about writing and challenging them to respond by writing and doing research of their own. After years of experimenting with readings and assignments, and watching our colleagues do the same, we developed Writing about Writing, a textbook for first-year composition students that presents the subjects of composition, discourse, and literacy as its content. Here’s why we think Writing about Writing is a smart choice for composition courses.

Writing about Writing engages students in a relevant subject.

One of the major goals of the writing course, as we see it, is to move students’ ideas about language and writing from the realm of the automatic and unconscious to the forefront of their thinking. In conventional composition courses, students are too often asked to write about an arbitrary topic unrelated to writing. In our experience, when students are asked to read and interact with academic scholarly conversations about writing and test their opinions through their own research, they become more engaged with the goals of the writing course and — most important — they learn more about writing.

Writing about Writing engages students’ own areas of expertise.

By the time they reach college, students are expert language users with multiple literacies: They are experienced student writers, and they’re engaged in many other discourses as well — blogging, texting, instant messaging, posting to social networking sites like Facebook and Snapchat, and otherwise using language and writing on a daily basis. Writing about Writing asks students to work from their own experience to consider how writing works, who they are as writers, and how they use (and don’t use) writing. Students might wonder, for example, why they did so poorly on the SAT writing section or why some groups of people use writing that is so specialized it seems intended to leave others out.



This book encourages students to discover how others — including Sondra Perl, Deborah Brandt, James Paul Gee, their instructors, and their classmates — have answered these questions and then to find out more by doing meaningful research of their own.

Writing about Writing helps students transfer what they learn.

Teachers often assume that students can automatically and easily “apply” what they learn in a writing course to all their other writing — or at the very least, to other college writing. This assumption sees writing and reading as “basic” universal skills that work the same regardless of situation. Yet research on transfer of learning suggests that there is nothing automatic about it: Learning transfer researchers David Perkins and Gavriel Salomon found that in order to transfer knowledge, students need to explicitly create general principles based on their own experience and learning; to be self-reflective, so that they keep track of what they are thinking and learning as they do it; and to be mindful — that is, alert to their surroundings and to what they are doing rather than just doing things automatically and unconsciously. A writing course that takes language, writing, reading, and literacy as its subjects can help students achieve these goals by teaching them to articulate general principles such as “Carefully consider what your audience needs and wants this document to do.” In addition, it teaches them to reflect on their own reading, writing, and research processes.

Writing about Writing has been extensively class tested — and it works.

The principles of this writing-about-writing approach have been well tested and supported by the experience of writing instructors and thousands of students across the country. Writing about Writing was formally class tested in a pilot at the University of Central Florida, an experiment that yielded impressive outcomes in comparative portfolio assessment with more traditional composition courses. Assessment results suggest, among other things, that the writing-about-writing approach had a statistically significant impact on higher-order thinking skills — rhetorical analysis, critical thinking about ideas, and using and integrating the ideas of others. The writing-about-writing approach also had a significant impact on how students and teachers engaged in writing as a process. The first and second editions of Writing about Writing were used in a variety of composition programs across the country, and based on positive feedback from those users, we have even greater confidence that this approach — and this third edition — is successful.




Writing about Writing is organized around concepts and principles from Writing Studies with which we think students should become familiar; we identify these as “threshold concepts,” and we spend the entire first chapter discussing them in detail, and engaging students in activities to think about how they apply to their lives. Threshold concepts are concepts that learners must become acquainted with in order to progress in that area of study — they are gateways to learning. Naming and using threshold concepts is an approach that has been used in the United Kingdom and now increasingly in the United States and other countries to improve teaching and learning in various disciplines and programs, including Writing Studies (for example, see the 2015 publication Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies). Because they are central to work in a particular field but are often assumed and unstated, threshold concepts when explicitly identified can better help students come to understand ideas that are central to that field or phenomenon. Researchers Ray Land and Jan (Erik) Meyer have argued that threshold concepts are

often troublesome and can conflict with common knowledge about a phenomenon. We think that this is particularly true when it comes to writing. Much of what we have learned as a field about writing conflicts with commonly held assumptions about writing. For example, many people believe that “good writers” are people for whom writing is easy, while research about writing suggests that “good writers” are people who persist, revise, and are willing to learn from their failures. Threshold concepts are the organizing theme for the third edition of Writing about

Writing, and we’ve arranged them in a sequence that we believe assists understanding of each subsequent concept:

Chapter 1, “Threshold Concepts: Why Do Your Ideas about Writing Matter?” introduces and defines threshold concepts and describes some central concepts about writing that conflict with common ideas of writing in popular culture.

Chapter 2, “Literacies: How Is Writing Impacted by Our Prior Experiences?” engages the threshold concept that our prior experiences deeply impact our writing and literacy practices, or in simpler terms, that our reading and writing past will shape our reading and writing present.

Chapter 3, “Individual in Community: How Does Writing Help People Get Things Done?” engages the threshold concept that people use texts and discourse in order to do something, to make meaning. And the texts and language they create mediate meaningful activities. People construct meaning through texts and language, and texts construct meaning as people use them.

Chapter 4, “Rhetoric: How Is Meaning Constructed in Context?” explores the threshold concepts that writing helps people make meaning and get things done, that “good” writing is dependent on writers, readers, situation, technology, and use, and



therefore that there are always constraints on writing.

Chapter 5, “Processes: How Are Texts Composed?” engages several threshold concepts about writing, including that writing is a process, all writers have more to learn, and writing is not perfectible.


Because our intention in putting this book together was to invite students directly into scholarly conversations about writing, most readings in the book are articles by rhetoric and composition scholars. We looked for work that was readable by undergraduates, relevant to student experience, effective in modeling how to research and write about writing, and useful for helping students frame and analyze writing-related issues. We drew not only on our own experience with students but also on feedback from a nationwide network of faculty using writing-about-writing approaches to composition and on the feedback of teachers who used the first two editions of the book. The articles in this edition expose students to some of the longest-standing questions and some of the most interesting work in our field, encouraging them to wrestle with concepts we’re all trying to figure out. Of course, we don’t expect first-year students to read these texts like graduate students

or scholars would — that is, with a central focus on the content of the readings, for the purposes of critiquing them and extending their ideas. Instead, we intend for them to be used as springboards to exploration of students’ own writing and reading experiences. The readings — and thus this book — are not the center of the course; instead, they help students develop language and ideas for thinking through the threshold concepts identified above, and begin exploring them by considering their own experiences with writing, discourse, and literacy, and their (and the field’s) open questions. While most readings are scholarly, we include a number of other sorts of texts

throughout this edition. There are new pieces written directly for the student readers of this book, including Chapter 1, with readings on genre theory and rhetorical reading written by us, and an introduction to rhetoric by Doug Downs and a discussion of document design and social justice written by Natasha Jones and Stephanie Wheeler (both in Chapter 4); short pieces by fiction and nonfiction writers (including Anne Lamott, Sandra Cisneros, Barbara Mellix, and Malcolm X); and a research report by the Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Group led by Jeff Grabill and Bill Hart-Davidson. These readings, combined with the others in the book, help students approach the threshold concepts about writing from a variety of perspectives.


Writing about Writing also includes student voices, with eight pieces of student writing. We



have continued to draw from Young Scholars in Writing, the national peer-reviewed journal of undergraduate research in Writing Studies and rhetoric, and from Stylus, the University of Central Florida Writing Program’s peer-reviewed first-year student publication. Given their nature as reprinted scholarly articles, we have treated the student essays the same as we have treated the professional essays: They are framed and introduced and accompanied by questions and activities. We want the students who use this book to see other students as participants in the ongoing conversations about writing; we hope this will enable them to see themselves as potential contributors to these conversations. This time around, rather than placing all the student readings at the end of the chapter, we have integrated them into the chapters where we thought they best fit into the conversation.


The material presented in this book is challenging. We’ve found that students need guidance in order to engage with it constructively, and many instructors appreciate support in teaching it. Therefore, we’ve scaffolded the material in ways that help make individual readings more accessible to students and that help them build toward mastery of often complex rhetorical concepts.

The book begins with a chapter written directly to a student audience. Chapter 1 not only explains the purpose of the book, but explains why and how the book is organized around threshold concepts of Writing Studies and provides extended explanation of these concepts. This chapter also provides an introduction to genre theory and rhetorical reading in order to help students engage in the readings of this book (and the rest of their college experience). We outline some reading strategies and an overview of John Swales’s CARS model of research introductions to assist with this. There you will also find a reading by Stuart Greene that asks students to think about this class and book as inquiry, and a reading by Richard Straub that helps prepare students for responding to each other’s writing. Reflective activities throughout the chapter as well as sections of reading support and tips on “Using This Book” — including a descriptive guide to the Reading Assist Tags feature — prepare students to engage with Writing about Writing.

Chapters 2–5 begin with a chapter introduction that explains the chapter’s threshold concepts, summarizes the chapter’s content and goals, and overviews each reading and its central ideas by placing it in the larger conversation at play within the chapter. These introductions are robust discussions of background knowledge and principles that help students better approach the threshold concepts the chapter includes.

Each reading begins with a Framing the Reading section offering background on the author and the text as well as Getting Ready to Read suggestions for activities to do before reading and questions to ask during reading.



Each reading is followed by two sets of questions: Questions for Discussion and Journaling, which can be used in class or for homework, and Applying and Exploring Ideas, which recommends medium-scale reading-related writing activities (both individual and group). A Meta Moment concludes the post-reading question set and asks students to reflect on the selection’s ideas in the context of the chapter’s threshold concept and of their own writing experiences. These questions and activities are designed to make teachers’ jobs easier by providing a variety of prompts that have been class tested by others.

Each chapter ends with the Writing Assignments section. Building on one or more of the readings from the chapter, assignments are designed to help students achieve the goals outlined in the chapter introduction. Though these assignments hardly scratch the surface of what’s possible, these have proven to be favorites with us, our students, and other teachers.

The book includes a glossary of technical terms in composition that students will encounter in their readings. Terms in the glossary, such as rhetorical situation and discourse, are noted in the chapter and reading introductions via bold print.

A note on citation styles.

While the selection introductions reflect current MLA style from the eighth edition of the MLA Handbook (2016) in citation and documentation, other material in the book, all previously published, remains written in the citation styles used by the journals and books in which they were originally published, current at those times. This means you should expect to see a great deal of variation from current MLA, APA, CMS, or journal-specific style guidelines — a decision that we hope will provide instructors with an excellent starting point for conversation about how citation actually works in the “real world” of academic publication over time.


The third edition features eight new professional essays. Selections by authors such as Sandra Cisneros (“Only Daughter”), popular in many first-year writing courses, are offered through a writing-about-writing lens to promote and understand literacy. Now integrated throughout Chapters 2–5, readings on multimodality and on technology in writing, such as Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss’s “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery” and Stacey Pigg’s “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” relate to our evolving conceptions of writing in a networked and



digital age. Other notable new additions include Vershawn Ashanti Young’s “‘Naw, We Straight’: An Argument Against Code Switching”; James M. Corder’s “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love”; and Liane Robertson, Kara Taczak, and Kathleen Blake Yancey’s “Notes toward a Theory of Prior Knowledge.” Six of the eight student essays in this edition are also new. Now dispersed through each

chapter to show the importance and relevance of students’ engagement with Writing Studies, these student texts present topics relevant to students today: explorations of literacy by rejecting labels of “remedial” writing (Arturo Tejada, Jr. et al.), rhetorical analyses of social media and library catalog pages (Komysha Hassan), studies of bilingual writing processes (Lucas Pasqualin and Alcir Santos Neto), and more.


The new Chapter 1, “Threshold Concepts: Why Do Your Ideas about Writing Matter?,” explains the ideas and rationale of the writing-about-writing approach to students directly. Students are introduced to the threshold concepts that frame the chapters in Writing about Writing with relatable examples and conversational language. A new section introduces genre and rhetorical reading as threshold concepts that assist academic reading and writing, providing a foundation for students as they engage with articles of Writing Studies scholarship. The Write Reflectively and Try Thinking Differently activities get students writing and thinking actively about each threshold concept, and Questions for Discussion and Journaling and Applying and Exploring Ideas allow students to reflect on the entire chapter and their conceptions of writing from the beginning of the course.


Chapters 2–5 each present one foundational or challenging selection as a Tagged Reading. These selections feature two types of Reading Assist Tags: Genre Cues to help students see and understand genre conventions and rhetorical moves, and Reading Cues such as “Look Ahead” and “Reread” to help students find and understand the key points of each article. A fresh design color-codes the two different tags and provides extended commentary for each cue below the main text, but remains in the margins to allow annotation and flexibility for working with the readings. A two-page chart in Chapter 1 (pages 58–59) explains each tag’s meaning and function and serves as a useful reference for students throughout the course.


New and revised glossary terms such as ecology, embodiment, and velocity present more coverage of key concepts of writing, both the concepts presented in this edition’s reading selections as well as terminology from the evolving field of Writing Studies.



ECOLOGY An ecology is, literally, the interactions among groups of living things and their environments (and the scientific study of those interactions). More broadly, “ecology” has come to refer to any network of relationships among beings and their material surroundings. In rhetorical terms, ecology refers to the web of relationships and interactions between all the rhetors and all the material in a rhetorical situation. Like other meanings of ecology, it is difficult to define the boundaries of a rhetorical ecology because elements in an ecology will also connect to elements outside the ecology.

EMBODIED, EMBODIMENT Rhetorical interaction happens with, to, and by beings with material bodies. The term embodiment reminds us that such interaction is contingent on the bodies that give it shape. It is easy to assume that rhetorical interaction is simply ideas worked on mentally apart from bodies; when we look for how rhetorical interaction is embodied, we remember that the interaction depends on material bodies as well as ideas.

VELOCITY Based on the term from physics meaning movement at some rate in some direction, rhetorical theorists use velocity to describe how a text “moves” or is transformed through time and space. A text may be written into new forms or taken to new places. Analysis of velocity attends to both direction — where the text “goes” or how it is transformed — and rate — how quickly the transformation takes place. The concept of velocity is available not just to analysts but to rhetors themselves, who can compose and inscribe a text with a specific velocity in mind to begin with.


This edition features seven new Writing Assignments, now designed to be more clearly visible at the end of each chapter. These engaging projects are class-tested favorites that respond to the concepts presented in the new reading selections and include a challenge to students to explore their conceptions about writing, reading, and research; a reflection on gaining authority in new discourse communities; and an analysis of rhetorical velocity in social media.


Some teachers won’t need any supplements at all, including the discussion questions and major assignment options. But we have designed the book to be as accessible and supportive as possible to composition instructors with a wide range of experience, including new graduate students and very busy adjuncts. Toward that end, we provide a revised instructor’s resource manual written by Matt Bryan, which builds on the previous two editions written by Deborah Weaver and Lindee Owens. All three of these instructors are teacher-trainers at the University of Central Florida, who themselves piloted an early



version of this book and taught the material in it to a number of other composition teachers there. This material, bound together with the student text in a special Instructor’s Edition, includes the following:

frequently asked questions

sample course calendars

chapter overviews

lists of key vocabulary for each chapter

key student outcomes for each chapter

a list of readings that can help teach key student outcomes

summaries and take-home points for each reading

supplemental activities that help teach to each outcome

The manual is also available for download on the instructor’s resources tab on the catalog page for Writing about Writing at

Acknowledgments We came to writing-about-writing independently of one another, in different ways, and became better at it as a result of working together. David Russell was a mentor for us both. Elizabeth came to writing-about-writing as a result of her dissertation research, which Russell chaired and supported. Doug came to it as a result of questions about building better research pedagogy, directly fueled by Russell’s work on the history of college research-writing instruction and his chapter in Joseph Petraglia’s Reconceiving Writing. Initially, Elizabeth’s interest was theoretical (“this might be an interesting idea”) while Doug’s was quite practical (he designed and studied a writing-about-writing class for his dissertation). We discovered each other’s common interest through dialog on the WPA-L listserv, two independent clauses and a long-term collaboration was born. It is fair to say that neither of us would have written this book without the other, as we both seem to get a lot more done when working collaboratively. (We remember vividly two hours in the sunshine at the University of Delaware, at the 2004 WPA conference, when we took our first steps at figuring out collaboration.) So, if it’s not too corny, we would like to acknowledge collaboration in general, our collaboration in particular, and tenure and promotion systems at our institutions that have recognized collaborative work for the valid, challenging, and rewarding process it is. To many, many people — colleagues, mentors, and friends — we owe a deep debt of

gratitude for putting the ideas grounding Writing about Writing “in the air.” In addition, over



the five years that it took to build the first edition of this book, and the three years we planned and wrote the second edition, and in the year and a half it took to write the third edition, we met many wonderful teacher-scholars who inspired us to keep going. Over many dinners, SIGs, conference panels, e-mail discussions, and drinks, we learned and are still learning a lot from them. A partial list of people who helped us start on this path or rethink it and make it better includes Linda Adler-Kassner, Anis Bawarshi, Barb Bird, Shannon Carter, Dana Driscoll, Heidi Estrem, Michelle LaFrance, Moriah McCracken, Susan McLeod, Laurie McMillan, Michael Michaud, Michael Murphy, Sarah Read, Jan Rieman, David Russell, Betsy Sargent, Jody Shipka, David Slomp, Susan Thomas, Jennifer Wells, Kathi Yancey, and Leah Zuidema. Each of us is also deeply indebted to the wonderful teachers, scholars, and students at

our own institutions who have worked with this curriculum and pushed our thinking on what is possible in a writing-about-writing classroom. At UCF, some of these people include Matt Bryan, Angela Rounsaville, Debbie Weaver, Lindee Owens, Mark Hall, Dan Martin, Matt McBride, Adele Richardson, Nichole Stack, Mary Tripp, and Thomas Wright. At Montana State, some of these people include Jean Arthur, Jess Carroll, Glen Chamberlain, Jill Davis, ZuZu Feder, Jake Henan, Kimberly Hoover, Katie Jo LaRiviere, Miles Nolte, Ashley Rives, Kiki Rydell, Mark Schlenz, and Aaron Yost. Many of these people are now on the FYC as Writing Studies listserv; members of the

Writing about Writing Network founded by Betsy Sargent; participants in or leaders of the CCCC standing group, the Writing about Writing Development Group; or contributors to a forthcoming edited collection of research on the approach edited by Doug Downs, Moriah McCracken, Barb Bird, and Jan Rieman. Through such interaction, they continue to develop research projects, create conference presentations and workshops, and inspire us — and one another — with their curricular creativity. Writing-about-writing students have also been given a national platform to publish their work, thanks to the editorial board of the national, peer-reviewed undergraduate journal of Writing Studies, Young Scholars in Writing. Editor Laurie Grobman created a First-year Writing Feature (continued as the Spotlight on First-year Writing under the editorship of Jane Greer) co-edited over time by Shannon Carter, Doug Downs, David Elder, Heidi Estrem, Patti Hanlon-Baker, Holly Ryan, Heather Bastian, and Angela Glotfelter. We are grateful to those instructors who gave us valuable feedback as we worked on

this new edition: Rebecca Day Babcock, University of Texas–Permain Basin; Matthew Bryan, University of Central Florida; Ellen C. Carillo, University of Connecticut; Colin Charlton, University of Texas–Pan American; Jonikka Charlton, University of Texas–Pan American; Geoffrey Clegg, Arkansas State University; E. Dominguez Barajas, University of Arkansas; Dana Driscoll, Oakland University; Carolyn Fitzpatrick, University of Maryland; Alanna Frost, University of Alabama, Huntsville; Gina Hanson, California State University; Krystal Hering, Des Moines Area Community College; Kim Hoover, Montana State



University; Michael D. Johnson, Ohio University; Joseph Jones, University of Memphis; Erik Juergensmeyer, Fort Lewis College; Jessica Kester, Daytona State College; Cat Mahaffey, University of North Carolina–Charlotte; Jill McCracken, University of South Florida–St. Petersburg; Janine Morris, University of Cincinnati; Melissa Nicolas, University of Nevada; Miles Nolte, Montana State University; Juli Parrish, University of Denver; Pegeen Reichert Powell, Columbia College; Rhonda Powers, University of Memphis; Sarah Read, DePaul University; Jan Rieman, University of North Carolina–Charlotte; Gregory Robinson, Nevada State College; Kevin Roozen, University of Central Florida; Albert Rouzie, Ohio University; John H. Whicker, Fontbonne University; Gail York, Appalachian State University; Sarah Zurhellen, Appalachian State University. We owe a massive thank you to Bedford/St. Martin’s, and to Leasa Burton and Joan

Feinberg in particular, who had the vision to believe that this book might really find an audience if they published it. To all the Bedford crew who made it real the first time and improved it the second and third times, we are deeply grateful. We are grateful to John Sullivan, our second edition editor, who unfailingly believed (and continues to believe) in our ideas and vision, and encouraged others to trust us when our ideas might not immediately seem possible; his mentorship and advocacy on the second edition helped push this book to a new place. This third go-round, Leah Rang had the unenviable task of corralling us along the revision path while we struggled with many other competing commitments. To her we owe the follow-through to make the reading assist tags and improved design a reality. Ultimately, our students deserve the most acknowledgment. They have inspired us to

keep teaching writing about writing. They have demonstrated that the focus is one that continues to excite and motivate, and their ideas continue to inspire and teach us.



With Bedford/St. Martin’s, You Get More At Bedford, providing support to teachers and their students who use our books and digital tools is our top priority. The Bedford/St. Martin’s English Community is now our home for professional resources, featuring Bedford Bits, our popular blog site with new ideas for the composition classroom. Join us to connect with our authors and your colleagues at where you can download titles from our professional resource series, review projects in the pipeline, sign up for webinars, or start a discussion. In addition to this dynamic online community and book-specific instructor resources, we offer digital tools, custom solutions, and value packages to support both you and your students. We are committed to delivering the quality and value that you’ve come to expect from



Bedford/St. Martin’s, supported as always by the power of Macmillan Learning. To learn more about or to order any of the following products, contact your Bedford/St. Martin’s sales representative or visit the website at


Bedford/St. Martin’s offers affordable formats — a paperback version and an electronic version — allowing students to choose the one that works best for them. For details about popular e-book formats from our e-book partners, visit


Add value to your text by packaging one of the following resources with Writing about Writing. To learn more about package options for any of the following products, contact your Bedford/St. Martin’s sales representative or visit Writer’s Help 2.0 is a powerful online writing resource that helps students find answers

whether they are searching for writing advice on their own or as part of an assignment.

Smart search. Built on research with more than 1,600 student writers, the smart search in Writer’s Help 2.0 provides reliable results even when students use novice terms, such as flow and unstuck.

Trusted content from our best-selling handbooks. Choose Writer’s Help 2.0, Hacker Version, or Writer’s Help 2.0, Lunsford Version, and ensure that students have clear advice and examples for all of their writing questions.

Diagnostics that help establish a baseline for instruction. Assign diagnostics to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement on topics related to grammar and reading and to help students plan a course of study. Use visual reports to track performance by topic, class, and student as well as comparison reports that track improvement over time.

Adaptive exercises that engage students. Writer’s Help 2.0 includes LearningCurve, game-like online quizzing that adapts to what students already know and helps them focus on what they need to learn.

Student access is packaged with Writing about Writing at a significant discount. Order ISBN 978-1-319-10777-2 for Writer’s Help 2.0, Hacker Version, or ISBN 978-1-319-10780- 2 for Writer’s Help 2.0, Lunsford Version, to ensure your students have easy access to online writing support. Students who rent a book or buy a used book and instructors can purchase access to Writer’s Help 2.0 at

LaunchPad Solo for Readers and Writers



allows students to work on whatever they need help with the most. At home or in class, students learn at their own pace, with instruction tailored to each student’s unique needs. LaunchPad Solo for Readers and Writers features:

Pre-built units that support a learning arc. Each easy-to-assign unit is comprised of a pre-test check, multimedia instruction and assessment, and a post-test that assesses what students have learned about critical reading, writing process, using sources, grammar, style, and mechanics. Dedicated units also offer help for multilingual writers.

Diagnostics that help establish a baseline for instruction. Assign diagnostics to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement on topics related to grammar and reading and to help students plan a course of study. Use visual reports to track performance by topic, class, and student as well as comparison reports that track improvement over time.

A video introduction to many topics. Introductions offer an overview of the unit’s topic, and many include a brief, accessible video to illustrate the concepts at hand.

Adaptive quizzing for targeted learning. Most units include LearningCurve, game-like adaptive quizzing that focuses on the areas in which each student needs the most help.

The ability to monitor student progress. Use our gradebook to see which students are on track and which need additional help with specific topics.

LaunchPad Solo for Readers and Writers can be packaged at a significant discount. Order ISBN 978-1-319-10761-1 to ensure your students can take full advantage. Visit for more information.


You have a lot to do in your course. Bedford/St. Martin’s wants to make it easy for you to find the support you need — and to get it quickly.

Instructor’s Manual for Writing about Writing, Third Edition,

is available as a PDF that can be downloaded from the Bedford/St. Martin’s online catalog at the page for Writing about Writing. In addition to chapter overviews and teaching tips, the instructor’s manual includes answers to Frequently Asked Questions, sample syllabi, key vocabulary and student learning objectives for each chapter, summaries of reading selections, and classroom activities.



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Elizabeth Wardle is Howe Professor of English and Director of the Roger and Joyce Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University (OH). She was Chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida (UCF), and Director of Writing Programs at UCF and University of Dayton. These experiences fed her interest in how students learn and repurpose what they know in new settings. With Linda Adler-Kassner, she is co-editor of Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, winner of the WPA Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Discipline (2016).

Doug Downs is Associate Professor of Writing Studies as well as Director of the Core Writing Program in the Department of English at Montana State University (Bozeman). His interests are in writing, research, and reading instruction at the college level, especially related to first-year composition and undergraduate research. He is currently editor of Young Scholars in Writing, the national peer-reviewed journal of undergraduate research on writing and rhetoric. His most recent research projects focus on students’ reading practices in an age of screen-based literacy, and on learning transfer from first-year writing courses to students’ writing in their majors.



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Preface for Instructors v About the Authors xix

CHAPTER 1 Threshold Concepts: Why Do Your Ideas about Writing Matter?


INTRODUCTION TO THE CONVERSATION 1 Why Study Writing? 2 Two Stories about Writing 3 Conceptions: With Our Thoughts We Make the World 5

THRESHOLD CONCEPTS OF WRITING 6 Writing Is Not Just Something People Do, But Something People Study 7

Writing Is Impacted by Prior Experiences 8

Writing Helps People Make Meaning and Get Things Done, But There Are Always Constraints 10

“Good” Writing Is Dependent on Writers, Readers, Situation, Technology, and Use 12

Writing Is a Process, All Writers Have More to Learn, and Writing Is Not Perfectible 15

THRESHOLD CONCEPTS THAT ASSIST ACADEMIC READING AND WRITING 16 Genres: Writing Responds to Repeating Situations through Recognizable Forms


Genre Features of Scholarly Articles: John Swales’s, “Create a Research Space” (CARS) Model of Research Introductions 21

Rhetorical Reading: Texts Are People Talking 24


STUART GREENE, Argument as Conversation: The Role of Inquiry in



Writing a Researched Argument 31

Explains how scholarly inquiry is a different kind of research and argument from the kinds we encounter in our daily lives or often even in early schooling.

RICHARD STRAUB, Responding — Really Responding — to Other Students’ Writing 44

Provides advice on how to respond effectively to peer writing.

USING THIS BOOK 56 Getting the Most out of Your Readings 56 Reading Assist Tags 57




Challenging and Exploring Your Conceptions about Writing, Reading, and Research 62

CHAPTER 2 Literacies: How Is Writing Impacted by Our Prior Experiences?


DEBORAH BRANDT, Sponsors of Literacy [TAGGED READING] 68

Analyzes the idea of literacy sponsorship and demonstrates its application across various case studies.

SANDRA CISNEROS, Only Daughter 101

Illustrates the notion of literacy sponsorship with a short narration about her struggle to gain her father’s approval for her writing.

MALCOLM X, Learning to Read 106

Narrates how and why he learned to read in prison, and the impact of his early life on his literate learning.

VICTOR VILLANUEVA, Excerpt from Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color 116

Describes his own literate experiences and how they are intertwined with his cultural background.




WALLACE, AND SONIA CASTANEDA, Challenging Our Labels: Rejecting the Language of Remediation [FIRST-YEAR STUDENT TEXT] 130

A collaborative project by five students placed in a remedial writing course and labeled “not yet proficient” writers, in which they use what they learned in their first-year writing course to challenge their school’s harmful labeling practices.

VERSHAWN ASHANTI YOUNG, “Nah, We Straight”: An Argument Against Code Switching 148

Argues that teaching students to code switch between “standard” English and their “home” Englishes creates a kind of linguistic segregation that suggests some languages and, by extension, some identities are inferior to others.

BARBARA MELLIX, From Outside, In 172

Shows the many ways identity is enmeshed with language, recounting how Mellix’s current experience of writing is shaped by her past experiences in particular places and times.

LIANE ROBERTSON, KARA TACZAK, AND KATHLEEN BLAKE YANCEY, Notes toward a Theory of Prior Knowledge 184

Explores how people use knowledge they previously learned in order to succeed in new situations — a key aspect of “transferring” knowledge from one situation to another.

NANCY SOMMERS, I Stand Here Writing 212

A short study in invention, as Sommers writes her thought processes in tracing where ideas, and ideas for how to say those ideas, come from.

DONALD M. MURRAY, All Writing Is Autobiography 223

Argues that all forms of writing include the writer, even apparently objective or scientific forms.

LUCAS PASQUALIN, “Don’t Panic: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to My Literacy” [FIRST-YEAR STUDENT TEXT] 236

A student’s literacy narrative, focusing on the literacy sponsorship of books and family in his bilingual literacy formation.


Report on how college students experience, use, and value new writing technologies and environments in the larger context of their writing lives.



WRITING ABOUT LITERACIES: WRITING ASSIGNMENTS 262 Literacy Narrative 262 Group Analysis of Literacy History 264 Linguistic Observation and Analysis 267

CHAPTER 3 Individual in Community: How Does Writing Help People Get Things Done? 270

JAMES PAUL GEE, Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction [TAGGED READING] 274

Introduces the concepts of dominant, nondominant, primary, and secondary Discourses in order to discuss how people are socialized through language.

TONY MIRABELLI, Learning to Serve: The Language and Literacy of Food Service Workers 298

Draws on theories about language in communities in order to examine how workers and patrons in a diner interact through language and texts.

ANN M. JOHNS, Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice: Membership, Conflict, and Diversity 319

Explains the concept of discourse communities and focuses on how and why conflicts occur in them, particularly in academic communities.

PERRI KLASS, Learning the Language 343

Demonstrates how groups of people such as medical professionals use language and texts in specialized ways as they work to accomplish their goals together.

LUCILLE P. McCARTHY, A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing across the Curriculum 348

Follows an undergraduate student, Dave, through three different classes in order to understand how he approaches and understands writing tasks in different settings.

SEAN BRANICK, Coaches Can Read, Too: An Ethnographic Study of a Football Coaching Discourse Community [FIRST-YEAR STUDENT TEXT]


Analyzes coaching interviews and speeches in order to argue that football coaches constitute a discourse community that entails complex textual, interpersonal, and situational literacies.



DONNA KAIN AND ELIZABETH WARDLE, Activity Theory: An Introduction for the Writing Classroom 395

Presents a brief overview of activity theory appropriate for undergraduate students, and describes how activity theory can be used to analyze texts as they mediate activity in different contexts.

ELIZABETH WARDLE, Identity, Authority, and Learning to Write in New Workplaces 407

Describes the struggle an employee faces as he tries to communicate in a new workplace setting. Uses activity theory to analyze some of his communicative failures.

VICTORIA MARRO, The Genres of Chi Omega: An Activity Analysis [FIRST- YEAR STUDENT TEXT] 426

Draws on activity theory and genre theory to analyze how a sorority’s genres are used across chapters in order to further the goals of the organization.


Analysis of Gee’s Claims 439 Discourse Community Ethnography Report 440 Activity Analysis 443 Reflection on Gaining Authority in New Discourse Communities 445

CHAPTER 4 Rhetoric: How Is Meaning Constructed in Context? 447

DOUG DOWNS, Rhetoric: Making Sense of Human Interaction and Meaning-Making 457

Overviews key principles of rhetoric by integrating several theories of rhetoric into a narrative of how writing is rhetorical.

KEITH GRANT-DAVIE, Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents [TAGGED READING] 484

Retheorizes “rhetorical situation” by defining and giving an extended example of elements that constitute this theory.

JIM RIDOLFO AND DÀNIELLE NICOLE DEVOSS, Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery 512

Introduces the principle that texts move across time and space and that writers can strategically write their texts to facilitate such remixing and re-presentation, especially in a digital space.



JAMES E. PORTER, Intertextuality and the Discourse Community 542

Explains and analyzes numerous examples of intertextuality, texts being comprised of other, earlier texts and writers’ work.

CHRISTINA HAAS AND LINDA FLOWER, Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning 559

Examines reading as a meaning-constructing activity shaped by rhetorical principles, suggesting that readers who think rhetorically are more powerful readers.

MARGARET KANTZ, Helping Students Use Textual Sources Persuasively 579

Extends Haas and Flower’s work on rhetorical reading to the student research-writing situation, suggesting the teaching of rhetorical reading of sources.

JIM W. CORDER, Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love 600

Argues that people don’t make arguments but rather are arguments, and that because conflict between people is a clash of their life narratives, conflict resolution depends on people’s willingness to hear one another’s stories.

ANNALISE SIGONA, Impression Management on Facebook and Twitter: Where Are People More Likely to Share Positivity and Negativity with Their Audiences? [FIRST-YEAR STUDENT TEXT] 619

Studies how people post differently on Facebook and Twitter in order to convey different self-images to different groups of social media users in their lives.

DENNIS BARON, From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technologies 632

Offers a tour through the history of writing technologies from earliest to current times, with particular emphasis on what it means that today’s writers rarely understand that pencils were once considered high writing technology.

NATASHA N. JONES AND STEPHANIE K. WHEELER, Document Design and Social Justice: A Universal Design for Documents 654

Studies document design from the perspective of accessibility and usability, arguing that writers need to design for all kinds of users rather than stereotypically “abled” ones.

KOMYSHA HASSAN, Digital Literacy and the Making of Meaning: How Format Affects Interpretation in the University of Central Florida Libraries Search Interface [FIRST-YEAR STUDENT TEXT] 674



Tracks students’ use of a library resources web page in order to investigate how the page’s design helps students understand the resources offered.

WRITING ABOUT RHETORIC: WRITING ASSIGNMENTS 692 Rhetorical Analysis of a Previous Writing Experience 692 Rhetorical Reading Analysis: Reconstructing a Text’s Context, Exigence, Motivations, and Aims 694 Mapping a Rhetorical Ecology 697 Analyzing Rhetorical Velocity in Social Media 701

CHAPTER 5 Processes: How Are Texts Composed? 706

STACEY PIGG, Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work 711

Examines one professional writer’s use of blogs and other social media in his work, particularly focusing on how social media establish the writer’s credibility with other writers.

SONDRA PERL, The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers [TAGGED READING] 738

Classic observational study of inexperienced writers composing, emphasizing patterns emerging from carefully coded texts and notes.

ALCIR SANTOS NETO, Tug of War: The Writing Process of a Bilingual Writer and His Struggles [FIRST-YEAR STUDENT TEXT] 774

Literacy narrative of a student who invents in one language and then translates to another as he composes school papers.

MIKE ROSE, Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language: A Cognitivist Analysis of Writer’s Block 787

Based on observation of a number of students, this article reports different strategies for writing used by fluent versus blocked writers, finding that the common denominator for blocking is interference caused by adherence to rigid rules.

JOSEPH M. WILLIAMS, The Phenomenology of Error 803

Criticizes critics of student writing who fail to observe that how much readers notice and care about errors in text depends on who they think the author is.




Uses a literacy narrative to explore a writer’s reaction to rhetorical constraints imposed by teachers and by himself.

CAROL BERKENKOTTER, Decisions and Revisions: The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer, AND DONALD M. MURRAY, Response of a Laboratory Rat — or, Being Protocoled 830

Methodological exploration of early process-research protocols, comparing lab-based process observations against naturalistic observation of professional writer Donald Murray.

ANNE LAMOTT, Shitty First Drafts 852

Famous essay on the nature of drafting and revision, emphasizing the frequent need to let early drafts be bad drafts.

NANCY SOMMERS, Revision Strategies of Student Writers and Experienced Adult Writers 858

Comparative study of how the two stated groups of writers approached and accomplished revision, including their assumptions about the nature and purpose of revision.

WRITING ABOUT PROCESSES: WRITING ASSIGNMENTS 873 Autoethnography 873 Portrait of a Writer 876 Writer’s Process Search 878

Glossary 885 Works Cited 901 Acknowledgments 903 Index 907





Why Do Your Ideas about Writing Matter?

An image of writing in the twenty-first century: digital, networked, collaborative, screen- based, and interactive.

efore you read this chapter, jot down your ideas about the following:

Writing is ….

Research is ….

Good writers do or are ….

Good writing is ….

At the end of the chapter we will ask you to revisit your ideas to see if they have changed. In fact, throughout the book, we will ask you to note how and what you think about writing



so that you can return to your ideas, track how they change, and, most importantly, see whether they impact what you do as a writer.



Introduction to the Conversation

Have you ever wondered why every teacher seems to have a different set of rules for writing? Or why writing seems to be more difficult for some people than for others? Or why some people use big words when they don’t have to? This book invites you to explore questions such as these by reading research about writing, comparing your own writing experiences with those of others, and finding your own answers by conducting research of your own through your own research and writing. This book does not tell you how to write. It does not contain step-by-step advice about

how to draft your paper or how to conduct research. Instead, it introduces you to research about writing conducted in the field of writing studies,1 much as your textbooks in biology or psychology introduce you to the research of those fields. Writing studies researchers study how writing works, how people write, and how best to teach writing. From this book, then, you’ll learn about the subject — writing — just as you would learn about biology from a biology textbook or about psychology from a psychology textbook. Writing about Writing asks you to think about writing as something we know about, not just something we do. It offers you these kinds of learning:

WRITING STUDIES Writing Studies is one of the terms used to describe a field or discipline that takes writing and composing as its primary objects of study. Another term commonly used to describe this field of study is Rhetoric and Composition. Most of the readings in this book are written by Writing Studies scholars.

Deeper understanding of what’s going on with your own writing and how writing works

Knowledge about writing that you can take with you to help you navigate other writing situations

Experience engaging with scholarly articles and other research

The ability to conduct inquiry-driven research on unanswered questions




Why is it helpful to learn about writing rather than simply be told how to write? What good will this do you as a writer? We think that changing what you know about writing can change the way you write.

Much of the research in this book questions everyday assumptions about writing — such as the idea that you can’t use your own voice in writing for school, or that writing is just easy for some people and hard for others, or that literacy is only about how well you can read. If you change your ideas about what writing is supposed to be, you’re likely to do things differently — more effectively — when you write.

VOICE Voice is the way a writer “sounds” in a text, or the extent to which you can “hear” a writer in his or her text. The definition of this term has changed over time. It has been used to refer to authenticity in writing, as well as to a written text that seems to be “true” to who its author is and what he or she wants to say. Author bell hooks has argued that finding a voice or “coming to voice” can be seen as an act of resistance. In Writing about Writing we use the term voice to refer to a writer’s ability to speak with some authority and expertise deriving from his or her own experiences and knowledge. According to this view, writers have multiple voices, any one of which may find expression, depending on the precise context of utterance.

LITERACY, LITERATE Literacy denotes fluency in a given practice. In its original use, literacy referred to alphabetic literacy — that is, to fluency in reading and writing “letters,” or alphabetic text. This kind of literacy was contrasted with orality, which was characterized as a lack of literacy. Over time, however, in academic circles, the meaning of literacy and literate has broadened to encompass fluency in other areas; most academics therefore now use the term literacies (plural) and discuss digital, electronic, musical, visual, oral, mathematical, and gaming literacies, among many other kinds.

There are additional advantages to studying writing in a writing course:

Writing is relevant to all of us. Most of us do it every day, and all of us live in a world in which writing, reading, and other related uses of language are primary means of communication.

What you learn about writing now will be directly useful to you long after the class ends. In college, at work, and in everyday life, writing well can have a measurable impact on your current and future success.

You already have a great deal of experience with writing and reading, so you are a more knowledgeable investigator of these subjects than you might be of a lot of others.

Doing research on writing will give you the opportunity to contribute new knowledge



about your subject, not simply gather and repeat what many other people have already said.

CONTRIBUTE, CONTRIBUTION In academic contexts, one makes a contribution by adding to an ongoing conversation on a given research subject, issue, problem, or question. In Writing Studies, contribution is commonly discussed in terms of Kenneth

Burke’s parlor metaphor, where Burke describes scholarship as an ongoing conversation at a party: You arrive late and other guests are already in conversation; you join one conversation by listening for a while and then, once you have something to add, making a contribution to the conversation; after a time, you join another conversation, while the first one continues without you.




You might be thinking that we’re making writing harder than it has to be: Can’t people just tell you how to write for any new situation or task? Even if studying about writing can help you write differently and better, wouldn’t it be more direct to simply tell you the rules and let you practice and memorize them? That would work if the traditional story about writing that most of us learn in school were

accurate. In that traditional story, “writing” is a basic grammatical skill of transcribing speech to print, a skill that can transfer (be used again) unaltered from the situation in which you learn it (high school and college English classes, usually) to any other writing situation. Because, that story goes, the rules of English don’t change. English is English, whether you’re in a chemistry class or the boardroom of a bank. And, according to that story, what makes good writing is following all the rules and avoiding errors: Just don’t do anything wrong and your writing will be okay. According to this view of writing, people who are good at writing are people who break the fewest rules and write with the greatest ease; writing is hard because following the rules is hard; so if you can learn the rules, you can write more easily and thus be a good writer. That’s the story that the majority of high school graduates seem to have learned. It’s likely that no one stood in front of you and told you this story directly; but instead, it is a story that you learned by watching how people around you modeled this behavior. For example, when teachers read your papers and ignored your ideas but corrected your grammatical mistakes, they were telling you this story: Writing is nothing but error-avoidance. When you took standardized tests (like the SAT) and were given a prompt you had never seen before and told to write about it in 30 minutes, and then a stranger read it and ignored your ideas and facts and instead rated you on correctness and organization, they were telling you this story: Writing is not about content; it is about correctness. If you think about the views of writing that you see on the news (“Kids today can’t write! Texting is ruining their spelling!”) or what you saw teachers and test-makers model, you will start to recognize how widespread this story of writing is.

TRANSFER Sometimes called generalization or repurposing, transfer refers to the act of applying existing knowledge, learned in one kind of situation, to new situations. For example, a writer who learns how to write a summary in her College Writing I class in English is expected to transfer that summary-writing knowledge to her “history of the telescope” project in astronomy. Transfer, we are learning, is not automatic — people learn many things that they forget and/or don’t or can’t use in different circumstances. Research suggests that learning in particular ways (for example, being mindful) can increase the likelihood of later transfer.

But there’s more than one story about writing. You’ll find the college writing instructor



who assigned this book probably believes a very different story, one based not on teachers’ rulebooks but rather on observation of successful writers and how writing, reading, language, and texts actually work — how people actually experience them. In this other story, “writing” is much fuller and richer. Writing is not just what you say (content) but also how you say something (form), how you come up with your ideas (invention), how you go through the act of thinking and writing (process), and whether what you’ve said and how you’ve said it successfully meet the current situation (rhetoric). In this story, avoiding errors that get in the way of the readers’ understanding is only one small part of writing. Writing is about communicating in ways that work, that do something in the world. Writing is much more than grammar, and it’s also much more than the final text you create; writing is the whole process of creating that text. In this story, there is not one universal set of rules for writing correctly, but rather many sets of habits adopted by groups of people using particular texts to accomplish particular ends or activities. For example, the habits and conventions of engineers’ writing are vastly different than the habits and conventions of lawyers’ writing or your writing for your history class. That means there is no easily transferable set of rules from one writing situation to another. What transfers is not how to write, but what to ask about writing. This second, alternative story about writing is one you have also been exposed to, but

maybe not in school. When you text your friends, for example, you already know that what you say and how you say it matter, and that the text will be successful if your friend reads it and understands it and responds somehow. If your friend ignores it or finds it insulting or can’t quite decipher the new shorthand you devised, then it’s not “good writing.” You also know that when you go to your English class or write a letter to your mother, you can’t write the same way you do when you are texting your friends. You know these things even if no one has ever told them to you directly. This second story about writing — the one that writing scholars believe — is why we

think it would not be very helpful to write a book that tries to teach you “how to write.” After all, in a “how to write” book you would have to respond to every piece of advice by asking, “How to write what, for whom, in order to be used in what way?” This book doesn’t give you easy, quick, or limited advice about how to write, but it instead shows you ways of thinking about how writing works, and how to make informed and effective choices for yourself in each new writing situation. As a writer you have likely been experiencing the two competing stories about, or

“conceptions of,” writing throughout much of your life. This might have led to confusing and frustrating experiences with writing. Teachers might have said they want to hear your personal voice and heartfelt opinion on something and then respond only to spelling and comma splices in your papers. School might have turned into a place where writing is simply an opportunity for you to be told that you’ve made mistakes. But at the same time, you might have a rich writing life through texting and Facebooking, writing fanfiction, writing



on gaming chatboards, writing songs or poetry. In those worlds, writing is used to communicate, to share ideas, to get things done. These competing experiences with writing are enacting different conceptions of what writing is, and those conceptions of writing lead you to do different things. If you think that writing is avoiding error, it is unlikely you will spend much time developing ideas. If you think that a reader is going to respond and react to your ideas, you are quite likely to spend a lot of time developing them and thinking about your reader’s possible reactions. Part of the purpose of this book is to give you the language and the ideas to figure out

what conceptions of writing you are experiencing and which ones might be most accurate, and what to do about that.




We all have conceptions about writing that come from our life experiences. A conception is a belief, an idea about something. For example, you might think that you aren’t a very good writer. If we asked you why, you might say because you don’t do well on timed writing tests like the SAT or school assessments. Or you might think that good writing is writing that doesn’t have any grammatical errors in it. Where did that idea come from? Probably from an English teacher who used a red pen to mark every error in your papers — but gave no feedback on what you were actually writing about. Our conceptions of writing — the stories we tell ourselves about it, what we assume

about it — really matter. What you believe about writing directly impacts what you do or are willing to do. If you think you are a bad writer because you struggle with timed writing tests, you might not be willing to try other kinds of writing, or you might not recognize how good you are at coming up with smart ideas when you have a lot of time to think them over. If you think that good writing is writing with no errors, you might struggle to put words on paper (or on the screen) as you attempt to avoid errors. And in the process, you might forget what you wanted to say, or get so frustrated that you give up, or write much less than you would have otherwise. Many of the readings in this book suggest that some of our cultural beliefs about reading

and writing aren’t exactly right, and our lives as readers and writers would make a lot more sense if we could see these beliefs as misconceptions — that is, as ideas and stories about writing that don’t really hold up to interrogation and research. Readings in this book are intended to challenge your everyday ideas about writing; they suggest that writing is much more complicated (and interesting) when we actually pay close attention to how texts work and what readers and writers are doing when they engage them. These readings also suggest that, as a writer and a reader, you usually have a great deal more power, and are less controlled by universal, mysterious rules, than you might have been taught. You can construct different ideas about writing, and you can construct meaning for yourself in ways that can empower you as a writer. And you can choose to operate using different constructions (conceptions) of writing. Our ideas matter: As Buddha said, “With our thoughts we make the world.” Writers

construct texts by using words and images to develop ideas, and readers construct a variety of meanings for a text by bringing their personal experiences and understandings to a text. In this usage, construct is a verb. It suggests actions that writers and readers take. But construct is not only a verb (conSTRUCT); it is also a noun (CONstruct). Constructs (noun) are mental frameworks that people build in order to make sense of the world around them.




Construct, the verb (pronounced conSTRUCT), means to build or to put together (“con” = with, and “struct” = shape or frame). By turning the verb into a noun (pronounced CONstruct), we make the word mean, literally, a thing that has been constructed. In everyday use, we use the noun CONstruct only in the realm of ideas or concepts. The ideas of freedom, justice, wealth, and politics, for example, are all constructs, or ideas that we have built up over time. What is important to remember about constructs is that, while they may seem to be

“natural” or “inevitable,” they’re actually unchallenged claims that can be questioned, contested, redefined, or reinvented.

So in large part this book intends to help you become aware of and explore your ideas about writing — your conceptions about writing that construct your world — and to put you in touch with other people’s ideas and research about writing. Our goal is to help you have robust, healthy, research-based ideas about writing that will make you a more successful writer. “Research-based” ideas are important ideas that have actually been studied and tested, and they have been demonstrated to work for experienced writers. Considering constructs about writing and assessing whether your ideas about writing are

misconceptions might be difficult at times and will require you to be willing to think through ideas that might be uncomfortable.



Threshold Concepts of Writing

Some conceptions of writing matter more than others. Recently, researchers from the United Kingdom, Ray Meyer and Jan Land, identified what they call threshold concepts — ideas that are so central to understanding a particular subject that a learner can’t move forward in that area without grasping them. However, grasping threshold concepts is hard because they are based in the research of particular fields or areas of study, and that research is often in conflict with popular, commonsense ideas about topics that haven’t been tested or thought through carefully.

THRESHOLD CONCEPTS Threshold concepts are ideas that literally change the way you experience, think about, and understand a subject. Every specialized field of study (or discipline — history, biology, mathematics, etc.) has threshold concepts that learners in that field must become acquainted with in order to fully understand the ideas of that field of study. Threshold concepts, once learned, help the learner see the world differently. They can be hard to learn (what researchers Jan Meyer and Ray Land call “troublesome”) for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that they might directly conflict with ideas you already have. Once you’re aware of these new and troublesome threshold concepts and you really start to understand them, they are hard to unlearn — Meyer and Land say they are “irreversible.” Very often, learning threshold concepts doesn’t just change the way you think about the subject, but also the way you think about yourself. But what makes them most powerful is that they help you understand a whole set of other ideas that are hard to imagine without knowing the threshold concept — so they let you do a whole lot of learning at once by helping entire sets of ideas “fall into place.” Chapter 1 discusses the main threshold concepts addressed in Writing about Writing.

For example, one of us has been doing a research project with some historians and was surprised to learn that professional historians don’t think that studying history is about dates, events, or learning lessons for the future. Rather, the historians said that studying history is about learning to recognize multiple narratives and to see each narrative as an interpretation that must be understood in context. These historians were frustrated that the History Channel and common conversations about history lead people to misunderstand what history is and how to study it. When students engage in their history classes, the historians have to spend a lot of time (years, sometimes) helping students understand what narratives are, what it means to see narratives as someone’s interpretation of past events, and how to research the context of the narratives. Until students can do these things, they can’t move forward in their study of history at the college level. As the history example illustrates, when learners are introduced to threshold concepts in

different disciplines, they often find them troublesome, and it can take a long time to really



grasp them. While learners are struggling with the ideas, they find themselves in a “liminal” space — a space where they move back and forth, start to get a handle on the ideas, then realize they don’t really have a handle on them. Learning in this liminal space can be quite uncomfortable because learners have to examine their previous ideas and experiences and try to understand something that might conflict with those ideas. But when learners finally do grasp these threshold concepts, the way they see things is

changed — transformed, likely for good. Different ideas and experiences make sense and seem related in ways they hadn’t before — in other words, learning threshold concepts is what Meyer and Land call an integrative experience. When history students understand that history is made up of a set of competing narratives that interpret events in different ways, and that these narratives and events must be understood in context, they start to question everything they see. If they see a news story about the Confederate flag, for example, they recognize that people who take opposing views of it have competing narratives, are examining different pieces of the historical record, and interpreting that historical record in different ways. Instead of asking who is right and who is wrong, new questions emerge — for example, how groups of people can interpret the past in such different ways. These are the kinds of questions that motivate historians to conduct and publish research. When history students finally grasp central threshold concepts, they see and understand the world differently, and find interesting research possibilities through their new perspective. Threshold concepts of writing are no different than other threshold concepts in their

troublesomeness. In some ways, writing threshold concepts may be even more troublesome to learn than threshold concepts in other disciplines. Because everyone writes, and writing is so common in our schools, lives, and daily experiences, by the time we get to a place where we are actually studying writing (usually in college writing classes) we’ve had a long time to solidify our non-research-based views about writing.




In order to really engage with threshold concepts about writing, there is one basic underlying concept that you’ll need to grapple with first: that writing is not just something that you do, but also something that people study. Usually in high school, students write about literature, and instruction in writing is often limited to things like grammar, style, and form. But there is a lot more to writing than that, and there are scholars who study writing for a living. Writing can be studied because it is a complex activity about which little is actually known. (In contrast, in earlier schooling, writing is often treated as a fairly basic, fundamental skill. As you’ll learn in the class in which you’re using this book, there is nothing “basic” about writing.) Writing scholars want to know things like how we learn to write, how we can teach writing

well, how technologies affect our writing processes, and how we use writing to accomplish our goals, communicate, and persuade one another. The study of persuasion goes back a long way, to Aristotle (c. 350 BCE) and before. The formal study of how writing works, though, is more recent, beginning sometime in the 1950s. The activity of writing is difficult to study because people use it for so many different things and go about it in so many different ways. And compared with many other academic fields, the field of writing studies has had only a short time to get started on that research. At first, most study of writing concentrated on student writers, but it gradually became apparent that writing assignments didn’t look a lot like writing outside of school, so writing research had to be expanded to more sites and scenes. Throughout this time, some of the main research questions have been fairly stable, and you will find them discussed in various chapters in this book:

What do we believe to be true about writing, and where do these beliefs come from?

Do writers think of what to say in their writing through inspiration or through the world around them, or both (in what balance)?

How does meaning depend on context?

How does the shape a text takes depend on its rhetorical situation?

How do writers actually get writing done?

How can we tell the difference between writing and other kinds of communication such as photo-essays and pictorial instruction manuals? What counts as writing?

While all these are still open questions (requiring more research), there is also much we do know now about writing, and this research can help us better understand what we do as writers, what we need to do, what works, and what doesn’t. In other words, if we can recognize that writing isn’t just something we do, but something we can also learn more



about, we can be empowered to change our ideas about writing and, in turn, change our writing practices. We have used the questions of writing studies to guide the content in this book; the

answers are, in effect, some of the threshold concepts resulting from these many decades of study about writing. We will next introduce you to the threshold concepts about writing you will encounter in this book. We don’t expect you to thoroughly understand these threshold concepts here, in Chapter 1 — and it’s likely you are not going to “master” any of them in this class, as they take a long time to enact and understand. But we want you to start to think about them and question the conceptions you are bringing with you, as you delve into these ideas about writing.

TC Writing Is Impacted by Prior Experiences

As we have already illustrated in this chapter, how and why you write, what you think about writing, and how you make sense of texts are impacted by all that you’ve done and experienced. Your experiences with writing and with literacy (reading and writing) are part of who you are, part of your identity. As Kathleen Blake Yancey explains it, “each writer is a combination of the collective set of different dimensions and traits and features that make us human.”2

ACTIVITY 1A | Write Reflectively

Spend about ten minutes writing freely about your most important memories of reading, writing, and speaking. What were your experiences at home and outside school? What were your experiences in school? How do these impact what you believe, feel, and do with writing and reading today?

Our experiences with writing and language start very early — in our homes, with our families — and then are impacted by activities, events, and groups — from clubs, library visits, and religious organizations to online interactions, hobbies, and schooling. We bring this rich, varied, and extensive history of reading and writing practices with us whenever we read, write, or receive feedback on our writing, or give feedback to someone else. When we encounter a new and challenging writing situation or task, we bring all of our previous experiences to bear. Who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve done, the technologies we’ve used or been exposed to (or not) are all involved in our writing practices, attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses. Andrea Lunsford, writing researcher and former director of Stanford University’s writing

program, conducted a study of people’s early writing memories, and found that many people “reported something painful associated with writing: being made to sit on their left hands so they had to write right-handed” or “being made to write ‘I will not X’ a hundred times in punishment for some mistake.”3 Prior experiences with writing create negative or



positive feelings about writing, and those attitudes and feelings remain with people throughout their lives. Feelings and ideas can change, of course, but we are all always an accumulation of everything we have experienced and done. If our experiences happen to be those that are valued by the dominant (schooled) culture, we tend to have easier and more positive literacy experiences. But if our experiences do not mirror those of the dominant culture, we can often have very negative feelings about reading, writing, school, and/or ourselves. For example, if we come from a white, English-speaking, middle-class, Midwestern family that had a variety of books at home, we likely started school in the United States with a leg up on reading and speaking the dominant version of English. But if we come from an immigrant family, and our parents speak, for example, Spanish or Portuguese, and we had no books written in English at home, we likely started school without the literacy experiences that teachers expect, speaking and writing with an accent that set us apart. Remember the earlier claim of this chapter, that thoughts make the world? We might

modify that here to say that our thoughts and experiences make our own literate worlds. Thus the accumulation of our experiences with reading and writing impact what we think about writing and what we do as readers and writers, and how we feel about ourselves as writers. We may never have stopped to think why reading and writing in school has been easy or hard for us, why teachers singled us out for praise or criticism, why we loved writing online with friends in Wattpad but dreaded writing for our teachers. But if we stop to think through our experiences with literacy, our feelings and experiences can begin to make more sense. We can be empowered to own and explain them, and to take control of them. For example, instead of feeling like a victim if a teacher criticizes your accent, you might learn to take pride in the fact that you speak several languages, and that you can choose just the right word in any of those languages to express how you feel.

ACTIVITY 1B | Try Thinking Differently

Think of a reading or writing situation when your usual habits didn’t work to complete the task or communicate effectively, when you were made to feel like an outsider. Instead of denigrating yourself, ask where your ideas and feelings and practices came from, and how they compared with those of the people around you at the time. Was there something others could have learned to do or understand differently from you and your experiences? Explain.

TC Writing Helps People Make Meaning and Get Things Done, But There Are Always Constraints

People use writing to get things done, and they use writing and language to make meaning together. This might seem obvious, but when we have spent the majority of our lives writing for school tasks, as has been the case for most students, we can forget the power that



writing has to actually accomplish something with other people. School writing can often be what writing researcher Joseph Petraglia calls “pseudotransactional” — in other words, school writing tasks often pretend (that’s the pseudo part) to be the kind of writing that communicates with other people (that’s the transactional part), but really it is often just that: pretend.

ACTIVITY 2A | Write Reflectively

Spend ten minutes writing about a time when you wrote something and it didn’t work at all — people didn’t understand it, thought you had made terrible mistakes, ignored it, etc. Describe the experience and your feelings about it.

In the rest of our lives outside of school — at work, online, at church, and so on — we know that writing helps us communicate and make meaning with others, and get things done. We know this without being told because we use writing like this all the time. If you are feeling lonely, you might text three friends and see if they want to meet you at the gym later. They text you back and negotiate the activity (maybe they need to study instead, so suggest meeting at the library) and the time (they have a sorority meeting at 6, but could meet you at 8). Together you make meaning and get things done, and your ideas create the world and its activities through the writing you are doing together. This same principle holds true for all kinds of writing that takes place within and between

groups of people. At work, three or four people might be on a deadline to finish a report, and they negotiate how to write that report together; when they turn it in, they may find that their working group gets more funding next year than they had last year. In our sororities, we have written guidelines and rituals that help us know who we are and what we stand for. If we write fanfiction online in Wattpad, hundreds or thousands of people might read and comment on what we write, and we know how to write fanfiction because we have read the examples others have written on Wattpad, and have seen how readers there commented on those examples. Writing helps people get things done, which makes writing powerful. But how and why

particular writing does (or does not) work depends on who the people are, where they come from, what their goals are, what technologies they have available to them, and the kinds of texts (genres) they are writing.

GENRE Genre comes from the French word for “kind” or “type” and is related to the Latin word genus, which you might remember from the scientific classification system for animals and plants. In the field of rhetoric, genres are broadly understood as categories of texts. For example, the poem, the short story, the novel, and the memoir are genres of literature; memos, proposals, reports, and executive summaries are genres of business writing; hiphop, bluegrass, trance, pop, new age,



and electronica are genres of music; and the romantic comedy, drama, and documentary are genres of film. Genres are types of texts that are recognizable to readers and writers and that

meet the needs of the rhetorical situations in which they function. So, for example, we recognize wedding invitations and understand them to be different from horoscopes. We know that when we are asked to write a paper for school, our teacher probably does not want us to turn in a poem instead. Genres develop over time in response to recurring rhetorical needs. We have

wedding invitations because people keep getting married, and we need an efficient way to let people know and to ask them to attend. Rather than making up a new rhetorical solution every time the same situation occurs, we generally turn to the genre that has developed — in this case, the genre of the wedding invitation. Genre theorists have suggested that the concept of genre actually goes well

beyond texts; accordingly, some theorists use genre to describe a typified but dynamic social interaction that a group of people use to conduct a given activity. (Typified means it follows a pattern, and dynamic means that people can change the pattern to fit their circumstances as long as it still helps them do the activity.) In “Rethinking Genre,” for example, David Russell says that genres are actually “shared expectations among some group(s) of people” (513). For more on genre and genre theory, see Chapter 1.

There are rules for how groups of people use writing together, and these rules constrain what writers and readers can do. Sometimes those rules are spoken or written down, sometimes they aren’t. But for people to use writing successfully, they have to learn these rules. Think about the example above, of texting your friends to see if they want to join you at the gym later. When you got your first phone and started texting, you didn’t receive a list of rules about how to do it. You and your friends learned what worked and what didn’t. You learned the shorthand texts that people would understand, and the ones they wouldn’t. You learned that it can be easy to misinterpret some things in text messages, so you probably learned to be more cautious about how you write your texts. You also probably figured out that some goals can’t be accomplished through texting (like applying for a job), and that some people don’t respond well to texting (like your great-grandmother). Every writing situation has its own rules, and writers must learn them in order to use writing effectively to get things done. The rules might seem arbitrary to outsiders (for example, someone might read your texts and think you are being mean or sloppy, not realizing that you’ve written a joke acceptable in texting your friends), but those rules are rarely arbitrary. For example, when surgeons write or talk about their work, they have a very specialized vocabulary that helps them be extremely precise and accurate. There is a hierarchy regarding who can say, do, and write when in the hospital, and that hierarchy helps ensure that everyone knows what their job is, and patients are protected. The same is true in college. As you move to different subjects, you’ll find the rules are

different for how and what you write, and what you can do with writing. These rules might seem arbitrary, but they aren’t. The writing that historians do looks and sounds a certain



way in order to help them accomplish their goals as part of an academic discipline. Their writing looks very different from the writing of biologists, whose goals and purposes for writing are quite different. So writing helps people get things done and make meaning together. But as groups of

people spend more and more time together, how and why they use writing in particular ways can be increasingly difficult for outsiders to comprehend. If you know this, and you understand what is happening, you can have an easier time as a newcomer to a situation or a particular form of writing. You’ll understand that there are certain questions you need to ask, and you’ll need to watch what other people do — and try to discover who does what and when.

ACTIVITY 2B | Try Thinking Differently

In Activity 2A, you reflected on a time when something you wrote didn’t work. Go back to that activity and think about the rules for writing that are established when groups of people use writing to help accomplish their goals. Were there unspoken rules that help explain what went wrong in that writing situation for you? Why or why not? The next time you are in a class and you feel like you can’t understand the

language or the rules for what you are reading or writing, step back and ask some bigger questions: What is the subject (“discipline” or “field”) like? What do the people who participate in that subject study? What do they value? What are they trying to do with their writing? If you don’t know, who can you ask? Can understanding these things help you better understand why you’re confused?

TC “Good” Writing Is Dependent on Writers, Readers, Situation, Technology, and Use

Whether or not writing is good depends on whether it gets things done, and whether it accomplishes what the writer (and readers) need the writing to accomplish. This threshold concept of writing likely conflicts with a lot of what school writing situations have led you to believe. In school, it’s easy to believe that good writing is writing that doesn’t have grammatical errors or that follows the directions. But just by looking at examples from your own life, you can start to test and prove that such school-based ideas about writing are not accurate.

ACTIVITY 3A | Write Reflectively

Try to remember a time when a rule or rules you were taught about writing by one authority (teacher, parent, boss) were changed or contradicted by another authority. What was the rule? Did you understand the reason for the change or contradiction at the time? Were you bothered by it? How well was the difference (and the reason for it) explained to you?



Consider what makes writing work when you are texting your friends. Do they think your texts are good if you use full sentences, correct grammar, and spell all words correctly? Probably not — and quite likely, the opposite. If you did those things, texting would take a long time, and your friends might make fun of you. Why? Because good writing is writing that is appropriate to the situation, your purpose as a writer, and the technology you use to write (in this case, typing on a phone makes it inefficient to spell out all the words and write in complete sentences). Of course, you can’t use the rules of good texting when you write job application letters,

your history exam, fanfiction, or poetry in your journal. Sometimes, the rules about writing you learned in school do hold true; when you apply for a job, for example, you want to show that you have a good grasp of formal language, that you can punctuate sentences and write clearly, and that you pay attention to details and go back and edit what you’ve written before sharing it with someone who could choose whether or not to hire you. But even in cases where more formal and “correct” writing is appropriate, what counts as

formal and correct can differ widely across contexts. For example, scientists often write using the passive voice. (In other words, their sentences don’t necessarily tell readers who did the action; for example, they may write “Tests were conducted.”) One major reason is that scientists value objectivity and group discovery, so the passive voice helps focus on what was done or learned, rather than individuals who did it. But in the humanities, writers are very often discouraged from using the passive voice and told to write to emphasize the action and the person doing the acting. For example, you might hear, “Shakespeare plays with the meaning of words” in a literature class. This is because in fields such as literature and history and philosophy and art, it really does matter who performed an action. Or, to provide another example, think of an investigative reporter with a secret source. The reporter wouldn’t write, “John Jones revealed that Hillary Clinton destroyed her e-mails” if the reporter was protecting her sources. One way of concealing the source would be to use passive voice: “Hillary Clinton was accused of destroying her e-mails.” So even though both passive and active sentences are grammatically correct, they may be appropriate or inappropriate depending on the situation and readers for whom you are writing. As you might have guessed by now, the writer isn’t the only person making meaning

from writing. Readers make meaning, too, based on their own prior experiences, the purpose of the writing, the situation in which they are reading it, and their values and the values of the group(s) they belong to. Your history teacher might find the language you use to write a lab report so unappealing that he or she can’t really make a lot of sense of it, and your great-grandmother might find your text messages offensive or incoherent. Readers of the reporter’s story on Hillary Clinton might build all sorts of speculation around the passive sentence that doesn’t reveal its source: They might think the reporter is dishonest and making it up, or they might conclude that a political opponent is planting an untrue story, or that the newspaper is politically biased — or something else, depending on their



experiences, politics, etc. So when you write, it’s important to remember not just what you want to say, but who you want to make meaning for and with. And, of course, today your writing might circulate among many different groups of people

whom you may never have thought about as a result of social media and other online platforms. Something you wrote for one purpose and audience might be really effective initially but might not work at all once it is communicated to a different audience at another time. Many a politician or business executive, for example, makes one statement privately to a narrow set of constituents, such as close staff or shareholders — as happened to Mitt Romney, who in the 2012 presidential campaign was secretly recorded calling out 47 percent of voters as people who don’t take responsibility for their lives — only to have that private statement become public, and find they must explain it when it is circulated online to an unintended and unsympathetic audience. This “contingency” of writing — the fact that what makes writing good depends on

circumstances — can be a hard threshold concept to learn because you’ve been in school for so long, being taught rules that were treated as universal even though they were actually only contingent — specific to that time and place. However, if you test this threshold concept against your daily experiences writing across different contexts and technologies, you can quickly start to see how accurate it is. And if you can understand this threshold concept, it can help you start to make sense of things that may otherwise really frustrate you. Instead of being upset that your history teacher and your biology teacher want you to write differently, and being confused about “who’s right,” you can recognize that the differences stem from different ideas about what good writing is — and these ideas are related to what historians and biologists do with writing. They aren’t trying to frustrate you; they are trying to help you write like historians or biologists, and sound credible when you do. In other words, understanding this threshold concept can really empower you to see that many kinds of writing can be good, and that you may be better at some kinds than others.

CONTINGENT One of the claims of this book is that meaning is contingent; that is, it depends. In other words, meaning is conditional. For example, “good writing” depends upon the context, purpose, and audience. Ideas about meaning as being contingent and conditional are taken up most directly in Chapter 4, where authors claim that meaning depends on context and that principles for good communication depend on the specific situation and are not universal.

ACTIVITY 3B | Try Thinking Differently

Writing researchers frequently hear students say that they dislike writing for school because it seems to be mostly about following rules and structures, and being judged



for failure to observe all the rules correctly. In contrast, students often report preferring self-sponsored writing outside of school (sometimes they call it “creative” writing, sometimes “personal” writing) because they are free to write whatever they like without being constrained by rule structures. Try this thought experiment: What would your school writing look like if you could

approach it as you do “home” or personal writing, and if you could expect the same kind of responses that you receive to your home and school writing? What would you do differently in your school writing? Would you spend more time on it or treat it differently? How would your writing itself change?

TC Writing Is a Process, All Writers Have More to Learn, and Writing Is Not Perfectible

In considering that “good” writing depends on a lot of different variables, you start to imagine what you are able to do with writing, and to recognize that you are able to do some things better than others. You might have a pretty easy time writing lab reports, job application letters, and texts to your friends, but a much harder time writing a paper about Moby Dick or writing a poem. One reason for this is the threshold concept that what you do and who you are as a writer is informed by your prior experiences. You might have had more practice with certain kinds of writing, you might be fact-oriented, you might have read a lot of nonfiction books but not many novels. There are many reasons why some kinds of writing come more easily to you than other kinds.

ACTIVITY 4A | Write Reflectively

Think of something about writing (not related to grammar or “flow”) that you wish you were more confident about. (Grammar and flow are two things students commonly say they want to work on; we want to push you to consider other elements and aspects of writing.) When you’ve come up with the thing you’d like to work on, explain why: What makes you uncomfortable with what you know about it or how you write right now? What do you imagine you could be doing differently or better?

The good news is that this threshold concept is true for everyone: all writers have more to learn. And this concept will remain true for each writer’s entire life: Writers always have more to learn. Learning is the key — and writers can always learn to be a little better at writing something that is not their strong suit. You should feel a kind of freedom in this realization: If you feel like you have a lot more to learn about writing, you’re not “behind” or lacking; you’re normal. Writing is a process. It takes time and practice. Writing things that are new to you, writing

longer texts, and writing with new kinds of technology all take practice. And no matter how much you practice, what you write will never be perfect. This is, in large part, due to what we discussed in the previous threshold concept: Readers make meaning out of what you write, and the situation in which your writing is read makes a difference in how effective the



writing is. There is no such thing as perfect writing; writing is not in the category of things that are perfectible. Rather, it can grow, change, be different, and work for better or worse for the purposes for which you are trying to use it. Still, there are strategies and habits that can help you write more easily, more quickly, more effectively — and asking for feedback is, of course, always a good way to improve. This understanding of writing should be very liberating because it helps you recognize

that good writers aren’t born that way; they’re made through practice and circumstance. Someone might be a good writer at one kind of thing (like writing horror novels) but not very good at another kind of thing (like writing grant proposals or poems). How you feel about yourself as a writer, and what you do as a writer, can change a lot for the better if you realize that no writers are perfect, good writing depends on the situation, all writers have more to learn, and you can learn things about writing and how to write that can help you write more effectively. If you can stop thinking of yourself as a “bad writer” or a person “who just can’t write,” you can be freed up to try new things with writing.

ACTIVITY 4B | Try Thinking Differently

If writing is not perfectible, then writing is not about “getting it right” (either the first time, or in later tries). If writing is not about “getting it right,” then what is it about? If you’re not prioritizing perfection in your writing, what are you prioritizing instead? Try to keep this in mind when you write from now on. How will this change in focus impact how you write and how you feel about yourself as a writer?



Threshold Concepts That Assist Academic Reading and Writing

Many of the readings in this book are about research, and almost all of the individual pieces in this book have been published someplace else before. In most cases, they were published in scholarly journals and books — where expert writing researchers are telling each other about studies they’ve conducted on writing (as well as literacy, language, discourse, and technology) and what they’ve found. Reading texts that are written by expert researchers for other experts is not easy even

for your instructor, and such writing won’t be easy or quick reading for you at first, either. So we will next introduce you to two threshold concepts that will explicitly help you work with the material in the rest of this book — and in the rest of your academic life. These threshold concepts are about genres (recurring kinds of texts) and about the kind of reading that you will do in this book. By learning some principles of genre, you’ll be able to more quickly recognize patterns in what even hard-to-read texts are doing, which helps you know what they mean. And by reading rhetorically, understanding the readings as people talking to one another in ongoing conversations, you’ll have strategies to help you make the most sense you can out of unfamiliar material.

GENRE Genre comes from the French word for “kind” or “type” and is related to the Latin word genus, which you might remember from the scientific classification system for animals and plants. In the field of rhetoric, genres are broadly understood as categories of texts. For example, the poem, the short story, the novel, and the memoir are genres of literature; memos, proposals, reports, and executive summaries are genres of business writing; hiphop, bluegrass, trance, pop, new age, and electronica are genres of music; and the romantic comedy, drama, and documentary are genres of film. Genres are types of texts that are recognizable to readers and writers and that

meet the needs of the rhetorical situations in which they function. So, for example, we recognize wedding invitations and understand them to be different from horoscopes. We know that when we are asked to write a paper for school, our teacher probably does not want us to turn in a poem instead. Genres develop over time in response to recurring rhetorical needs. We have

wedding invitations because people keep getting married, and we need an efficient way to let people know and to ask them to attend. Rather than making up a new rhetorical solution every time the same situation occurs, we generally turn to the genre that has developed — in this case, the genre of the wedding invitation. Genre theorists have suggested that the concept of genre actually goes well

beyond texts; accordingly, some theorists use genre to describe a typified but dynamic social interaction that a group of people use to conduct a given activity. (Typified means it follows a pattern, and dynamic means that people can change the



pattern to fit their circumstances as long as it still helps them do the activity.) In “Rethinking Genre,” for example, David Russell says that genres are actually “shared expectations among some group(s) of people” (513). For more on genre and genre theory, see Chapter 1.

Throughout the rest of this chapter, we’ll use the term rhetorical more and more. Its meaning, which is complex, will gradually become clearer to you the more we (and you) use it, both here as well as later in the book (especially Chapter 4). For now, we’ll simply say that when you see the word “rhetorical” you should think communication — anything that has to do with the way people interact, communicate, and persuade each other (make up their minds, and change them). A rhetorical situation is any moment in which people are communicating. So why don’t we just call it a “communication situation”? Because communication is the activity that people are engaged in, but rhetoric is the set of principles they’re using (often unconsciously) to do it — to shape their communication and make decisions about it. To remind ourselves that writers and speakers are using these principles of rhetoric and doing rhetorical work, we often call them rhetors. Remember that these boldface terms all appear in the glossary at the end of this book, which you can turn to any time you need a refresher or additional clarification on how we’re using a term.

RHETORICAL Rhetorical refers to a phenomenon such as human interaction that has the qualities of being situated, motivated, interactive, epistemic, embodied, and contingent. (See the definition of rhetoric.) Rhetorical study, for example, is the investigation of human communication as situated, motivated, interactive, epistemic, embodied, and contingent. Rhetorical reading involves reading a text as situated, motivated, etc. Rhetorical analysis is a way of analyzing texts to find what choices their embodied rhetor (speaker or writer) made based on their purpose and motivation, their situatedness and context, and how they interact with and make new knowledge for their audience.

RHETORICAL SITUATION Rhetorical situation is the particular circumstance of a given instance of communication or discourse. The rhetorical situation includes exigence (the need or reason for the communication), context (the circumstances that give rise to the exigence, including location in time/history and space/place/position), rhetor (the originator of the communication — its speaker or writer), and audience (the auditor, listener, or reader of the rhetor’s discourse). The rhetorical situation is a moment in a larger rhetorical ecology, the network of relationships among rhetors in the situation.

RHETORIC Rhetoric is the study or performance of human interaction and communication or the product(s) of that interaction and communication. Because most human interaction is persuasive by nature — that is, we’re trying to convince each other of things, even when we say something simple like “that feels nice” — one way to think of rhetoric is as the study of persuasion. Rhetoric can refer to a field of knowledge on this subject,



to systematic explanations for and predictions of how persuasion works, or to the performance art of human interaction and persuasion itself. Rhetoric always has to do with these specific principles: 1. Human communication, or discourse, is situated in a moment, a particular time and

place, which is part of a larger ecology. That moment and ecology are the context of the communication. A particular text takes it meaning in part from its context, so knowledge of the context is necessary in order to know the text’s meaning. For example, “Help me!” means one thing when your mom is standing next to a van full of groceries and another when she’s standing next to a van with a flat tire. Her discourse is situated in a particular context.

2. Communication is motivated by particular rhetors’ purposes, needs, and values. No communication is unmotivated.

3. Communication is interactional, “back-and-forth” between rhetors. Readers actually complete the meaning of a writer’s text. Successful writers therefore think carefully about who their audience is and what the audience values and needs.

4. Communication is epistemic, which means that it creates new knowledge. We often talk about “reporting” or “transmitting” information as if we can find information and pass it along unaltered. But we actually can’t transmit information without altering it, so our communication makes new knowledge as it goes.

5. Communication is embodied and material, meaning that it exists not simply in the mental realm of ideas but takes place via material bodies that themselves shape the meaning of the communication.

6. Communication is shaped by technology. “Technology” simply refers to use of tools, and it is certainly possible to communicate without technology (through purely organic means such as by voice). Practically speaking, though, almost all communication in any culture in which you’re reading this book is assisted and shaped by technology. Rhetoric teaches us to look for how technology influences even communication that doesn’t directly use it.

7. Communication is contingent, meaning that what we consider good communication depends on the circumstances and context in which it happens. Because communication depends on context, we can’t make universal rules about what makes good communication.

RHETOR Originally (in Greek) a public speaker, rhetor means one who engages in rhetorical interaction or discourse. Writer and speaker are common synonyms.

TC Genres: Writing Responds to Repeating Situations through Recognizable Forms

In this book you will find types of readings and texts you may never have encountered before. These strange encounters happen to you not just in this class, of course, but throughout your life. There are many different ways to write about things, and as you encounter new situations and groups of people who use writing in different ways to accomplish their goals, you will always encounter new kinds of texts that you haven’t encountered before. Sometimes this can be fun (as in the earlier example of getting your first phone and learning about texting, or finding Wattpad and learning about fanfiction),



sometimes it can be frustrating (maybe reading a novel from an earlier time period), and sometimes it can seem easy but then turn out to be difficult (as with resumes and cover letters). All of these different kinds of texts have names because they are kinds of writing that

recur, happening over and over because they facilitate particular functions in life. Resumes, wedding invitations, birthday cards, parking tickets, textbooks, novels, text messages, magazine cover stories — these are all constantly recurring kinds of writing. In other words, if a particular writing situation and resulting need for communication happens again and again, prompting writers to respond (for example, a need to apply for a job), then certain kinds of writing come into existence to respond to that recurring situation (like resumes). We call such recurring text-types genres, which are “typified rhetorical actions in response to recurrent situations or situation-types.”4

ACTIVITY 5A | Write Reflectively

Take out the syllabi that you’ve collected from your different classes during the first week or two of school this year. Look at them all and then answer these questions:

What situation calls for the syllabus to be written?

What content is typically contained in a syllabus?

What does a syllabus look like; what shape does a syllabus take?

How is a syllabus organized?

What tone is used? Is the language formal or informal?

You’ll notice that although syllabi are similar, they can be very different, too. What is the common denominator — what do you think makes a syllabus a syllabus, even though individual syllabi differ?

Genres do a lot of work for you as a writer. Think about the situation we discussed before the activity: People have to apply for jobs all the time, and they have a pretty good idea of how to do this through resumes and cover letters because so many other people before them have done the same thing. But what if there was no agreed upon way for people to apply for jobs? What if no conventions for doing that had ever come into being? You as a job seeker would have no idea what you should do when you want a job; actually, much worse, every single option would be open to you. You could sing a song, write a haiku, send a carrier pigeon, make a painting … really, you could do anything, and you’d have no way to know what option was best. It would take a really long time to do anything. This wouldn’t be efficient, and it would be very stressful for you as a rhetor. So genres emerge because rhetors start to find ways to respond to the recurring



situation that seem to work pretty well, and other rhetors keep using them and tweaking them. Because job seekers found that listing all their previous jobs on a piece of paper was helpful, and because employers found this helpful too, people kept doing it. There are a lot of ways to make a resume (check out the range of templates for resumes in your word- processing software), but there are some limitations that at least make it easier for you as a resume writer to know that you could do this (for example, organize by date) or this (for example, organize by skill) but not that (for example, write a haiku). In the movie The Patriot, Mel Gibson teaches his children to shoot, telling them, “Aim small, miss small.” In a way, this is what genres help you do when you write; they give you a limited area to aim for so that you have a better chance of success. There are a lot of reasons to think about this threshold concept that writers over time

create “typical” or expected responses to situations that come up again and again. For one thing, understanding this helps you look for patterns when you encounter new situations and new kinds of texts. The genre might look strange and new to you, but if it’s a typical or expected response to a recurring situation, then that means you can find out what the recurring situation is and what previous responses have looked like. In other words, you aren’t completely on your own in a strange world. There are maps, if you know to look for them and can figure out how to read them. Think for a minute about this idea of genres as maps to new situations. For maps to

work, you have to ask certain questions. Where am I and where do I want to go? If you don’t know these things, you’ll find yourself looking at a map of the entire world that is simply not helpful in your current situation. If you know that you are in Orlando and you want to go to Key West, then you know that there are maps for this situation. You’ll want a map of Florida, particularly southeast Florida. But you also need to know what to look for on the map and what the various symbols mean. You’ll need to know how to read this map. You’ll need to know north from south, east from west, highways from back roads, toll roads from free roads. When you first start driving, you might end up getting lost a few times before you can make sense of the map. The other thing to remember about maps is that they change. They change for all sorts

of reasons, including technology. You might never have used a paper map before, since today’s maps are on smartphones. You might never have had to look at a paper map and its key to figure out what you are seeing, because your smartphone does this for you. Maps change, and people have to figure out how to read new kinds of maps. Ask your parents or grandparents whether they find it easier to read paper maps or maps on their smartphones, and you’ll see that what seems easy to you is not easy or obvious to everyone else. What’s on the maps changes across time (as roads have been paved, as federal highways have been created) and for different purposes (sailors use completely different maps than vacationers, and both sailors and vacationers use maps that are completely different from those used by forest rangers).



Maps on smartphones that tell you what to do have some advantages over paper maps — they make you do less work, there is less for you to figure out, you can drive and listen to directions at the same time. But relying too much on your smartphone can have serious disadvantages as well. For example, if your phone dies or you lose service, you won’t have any idea where you are. You might not know north from south, or what to do with the paper map that you have to stop and buy at the gas station in the middle of the Everglades. So relying on them without thinking for yourself can leave you stranded and lost. Genres are the same way. They are maps, but not maps that you should rely on rigidly without thinking for yourself about what to do in any writing situation. Genres, just like maps, are extremely helpful if you know how to read them and

remember that they change across time and for different purposes. Like maps, genres aren’t rigid and formulaic. You can always do something different with writing, just like you can choose a different kind of map, or a different route on your map: “Rules of a genre do not specify precisely how a rhetorical act is to be performed. A genre is not formulaic; there is always another strategy that a rhetor can use to meet the requirements of the situation. But a genre establishes bounded options for rhetors in situations.”5

What questions should you ask when you encounter a new genre? Try to discern the similarities in rhetorical situations (the situations calling for the genre you are encountering) and the rhetoric constructed in response to those situations (the genre itself). According to Sonja Foss, there are four kinds of questions to ask when looking at a new or unfamiliar genre:

Questions about situational elements: What conditions (situations) call for the genre? What prompts this sort of document to be written? What is the exigence — the need or reason for a given action or communication?

EXIGENCE Exigence is the need or reason for a given action or communication. All communication exists for a reason. For example, if you say, “Please turn on the lights,” we assume the reason you say this is that there’s not enough light for your needs — in other words, the exigence of the situation is that you need more light.

Questions about substantive characteristics (content): What sort of content (substance) is typically contained in this genre? What do these texts tend to talk about or say?

Questions about stylistic characteristics (form): What form does this sort of genre take? What does it look like? How is it organized? What language does it use? What tone does it take?

Questions about the organizing principle: What makes this genre what it is? What are the common denominators of the genre? What makes a resume a resume, for example? Of each characteristic that you identify in the first three questions above, you



might ask, “If I took out this characteristic, would it still be recognizable as this genre?”




Researcher John Swales, who worked on genre analysis of scholarly articles like the ones in this book, looked at thousands of examples of the articles that researchers write to see what their introductions might share in common. He found that introductions contain similar “moves” that you as a reader can look for in order to help orient yourself when you start reading. On the next few pages, we provide a summary of his research specifically to help you navigate some of the scholarly articles you will encounter. Sometimes getting through the introduction of a research article can be the most difficult

part of reading it. In his CARS model, which we have adapted from his book Genre Analysis,6 Swales describes three “moves” that almost all research introductions make. We’re providing a summary of Swales’s model here as a kind of shorthand to help you in both reading research articles and writing them. Identifying these moves in introductions to the articles you read in this book will help you understand the authors’ projects better from the outset. When you write your own papers, making the same moves yourself will help you present your own arguments clearly and convincingly. So read through the summary now, but be sure to return to it often for help in understanding the selections in the rest of this book.

Move 1: Establishing a Territory In this move, the author sets the context for his or her research, providing necessary background on the topic. This move includes one or more of the following steps:

Step 1: Claiming Centrality

The author asks the discourse community (the audience for the paper) to accept that the research about to be reported is part of a lively, significant, or well-established research area. To claim centrality the author might write:

DISCOURSE COMMUNITY Scholars continue to debate the meaning of discourse community, as the selections in this book suggest. For the sake of simplicity, we will use John Swales’s definition from his 1990 book, Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. According to Swales, a discourse community is made up of individuals who share common goals agreed upon by most members; further, it has “mechanisms of intercommunication among its members,” “uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback,” has and uses “one or more genres” that help the group achieve its shared goals, “has acquired some specific lexis,” and has “a reasonable ratio” of “novices and experts” (24–27).



“Recently there has been a spate of interest in …”

“Knowledge of X has great importance for …”

This step is used widely across the academic disciplines, though less in the physical sciences than in the social sciences and the humanities.


Step 2: Making Topic Generalizations

The author makes statements about current knowledge, practices, or phenomena in the field. For example:

“The properties of X are still not completely understood.”

“X is a common finding in patients with …”


Step 3: Reviewing Previous Items of Research

The author relates what has been found on the topic and who found it. For example:

“Both Johnson and Morgan claim that the biographical facts have been misrepresented.”

“Several studies have suggested that … (Gordon, 2003; Ratzinger, 2009).”

“Reading to children early and often seems to have a positive long-term correlation with grades in English courses (Jones, 2002; Strong, 2009).”

In citing the research of others, the author may use integral citation (citing the author’s name in the sentence, as in the first example above) or nonintegral citation (citing the author’s name in parentheses only, as in the second and third examples above). The use of different types of verbs (e.g., reporting verbs such as “shows” or “claims”) and verb tenses (past, present perfect, or present) varies across disciplines.

Move 2: Establishing a Niche In this move, the author argues that there is an open “niche” in the existing research, a space that needs to be filled through additional research. The author can establish a niche in one of four ways:

Option 1. Counter-Claiming

The author refutes or challenges earlier research by making a counter-claim. For example:



“While Jones and Riley believe X method to be accurate, a close examination demonstrates their method to be flawed.”

Option 2. Indicating a Gap

The author demonstrates that earlier research does not sufficiently address all existing questions or problems. For example:

“While existing studies have clearly established X, they have not addressed Y.”

Option 3. Question-Raising

The author asks questions about previous research, suggesting that additional research needs to be done. For example:

“While Jones and Morgan have established X, these findings raise a number of questions, including …”

Option 4. Continuing a Tradition

The author presents the research as a useful extension of existing research. For example:

“Earlier studies seemed to suggest X. To verify this finding, more work is urgently needed.”

Move 3: Occupying a Niche In this move, the author turns the niche established in Move 2 into the research space that he or she will fill; that is, the author demonstrates how he or she will substantiate the counterclaim made, fill the gap identified, answer the question(s) asked, or continue the research tradition. The author makes this move in several steps, described below. The initial step (1A or 1B) is obligatory, though many research articles stop after that step.

Step 1A: Outlining Purposes

The author indicates the main purpose(s) of the current article. For example:

“In this article I argue …”

“The present research tries to clarify …”




Step 1B: Announcing Present Research

The author describes the research in the current article. For example:

“This paper describes three separate studies conducted between March 2008 and January 2009.”

Step 2: Announcing Principal Findings

The author presents the main conclusions of his or her research. For example:

“The results of the study suggest …”

“When we examined X, we discovered …”

Step 3: Indicating the Structure of the Research Article The author previews the organization of the article. For example:

“This paper is structured as follows …”

ACTIVITY 5B | Try Thinking Differently

Many students have been taught a rigid formula for how to write an essay for school. One extremely common formula is the “five paragraph essay” (intro, three body paragraphs, conclusion). Some students have also been taught a formula for what sentences each paragraph should contain. In a “Schaeffer” paragraph, for instance, you would have been taught to use five sentences: topic, concrete detail, commentary, commentary, and closing. Consider whether you’ve been taught a specific formula for writing essays; then try

actively changing the formula, moving from a (false) universal “rule” about what the essay must contain to a more genre-like sense of “mapping” where you have a guideline that can be shaped to fit specific circumstances. For example, if you were taught a rule about where the “thesis statement” must go in an essay, think about how you could change that rule if you knew it didn’t always apply. What would happen if you put the thesis statement someplace else? What would happen if you turned the thesis statement into a focused question? What’s your rule, how would you change it, and why?

Look Forward to the Rest of This Book Try asking questions we borrowed from Sonja Foss (pp. 20–21) about genres when you approach new situations and genres, including in this class and in this book: Why were these texts written and for whom? What content do they usually seem to contain? What do



they tend to look like? How do they tend to be organized? Many of the readings in this book are long and somewhat difficult because they are written for audiences such as teachers and researchers. Don’t be alarmed by this. Recognize that scholarly articles are a genre, and each instance of a genre has similarities with other instances of that genre, even across apparent differences. Pick a few of the scholarly articles in this book and ask the above questions about them before you dive into reading one in depth.

TC Rhetorical Reading: Texts Are People Talking

This book asks you to read some complicated, difficult, perhaps “dry” texts — the same kinds that Swales explains with his CARS model in the previous section. He analyzes the genre-based (“generic”) paths that scholarly articles follow in establishing a territory, establishing a niche, and occupying the niche in order to contribute to knowledge in a field. Most of the readings in this book do that. In this section, we want you to think more about why the CARS model exists, and works, because considering this will help you greatly in making sense of and finding value in the texts in this book. It will also introduce you to the threshold concept, broadly applicable beyond school, that when we read texts, we are interacting with other people. Texts are people talking.

ACTIVITY 6A | Write Reflectively

First, make a list of some kinds of texts that you easily think of as people talking to each other (example: texting). Second, make a list of some texts that you haven’t thought about before as people talking (example: textbooks). Try to systematically think through all the kinds of texts you regularly encounter in your everyday life. When you’ve made these two lists, try to explain why you see the texts this way. What

do the texts that you see as people talking have in common? How about the texts you haven’t thought of as people talking before? In particular, why do you think the texts on the nonconversation list don’t seem to be about people communicating with each other?

The CARS model works because scholarly texts represent turns in an ongoing conversation — they are people talking back and forth to each other. At first that idea might sound obvious — of course texts are people talking. But stop and think about how we actually act around texts every day, and you’ll see that we’re much more likely to treat “school” writing — textbooks, articles, reference materials such as encyclopedias and dictionaries, anything you could be tested on — as information that just exists, rather than as people testing new ideas out on each other. When was the last time you read a dictionary definition — or a textbook — and thought, “Someone is trying to talk to me to persuade me of these ideas”? When was the last time you tried to picture the actual writer of a WebMD article, or considered the hobbies of whoever wrote the last Wikipedia article you read? Most of us never give these writers a second thought. Have you noticed the



names of any of the authors of the textbooks in your classes this term — or did you just think of the words as coming from a book, not from people? Given how we usually interact with school texts, we think you will agree that it is not such a commonsense idea to say that scholarly texts are people speaking to each other in an ongoing conversation. But that is what is happening. When you’re in a face-to-face conversation, human instinct is to know or find out who

you’re talking to, and why they want to talk. But as readers we’ve been taught to think differently about some written texts — not to pay attention to who’s talking, or why. Early schooling tends to teach us to think of facts and information as existing independent of people — to suggest that knowledge is independent of the people thinking about it. One of the threshold concepts we want you to encounter in your college writing class is a new way of thinking about texts: that texts are people talking; that rather than texts having a single fixed meaning, readers construct a text’s meaning from interaction between the words of the text, the ideas already in the reader’s mind, and the context in which the text is written and read. People are where the meaning in texts comes from — not from the texts themselves. As rhetors, we construct a meaning for each text we read. This is different from the typical assumption that meaning exists in the text and when we read we simply “absorb” or “pick up” that preexisting meaning. How do we know that a fixed meaning isn’t “in” writing texts? Just as is the case with

writing, reading is something people not only do, but study. The “physics” of reading are pretty fascinating. For example, when we track readers’ eyes moving across the page they’re reading, we discover that fluent readers don’t actually read word by word. They treat texts like parkour experts treat buildings, covering ground (encountering words) in big leaps (reading whole phrases or lines at a time) and using their momentum (fast reading) to glide over “sketchy” areas where the footing isn’t good (where the meaning isn’t immediately clear). And just as with writing, we have explanations (theories) of reading that help us make

sense of the research. One theory and term that helps us remember the actual nature of reading as constructing meaning is rhetorical reading. The term “rhetorical” emphasizes the way that human interaction depends on context and situation — using this term reminds us that meaning comes from interaction between text, context, writers, and readers with specific backgrounds in specific situations. To better prepare you for reading the selections in this book, and how reading is rhetorical, we can start by asking, why does it matter and what does it mean that “texts are people talking”?

People Have Motives Nonfiction texts say what they say because their writers are motivated by a variety of purposes. If you’ve written a resume, you already know this: Part of your choice of how to write the resume is based on your motivation for writing it (presumably, getting a job you



want). So we will say the resume is a motivated text. If you were to click through every nonfiction text you can think of, you wouldn’t be able to find a nonmotivated one. Thus, you will construct one meaning if you ignore the motivated nature of a text — what its writer’s particular motives and purposes were in shaping it as they did — and you will construct another, richer and wiser, meaning if you do pay attention to motive. You’ll also construct different meanings of a text if you ascribe different motivations to it. Does “It’s cold in here!” mean the speaker is complaining, or asking for the heat to be turned up? Whether you think it means one, the other, or both will depend heavily on what you think motivates the statement to begin with.

Texts Are Called into Being by a Need Shared between Writers and Readers One important concept for reading rhetorically (and one which Keith Grant-Davie’s piece in Chapter 4 explains further) is exigence, or whatever need for the text to exist is built into the rhetorical situation. The exigence for a Wikipedia article on “spaceflight” is not too complicated: (1) spaceflight is a concept in need of explaining; (2) Wikipedia tries to be a thorough and complete source of explanations of concepts; so (3) Wikipedia needs an article on spaceflight. The “situation” in which people use Wikipedia to gain a quick understanding of a huge range of subjects “calls” the spaceflight article into being. Exigence is not quite the same as a writer’s motives, though exigence and motives can overlap. In this example, the motives of the writer of the spaceflight article might be (1) to show what they know about spaceflight, (2) to write a really nicely done article on spaceflight, and (3) to make Wikipedia more complete. There are interesting gaps between the way the situation calls the article into being, and the writer’s motives for “answering” that call. As with motives themselves, when readers seek out the exigence for a given text — why is there a text at all, since texts don’t write themselves and it is easier not to write than to write — they construct a different and fuller meaning of the text than when they don’t consider exigence at all.

EXIGENCE Exigence is the need or reason for a given action or communication. All communication exists for a reason. For example, if you say, “Please turn on the lights,” we assume the reason you say this is that there’s not enough light for your needs — in other words, the exigence of the situation is that you need more light.

Readers Have Needs, Values, and Expectations of Texts Readers of resume or Wikipedia genres meet those texts with at least four kinds of knowledge or ideas already formed. The first is simply the experiential background



knowledge they have of the world as a whole and of how texts and reading work. Circles are round, trees grow upward, there’s no air in space, etc. And again as with writing, your current practices and expectations of reading are shaped by your past reading experiences. If you are used to a particular genre being dull and loathsome, you will expect another example of that genre to keep being so … and your mind will make it so. The other three kinds of knowledge readers bring to texts are much more specific to the

interaction, or conversation, they and the text are taking part in:

The reader has a particular need related to that text. They need a resume in order to help them make a hire, so they need the resume to convey a particular range of information.

The reader has specific sets of values — some readers, for example, might value conciseness while others might more highly value depth of information.

The reader has specific expectations for what the text will do and be, many of which are genre-based. A resume should look like a resume, a Wikipedia article should work like a Wikipedia article. Some other expectations come with a given situation and context. If you’re reading a Wikipedia article on spaceflight in 2015, you expect it to talk about not just the 1960s NASA moonflight program, but about current private endeavors like SpaceX and SpaceShipOne.

What do readers’ needs, values, and expectations mean for reading as conversation, and for reading the articles in this book? Most writers and readers who have graduated from high school have an instinctive awareness that writers shape their texts to meet their readers’ expectations. When you write a resume, you spell-check it extensively. Why? Because, as you read earlier in this chapter, that writing context sees “good” writing as including extremely careful attention to detail in order to create typo-free writing. You know that readers expect a resume to be free of typos, that readers don’t value the work of job applicants without this attention to detail, and that readers believe they need this genre to help assess whether an applicant is capable of that kind of attention to detail. So as the writer, you proofread the resume — anticipating the reader’s needs, values, and expectations, and trying to meet them. In turn, as a reader, part of the way you’re constructing the meaning of a text is by trying

to get a sense of how the writer has anticipated the reader. Texts carry traces of this anticipation. For example, academics are very skeptical readers and don’t like overstatements or overgeneralizations. Knowing this, writers for academic readers tend to hedge their claims by using qualifiers such as “might,” “may,” “probably,” “sometimes,” “perhaps,” and other words to indicate they’re not claiming certainty. That’s a trace of a writer anticipating a reader’s values and accommodating them.



Context Shapes the Construction of a Text’s Meaning Context tells you even more about how the writer probably tried to anticipate the reader. An extended example: 2015 and 2016 saw a terrible string of police shootings of unarmed or already-arrested suspects. Increasingly, such shootings are captured on video that is released to the public before investigations of the shootings are completed. The videos, news coverage, and endless public commentary create a specific context into which official investigative reports of a shooting are later released. If readers of the report know of this context in which the report was written, they can use that context to make some educated guesses about why some aspects of the report are written the way they are — because the writers anticipate the context as well, and shape their text to meet it. If a video makes it look to the viewing public as if the shooting victim was raising his hands, and that belief has entered the context of the overall dispute, then a report finding that the victim was reaching for a weapon will anticipate the counterargument already in the context and be written to address that specific context. As a reader, when you construct the meaning of such a report, you’ll construct different meanings if you look for ways the text has been written to fit its context, versus if you just assume that the text has no context at all and that the writers didn’t think so either. That example leads us to a final principle of rhetorical reading: That the meaning we

construct of texts depends in part on their contexts. In the same way that the utterance “It’s really cold in here” means “Please turn up the heat” in one context (a physically cold room where people have access to climate controls), “I wish we could turn up the heat” in another context (same room, but no access to climate controls), and “Wow, the people in this room really don’t like each other!” in a third context (where the room is not cold at all but people are visibly “chilly” toward one another or have a public history of disliking one another), a text’s context shapes the meaning we construct of the text. Put again in terms of conversation: Context shapes what the conversation means.

ACTIVITY 6B | Try Thinking Differently

Most of us, in our everyday approaches to reading, assume that meaning “lives in” the text we’re reading, and that we just “absorb” or “extract” or “see” the meaning that’s there. When you read, try thinking instead that you’re making the meaning of the text, building it from the ground up. To help you see from this perspective, ask these questions of what you’re reading:

Who is the writer of this text? What are the writer’s motives for writing it?

How does this text emerge from some “need” in the situation shared between you as the reader and the text’s writer?

What needs, values, and expectations do you bring to the text you’re reading?



How is context — the situation in which the text is written and that in which it will be read, its history, and your history as a reader — shaping the meaning you build from the text?

How can this text be understood as a “turn” in a conversation? Can you see yourself as talking with, interacting with, its writer?

Look Forward to the Rest of This Book A number of texts in this book focus explicitly on reading or connect to it. Reading these selections and considering their ideas is one way that you will continue to stretch your thinking about how reading works. But we also want to encourage you to look for places in all the readings where authors refer to other authors in this book or elsewhere. Start making notes when you see authors directly or indirectly responding to something that another author has written. You’ll start to see this happening frequently, especially (but not only) at the beginning of scholarly articles when they are making the moves that John Swales called “establishing a territory” and “establishing a niche.” See if this helps you see that the articles you are reading aren’t really as “dry” as you might have feared they would be. We’ve included author photos with each reading to make it even easier for you to imagine the words you are reading being spoken by actual people, who are talking to other actual people, some of whom you have read, and whose faces you can see. We’ve also included images of the book or journal covers where the readings originally appeared to give you a sense of the publication context.



A Different Kind of Research, Argument, and Reading

One of the biggest differences between the readings in this book and what you might encounter in a traditional textbook is that very little of what you’ll read here could be considered fact. Rather, it’s argument. But not the kind of argument you have with a sibling over whose turn it is to take out the trash, and not the kind of argument frustrated people might have over whose fault it is that their cars collided in an intersection. The readings here are doing a kind of research we call scholarly inquiry. It is, and means

to be, imperfect, incomplete, inconclusive, and provisional. It doesn’t offer easy or full answers. It is question- and problem-driven. It includes a great deal of personal opinion rather than clear, objective facts. How can this be? The point of most scholarly inquiry isn’t to gather and transmit existing

knowledge; rather, in scholarly inquiry, researchers come together to try a lot of different approaches to the same problem, and then, through argument as conversation, gradually develop consensus about what the best explanation of, or solution to, the problem is. Stuart Greene’s piece “Argument as Conversation” (p. 31) will help you see how the

selections in the rest of the book argue differently than texts you might be more familiar with. We offer this selection as an introduction to the ongoing scholarly conversations about writing, research, and inquiry — conversations in which they, and now you, are an essential part. Greene is asking you to read academic arguments rhetorically, as conversations, in the ways that we just outlined in the rhetorical reading section (pp. 24– 29). After Greene, Richard Straub, in “Responding — Really Responding — to Other Students’ Writing” (p. 44), asks you to think similarly about reading the texts written by your classmates. Whatever you are reading, whether published or unpublished, whether a first draft or a last draft, try to imagine people in conversation with one another, trying to make meaning. Writers and researchers don’t work alone. They need readers, other writers, and other

researchers to give them feedback. Part of your journey in this class will probably be to help your classmates as they research and write, and engage them in a conversation so that they can get better at what they are trying to do. Thus, this class will likely ask you to read not only the scholarly texts in this book, but the drafts created by your classmates. To help you with the kind of reading necessary to give feedback that helps your classmates develop their drafts, we’ve included Straub’s piece, which is written directly to students regarding how to respond to their classmates’ writing.



Argument as Conversation The Role of Inquiry in Writing a Researched Argument


Framing the Reading

In “Argument as Conversation,” Stuart Greene explains how scholarly inquiry is a different kind of research and argument from the kinds we encounter in our everyday lives or (for most of us) in earlier schooling. The principles that Greene discusses — research as conversational inquiry, where an issue and situation contribute to framing a problem a particular way, and where researchers seek not to collect information but to generate new knowledge in a social process — are the ideas and activities that drive the entire college or university where you’re studying right now. They work in every field where scholarly research is happening, from anthropology to zoology. In this book, you’ll apply these principles specifically in terms of research on writing,

literacy, language, communication, and related fields. As Greene suggests in his discussion of context, you’ll “weave” your experiences with research that’s already been done on questions and issues related to them. The research you do on your own may even offer new insights into long-running questions about these subjects.

Getting Ready to Read Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Think about how you define argument. How is the word used in everyday conversation?




What do you think the word means in an academic setting? What’s the difference between the two?

Have a conversation with a classmate on the following topic: How would you say argument and conversation relate to each other? Can some arguments be conversational and some conversations argumentative, or is no crossover possible? Provide examples, and be sure to explain your terms as precisely as possible.

As you read, consider the following questions to help you focus on particularly important parts of the article:

Who is Greene’s audience? Who, in other words, is the “you” he addresses? How do you know?

How does Greene structure his article? If you were to pull out the major headings, would the outline created from them be useful in any way?

What kinds of support does Greene use for his claims? What other texts does he refer to? Is this support relevant to his claims and sufficient to prove them?

ARGUMENT IS VERY MUCH a part of what we do every day: We confront a public issue, something that is open to dispute, and we take a stand and support what we think and feel







with what we believe are good reasons. Seen in this way, argument is very much like a conversation. By this, I mean that making an argument entails providing good reasons to support your viewpoint, as well as counterarguments, and recognizing how and why readers might object to your ideas. The metaphor of conversation emphasizes the social nature of writing. Thus inquiry, research, and writing arguments are intimately related. If, for example, you are to understand the different ways others have approached your subject, then you will need to do your “homework.” This is what Doug Brent (1996) means when he says that research consists of “the looking-up of facts in the context of other worldviews, other ways of seeing” (78).

In learning to argue within an academic setting, such as the one you probably find yourself in now, it is useful to think about writing as a form of inquiry in which you convey your understanding of the claims people make, the questions they raise, and the conflicts they address. As a form of inquiry, then, writing begins with problems, conflicts, and questions that you identify as important. The questions that your teacher raises and that you raise should be questions that are open to dispute and for which there are not prepackaged answers. Readers within an academic setting expect that you will advance a scholarly conversation and not reproduce others’ ideas. Therefore, it is important to find out who else has confronted these problems, conflicts, and questions in order to take a stand within some ongoing scholarly conversation. You will want to read with an eye toward the claims writers make, claims that they are making with respect to you, in the sense that writers want you to think and feel in a certain way. You will want to read others’ work critically, seeing if the reasons writers use to support their arguments are what you would consider good reasons. And finally, you will want to consider the possible counterarguments to the claims writers make and the views that call your own ideas into question.

The questions that your teacher raises and that you raise should be questions that are open to dispute and for which there are not prepackaged answers.

Like the verbal conversations you have with others, effective arguments never take place in a vacuum; they take into account previous conversations that have taken place about the subject under discussion. Seeing research as a means for advancing a conversation makes the research process more real, especially if you recognize that you will need to support your claims with evidence in order to persuade readers to agree with you. The concept and practice of research arises out of the specific social context of your readers’ questions and skepticism.

Reading necessarily plays a prominent role in the many forms of writing that you do, but not simply as a process of gathering information. This is true whether you write personal essays, editorials, or original research based on library research. Instead, as James Crosswhite suggests in his book The Rhetoric of Reason, reading “means making judgments about which of the many voices one encounters can be brought together into productive conversation” (131).

When we sit down to write an argument intended to persuade someone to do or to believe something, we are never really the first to broach the topic about which we are writing. Thus, learning how to write a researched argument is a process of learning how to enter conversations that are already going on in written form. This idea of writing as dialogue — not only between author and reader but between the text and everything that has been said or written beforehand — is important. Writing is a process of balancing our goals with the history of similar kinds of communication, particularly others’ arguments that have been






made on the same subject. The conversations that have already been going on about a topic are the topic’s historical context.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement of writing as conversation comes from Kenneth Burke (1941) in an oft-quoted passage:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (110–111)

As this passage describes, every argument you make is connected to other arguments. Every time you write an argument, the way you position yourself will depend on three things: which previously stated arguments you share, which previously stated arguments you want to refute, and what new opinions and supporting information you are going to bring to the conversation. You may, for example, affirm others for raising important issues, but assert that they have not given those issues the thought or emphasis that they deserve. Or you may raise a related issue that has been ignored entirely.

ENTERING THE CONVERSATION To develop an argument that is akin to a conversation, it is helpful to think of writing as a process of understanding conflicts, the claims others make, and the important questions to ask, not simply as the ability to tell a story that influences readers’ ways of looking at the world or to find good reasons to support our own beliefs. The real work of writing a researched argument occurs when you try to figure out the answers to the following:

What topics have people been talking about? What is a relevant problem? What kinds of evidence might persuade readers? What objections might readers have? What is at stake in this argument? (What if things change? What if things stay the same?)

In answering these questions, you will want to read with an eye toward identifying an issue, the situation that calls for some response in writing, and framing a question.

Identify an Issue

An issue is a fundamental tension that exists between two or more conflicting points of view. For example, imagine that I believe that the best approach to educational reform is to change the curriculum in schools. Another person might suggest that we need to address reform by







considering social and economic concerns. One way to argue the point is for each writer to consider the goals of education that they share, how to best reach those goals, and the reasons why their approach might be the best one to follow. One part of the issue is (a) that some people believe that educational reform should occur through changes in the curriculum; the second part is (b) that some people believe that reform should occur at the socioeconomic level. Notice that in defining different parts of an issue, the conflicting claims may not necessarily invalidate each other. In fact, one could argue that reform at the levels of curriculum and socioeconomic change may both be effective measures.

Keep in mind that issues are dynamic and arguments are always evolving. One of my students felt that a book he was reading placed too much emphasis on school-based learning and not enough on real-world experience. He framed the issue in this way: “We are not just educated by concepts and facts that we learn in school. We are educated by the people around us and the environments that we live in every day.” In writing his essay, he read a great deal in order to support his claims and did so in light of a position he was writing against: “that education in school is the most important type of education.”

Identify the Situation

It is important to frame an issue in the context of some specific situation. Whether curricular changes make sense depends on how people view the problem. One kind of problem that E. D. Hirsch identified in his book Cultural Literacy is that students do not have sufficient knowledge of history and literature to communicate well. If that is true in a particular school, perhaps the curriculum might be changed. But there might be other factors involved that call for a different emphasis. Moreover, there are often many different ways to define an issue or frame a question. For example, we might observe that at a local high school, scores on standardized tests have steadily decreased during the past five years. This trend contrasts with scores during the ten years prior to any noticeable decline. Growing out of this situation is the broad question, “What factors have influenced the decline in standardized scores at this school?” Or one could ask this in a different way: “To what extent have scores declined as a result of the curriculum?”

The same principle applies to Anna Quindlen’s argument about the homeless in her commentary “No Place Like Home,” which illustrates the kinds of connections an author tries to make with readers. Writing her piece as an editorial in the New York Times, Quindlen addresses an issue that appears to plague New Yorkers. And yet many people have come to live with the presence of homelessness in New York and other cities. This is the situation that motivates Quindlen to write her editorial: People study the problem of homelessness, yet nothing gets done. Homelessness has become a way of life, a situation that seems to say to observers that officials have declared defeat when it comes to this problem.

Frame a Good Question

A good question can help you think through what you might be interested in writing; it is specific enough to guide inquiry and meets the following criteria:

It can be answered with the tools you have.

It conveys a clear idea of who you are answering the question for.

It is organized around an issue.







It explores “how,” “why,” or “whether,” and the “extent to which.”

A good question, then, is one that can be answered given the access we have to certain kinds of information. The tools we have at hand can be people or other texts. A good question also grows out of an issue, some fundamental tension that you identify within a conversation. Through identifying what is at issue, you should begin to understand for whom it is an issue — who you are answering the question for.

FRAMING AS A CRITICAL STRATEGY FOR WRITING, READING, AND DOING RESEARCH Thus far, I have presented a conversational model of argument, describing writing as a form of dialogue, with writers responding to the ways others have defined problems and anticipating possible counterarguments. In this section, I want to add another element that some people call framing. This is a strategy that can help you orchestrate different and conflicting voices in advancing your argument.

Framing is a metaphor for describing the lens, or perspective, from which writers present their arguments. Writers want us to see the world in one way as opposed to another, not unlike the way a photographer manipulates a camera lens to frame a picture. For example, if you were taking a picture of friends in front of the football stadium on campus, you would focus on what you would most like to remember, blurring the images of people in the background. How you set up the picture, or frame it, might entail using light and shade to make some images stand out more than others. Writers do the same with language.

For instance, in writing about education in the United States, E. D. Hirsch uses the term cultural literacy as a way to understand a problem, in this case the decline of literacy. To say that there is a decline, Hirsch has to establish the criteria against which to measure whether some people are literate and some are not. Hirsch uses cultural literacy as a lens through which to discriminate between those who fulfill his criteria for literacy and those who do not. He defines cultural literacy as possessing certain kinds of information. Not all educators agree. Some oppose equating literacy and information, describing literacy as an event or as a practice to argue that literacy is not confined to acquiring bits of information; instead, the notion of literacy as an event or practice says something about how people use what they know to accomplish the work of a community. As you can see, any perspective or lens can limit readers’ range of vision: readers will see some things and not others.

In my work as a writer, I have identified four reasons to use framing as a strategy for developing an argument. First, framing encourages you to name your position, distinguishing the way you think about the world from the ways others do. Naming also makes what you say memorable through key terms and theories. Readers may not remember every detail of Hirsch’s argument, but they recall the principle — cultural literacy — around which he organizes his details. Second, framing forces you to offer both a definition and description of the principle around which your argument develops. For example, Hirsch defines cultural literacy as “the possession of basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” By defining your argument, you give readers something substantive to respond to. Third, framing specifies your argument, enabling others to respond to your argument and to generate counterarguments that you will want to engage in the spirit of conversation. Fourth, framing helps you organize your thoughts, and readers’, in the same way that a title for an essay, a song, or a painting does.






Motivated to reflect upon his life as a student, Rodriguez comes across Richard Hoggart’s book and a description of “the scholarship boy.”

His initial response is to identify with Hoggart’s description. Notice that Rodriguez says he used what he read to “frame the meaning of my academic success.”

The scholarship boy moves between school and home, between moments of spontaneity and

To extend this argument, I would like you to think about framing as a strategy of critical inquiry when you read. By critical inquiry, I mean that reading entails understanding the framing strategies that writers use and using framing concepts in order to shed light on our own ideas or the ideas of others. Here I distinguish reading as inquiry from reading as a search for information. For example, you might consider your experiences as readers and writers through the lens of Hirsch’s conception of cultural literacy. You might recognize that schooling for you was really about accumulating information and that such an approach to education served you well. It is also possible that it has not. Whatever you decide, you may begin to reflect upon your experiences in new ways in developing an argument about what the purpose of education might be.

Alternatively, you might think about your educational experiences through a very different conceptual frame in reading the following excerpt from Richard Rodriguez’s memoir, Hunger of Memory. In this book, Rodriguez explains the conflicts he experienced as a nonnative speaker of English who desperately sought to enter mainstream culture, even if this meant sacrificing his identity as the son of Mexican immigrants. Notice how Rodriguez recalls his experience as a student through the framing concept of “scholarship boy” that he reads in Richard Hoggart’s 1957 book, The Uses of Literacy. Using this notion of “scholarship boy” enables him to revisit his experience from a new perspective.

As you read this passage, consider what the notion of “scholarship boy” helps Rodriguez to understand about his life as a student. In turn, what does such a concept help you understand about your own experience as a student?

For weeks I read, speed-read, books by modern educational theorists, only to find infrequent and slight mention of students like me…. Then one day, leafing through Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, I found, in his description of the scholarship boy, myself. For the first time I realized that there were other students like me, and so I was able to frame the meaning of my academic success, its consequent price

— the loss. Hoggart’s description is distinguished, at least

initially, by deep understanding. What he grasps very well is that the scholarship boy must move between environments, his home and the classroom, which are at cultural extremes, opposed. With his family, the boy has the intense pleasure of intimacy, the family’s consolation in feeling public alienation. Lavish emotions texture home life. Then, at school, the instruction bids him to trust lonely reason primarily.

Immediate needs set the pace of his parents’ lives. From his mother and father the boy learns to trust spontaneity and nonrational ways of knowing. Then, at school, there is mental calm. Teachers emphasize the value of a reflectiveness that opens a space between thinking and immediate action.

Years of schooling must pass before the boy will be able to sketch the cultural differences in his day as abstractly as this. But he senses those differences early. Perhaps as early as the night he brings home an assignment from school and finds the house too noisy






Rodriguez uses Hoggart’s words and idea to advance his own understanding of the problem he identifies in his life: that he was unable to find solace at home and within his working-class roots.

The writer has not yet named her framing concept; but notice that the concrete

for study.

He has to be more and more alone, if he is going to “get on.” He will have, probably unconsciously, to oppose the ethos of the health, the intense gregariousness of the working-class family group…. The boy has to cut himself off mentally, so as to do his homework, as well as he can. (47)

In this excerpt, the idea of framing highlights the fact that other people’s texts can serve as tools for helping you say more about your own ideas. If you were writing an essay using Hoggart’s term

scholarship boy as a lens through which to say something about education, you might ask how Hoggart’s term illuminates new aspects of another writer’s examples or your own — as opposed to asking, “How well does Hoggart’s term scholarship boy apply to my experience?” (to which you could answer, “Not very well”). Further, you might ask, “To what extent does Hirsch’s concept throw a more positive light on what Rodriguez and Hoggart describe?” or “Do my experiences challenge, extend, or complicate such a term as scholarship boy?”

Now that you have a sense of how framing works, let’s look at an excerpt from a researched argument a first-year composition student wrote, titled “Learning ‘American’ in Spanish.” The assignment to which she responded asked her to do the following:

Draw on your life experiences in developing an argument about education and what it has meant to you in your life. In writing your essay, use two of the four authors (Freire, Hirsch, Ladson-Billings, Pratt) included in this unit to frame your argument or any of the reading you may have done on your own. What key terms, phrases, or ideas from these texts help you teach your readers what you want them to learn from your experiences? How do your experiences extend or complicate your critical frames?

In the past, in responding to this assignment, some people have offered an overview of almost their entire lives, some have focused on a pivotal experience, and others have used descriptions of people who have influenced them. The important thing is that you use those experiences to argue a position: for example, that even the most well-meaning attempts to support students can actually hinder learning. This means going beyond narrating a simple list of experiences, or simply asserting an opinion. Instead you must use — and analyze — your experiences, determining which will most effectively convince your audience that your argument has a solid basis.

As you read the excerpt from this student’s essay, ask yourself how the writer uses two framing concepts — “transculturation” and “contact zone” — from Mary Louise Pratt’s article “Arts of the Contact Zone.” What do these ideas help the writer bring into focus? What experience do these frames help her to name, define, and describe?

Jennifer Farrel Exactly one week after graduating from high school, with thirteen years of American education behind me, I boarded a plane and headed for a Caribbean island. I



details she gathers here set readers up to expect that she will juxtapose the culture of Guayabal and the Dominican Republic with that of the United States.

The writer names her experience as an example of Pratt’s conception of a “contact zone.” Further, the writer expands on Pratt’s quote by relating it to her own observations. And finally, she uses this frame as a way to organize the narrative (as opposed to ordering her narrative chronologically).

The writer provides concrete evidence to support her point.

The writer offers an illustration of what she experienced, clarifying how this experience is similar to

had fifteen days to spend on an island surrounded with crystal blue waters, white sandy shores, and luxurious ocean resorts. With beaches to play on by day and casinos to play in during the night, I was told that this country was an exciting new tourist destination. My days in the Dominican Republic, however, were not filled with snorkeling lessons and my nights were not spent at the blackjack table. Instead of visiting the ritzy

East Coast, I traveled inland to a mountain community with no running water and no electricity. The bus ride to this town, called Guayabal, was long, hot, and uncomfortable. The mountain roads were not paved and the bus had no air-conditioning. Surprisingly, the four- hour ride flew by. I had plenty to think about as my mind raced with thoughts of the next two weeks. I wondered if my host family would be welcoming, if the teenagers would be friendly, and if my work would be hard. I mentally prepared myself for life without the everyday luxuries of a flushing toilet, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed. Because Guayabal was without such basic commodities, I did not expect to see many reminders of home. I thought I was going to leave behind my American ways and immerse myself into another culture. These thoughts filled my head as the bus climbed the rocky hill toward Guayabal. When I finally got off the bus and stepped into the town square, I realized that I had thought wrong: There was no escaping the influence of the American culture.

In a way, Guayabal was an example of what author Mary Louise Pratt refers to as a contact zone. Pratt defines a contact zone as “a place where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (76). In Guayabal, American culture and American consumerism were clashing with the Hispanic and Caribbean culture of the Dominican Republic. The clash came from the Dominicans’ desire to be American in every sense, and especially to be consumers of American products. This is nearly impossible for Dominicans to achieve due to their extreme poverty. Their poverty provided the “asymmetrical relation of power” found in contact

zones, because it impeded not only the Dominican’s ability to be consumers, but also their ability to learn, to work, and to live healthily. The effects of their poverty could be seen in the eyes of the seven-year-old boy who couldn’t concentrate in school because all he had to eat the day before was an underripe mango. It could be seen in the brown, leathered hands of the tired old man who was still picking coffee beans at age seventy.




what Pratt describes. Note that Pratt’s verb clash, used in the definition of contact zone, reappears here as part of the author’s observation.

The author adds another layer to her description, introducing Pratt’s framing concept of “transculturation.”

Here again she quotes Pratt in order to bring into focus her own context here. The writer offers another example of transculturation.


The moment I got off the bus I noticed the clash between the American culture, the Dominican culture, and the community’s poverty. It was apparent in the Dominicans’ fragmented representation of American pop culture. Everywhere I looked in Guayabal I saw little glimpses of America. I saw Coca-Cola ads painted on raggedy fences. I saw knockoff Tommy

Hilfiger shirts. I heard little boys say, “I wanna be like Mike” in their best English, while playing basketball. I listened to merengue house, the American version of the traditional Dominican merengue music. In each instance the Dominicans had adopted an aspect of American culture, but with an added Dominican twist. Pratt calls this transculturation. This term is used to “describe processes whereby members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (80). She claims that transculturation is an identifying feature of contact zones. In the contact zone of Guayabal, the marginal group, made up of impoverished Dominicans, selected aspects of the dominant American culture, and invented a unique expression of a culture combining both Dominican and American styles. My most vivid memory of this transculturalization was on a hot afternoon when I heard some children yelling, “Helado! Helado!” or “Ice cream! Ice cream!” I looked outside just in time to see a man ride by on a bicycle, ringing a hand bell and balancing a cooler full of ice cream in the front bicycle basket. The Dominican children eagerly chased after him, just as American children chase after the ice-cream truck.

Although you will notice that the writer does not challenge the framing terms she uses in this paper, it is clear that rather than simply reproducing Pratt’s ideas and using her as the Voice of Authority, she incorporates Pratt’s understandings to enable her to say more about her own experiences and ideas. Moreover, she uses this frame to advance an argument in order to affect her readers’ views of culture. In turn, when she mentions others’ ideas, she does so in the service of what she wants to say.

CONCLUSION: WRITING RESEARCHED ARGUMENTS I want to conclude this chapter by making a distinction between two different views of research. On the one hand, research is often taught as a process of collecting information for its own sake. On the other hand, research can also be conceived as the discovery and purposeful use of information. The emphasis here is upon use and the ways you can shape information in ways that enable you to enter conversations. To do so, you need to demonstrate to readers that you understand the conversation: what others have said in the





past, what the context is, and what you anticipate is the direction this conversation might take. Keep in mind, however, that contexts are neither found nor located. Rather, context, derived from the Latin contexere, denotes a process of weaving together. Thus your attempt to understand context is an active process of making connections among the different and conflicting views people present within a conversation. Your version of the context will vary from others’ interpretations.

Your attempts to understand a given conversation may prompt you to do research, as will your attempts to define what is at issue. Your reading and inquiry can help you construct a question that is rooted in some issue that is open to dispute. In turn, you need to ask yourself what is at stake for you and your reader other than the fact that you might be interested in educational reform, homelessness, affirmative action, or any other subject. Finally, your research can provide a means for framing an argument in order to move a conversation along and to say something new.

If you see inquiry as a means of entering conversations, then you will understand research as a social process. It need not be the tedious task of collecting information for its own sake. Rather, research has the potential to change readers’ worldviews and your own.

Works Cited Bartholomae, David, and Anthony Petrosky. 1996. Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. New

York: Bedford Books. Brent, Doug. 1996. “Rogerian Rhetoric: Ethical Growth Through Alternative Forms of

Argumentation.” In Argument Revisited; Argument Redefined: Negotiating Meaning in a Composition Classroom, 73–96. Edited by Barbara Emmel, Paula Resch, and Deborah Tenney. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Burke, Kenneth. 1941. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press. Crosswhite, James. 1996. The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument. Madison,

WI: University of Wisconsin Press. Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. Hirsch, E. D. 1987. Cultural Literacy. New York: Vintage Books. Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1994. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American

Children. New York: Teachers College Press. Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Profession 91 (1991): 33–40. Quindlen, Anna. 1993. “No Place Like Home.” In Thinking Out Loud: On the Personal, the Public,

and the Private, 42–44. New York: Random House. Rodriguez, Richard. 1983. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. New York:

Bantam Books.

Acknowledgment I wish to thank Robert Kachur and April Lidinsky for helping me think through the notions of argument as conversation and framing.



Responding — Really Responding — to Other Students’ Writing RICHARD STRAUB

Framing the Reading

Richard Straub was an associate professor of English at Florida State University prior to his untimely death in 2002. His special area of research interest was responding to student writing. He wrote a number of articles and books on how teachers can respond effectively to student writing in order to help students grow and improve. The short piece you will read here takes what Straub learned about responding to writing and explains it directly to students. It was originally published in a textbook for first-year students, so you’ll see that he speaks directly to you, giving you explicit advice about what to do. As you read this selection, keep in mind what you have been learning in this chapter about reading. As you read the texts drafted by your classmates during the semester or quarter ahead, remember to read them as turns in a conversation that are attempting to make meaning with others, including with you.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do the following activity:

Consider your experiences with “peer review.” What has gone wrong? What has gone well? What is your attitude about peer review?

As you read, consider the following questions:






Does Straub’s advice set up peer review differently than your previous experiences did?

How can you understand and better participate in peer review if you understand your task as reading rhetorically and making meaning with another author?

OKAY. YOU’VE GOT a student paper you have to read and make comments on for Thursday. It’s not something you’re looking forward to. But that’s alright, you think. There isn’t really all that much to it. Just keep it simple. Read it quickly and mark whatever you see. Say something about the introduction. Something about details and examples. Ideas you can say you like. Mark any typos and spelling errors. Make your comments brief. Abbreviate where possible: awk. Good intro, give ex, frag. Try to imitate the teacher. Mark what he’d mark and sound like he’d sound. But be cool about it. Don’t praise anything really, but no need to get harsh or cut throat either. Get in and get out. You’re okay. I’m okay. Everybody’s happy. What’s the problem?

This is, no doubt, a way of getting through the assignment. Satisfy the teacher and no surprises for the writer. It might just do the trick. But say you want to do a good job. Say you’re willing to put in the time and effort — though time is tight and you know it’s not going to be easy — and help the writer look back on the paper and revise it. And maybe in the process learn something more yourself about writing. What do you look for? How do you sound? How much do you take up? What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Here are some ideas.

HOW SHOULD YOU LOOK AT YOURSELF AS A RESPONDER? Consider yourself a friendly reader. A test pilot. A roommate who’s been asked to look over





the paper and tell the writer what you think. Except you don’t just take on the role of The Nice Roommate or The Ever-faithful Friend and tell her what she wants to hear. This all looks good. I wouldn’t change a thing. There are a couple places that I think he might not like, but I can see what you’re doing there. I’d go with it. Good stuff. You’re supportive. You give her the benefit of the doubt and look to see the good in her writing. But friends don’t let friends think their writing is the best thing since The Great Gatsby and they don’t lead them to think that all is fine and well when it’s not. Look to help this friend, this roommate writer — okay, this person in your class — to get a better piece of writing. Point to problems and areas for improvement but do it in a constructive way. See what you can do to push her to do even more than she’s done and stretch herself as a writer.

WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS? First, don’t set out to seek and destroy all errors and problems in the writing. You’re not an editor. You’re not a teacher. You’re not a cruise missile. And don’t rewrite any parts of the paper. You’re not the writer; you’re a reader. One of many. The paper is not yours; it’s the writer’s. She writes. You read. She is in charge of what she does to her writing. That doesn’t mean you can’t make suggestions. It doesn’t mean you can’t offer a few sample rewrites here and there, as models. But make it clear they’re samples, models. Not rewrites. Not edits. Not corrections. Be reluctant at first even to say what you would do if the paper were yours. It’s not yours. Again; Writers write, readers read and show what they’re understanding and maybe make suggestions. What to do instead: Look at your task as a simple one. You’re there to play back to the writer how you read the paper: what you got from it; what you found interesting; where you were confused; where you wanted more. With this done, you can go on to point out problems, ask questions, offer advice, and wonder out loud with the writer about her ideas. Look to help her improve the writing or encourage her to work on some things as a writer.

HOW DO YOU GET STARTED? Before you up and start reading the paper, take a minute (alright, thirty seconds) to make a mental checklist about the circumstances of the writing, the context. You’re not going to just read a text. You’re going to read a text within a certain context, a set of circumstances that accompany the writing and that you bring to your reading. It’s one kind of writing or another, designed for one audience and purpose or another. It’s a rough draft or a final draft. The writer is trying to be serious or casual, straight or ironic. Ideally, you’ll read the paper with an eye to the circumstances that it was written in and the situation it is looking to create. That means looking at the writing in terms of the assignment, the writer’s particular interests and aims, the work you’ve been doing in class, and the stage of drafting.

The assignment: What kind of writing does the assignment call (or allow) for? Is the paper supposed to be a personal essay? A report? An analysis? An argument? Consider how well the paper before you meets the demands of the kind of writing the writer is taking up. The writer’s interests and aims: What does the writer want to accomplish? If she’s writing a personal narrative, say, is she trying to simply recount a past experience? Is she trying to recount a past experience and at the same time amuse her readers? Is she trying to show a pleasant experience on the surface, yet suggest underneath that everything was not as pleasant as it seems? Hone in on the writer’s particular aims in the writing.






The work of the class: Try to tie your comments to the concepts and strategies you’ve been studying in class. If you’ve been doing a lot of work on using detail, be sure to point to places in the writing where the writer uses detail effectively or where she might provide richer detail. If you’ve been working on developing arguments through examples and sample cases, indicate where the writer might use such methods to strengthen her arguments. If you’ve been considering various ways to sharpen the style of your sentences, offer places where the writer can clarify her sentence structure or arrange a sentence for maximum impact. The best comments will ring familiar even as they lead the writer to try to do something she hasn’t quite done before, or done in quite the same way. They’ll be comforting and understandable even as they create some need to do more, a need to figure out some better way. The stage of drafting: Is it an early draft? A full but incomplete draft? A nearly final draft? Pay attention to the stage of drafting. Don’t try to deal with everything all at once if it’s a first, rough draft. Concentrate on the large picture: the paper’s focus; the content; the writer’s voice. Don’t worry about errors and punctuation problems yet. There’ll be time for them later. If it’s closer to a full draft, go ahead and talk, in addition to the overall content, about arrangement, pacing, and sentence style. Wait till the final draft to give much attention to fine-tuning sentences and dealing in detail with proofreading. Remember: You’re not an editor. Leave these sentence revisions and corrections for the writer. It’s her paper. And she’s going to learn best by detecting problems and making her own changes.

WHAT TO ADDRESS IN YOUR COMMENTS? Try to focus your comments on a couple of areas of writing. Glance through the paper quickly first. Get an idea whether you’ll deal mostly with the overall content and purpose of the writing, its shape and flow, or (if these are more or less in order) with local matters of paragraph structure, sentence style, and correctness. Don’t try to cover everything that comes up or even all instances of a given problem. Address issues that are most important to address in this paper, at this time.

WHERE TO PUT YOUR COMMENTS? Some teachers like to have students write comments in the margins right next to the passage. Some like to have students write out their comments in an end note or in a separate letter to the writer. I like to recommend using both marginal comments and a note or letter at the end. The best of both worlds. Marginal comments allow you to give a quick moment-by-moment reading of the paper. They make it easy to give immediate and specific feedback. You still have to make sure you specify what you’re talking about and what you have to say, but they save you some work telling the writer what you’re addressing and allow you to focus your end note on things that are most important. Comments at the end allow you to provide some perspective on your response. This doesn’t mean that you have to size up the paper and give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. You can use the end comment to emphasize the key points of your response, explain and elaborate on issues you want to deal with more fully, and mention additional points that you don’t want to address in detail. One thing to avoid: plastering comments all over the writing; in between and over the lines of the other person’s writing — up, down, and across the page. Write in your space, and let the writer keep hers.

HOW TO SOUND? Not like a teacher. Not like a judge. Not like an editor or critic or shotgun. (Wouldn’t you want someone who was giving you comments not to sound like a teacher’s red pen, a judge’s







ruling, an editor’s impatience, a critic’s wrath, a shotgun’s blast?) Sound like you normally sound when you’re speaking with a friend or acquaintance. Talk to the writer. You’re not just marking up a text; you’re responding to the writer. You’re a reader, a helper, a colleague. Try to sound like someone who’s a reader, who’s helpful, and who’s collegial. Supportive. And remember: Even when you’re tough and demanding you can still be supportive.

HOW MUCH TO COMMENT? Don’t be stingy. Write most of your comments out in full statements. Instead of writing two or three words, write seven or eight. Instead of making only one brief comment and moving on, say what you have to say and then go back over the statement and explain what you mean or why you said it or note other alternatives. Let the writer know again and again how you are understanding her paper, what you take her to be saying. And elaborate on your key comments. Explain your interpretations, problems, questions, and advice.

IS IT OKAY TO BE SHORT AND SWEET? No. At least not most of the time. Get specific. Don’t rely on general statements alone. How much have generic comments helped you as a writer? “Add detail.” “Needs better structure.” “Unclear.” Try to let the writer know what exactly the problem is. Refer specifically to the writer’s words and make them a part of your comments. “Add some detail on what it was like working at the beach.” “I think we’ll need to know more about your high school crowd before we can understand the way you’ve changed.” “This sentence is not clear. Were you disappointed or were they disappointed?” This way the writer will see what you’re talking about, and she’ll have a better idea what to work on.

DO YOU PRAISE OR CRITICIZE OR WHAT? Be always of two (or three) minds about your response to the paper. You like the paper, but it could use some more interesting detail. You found this statement interesting, but these ideas in the second paragraph are not so hot. It’s an alright paper, but it could be outstanding if the writer said what was really bothering her. Always be ready to praise. But always look to point to places that are not working well or that are not yet working as well as they might. Always be ready to expect more from the writer.

HOW TO PRESENT YOUR COMMENTS? Don’t steer away from being critical. Feel free — in fact, feel obliged — to tell the writer what you like and don’t like, what is and is not working, and where you think it can be made to work better. But use some other strategies, too. Try to engage the writer in considering her choices and thinking about possible ways to improve the paper. Make it a goal to write two or three comments that look to summarize or paraphrase what the writer is saying. Instead of telling the reader what to do, suggest what she might do. Identify the questions that are raised for you as you the reader:

Play back your way of understanding the writing: This seems to be the real focus of the paper, the issue you seem most interested in. So you’re saying that you really weren’t interested in her romantically?






Temper your criticisms: This sentence is a bit hard to follow. I’m not sure this paragraph is necessary.

Offer advice: It might help to add an example here. Maybe save this sentence for the end of the paper.

Ask questions, especially real questions: What else were you feeling at the time? What kind of friend? Would it help to say? Do you need this opening sentence? In what ways were you “daddy’s little girl”?

Explain and follow up on your initial comments: You might present this episode first. This way we can see what you mean when you

say that he was always too busy. How did you react? Did you cry or yell? Did you walk away? This makes her sound cold and calculating. Is that what you want?

Offer some praise, and then explain to the writer why the writing works: Good opening paragraph. You’ve got my attention. Good detail. It tells me a lot about the place. I like the descriptions you provide — for instance, about your grandmother cooking,

at the bottom of page 1; about her house, in the middle of page 2; and about how she said her rosary at night: “quick but almost pleading, like crying without tears.”

HOW MUCH CRITICISM? HOW MUCH PRAISE? Challenge yourself to write as many praise comments as criticisms. When you praise, praise well. Think about it. Sincerity and specificity are everything when it comes to a compliment.

HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU BE INFLUENCED BY WHAT YOU KNOW ABOUT THE WRITER? Consider the person behind the writer when you make your comments. If she’s not done so well in class lately, maybe you can give her a pick-me-up in your comments. If she’s shy and seems reluctant to go into the kind of personal detail the paper seems to need, encourage her. Make some suggestions or tell her what you would do. If she’s confident and going on arrogant, see what you can do to challenge her with the ideas she presents in the paper. Look for other views she may not have thought about, and find ways to lead her to consider them. Always be ready to look at the text in terms of the writer behind the text.

Good comments, this listing shows, require a lot from a reader. But you don’t have to make a checklist out of these suggestions and go through each one methodically as you read. It’s amazing how they all start coming together when you look at your response as a way of talking with the writer seriously about the writing, recording how you experience the words on the page and giving the writer something to think about for revision. The more you see examples of thoughtful commentary and the more you try to do it yourself, the more you’ll get a feel for how it’s done.



16Here’s a set of student comments on a student paper. They were done in the last third of a course that focused on the personal essay and concentrated on helping students develop the content and thought of their writing. The class had been working on finding ways to develop and extend the key statements of their essays (by using short, representative details, full- blown examples, dialogue, and multiple perspectives) and getting more careful about selecting and shaping parts of their writing. The assignment called on students to write an essay or an autobiographical story where they looked to capture how they see (or have seen) something about one or both of their parents — some habits, attitudes, or traits their parents have taken on. They were encouraged to give shape to their ideas and experiences in ways that went beyond their previous understandings and try things they hadn’t tried in their writing. More a personal narrative than an essay, Todd’s paper looks to capture one distinct difference in the way his mother and father disciplined their children. It is a rough draft that will be taken through one or possibly two more revisions. Readers were asked to offer whatever feedback they could that might help the writer with the next stage of writing (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1



17This is a full and thoughtful set of comments. The responder, Jeremy, creates himself not as a teacher or critic but first of all as a reader, one who is intent on saying how he takes the writing and what he’d like to hear more about:

Good point. Makes it more unlikely that you should be the one to get caught. Great passage. Really lets the reader know what you were thinking. Was there a reason you were first or did it just happen that way? Would he punish you anyway or could you just get away with things?

He makes twenty-two comments on the paper — seventeen statements in the margins and five more in the end note. The comments are written out in full statements, and they are detailed and specific. They make his response into a lively exchange with the writer, one person talking with another about what he’s said. Well over half of the comments are follow-





up comments that explain, illustrate, or qualify other responses. The comments focus on the content and development of the writing, in line with the

assignment, the stage of drafting, and the work of the course. They also view the writing rhetorically, in terms of how the text has certain effects on readers. Although there are over two dozen wording or sentence-level errors in the paper, he decides, wisely, to stick with the larger matters of writing. Yet even as he offers a pretty full set of comments he doesn’t ever take control over the text. His comments are placed unobtrusively on the page, and he doesn’t try to close things down or decide things for the writer. He offers praise, encouragement, and direction. What’s more, he pushes the writer to do more than he has already done, to extend the boundaries of his examination. In keeping with the assignment and the larger goals of the course, he calls on Todd in several comments to explore the motivations and personalities behind his parents’ different ways of disciplining:

Maybe you could say more as to why you think your mom is like this. Did your dad get into trouble as a kid so he knows what it’s like? Explain why he reacts as he does.

Figure 1

I called home. Sweet beading on my lip. “Hello”, my mom said. Oh geez, I’m dead. “Mom can I talk to dad?” “Why, what’s wrong?” “Oh, nothing, I just need to talk to him,” yes, this is going to work! “Hold on,” she said. “Hello,” my father said. “Dad, I’m at the police station,” I told him the whole story of what happened. He reacted exactly as I expect he would. “Uhmm (long pause). You’re at the police station………..

I really like the ending, it tells the reader what is going to happen without having to explain it step, by step. Good paper, I like the use of dialogue. Perhaps more on your understanding of why your parents react as they do.

He is careful, though, not to get presumptuous and make decisions for the writer. Instead, he offers options and points to possibilities:

Perhaps more on your understanding of why your parents react as they do. What other things did you do to get into trouble? Or is it irrelevant?

From start to finish he takes on the task of reading and responding and leaves the work of writing and revising to Todd.

Jeremy’s response is not in a class by itself. A set of comments to end all commentary on Todd’s paper. He might have done well, for instance, to recognize how much this paper works because of the way Todd arranges the story. He could have done more to point to what’s not working in the writing or what could be made to work better. He might have asked Todd for more details about his state of mind when he got caught by the policeman and while he was being held at the police station. He might have urged him more to make certain changes. He might even have said, if only in a brief warning, something about the number of errors across the writing. But this is moot and just. Different readers are always going to pick





up on different things and respond in different ways, and no one reading or response is going to address everything that might well be addressed, in the way it might best be addressed. All responses are incomplete and provisional — one reader’s way of reading and reacting to the text in front of him. And any number of other responses, presented in any number of different ways, might be as useful or maybe even more useful to Todd as he takes up his work with the writing.

All this notwithstanding, Jeremy’s comments are solid. They are full. They are thoughtful. And they are respectful. They take the writing and the writer seriously and address the issues that are raised responsibly. His comments do what commentary on student writing should optimally do. They turn the writer back into his writing and lead him to reflect on his choices and aims, to consider and reconsider his intentions as a writer and the effects the words on the page will have on readers. They help him see what he can work on in revision and what he might deal with in his ongoing work as a writer.


What are your experiences with responding to other students’ writing? Have you done so in other classes? How did that work out? Were you able to discuss your responses? In small groups or large groups? Which situation did you like best? Do you have any papers where others have responded to your writing? Collect one or more and see how the responses stack up against Rick’s guidelines. Having read his essay, what would you say your respondent did well and needs to learn to do better? In the same way, after everyone in your small group responds to a first paper, go over those papers/responses together in a group and look at what was done and what could be done to improve the quality of responses. In addition, you might try to characterize each of you as a responder: What are your habits? What character/persona do you take on? Would you like to be responded to by the responder you find you are through this group analysis? How do my suggestions for response to student writers sound the same or different from Rick’s suggestions? Do we come from the same “school” of responding or do we suggest different approaches? Characterize the differences or similarities you find. Rick shows you a responder — Jeremy — and the comments he wrote on Todd’s paper. If you were Todd, how would you feel about Jeremy’s responses? Do you agree with Rick’s analysis of Jeremy’s comments? What three or four additional things would you tell Todd about his paper? What are your insights into responding? What has worked for you? What do you wish people would do or not do when they respond to your writing? What would make you most inclined to listen to responses and use them to change your work?



Using This Book

Reading texts that are written by expert researchers for other experts is not easy even for your instructors, and it won’t be easy or quick reading for you at first, either. We’ve created Writing about Writing to make sure that the time you spend with the readings is worthwhile and will lead you to new insights and more successful writing experiences. To help you, we have some concrete advice and suggestions about how to approach the readings in the following chapters.




Leave plenty of time for reading. These aren’t pieces that you’ll be able to sit down and skim in fifteen minutes, as you may be able to with material in a traditional textbook. Know that you’ll need an hour or two, so give yourself that time. You’ll find yourself less frustrated with the time reading can take if you expect it to take that time.

Consciously connect at least some part of each piece you read to your own experience as a writer. The readings have been chosen specifically to allow you to do that. You’ll understand them best in the moments you can say, “Oh, that sounds like what I do” — or, “That’s actually not what I do at all; I do this instead.”

Read the backstory of each piece, which you’ll find in the “Framing the Reading” sections. These introductions give you background knowledge necessary to understand the pieces themselves more fully.

Look up any boldface terms in the glossary before you dive into the reading. Terms that we anticipate you’ll need background on we include in bold in the chapter introduction or the “Framing the Reading” section so that you know you can find information on them in the glossary. Don’t forget the glossary is there for you!

Use the activities and questions in the “Getting Ready to Read” section to help you focus your reading and develop additional background knowledge that may help you make the clearest sense of the texts. Often we’ve chosen these to get your brain turning on a specific subject so that when you encounter it in the reading, you’ve already been thinking about it.

Look over the “Questions for Discussion and Journaling,” “Applying and Exploring Ideas,” and “Meta Moments” before you read, so that you can get a further sense of where we suggest you focus your attention. This should help you be selective in your attention, rather than trying to read every word in the article in equal depth.

Read with your favorite search engine and Wikipedia open so you can get instant definitions and background, and so that you can learn more about the authors by quickly researching them.

Don’t feel like you’re doing poorly just because you don’t understand the piece well. Your instructors encounter readings all the time that they have difficulty understanding — that’s how you know you’re stretching your knowledge and growing. It’s okay not to have complete clarity; if we couldn’t accept that, we’d never be able to learn anything new. What you really want is to finish a piece, having worked hard on it, and be able to say “Here are the parts that made sense to me, and here are the parts I still don’t understand and want to talk about more.” Even if you write down only a few things that you understood and many more that you didn’t, that’s okay — you’re doing



what you’re supposed to, and you are learning. Remember that sometimes you only learn things, or realize you’ve learned them, long after the initial encounter. In other words, when you finish a text with a certain level of understanding, you can expect that as you go on and read other texts, ideas in them will continue to clarify aspects of the first text that you hadn’t understood yet. That, too, is a natural part of learning.




Four readings in the book include Assist Tags to help you get the most from the reading. Consider the Assist Tags direct messages from us, things we would tell you to help you out if we were reading with you. Not every tagged reading will have all the tags described below, but most of the tagged readings will use several of them. When we tag a reading, the tags will be quite brief.

Chapter 2 – Deborah Brandt, “Sponsors of Literacy” (p. 68)

Chapter 3 – James Paul Gee, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction” (p. 274)

Chapter 4 – Keith Grant-Davie, “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents” (p. 484)

Chapter 5 – Sondra Perl, “The Composing Processes of Unskilled College Writers” (p. 738)

On the next two pages is a detailed explanation of what each tag means. Mark this reading assist tag guide so that you can refer to it when you are looking at a tagged reading later.

Assist Tags Guide


These tags will alert you to the kinds of genre moves a text is making, like those we explained earlier in this chapter. (Be sure to read the Swales section on pages 21–24 if you haven’t already done so.) These tags will appear in the left margin of a selection as numbers that correspond to the explanations at the bottom of the same page.

CARS: Territory

This tag marks an area where a writer is establishing a territory, a particular area of existing inquiry or conversation.

CARS: Niche

This tag marks part of the reading where a writer is establishing a niche or gap in the



territory — where current knowledge is insufficient or problematic.

CARS: Occupy

This tag marks a moment in the reading where a writer is moving to occupy the niche they’ve created by explaining their approach to researching the problem or question they’ve demonstrated.


Sometimes a writer will organize a series of sources so that they’re in conversation with each other and the writer. These are particularly helpful moments for readers to become familiar with the conversation the writing is engaging. This tag marks such conversations among sources.


Often writers use a source in order to create a “jumping-off point” or a point of departure for their own ideas. We use this tag to mark moments in the reading where writers extend their own ideas from an idea in a source’s work.


Writers will sometimes offer metacommentary (text about the text itself) that explains where their writing is going next, or outlines the organization of their piece, or explains how different parts of the piece fit together. We’ve used this tag to identify such moments.


Some sources provide an explanation or analytical pattern that writers will apply to what they’re studying. This pattern or explanatory theory creates a framework that



writers use to interpret their own data. We use this tag to mark the appearance of such frameworks.

Making Knowledge

Every piece in this book creates new knowledge rather than simply transmitting existing information. We use this tag to mark particularly clear or decisive moments in a piece where writers are saying either (1) how they’ve made this new knowledge (usually a methodological explanation or claim) or (2) what the new knowledge is that they’re contributing to the conversation.

Research Question

One common way of creating a CARS niche is to state the research problem as a question. This tag identifies research questions that focus and organize the rest of the text.

So What?

In their conclusions, and frequently in their introductions, writers will discuss the implications of their work — why their research problems, and their findings, actually matter. They answer the implicit questions “So what?” and “Who cares?” This tag marks those moments of discussion.


These tags will give you suggestions about how to read — like speeding up, rereading, or coming back to part of the text later. They will appear in the right margin of assisted texts, and sometimes with additional guidance at the bottom of the page.

Look Ahead

At some moments in a reading, it helps to page through the text looking at the structure to understand where the text will go next. It’s a kind of previewing that



can help you make more sense of the text you’re currently reading. One example of such moments is when the author seems to be starting a list — you might want to overview the items on the list briefly before coming back to read each one in depth. You should also usually look ahead at the headings throughout an article, so that you know the structure of the main sections of the piece — in other words, so that you will know where you are going. The “Look Ahead” tag points to places where seeing the structure that lies ahead will help you understand the current point in the text.


Plan to reread some parts of the article once or twice. That’s good, responsible reading, not a lack of ability or success. Your brain works by hooking new knowledge to existing knowledge. If all the knowledge in a piece is new, you need to read a piece to make some of it “old” in order to have a place to hang the rest of the new knowledge. The “Reread” tag identifies sections that students often need to read several times.

Read Later

Sometimes a reading will make more sense if you read it out of order. When reading a typical social-science research report, experienced readers will often read the introduction and then skip to the conclusion, then read the discussion section immediately prior to the conclusion, and only then read the methods section that comes after the introduction. This is because readers want to know the findings first, and if they are still interested, they want to know how the research was conducted. When you see a “Read Later” tag, skip ahead to the next section or to the conclusion, and then come back to this section later.

Speed Up

When you get bogged down in phrases, lines, or paragraphs that you just can’t make sense of, try reading more quickly. Often, when you can’t make sense of a particular line, it’s because you don’t yet have enough information on the new subject



to “connect” it to. If you skim ahead to a point in the article where things start to make sense to you again, you can more quickly build that “big picture” that will let you make more sense of the individual lines that are hard for you. “Speed Up” tags alert you to points in the text where it may help you to read faster the first time through if the meaning isn’t clear to you.



Reflecting on the Ideas of Chapter 1

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. What surprised you most in this chapter? Why?

2. What confused you most? Why?

3. Did anything you read give you a sense of relief, or lead you to have an “aha moment”? Why?

4. If you were going to pick one of the threshold concepts we have talked about in this chapter and study it in depth this semester, which would it be? Why? How would you go about trying to learn more about this concept?

5. Briefly explain the idea of “genre” and how it can help you undertake your in-school and out-of-school writing tasks.

6. Draw on Greene, Straub, and the section about rhetorical reading (pp. 24–29) and write a short explanation of how to read rhetorically.

7. What is the relationship between reading and writing, as you understand it after reading this chapter?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Make a list of key terms from this chapter. If you aren’t sure you understand them, reread the explanation and/or read their definitions in the glossary. Pick three that seem especially important and write a few paragraphs about why you think they are important to you as a writer or reader.

2. Have you encountered and successfully grappled with a threshold concept about writing in an English or writing class before? (A different college course, or a high school course?) Based on the descriptions of threshold concepts in this chapter, try to identify a threshold concept you’ve encountered in your earlier writing instruction, give it a name, and write a half-page description of it that addresses these questions: What did you know or believe about writing before you learned the concept? What experiences helped you cross that threshold? How did your knowledge or understanding after crossing the threshold make it difficult or impossible to think in your old way again?

3. Try naming some threshold concepts that you’ve encountered in other fields or subjects, such as history or biology or art or math. Do the same with one of these other fields’ concepts as instructed in the previous question.

4. Make an “inventory” of how you usually read assignments for school by listing out the steps you usually go through, from the time you get the assignment to the time you finish the reading. Now compare the way you usually read with the advice for reading given in the “Using This Book” section (p. 55) or in the Greene and Straub readings (pp. 31 and 44). Make a list of the differences and similarities between your typical reading process and the suggestions given in this chapter. For each difference, write a paragraph about what is different, why you do what you do, and what might happen if



you tried the strategies we suggest.




To help you learn and explore the ideas in this chapter, we suggest an assignment option for a larger writing task to challenge and explore your conceptions about writing, reading, and research.




Jot down your ideas about the following:

Writing is ….

Research is ….

Reading is …

Good writers do or are ….

Good writing is ….

Now pull out what you wrote about these ideas before you read this chapter. How are they different or the same now? Trade your pre- and post-reading ideas with another student and ask them to help you consider ways in which your ideas have changed or remained the same. Pick one of the above ideas that you would like to think more about, then write a one-

paragraph explanation of your idea (about writing, research, reading, good writers, good writing). Next, gather examples from your daily life and experiences, as well as those of your friends, to support the explanation that you have given. We have done this throughout the chapter, so you can go back to our various discussions if you need some models.

Planning, Drafting, and Revising.

Without realizing it, you have been planning and drafting for this writing task throughout this chapter. You explored your ideas before you started, and several times throughout the chapter you stopped to check how your ideas were changing and to consider some examples from your own experience. You can now go back to your notes from the chapter in order to help you begin this more formal writing task. Ideally, this is how you will approach writing tasks in this class and in college. You’ll write as you are learning, and you’ll continue to reflect on and modify your ideas. Collect your ideas and draft a three- to five-page exploratory essay in which you define

the idea you have been developing (about writing, research, reading, good writers, etc.). Be sure to explain the idea, define your terms, provide examples that support your position, and explain in some detail any aspect of this idea that might conflict with common conceptions about it. (For example, if you believe that school-based notions of “good writing” are too limited and do not stand up to what research and everyday experience show us about good writing, you will need to guide readers through that line of thinking, as if they haven’t done the reading and thinking you’ve been doing in this chapter.) What genre you will write in depends on all of the above. We want you to use what you



learned in this chapter about genres and about how good writing is context-dependent in order to figure that out. Who do you want to share your claim and examples with? Why? What do those people expect? Where do they get their information? What are they likely to read? What do those texts look like? For example, you might decide that you would like to share your changing and research-based ideas about good writing with your high school teacher, because she constantly marked up your paper for grammar and ignored your ideas. How would you communicate with her? Possibly in a letter or a formal e-mail, in which case you’d need to look at examples before writing up your final draft that way.

What Makes It Good?

This writing task has two primary purposes. First, to help you deeply reflect and consider your ideas about writing, reading, and research and how they hold up to what you are learning in this class and what you do in your daily life. Second, to try to make a thoughtful claim that you can support through inquiry-based examples. So ensuring that what you are writing is thoughtful and supported by meaningful examples is the first priority for writing well here. You will then need to decide who you want to communicate this information with, and why. If you write appropriately for the audience and purpose you have in mind, and if you reflect and make a thoughtful and well-supported claim, you will have accomplished your goals.





How Is Writing Impacted by Our Prior Experiences?

f you are reading this textbook, you are a literate person. You went to school, learned to read and write, and were admitted to the college where you are now being asked to write new and different kinds of texts. Experts who study literacy typically think about more than the ability to read and write. They refer broadly to fluency or expertise in communicating and interacting with other people in many different ways. Thus, it’s more accurate to speak about literacies when thinking about what it means to be a literate person. This book asks you to think broadly about what it means to be literate. What is writing? What is reading? How do you communicate and compose? How have you been taught to engage with texts and how has this influenced your understanding of writing and your relationship with writing? This chapter focuses on how individuals develop literacies and become literate learners. It asks you to think about what your literacies and your attitudes about literacies are, how they developed, how they influence one another, and who you are as a literate person. The purpose of doing so, of course, is to help you deeply engage with one of the threshold concepts we discussed in Chapter 1 — that our prior experiences deeply impact our writing and literacy practices.

LITERACY, LITERATE Literacy denotes fluency in a given practice. In its original use, literacy referred to alphabetic literacy — that is, to fluency in reading and writing “letters,” or alphabetic text. This kind of literacy was contrasted with orality, which was characterized as a lack of literacy. Over time, however, in academic circles, the meaning of literacy and literate has broadened to encompass fluency in other areas; most academics therefore now use the term literacies (plural) and discuss digital, electronic, musical, visual, oral, mathematical, and gaming literacies, among many other kinds.



All of us have what Deborah Brandt will call “literacy sponsors.” You see here a barber from Iowa who gave free back-to-school haircuts to kids who would read him a book. In this way, he helped them engage in and value reading, even if they hadn’t found this same value at home.

In thinking about literacies, it might help you to start by considering your daily life. For example, every day you read and write all kinds of things that you probably rarely talk about in school and that you might not think about as literacy practices or forms of literacy: You check your Facebook account, you text friends, you Skype. You interpret thousands of visual images every time you turn on the television, read a magazine, or go to the mall. You also have literacies particular to your interests — you may know everything there is to know about a particular baseball player’s RBIs, for example, or you may have advanced to an impressively high level in a complex, massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft. And, of course, you have home literacies that may be very different from school or hobby-related literacies. You may come from a family where languages other than English are spoken, or you may live in a community that values collaborative literacy practices (such as storytelling) that school often does not. Researchers in the discipline of Writing Studies are particularly interested in these more

complex ideas about literacy because they want to understand how people acquire literacies and what literacies a society should assist people in acquiring. For example, in contemporary U.S. culture, schools don’t educate students in highly specialized literacies — for example, those related to most hobbies, like radio-controlled vehicles or gaming. Computer literacy was once in this category; as the use of computers went mainstream in the 1980s and 1990s, however — and particularly as it grew in importance in the workplace — the school system realized it needed to commit significant resources toward educating



students in computer and information literacy. The readings in this chapter ask you to consider what counts as “literacy,” how people

become literate, how cultures support and value various forms of literacy, and how we use (or adapt and change) literacy practices across contexts (or what Chapter 3 will describe as discourse communities). Deborah Brandt’s “Sponsors of Literacy” will provide some starting definitions of literacy and some questions about how we acquire the literacies that we do. All of the other readings in the chapter can be understood in some ways as demonstrating the ideas that Brandt talks about in her piece — literacy, access to literacy, and the power that literacy can provide. The excerpts from Sandra Cisneros’s, Malcolm X’s, and Victor Villanueva’s autobiographies are short but poignant examples of how an individual’s family situation, financial situation, race, home language and culture, gender, and similar identifiers influence lifelong literacies, access to education, economic status, and the like. Arthur Tejada et al., a group of students who were labeled as “remedial” writers, ask you to consider how labels influence who you believe you are and what you believe you can do; they illustrate the power that institutions and teachers have in encouraging or discouraging students from all backgrounds to embrace their literacy and language practices. In two other selections, Vershawn Ashanti Young and Barbara Mellix specifically ask you to consider language use and how and why various forms of English are valued differently — and how those values affect writers. The readings in this chapter also help you explicitly to consider how people use what

they have learned in one setting when they are interacting in another setting. Liane Robertson, Kara Taczak, and Kathleen Black Yancey look at how students draw on (or don’t draw on) prior knowledge in order to complete new literacy tasks. Nancy Sommers and Donald Murray write narrative pieces that demonstrate the ways that our identities and experiences inform what we write, how we write, and how we think of things to write in the first place. Lucas Pasqualin, a student, reflects on many of these ideas as he revisits his experiences as a young child from Brazil entering school in the United States. Finally, Jeff Grabill and his colleagues ask you to remember that technologies and media are part of the fabric of your experience as a literate learner. Before you begin reading, take a few minutes to consider how you became the literate

person you are today. No two people have exactly the same literacies, and yours are peculiar to your own personal history — your family, your geographic location, your culture, your hobbies, your religious training, your schooling, and so on. Consider, for example, the following questions:

When and how did you learn to read?

What did you read?

Were there things you were not allowed to read?

Where did you first or most memorably encounter texts as a child — for example, at



home, at school, at a church or synagogue, at day care, at a friend’s or relative’s house?

Did you write or draw as a child? Was this encouraged or discouraged?

What languages or different forms of the same language do you speak at home and elsewhere?

What technologies (from pencils to phones to social media platforms and desktop software) impact your literacy practices?

The threshold concept this chapter addresses is that your experiences have shaped your literacy practices — both what they are, and what they are not — so your answers will not be the same as other people’s. All of us were shaped by what Brandt calls literacy sponsors — people, ideas, or institutions that helped us become literate, but literate in specific ways. If you attended private school instead of public school, for example, what were you exposed to and what literate experiences did you not have that public school students might have had?

THRESHOLD CONCEPTS Threshold concepts are ideas that literally change the way you experience, think about, and understand a subject. Every specialized field of study (or discipline — history, biology, mathematics, etc.) has threshold concepts that learners in that field must become acquainted with in order to fully understand the ideas of that field of study. Threshold concepts, once learned, help the learner see the world differently. They can be hard to learn (what researchers Jan Meyer and Ray Land call “troublesome”) for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that they might directly conflict with ideas you already have. Once you’re aware of these new and troublesome threshold concepts and you really start to understand them, they are hard to unlearn — Meyer and Land say they are “irreversible.” Very often, learning threshold concepts doesn’t just change the way you think about the subject, but also the way you think about yourself. But what makes them most powerful is that they help you understand a whole set of other ideas that are hard to imagine without knowing the threshold concept — so they let you do a whole lot of learning at once by helping entire sets of ideas “fall into place.” Chapter 1 discusses the main threshold concepts addressed in Writing about Writing.

LITERACY SPONSOR Literacy sponsor is a term coined by Deborah Brandt to describe people, ideas, or institutions that help others become literate in specific ways. A sponsor could be a parent or sibling who taught you to read, a teacher who helped you learn to love books, or a manufacturing company that requires its employees to be able to read. The sponsors of alphabetic literacy in your life might be very different from the sponsors of visual literacy, musical literacy, or other forms of literacy in your life. (Pandora, for instance, can be a musical literacy sponsor for people who use it.)



As you reflect on your own experiences, consider both the texts you were exposed to and those you were not exposed to, or the ones that you were explicitly denied. When you learned to write, what motivated you to want to write? Who helped you — or did not? What kinds of things did you write, and for whom? As you grew older, did your interest in writing change? What factors impacted those changes — friends? teachers? parents? new hobbies? This brief reflection on your literacy history should illustrate the point we are trying to

make: You are a literate person; you are an expert on your own literacy practices and history; you have been shaped by many factors including home language, class, race, geographical location, and much more. You come to this chapter knowing a lot, and through the readings and activities you’ll find here, we hope to help you uncover more of what you know, in addition to learning some things that you did not know before. We hope you will be able to see your past experiences living in your current experiences, and draw on them in creative and useful ways. We hope you will consciously consider what it means to be literate (and who decides what “literate” means), and what it means to read and write in various contexts and cultures — and by so doing broaden your understandings in new ways.


To understand the concepts of literacy and multiple literacies

To consider how different forms of language and literacy are valued and by whom — and what the consequences are

To acquire additional vocabulary for talking about yourself as a writer and reader

To come to greater awareness of the forces that have shaped you as a writer and reader

To consider how you use your literacy practices across different settings, what that means for you, and what it reveals about our culture at large

To understand ways of conducting contributive research and writing about literacy that can be shared with an audience

To strengthen your ability to read complex, research-based texts more confidently

To gain experience writing from readings and citing sources



Tagged Reading

Sponsors of Literacy DEBORAH BRANDT

Framing the Reading

Deborah Brandt is a professor emerita in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has written several books about literacy, including Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers and Texts (Southern Illinois University Press, 1990); Literacy in American Lives (Cambridge University Press, 2001); and Literacy and Learning: Reading, Writing, Society (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Her most recent book is The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She has also written a number of scholarly research articles about literacy, including the one you are about to read here, “Sponsors of Literacy,” which describes some of the data she collected when writing Literacy in American Lives. In that book, Brandt examined the way literacy learning changed between 1895 and 1985, noting that literacy standards have risen dramatically. In “Sponsors of Literacy” she discusses the forces that shape our literacy learning and practices. Brandt’s breakthrough idea in this piece is that people don’t become literate on their

own; rather, literacy is sponsored by people, institutions, and circumstances that both make it possible for a person to become literate and shape the way the person actually acquires literacy. And this is, of course, the threshold concept this chapter is emphasizing. In interviewing a large number of people from all ages and walks of life, Brandt began recognizing these literacy sponsors everywhere, and thus her article here (and the book that the same research led to) is crammed with examples of them, ranging from older siblings to auto manufacturers and World War II.



While we think of the term sponsor as suggesting support or assistance, Brandt doesn’t confine her discussion to the supportive aspects of literacy sponsors. Her research shows ways in which, while opening some doors, literacy sponsors may close others. Literacy sponsors are not always (or even, perhaps, usually) altruistic — they have self-interested reasons for sponsoring literacy, and very often only some kinds of literacy will support their goals. (If you’ve ever wondered why schools encourage you to read, but seem less than thrilled if you’d rather read the Hunger Games series than Ernest Hemingway, Brandt’s explanation of literacy sponsorship may provide an answer.) Brandt also discusses cases where people “misappropriate” a literacy sponsor’s intentions by using a particular literacy for their own ends rather than for the sponsor’s. Brandt’s portrayal of the tension between people and their literacy sponsors

illustrates one more important point in thinking about literacy acquisition and how each of us has become literate. We claim in the chapter introduction that you have a combination of literacies that make you unique. While this is true, people also share many of the same literacy experiences. Brandt can help us understand this, too. Some literacy sponsors are organizations or institutions, such as a public school system or a major corporation, whose sponsorship affects large numbers of people. During the Middle Ages prior to the invention of the printing press, the biggest literacy sponsor in Western civilization was the Roman Catholic Church, which shaped the literacies of virtually every person in feudal Europe as well as vast native populations around the world. Remember, literacy sponsors are not necessarily empowering; they can also disempower and prevent people from becoming literate in some ways while fostering other literacies. “Big” literacy sponsors such as these have likely influenced your




literacy narrative in the same way they’ve influenced many others, giving you something in common with others around you even as your particular literacies are unique to you. This reading is tagged in order to help you navigate it. Remember that the tags are

explained in more detail in Chapter 1 (p. 58). You may want to quickly read about or review the tags there before you begin.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Compare notes with a roommate or friend about what your school literacy experience was like. What books did the school encourage you to read and discourage you from reading? What events and activities supported reading?

Make a list of the ways you’ve seen U.S. culture and your own local community encourage and emphasize reading. What are the reasons usually given for being a good reader and writer, and who gives those reasons?

As you read, consider the following questions:

What are Brandt’s primary terms, in addition to literacy sponsor, and how do they apply to you?

Where do you see yourself in the examples Brandt gives, and where do you not? Keep your early literacy experiences in mind as you read.

What are implications of Brandt’s idea of literacy sponsors for your education right now as a college student?

IN HIS SWEEPING HISTORY of adult learning in the United States, Joseph Kett describes the intellectual atmosphere available to young apprentices who worked in the small, decentralized print shops of antebellum America. Because printers also were the solicitors and editors of what they published, their workshops served as lively incubators for literacy and political discourse. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, this learning space was disrupted when the invention of the steam press reorganized the economy of the print industry. Steam presses were so expensive that they required capital outlays beyond the means of many printers. As a result, print jobs were outsourced, the processes of editing and printing were split, and, in tight competition, print apprentices became low-paid mechanics with no more access to the multi-skilled environment of the craft-shop (Kett 67–70).





While this shift in working conditions may be evidence of the deskilling of workers induced by the Industrial Revolution (Nicholas and Nicholas), it also offers a site for reflecting upon the dynamic sources of literacy and literacy learning. The reading and writing skills of print apprentices in this period were the achievements not simply of teachers and learners nor of the discourse practices of the printer community. Rather, these skills existed fragilely, contingently within an economic moment. The pre-steam press economy enabled some of the most basic aspects of the apprentices’ literacy, especially their access to material production and the public meaning or worth of their skills. Paradoxically, even as the steam-powered penny press made print more accessible (by making publishing more profitable), it brought an end to a particular form of literacy sponsorship and a drop in literate potential.

1 The apprentices’ experience invites rumination upon literacy learning and teaching today. Literacy looms as one of the great engines of profit and competitive advantage in the 20th century: a lubricant for consumer desire; a means for integrating corporate markets; a foundation for the deployment of weapons and other technology; a raw material in the mass production of information. As ordinary citizens have been compelled into these economies, their reading and writing skills have grown sharply more central to the everyday trade of information and goods as well as to the pursuit of education, employment, civil rights, status. At the same time, people’s literate skills have grown vulnerable to unprecedented turbulence in their economic value, as conditions, forms, and standards of literacy achievement seem to shift with almost every new generation of learners.

1 – CARS: Territory The opening narrative has been an example of the overall problem the article will discuss.

2 How are we to understand the vicissitudes of individual literacy development in relationship to the large-scale economic forces that set the routes and determine the worldly worth of that literacy?

2 – CARS: Territory This broad question establishes the territory. It’s not yet describing a “niche,” the specific research question, but rather the overall subject.

The field of writing studies has had much to say about




individual literacy development. Especially in the last quarter of the 20th century, we have theorized, researched, critiqued, debated, and sometimes even managed to enhance the literate potentials of ordinary citizens as they have tried to cope with life as they find it.

3 Less easily and certainly less steadily have we been able to relate what we see, study, and do to these larger contexts of profit making and competition. This even as we recognize that the most pressing issues we deal with — tightening associations between literate skill and social viability, the breakneck pace of change in communications technology, persistent inequities in access and reward — all relate to structural conditions in literacy’s bigger picture.

3 – CARS: Niche

4 When economic forces are addressed in our work, they appear primarily as generalities: contexts, determinants, motivators, barriers, touchstones. But rarely are they systematically related to the local conditions and embodied moments of literacy learning that occupy so many of us on a daily basis.1

4 – CARS: Niche

This essay does not presume to overcome the analytical failure completely. But it does offer a conceptual approach that begins to connect literacy as an individual development to literacy as an economic development, at least as the two have played out over the last ninety years or so.

5 The approach is through what I call sponsors of literacy. Sponsors, as I have come to think of them, are any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy — and gain advantage by it in some way. Just as the ages of radio and television accustom us to having programs brought to us by various commercial sponsors, it is useful to think about who or what underwrites occasions of literacy learning and use. Although the interests of the sponsor and the sponsored do not have to converge (and, in fact, may conflict) sponsors nevertheless set the terms for access to literacy and wield powerful incentives for compliance and loyalty. Sponsors are a tangible reminder that literacy learning throughout history has always required permission, sanction, assistance, coercion, or, at minimum, contact with existing trade routes. Sponsors are delivery systems for the economies of literacy, the means by which these forces




Look Ahead

present themselves to — and through — individual learners.

5 – CARS: Occupy Often, as here, writers mark their contribution to the conversation with an “I” statement.

6 They also represent the causes into which people’s literacy usually gets recruited.2

6 – Framework Endnotes often give details on conversations a writer joins or history on the source of an idea. Check them!

7 For the last five years I have been tracing sponsors of literacy across the 20th century as they appear in the accounts of ordinary Americans recalling how they learned to write and read. The investigation is grounded in more than 100 in-depth interviews that I collected from a diverse group of people born roughly between 1900 and 1980. In the interviews, people explored in great detail their memories of learning to read and write across their lifetimes, focusing especially on the people, institutions, materials, and motivations involved in the process. The more I worked with these accounts, the more I came to realize that they were filled with references to sponsors, both explicit and latent, who appeared in formative roles at the scenes of literacy learning. Patterns of sponsorship became an illuminating site through which to track the different cultural attitudes people developed toward writing vs. reading as well as the ideological congestion faced by late-century literacy learners as their sponsors proliferated and diversified (see my essays on “Remembering Reading” and “Accumulating Literacy”).

7 – Research Questions Even without question marks, you can infer Brandt’s research questions from her methods statement here.

8 In this essay I set out a case for why the concept of sponsorship is so richly suggestive for exploring economies of literacy and their effects. Then, through use of extended case examples, I demonstrate the practical application of this approach for interpreting current conditions of literacy teaching and learning, including persistent stratification of opportunity and escalating standards for literacy achievement. A final section addresses implications for the teaching of writing.





8 – Forecasting

SPONSORSHIP Intuitively, sponsors seemed a fitting term for the figures who turned up most typically in people’s memories of literacy learning: older relatives, teachers, priests, supervisors, military officers, editors, influential authors. Sponsors, as we ordinarily think of them, are powerful figures who bankroll events or smooth the way for initiates. Usually richer, more knowledgeable, and more entrenched than the sponsored, sponsors nevertheless enter a reciprocal relationship with those they underwrite. They lend their resources or credibility to the sponsored but also stand to gain benefits from their success, whether by direct repayment or, indirectly, by credit of association. Sponsors also proved an appealing term in my analysis because of all the commercial references that appeared in these 20th-century accounts — the magazines, peddled encyclopedias, essay contests, radio and television programs, toys, fan clubs, writing tools, and so on, from which so much experience with literacy was derived. As the 20th century turned the abilities to read and write into widely exploitable resources, commercial sponsorship abounded.

In whatever form, sponsors deliver the ideological freight that must be borne for access to what they have. Of course, the sponsored can be oblivious to or innovative with this ideological burden. Like Little Leaguers who wear the logo of a local insurance agency on their uniforms, not out of a concern for enhancing the agency’s image but as a means for getting to play ball, people throughout history have acquired literacy pragmatically under the banner of others’ causes. In the days before free, public schooling in England, Protestant Sunday Schools warily offered basic reading instruction to working-class families as part of evangelical duty. To the horror of many in the church sponsorship, these families insistently, sometimes riotously demanded of their Sunday Schools more instruction, including in writing and math, because it provided means for upward mobility.3 Through the sponsorship of Baptist and Methodist ministries, African Americans in slavery taught each other to understand the Bible in subversively liberatory ways. Under a conservative regime, they developed forms of critical literacy that sustained religious, educational, and political movements both before and after emancipation (Cornelius). Most of the time, however, literacy takes its shape from the interests of its sponsors. And, as we will see below, obligations toward one’s sponsors run deep, affecting what, why, and how people write and read.

The concept of sponsors helps to explain, then, a range of





Speed Up

human relationships and ideological pressures that turn up at the scenes of literacy learning — from benign sharing between adults and youths, to euphemized coercions in schools and workplaces, to the most notorious impositions and deprivations by church or state. It also is a concept useful for tracking literacy’s material: the things that accompany writing and reading and the ways they are manufactured and distributed. Sponsorship as a sociological term is even more broadly suggestive for thinking about economies of literacy development. Studies of patronage in Europe and compadrazgo in the Americas show how patron-client relationships in the past grew up around the need to manage scarce resources and promote political stability (Bourne; Lynch; Horstman and Kurtz). Pragmatic, instrumental, ambivalent, patron-client relationships integrated otherwise antagonistic social classes into relationships of mutual, albeit unequal dependencies. Loaning land, money, protection, and other favors allowed the politically powerful to extend their influence and justify their exploitation of clients. Clients traded their labor and deference for access to opportunities for themselves or their children and for leverage needed to improve their social standing. Especially under conquest in Latin America, compadrazgo reintegrated native societies badly fragmented by the diseases and other disruptions that followed foreign invasions. At the same time, this system was susceptible to its own stresses, especially when patrons became clients themselves of still more centralized or distant overlords, with all the shifts in loyalty and perspective that entailed (Horstman and Kurtz 13–14).

In raising this association with formal systems of patronage, I do not wish to overlook the very different economic, political, and educational systems within which U.S. literacy has developed. But where we find the sponsoring of literacy, it will be useful to look for its function within larger political and economic arenas. Literacy, like land, is a valued commodity in this economy, a key resource in gaining profit and edge. This value helps to explain, of course, the lengths people will go to secure literacy for themselves or their children. But it also explains why the powerful work so persistently to conscript and ration the powers of literacy. The competition to harness literacy, to manage, measure, teach, and exploit it, has intensified throughout the century. It is vital to pay attention to this development because it largely sets the terms for individuals’ encounters with literacy. This competition shapes the incentives and barriers (including uneven distributions of opportunity) that greet literacy learners in any particular time and place. It is this competition that has made access to the right kinds of literacy sponsors so crucial for political and economic well-being. And it also has spurred the rapid, complex changes that now make the pursuit of literacy feel






so turbulent and precarious for so many. 9 In the next three sections, I trace the dynamics of

literacy sponsorship through the life experiences of several individuals, showing how their opportunities for literacy learning emerge out of the jockeying and skirmishing for economic and political advantage going on among sponsors of literacy.

9 – Forecasting

10 Along the way, the analysis addresses three key issues: (1) how, despite ostensible democracy in educational chances, stratification of opportunity continues to organize access and reward in literacy learning; (2) how sponsors contribute to what is called “the literacy crisis,” that is, the perceived gap between rising standards for achievement and people’s ability to meet them; and (3) how encounters with literacy sponsors, especially as they are configured at the end of the 20th century, can be sites for the innovative rerouting of resources into projects of self- development and social change.

10 – Research Questions

SPONSORSHIP AND ACCESS A focus on sponsorship can force a more explicit and substantive link between literacy learning and systems of opportunity and access. A statistical correlation between high literacy achievement and high socioeconomic, majority-race status routinely shows up in results of national tests of reading and writing performance.4 These findings capture yet, in their shorthand way, obscure the unequal conditions of literacy sponsorship that lie behind differential outcomes in academic performance. Throughout their lives, affluent people from high- caste racial groups have multiple and redundant contacts with powerful literacy sponsors as a routine part of their economic and political privileges. Poor people and those from low-caste racial groups have less consistent, less politically secured access to literacy sponsors — especially to the ones that can grease their way to academic and economic success. Differences in their performances are often attributed to family background (namely education and income of parents) or to particular norms and values operating within different ethnic groups or social classes. But in either case, much more is usually at work.

As a study in contrasts in sponsorship patterns and access to literacy, consider the parallel experiences of Raymond Branch and Dora Lopez, both of whom were born in 1969 and, as young




children, moved with their parents to the same, mid-sized university town in the midwest.5 Both were still residing in this town at the time of our interviews in 1995. Raymond Branch, a European American, had been born in southern California, the son of a professor father and a real estate executive mother. He recalled that his first-grade classroom in 1975 was hooked up to a mainframe computer at Stanford University and that, as a youngster, he enjoyed fooling around with computer programming in the company of “real users” at his father’s science lab. This process was not interrupted much when, in the late 1970s, his family moved to the midwest. Raymond received his first personal computer as a Christmas present from his parents when he was twelve years old, and a modem the year after that. In the 1980s, computer hardware and software stores began popping up within a bicycle-ride’s distance from where he lived. The stores were serving the university community and, increasingly, the high-tech industries that were becoming established in that vicinity. As an adolescent, Raymond spent his summers roaming these stores, sampling new computer games, making contact with founders of some of the first electronic bulletin boards in the nation, and continuing, through reading and other informal means, to develop his programming techniques. At the time of our interview he had graduated from the local university and was a successful freelance writer of software and software documentation, with clients in both the private sector and the university community.

Dora Lopez, a Mexican American, was born in the same year as Raymond Branch, 1969, in a Texas border town, where her grandparents, who worked as farm laborers, lived most of the year. When Dora was still a baby her family moved to the same midwest university town as had the family of Raymond Branch. Her father pursued an accounting degree at a local technical college and found work as a shipping and receiving clerk at the university. Her mother, who also attended technical college briefly, worked part-time in a bookstore. In the early 1970s, when the Lopez family made its move to the midwest, the Mexican- American population in the university town was barely one per cent. Dora recalled that the family had to drive seventy miles to a big city to find not only suitable groceries but also Spanish- language newspapers and magazines that carried information of concern and interest to them. (Only when reception was good could they catch Spanish-language radio programs coming from Chicago, 150 miles away.) During her adolescence, Dora Lopez undertook to teach herself how to read and write in Spanish, something, she said, that neither her brother nor her U.S.-born cousins knew how to do. Sometimes, with the help of her mother’s employee discount at the bookstore, she sought out novels by South American and Mexican writers, and she




practiced her written Spanish by corresponding with relatives in Colombia. She was exposed to computers for the first time at the age of thirteen when she worked as a teacher’s aide in a federally- funded summer school program for the children of migrant workers. The computers were being used to help the children to be brought up to grade level in their reading and writing skills. When Dora was admitted to the same university that Raymond Branch attended, her father bought her a used word processing machine that a student had advertised for sale on a bulletin board in the building where Mr. Lopez worked. At the time of our interview, Dora Lopez had transferred from the university to a technical college. She was working for a cleaning company, where she performed extra duties as a translator, communicating on her supervisor’s behalf with the largely Latina cleaning staff. “I write in Spanish for him, what he needs to be translated, like job duties, what he expects them to do, and I write lists for him in English and Spanish,” she explained.

In Raymond Branch’s account of his early literacy learning we are able to see behind the scenes of his majority-race membership, male gender, and high-end socioeconomic family profile. There lies a thick and, to him, relatively accessible economy of institutional and commercial supports that cultivated and subsidized his acquisition of a powerful form of literacy. One might be tempted to say that Raymond Branch was born at the right time and lived in the right place — except that the experience of Dora Lopez troubles that thought. For Raymond Branch, a university town in the 1970s and 1980s provided an information-rich, resource-rich learning environment in which to pursue his literacy development, but for Dora Lopez, a female member of a culturally unsubsidized ethnic minority, the same town at the same time was information- and resource-poor. Interestingly, both young people were pursuing projects of self- initiated learning, Raymond Branch in computer programming and Dora Lopez in biliteracy. But she had to reach much further afield for the material and communicative systems needed to support her learning. Also, while Raymond Branch, as the son of an academic, was sponsored by some of the most powerful agents of the university (its laboratories, newest technologies, and most educated personnel), Dora Lopez was being sponsored by what her parents could pull from the peripheral service systems of the university (the mail room, the bookstore, the second-hand technology market). In these accounts we also can see how the development and eventual economic worth of Raymond Branch’s literacy skills were underwritten by late-century transformations in communication technology that created a boomtown need for programmers and software writers.

11 Dora Lopez’s biliterate skills developed and paid off much further down the economic-reward ladder, in government-




sponsored youth programs and commercial enterprises, that, in the 1990s, were absorbing surplus migrant workers into a low- wage, urban service economy.6 Tracking patterns of literacy sponsorship, then, gets beyond SES shorthand to expose more fully how unequal literacy chances relate to systems of unequal subsidy and reward for literacy. These are the systems that deliver large-scale economic, historical, and political conditions to the scenes of small-scale literacy use and development.

11 – Making Knowledge Read this endnote for a direct statement of one point Brandt wishes to make in her article.

12 This analysis of sponsorship forces us to consider not merely how one social group’s literacy practices may differ from another’s, but how everybody’s literacy practices are operating in differential economies, which supply different access routes, different degrees of sponsoring power, and different scales of monetary worth to the practices in use. In fact, the interviews I conducted are filled with examples of how economic and political forces, some of them originating in quite distant corporate and government policies, affect people’s day-to-day ability to seek out and practice literacy. As a telephone company employee, Janelle Hampton enjoyed a brief period in the early 1980s as a fraud investigator, pursuing inquiries and writing up reports of her efforts. But when the breakup of the telephone utility reorganized its workforce, the fraud division was moved two states away and she was returned to less interesting work as a data processor. When, as a seven-year-old in the mid-1970s, Yi Vong made his way with his family from Laos to rural Wisconsin as part of the first resettlement group of Hmong refugees after the Vietnam War, his school district — which had no ESL programming — placed him in a school for the blind and deaf, where he learned English on audio and visual language machines.

12 – Making Knowledge Brandt likes to show a lot of data and then swoop her knowledge-making into a short summary statement like this.

13 When a meager retirement pension forced Peter Hardaway and his wife out of their house and into a trailer, the couple stopped receiving newspapers and magazines in order to avoid cluttering up the small space they had to share. An analysis of sponsorship systems of literacy would help educators everywhere to think through the effects that economic and political changes in their regions are having on various people’s





ability to write and read, their chances to sustain that ability, and their capacities to pass it along to others. Recession, relocation, immigration, technological change, government retreat all can — and do — condition the course by which literate potential develops.

13 – So What?

SPONSORSHIP AND THE RISE IN LITERACY STANDARDS As I have been attempting to argue, literacy as a resource becomes available to ordinary people largely through the mediations of more powerful sponsors. These sponsors are engaged in ceaseless processes of positioning and repositioning, seizing and relinquishing control over meanings and materials of literacy as part of their participation in economic and political competition. In the give and take of these struggles, forms of literacy and literacy learning take shape. This section examines more closely how forms of literacy are created out of competitions between institutions. It especially considers how this process relates to the rapid rise in literacy standards since World War II. 14 Resnick and Resnick lay out the process by which the

demand for literacy achievement has been escalating, from basic, largely rote competence to more complex analytical and interpretive skills. More and more people are now being expected to accomplish more and more things with reading and writing. As print and its spinoffs have entered virtually every sphere of life, people have grown increasingly dependent on their literacy skills for earning a living and exercising and protecting their civil rights. This section uses one extended case example to trace the role of institutional sponsorship in raising the literacy stakes. It also considers how one man used available forms of sponsorship to cope with this escalation in literacy demands.

14 – Framework

The focus is on Dwayne Lowery, whose transition in the early 1970s from line worker in an automobile manufacturing plant to field representative for a major public employees union exemplified the major transition of the post-World War II economy — from a thing-making, thing-swapping society to an information-making, service-swapping society. In the process, Dwayne Lowery had to learn to read and write in ways that he had never done before. How his experiences with writing





developed and how they were sponsored — and distressed — by institutional struggle will unfold in the following narrative.

A man of Eastern European ancestry, Dwayne Lowery was born in 1938 and raised in a semi-rural area in the upper midwest, the third of five children of a rubber worker father and a homemaker mother. Lowery recalled how, in his childhood home, his father’s feisty union publications and left-leaning newspapers and radio shows helped to create a political climate in his household. “I was sixteen years old before I knew that goddamn Republicans was two words,” he said. Despite this influence, Lowery said he shunned politics and newspaper reading as a young person, except to read the sports page. A diffident student, he graduated near the bottom of his class from a small high school in 1956 and, after a stint in the Army, went to work on the assembly line of a major automobile manufacturer. In the late 1960s, bored with the repetition of spraying primer paint on the right door checks of 57 cars an hour, Lowery traded in his night shift at the auto plant for a day job reading water meters in a municipal utility department. It was at that time, Lowery recalled, that he rediscovered newspapers, reading them in the early morning in his department’s break room. He said:

At the time I guess I got a little more interested in the state of things within the state. I started to get a little political at that time and got a little more information about local people. So I would buy [a metropolitan paper] and I would read that paper in the morning. It was a pretty conservative paper but I got some information.

At about the same time Lowery became active in a rapidly growing public employees union, and, in the early 1970s, he applied for and received a union-sponsored grant that allowed him to take off four months of work and travel to Washington, D.C., for training in union activity. Here is his extended account of that experience:

When I got to school, then there was a lot of reading. I often felt bad. If I had read more [as a high-school student] it wouldn’t have been so tough. But they pumped a lot of stuff at us to read. We lived in a hotel and we had to some extent homework we had to do and reading we had to do and not make written reports but make some presentation on our part of it. What they were trying to teach us, I believe, was regulations, systems, laws. In case anything in court came up along the way, we would know that. We did a lot of work on organizing, you know, learning how to negotiate contracts, contractual language, how to write it. Gross National Product, how that affected the Consumer Price Index. It was





pretty much a crash course. It was pretty much crammed in. And I’m not sure we were all that well prepared when we got done, but it was interesting.

After a hands-on experience organizing sanitation workers in the west, Lowery returned home and was offered a full-time job as a field staff representative for the union, handling worker grievances and contract negotiations for a large, active local near his state capital. His initial writing and rhetorical activities corresponded with the heady days of the early 1970s when the union was growing in strength and influence, reflecting in part the exponential expansion in information workers and service providers within all branches of government. With practice, Lowery said he became “good at talking,” “good at presenting the union side,” “good at slicing chunks off the employer’s case.” Lowery observed that, in those years, the elected officials with whom he was negotiating often lacked the sophistication of their Washington-trained union counterparts. “They were part-time people,” he said. “And they didn’t know how to calculate. We got things in contracts that didn’t cost them much at the time but were going to cost them a ton down the road.” In time, though, even small municipal and county governments responded to the public employees’ growing power by hiring specialized attorneys to represent them in grievance and contract negotiations. “Pretty soon,” Lowery observed, “ninety percent of the people I was dealing with across the table were attorneys.”

This move brought dramatic changes in the writing practices of union reps, and, in Lowery’s estimation, a simultaneous waning of the power of workers and the power of his own literacy. “It used to be we got our way through muscle or through political connections,” he said. “Now we had to get it through legalistic stuff. It was no longer just sit down and talk about it. Can we make a deal?” Instead, all activity became rendered in writing: the exhibit, the brief, the transcript, the letter, the appeal. Because briefs took longer to write, the wheels of justice took longer to turn. Delays in grievance hearings became routine, as lawyers and union reps alike asked hearing judges for extensions on their briefs. Things went, in Lowery’s words, “from quick, competent justice to expensive and long term justice.”

In the meantime, Lowery began spending up to 70 hours a week at work, sweating over the writing of briefs, which are typically fifteen to thirty-page documents laying out precedents, arguments, and evidence for a grievant’s case. These documents were being forced by the new political economy in which Lowery’s union was operating. He explained:

When employers were represented by an attorney, you were going to have a written brief because the attorney needs to




get paid. Well, what do you think if you were a union grievant and the attorney says, well, I’m going to write a brief and Dwayne Lowery says, well, I’m not going to. Does the worker somehow feel that their representation is less now?

To keep up with the new demands, Lowery occasionally traveled to major cities for two or three-day union-sponsored workshops on arbitration, new legislation, and communication skills. He also took short courses at a historic School for Workers at a nearby university. His writing instruction consisted mainly of reading the briefs of other field reps, especially those done by the college graduates who increasingly were being assigned to his district from union headquarters. Lowery said he kept a file drawer filled with other people’s briefs from which he would borrow formats and phrasings. At the time of our interview in 1995, Dwayne Lowery had just taken an early and somewhat bitter retirement from the union, replaced by a recent graduate from a master’s degree program in Industrial Relations. As a retiree, he was engaged in local Democratic party politics and was getting informal lessons in word processing at home from his wife.

Over a 20-year period, Lowery’s adult writing took its character from a particular juncture in labor relations, when even small units of government began wielding (and, as a consequence, began spreading) a “legalistic” form of literacy in order to restore political dominance over public workers. This struggle for dominance shaped the kinds of literacy skills required of Lowery, the kinds of genres he learned and used, and the kinds of literate identity he developed. Lowery’s rank-and-file experience and his talent for representing that experience around a bargaining table became increasingly peripheral to his ability to prepare documents that could compete in kind with those written by his formally-educated, professional adversaries. Face-to-face meetings became occasions mostly for a ritualistic exchange of texts, as arbitrators generally deferred decisions, reaching them in private, after solitary deliberation over complex sets of documents. What Dwayne Lowery was up against as a working adult in the second half of the 20th century was more than just living through a rising standard in literacy expectations or a generalized growth in professionalization, specialization, or documentary power — although certainly all of those things are, generically, true. Rather, these developments should be seen more specifically, as outcomes of ongoing transformations in the history of literacy as it has been wielded as part of economic and political conflict. These transformations become the arenas in which new standards of literacy develop. And for Dwayne Lowery — as well as many like him over the last 25 years — these are the arenas in which the worth of existing literate skills





become degraded. A consummate debater and deal maker, Lowery saw his value to the union bureaucracy subside, as power shifted to younger, university-trained staffers whose literacy credentials better matched the specialized forms of escalating pressure coming from the other side.

In the broadest sense, the sponsorship of Dwayne Lowery’s literacy experiences lies deep within the historical conditions of industrial relations in the 20th century and, more particularly, within the changing nature of work and labor struggle over the last several decades.

15 Edward Stevens Jr. has observed the rise in this century of an “advanced contractarian society” (25) by which formal relationships of all kinds have come to rely on “a jungle of rules and regulations” (139). For labor, these conditions only intensified in the 1960s and 1970s when a flurry of federal and state civil rights legislation curtailed the previously unregulated hiring and firing power of management. These developments made the appeal to law as central as collective bargaining for extending employee rights (Heckscher 9). I mention this broader picture, first, because it relates to the forms of employer backlash that Lowery began experiencing by the early 1980s and, more important, because a history of unionism serves as a guide for a closer look at the sponsors of Lowery’s literacy.

15 – Framework Brandt interprets Lowery’s case through theoretical frameworks created by Stevens (on contractarian society) and Heckscher (on extending employee rights through not just bargaining but law).

These resources begin with the influence of his father, whose membership in the United Rubber Workers during the ideologically potent 1930s and 1940s grounded Lowery in class- conscious progressivism and its favorite literate form: the newspaper. On top of that, though, was a pragmatic philosophy of worker education that developed in the U.S. after the Depression as an anti-communist antidote to left-wing intellectual influences in unions. Lowery’s parent union, in fact, had been a central force in refocusing worker education away from an earlier emphasis on broad critical study and toward discrete techniques for organizing and bargaining. Workers began to be trained in the discrete bodies of knowledge, written formats, and idioms associated with those strategies. Characteristic of this legacy, Lowery’s crash course at the Washington-based training center in the early 1970s emphasized technical information, problem solving, and union- building skills and methods. The transformation in worker education from critical, humanistic study to problem-solving





skills was also lived out at the school for workers where Lowery took short courses in the 1980s. Once a place where factory workers came to write and read about economics, sociology, and labor history, the school is now part of a university extension service offering workshops — often requested by management — on such topics as work restructuring, new technology, health and safety regulations, and joint labor-management cooperation.7 Finally, in this inventory of Dwayne Lowery’s literacy sponsors, we must add the latest incarnations shaping union practices: the attorneys and college-educated co-workers who carried into Lowery’s workplace forms of legal discourse and “essayist literacy.”8

16 What should we notice about this pattern of sponsorship? First, we can see from yet another angle how the course of an ordinary person’s literacy learning — its occasions, materials, applications, potentials — follows the transformations going on within sponsoring institutions as those institutions fight for economic and ideological position. As a result of wins, losses, or compromises, institutions undergo change, affecting the kinds of literacy they promulgate and the status that such literacy has in the larger society. So where, how, why, and what Lowery practiced as a writer — and what he didn’t practice — took shape as part of the post-industrial jockeying going on over the last thirty years by labor, government, and industry. Yet there is more to be seen in this inventory of literacy sponsors. It exposes the deeply textured history that lies within the literacy practices of institutions and within any individual’s literacy experiences. Accumulated layers of sponsoring influences — in families, workplaces, schools, memory — carry forms of literacy that have been shaped out of ideological and economic struggles of the past. This history, on the one hand, is a sustaining resource in the quest for literacy. It enables an older generation to pass its literacy resources onto another. Lowery’s exposure to his father’s newspaper-reading and supper- table political talk kindled his adult passion for news, debate, and for language that rendered relief and justice. This history also helps to create infrastructures of opportunity. Lowery found crucial supports for extending his adult literacy in the educational networks that unions established during the first half of the 20th century as they were consolidating into national powers. On the other hand, this layered history of sponsorship is also deeply conservative and can be maladaptive because it teaches forms of literacy that oftentimes are in the process of being overtaken by new political realities and by ascendent forms of literacy. The decision to focus worker education on practical strategies of recruiting and bargaining — devised in the thick of Cold War patriotism and galloping expansion in union memberships —





became, by the Reagan years, a fertile ground for new forms of management aggression and cooptation.

16 – Making Knowledge

— Reread Reread the last two paragraphs to make sure you’re seeing each of Brandt’s main conclusions to this section.

It is actually this lag or gap in sponsoring forms that we call the rising standard of literacy. The pace of change and the place of literacy in economic competition have both intensified enormously in the last half of the 20th century. It is as if the history of literacy is in fast forward. Where once the same sponsoring arrangements could maintain value across a generation or more, forms of literacy and their sponsors can now rise and recede many times within a single life span. Dwayne Lowery experienced profound changes in forms of union-based literacy not only between his father’s time and his but between the time he joined the union and the time he left it, twenty-odd years later. This phenomenon is what makes today’s literacy feel so advanced and, at the same time, so destabilized.

SPONSORSHIP AND APPROPRIATION IN LITERACY LEARNING 17 We have seen how literacy sponsors affect literacy

learning in two powerful ways. They help to organize and administer stratified systems of opportunity and access, and they raise the literacy stakes in struggles for competitive advantage. Sponsors enable and hinder literacy activity, often forcing the formation of new literacy requirements while decertifying older ones. A somewhat different dynamic of literacy sponsorship is treated here. It pertains to the potential of the sponsored to divert sponsors’ resources toward ulterior projects, often projects of self-interest or self-development. Earlier I mentioned how Sunday School parishioners in England and African Americans in slavery appropriated church-sponsored literacy for economic and psychic survival. “Misappropriation” is always possible at the scene of literacy transmission, a reason for the tight ideological control that usually surrounds reading and writing instruction. The accounts that appear below are meant to shed light on the dynamics of appropriation, including the role of sponsoring agents in that process. They are also meant to suggest that diversionary tactics in literacy learning may be invited now by the sheer proliferation of literacy activity in contemporary life. The





uses and networks of literacy crisscross through many domains, exposing people to multiple, often amalgamated sources of sponsoring powers, secular, religious, bureaucratic, commercial, technological. In other words, what is so destabilized about contemporary literacy today also makes it so available and potentially innovative, ripe for picking, one might say, for people suitably positioned. The rising level of schooling in the general population is also an inviting factor in this process. Almost everyone now has some sort of contact, for instance, with college- educated people, whose movements through workplaces, justice systems, social service organizations, houses of worship, local government, extended families, or circles of friends spread dominant forms of literacy (whether wanted or not, helpful or not) into public and private spheres. Another condition favorable for appropriation is the deep hybridity of literacy practices extant in many settings. As we saw in Dwayne Lowery’s case, workplaces, schools, families bring together multiple strands of the history of literacy in complex and influential forms.

17 – Making Knowledge

18 We need models of literacy that more astutely account for these kinds of multiple contacts, both in and out of school and across a lifetime. Such models could begin to grasp the significance of re-appropriation, which, for a number of reasons, is becoming a key requirement for literacy learning at the end of the 20th century.

18 – CARS: Niche

The following discussion will consider two brief cases of literacy diversion. Both involve women working in subordinate positions as secretaries, in print-rich settings where better- educated male supervisors were teaching them to read and write in certain ways to perform their clerical duties. However, as we will see shortly, strong loyalties outside the workplace prompted these two secretaries to lift these literate resources for use in other spheres. For one, Carol White, it was on behalf of her work as a Jehovah’s Witness. For the other, Sarah Steele, it was on behalf of upward mobility for her lower-middle-class family.

Before turning to their narratives, though, it will be wise to pay some attention to the economic moment in which they occur. Clerical work was the largest and fastest-growing occupation for women in the 20th century. Like so much employment for women, it offered a mix of gender-defined constraints as well as avenues for economic independence and mobility. As a new




information economy created an acute need for typists, stenographers, bookkeepers, and other office workers, white, American-born women and, later, immigrant and minority women saw reason to pursue high school and business-college educations. Unlike male clerks of the 19th century, female secretaries in this century had little chance for advancement. However, office work represented a step up from the farm or the factory for women of the working class and served as a respectable occupation from which educated, middle-class women could await or avoid marriage (Anderson, Strom). In a study of clerical work through the first half of the 20th century, Mary Christine Anderson estimated that secretaries might encounter up to 97 different genres in the course of doing dictation or transcription. They routinely had contact with an array of professionals, including lawyers, auditors, tax examiners, and other government overseers (52–53). By 1930, 30% of women office workers used machines other than typewriters (Anderson 76) and, in contemporary offices, clerical workers have often been the first employees to learn to operate CRTs and personal computers and to teach others how to use them. Overall, the daily duties of 20th-century secretaries could serve handily as an index to the rise of complex administrative and accounting procedures, standardization of information, expanding communication, and developments in technological systems.

With that background, consider the experiences of Carol White and Sarah Steele. An Oneida, Carol White was born into a poor, single-parent household in 1940. She graduated from high school in 1960 and, between five maternity leaves and a divorce, worked continuously in a series of clerical positions in both the private and public sectors. One of her first secretarial jobs was with an urban firm that produced and disseminated Catholic missionary films. The vice-president with whom she worked most closely also spent much of his time producing a magazine for a national civic organization that he headed. She discussed how typing letters and magazine articles and occasionally proofreading for this man taught her rhetorical strategies in which she was keenly interested. She described the scene of transfer this way:

[My boss] didn’t just write to write. He wrote in a way to make his letters appealing. I would have to write what he was writing in this magazine too. I was completely enthralled. He would write about the people who were in this [organization] and the different works they were undertaking and people that died and people who were sick and about their personalities. And he wrote little anecdotes. Once in a while I made some suggestions too. He was a man who would listen to you.






The appealing and persuasive power of the anecdote became especially important to Carol White when she began doing door- to-door missionary work for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pan- racial, millennialist religious faith. She now uses colorful anecdotes to prepare demonstrations that she performs with other women at weekly service meetings at their Kingdom Hall. These demonstrations, done in front of the congregation, take the form of skits designed to explore daily problems through Bible principles. Further, at the time of our interview, Carol White was working as a municipal revenue clerk and had recently enrolled in an on-the-job training seminar called Persuasive Communication, a two-day class offered free to public employees. Her motivation for taking the course stemmed from her desire to improve her evangelical work. She said she wanted to continue to develop speaking and writing skills that would be “appealing,” “motivating,” and “encouraging” to people she hoped to convert.

Sarah Steele, a woman of Welsh and German descent, was born in 1920 into a large, working-class family in a coal mining community in eastern Pennsylvania. In 1940, she graduated from a two-year commercial college. Married soon after, she worked as a secretary in a glass factory until becoming pregnant with the first of four children. In the 1960s, in part to help pay for her children’s college educations, she returned to the labor force as a receptionist and bookkeeper in a law firm, where she stayed until her retirement in the late 1970s.

Sarah Steele described how, after joining the law firm, she began to model her household management on principles of budgeting that she was picking up from one of the attorneys with whom she worked most closely. “I learned cash flow from Mr. B____,” she said. “I would get all the bills and put a tape in the adding machine and he and I would sit down together to be sure there was going to be money ahead.” She said that she began to replicate that process at home with household bills. “Before that,” she observed, “I would just cook beans when I had to instead of meat.” Sarah Steele also said she encountered the genre of the credit report during routine reading and typing on the job. She figured out what constituted a top rating, making sure her husband followed these steps in preparation for their financing a new car. She also remembered typing up documents connected to civil suits being brought against local businesses, teaching her, she said, which firms never to hire for home repairs. “It just changes the way you think,” she observed about the reading and writing she did on her job. “You’re not a pushover after you learn how business operates.”

19 The dynamics of sponsorship alive in these narratives expose important elements of literacy appropriation, at least as it is practiced at the end of the 20th century. In a pattern now familiar from the earlier sections, we see how opportunities for





literacy learning — this time for diversions of resources — open up in the clash between long-standing, residual forms of sponsorship and the new: between the lingering presence of literacy’s conservative history and its pressure for change. So, here, two women — one Native American and both working- class — filch contemporary literacy resources (public relations techniques and accounting practices) from more-educated, higher- status men. The women are emboldened in these acts by ulterior identities beyond the workplace: Carol White with faith and Sarah Steele with family. These affiliations hark back to the first sponsoring arrangements through which American women were gradually allowed to acquire literacy and education. Duties associated with religious faith and child rearing helped literacy to become, in Gloria Main’s words, “a permissable feminine activity” (579). Interestingly, these roles, deeply sanctioned within the history of women’s literacy — and operating beneath the newer permissible feminine activity of clerical work — become grounds for covert, innovative appropriation even as they reinforce traditional female identities.

19 – Making Knowledge

Just as multiple identities contribute to the ideologically hybrid character of these literacy formations, so do institutional and material conditions. Carol White’s account speaks to such hybridity. The missionary film company with the civic club vice president is a residual site for two of literacy’s oldest campaigns — Christian conversion and civic participation — enhanced here by 20th-century advances in film and public relations techniques. This ideological reservoir proved a pleasing instructional site for Carol White, whose interests in literacy, throughout her life, have been primarily spiritual. So literacy appropriation draws upon, perhaps even depends upon, conservative forces in the history of literacy sponsorship that are always hovering at the scene of acts of learning. This history serves as both a sanctioning force and a reserve of ideological and material support.

At the same time, however, we see in these accounts how individual acts of appropriation can divert and subvert the course of literacy’s history, how changes in individual literacy experiences relate to larger-scale transformations. Carol White’s redirection of personnel management techniques to the cause of the Jehovah’s Witnesses is an almost ironic transformation in this regard. Once a principal sponsor in the initial spread of mass literacy, evangelism is here rejuvenated through late-literate corporate sciences of secular persuasion, fund-raising, and bureaucratic management that Carol White finds circulating in her contemporary workplaces. By the same token, through Sarah





Steele, accounting practices associated with corporations are, in a sense, tracked into the house, rationalizing and standardizing even domestic practices. (Even though Sarah Steele did not own an adding machine, she penciled her budget figures onto adding- machine tape that she kept for that purpose.) Sarah Steele’s act of appropriation in some sense explains how dominant forms of literacy migrate and penetrate into private spheres, including private consciousness. At the same time, though, she accomplishes a subversive diversion of literate power. Her efforts to move her family up in the middle class involved not merely contributing a second income but also, from her desk as a bookkeeper, reading her way into an understanding of middle- class economic power.

TEACHING AND THE DYNAMICS OF SPONSORSHIP It hardly seems necessary to point out to the readers of CCC that we haul a lot of freight for the opportunity to teach writing. Neither rich nor powerful enough to sponsor literacy on our own terms, we serve instead as conflicted brokers between literacy’s buyers and sellers. At our most worthy, perhaps, we show the sellers how to beware and try to make sure these exchanges will be a little fairer, maybe, potentially, a little more mutually rewarding.

20 This essay has offered a few working case studies that link patterns of sponsorship to processes of stratification, competition, and reappropriation. How much these dynamics can be generalized to classrooms is an ongoing empirical question.

20 – So What?

I am sure that sponsors play even more influential roles at the scenes of literacy learning and use than this essay has explored. I have focused on some of the most tangible aspects — material supply, explicit teaching, institutional aegis. But the ideological pressure of sponsors affects many private aspects of writing processes as well as public aspects of finished texts. Where one’s sponsors are multiple or even at odds, they can make writing maddening. Where they are absent, they make writing unlikely. Many of the cultural formations we associate with writing development — community practices, disciplinary traditions, technological potentials — can be appreciated as make-do responses to the economics of literacy, past and present. The history of literacy is a catalogue of obligatory relations. That this catalogue is so deeply conservative and, at the same time, so ruthlessly demanding of change is what fills contemporary




literacy learning and teaching with their most paradoxical choices and outcomes.9

In bringing attention to economies of literacy learning I am not advocating that we prepare students more efficiently for the job markets they must enter. What I have tried to suggest is that as we assist and study individuals in pursuit of literacy, we also recognize how literacy is in pursuit of them. When this process stirs ambivalence, on their part or on ours, we need to be understanding.

Acknowledgments This research was sponsored by the NCTE Research Foundation and the Center on English Learning and Achievement. The Center is supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement, whose views do not necessarily coincide with the author’s. A version of this essay was given as a lecture in the Department of English, University of Louisville, in April 1997. Thanks to Anna Syvertsen and Julie Nelson for their help with archival research. Thanks too to colleagues who lent an ear along the way: Nelson Graff, Jonna Gjevre, Anne Gere, Kurt Spellmeyer, Tom Fox, and Bob Gundlach.

Notes 1. Three of the keenest and most eloquent observers of economic

impacts on writing, teaching, and learning have been Lester Faigley, Susan Miller, and Kurt Spellmeyer.

2. My debt to the writings of Pierre Bourdieu will be evident throughout this essay. Here and throughout I invoke his expansive notion of “economy,” which is not restricted to literal and ostensible systems of money making but to the many spheres where people labor, invest, and exploit energies — their own and others’ — to maximize advantage, see Bourdieu and Wacquant, especially 117–120 and Bourdieu, Chapter 7.

3. Thomas Laqueur (124) provides a vivid account of a street demonstration in Bolton, England, in 1834 by a “pro-writing” faction of Sunday School students and their teachers. This faction demanded that writing instruction continue to be provided on Sundays, something that opponents of secular instruction on the Sabbath were trying to reverse.

4. See, for instance, National Assessments of Educational Progress in reading and writing (Applebee et al.; and “Looking”).

5. All names used in this essay are pseudonyms.



6. I am not suggesting that literacy that does not “pay off” in terms of prestige or monetary reward is less valuable. Dora Lopez’s ability to read and write in Spanish was a source of great strength and pride, especially when she was able to teach it to her young child. The resource of Spanish literacy carried much of what Bourdieu calls cultural capital in her social and family circles. But I want to point out here how people who labor equally to acquire literacy do so under systems of unequal subsidy and unequal reward.

7. For useful accounts of this period in union history, see Heckscher; Nelson.

8. Marcia Farr associates “essayist literacy” with written genres esteemed in the academy and noted for their explicitness, exactness, reliance on reasons and evidence, and impersonal voice.

9. Lawrence Cremin makes similar points about education in general in his essay “The Cacophony of Teaching.” He suggests that complex economic and social changes since World War Two, including the popularization of schooling and the penetration of mass media, have created “a far greater range and diversity of languages, competencies, values, personalities, and approaches to the world and to its educational opportunities” than at one time existed. The diversity most of interest to him (and me) resides not so much in the range of different ethnic groups there are in society but in the different cultural formulas by which people assemble their educational — or, I would say, literate — experience.

Works Cited Anderson, Mary Christine. “Gender, Class, and Culture: Women

Secretarial and Clerical Workers in the United States, 1925–1955.” Diss. Ohio State U, 1986.

Applebee, Arthur N., Judith A. Langer, and Ida V. S. Mullis. The Writing Report Card: Writing Achievement in American Schools. Princeton: ETS, 1986.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loic J. D. Wacquant. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1992.

Bourne, J. M. Patronage and Society in Nineteenth-Century England. London: Edward Arnold, 1986.

Brandt, Deborah. “Remembering Reading, Remembering Writing.” CCC 45 (1994): 459–79.

_______. “Accumulating Literacy: Writing and Learning to Write in the 20th Century.” College English 57 (1995): 649–68.

Cornelius, Janet Duitsman. ‘When I Can Ready My Title Clear’:



Literacy, Slavery, and Religion in the Antebellum South. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1991.

Cremin, Lawrence. “The Cacophony of Teaching.” Popular Education and Its Discontents. New York: Harper, 1990.

Faigley, Lester. “Veterans’ Stories on the Porch.” History, Reflection and Narrative: The Professionalization of Composition, 1963– 1983. Eds. Beth Boehm, Debra Journet, and Mary Rosner. Norwood: Ablex, 1999. 23–38.

Farr, Marcia. “Essayist Literacy and Other Verbal Performances.” Written Communication 8 (1993): 4–38.

Heckscher, Charles C. The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation. New York: Basic, 1988.

Horstman, Connie, and Donald V. Kurtz. Compadrazgo in Post- Conquest Middle America. Milwaukee: Milwaukee-UW Center for Latin America, 1978.

Kett, Joseph F. The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self Improvement to Adult Education in America 1750–1990. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.

Laqueur, Thomas. Religion and Respectability: Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780–1850. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.

Looking at How Well Our Students Read: The 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress in Reading. Washington: US Dept. of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Educational Resources Information Center, 1992.

Lynch, Joseph H. Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1986.

Main, Gloria L. “An Inquiry into When and Why Women Learned to Write in Colonial New England.” Journal of Social History 24 (1991): 579–89.

Miller, Susan. Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991.

Nelson, Daniel. American Rubber Workers and Organized Labor, 1900–1941. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.

Nicholas, Stephen J., and Jacqueline M. Nicholas. “Male Literacy, ‘Deskilling,’ and the Industrial Revolution.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (1992): 1–18.

Resnick, Daniel P., and Lauren B. Resnick. “The Nature of Literacy: A Historical Explanation.” Harvard Educational Review 47 (1977): 370–85.

Spellmeyer, Kurt. “After Theory: From Textuality to Attunement with the World.” College English 58 (1996): 893–913.

Stevens, Jr., Edward. Literacy, Law, and Social Order. DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1987.

Strom, Sharon Hartman. Beyond the Typewriter: Gender, Class, and the Origins of Modern American Office Work, 1900–1930. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling



1. How does Brandt define literacy sponsor? What are the characteristics of a literacy sponsor?

2. How does Brandt support her claim that sponsors always have something to gain from their sponsorship? Can you provide any examples from your own experience?

3. How do the sponsored sometimes “misappropriate” their literacy lessons? 4. Consider Brandt’s claim that literacy sponsors “help to organize and administer

stratified systems of opportunity and access, and they raise the literacy stakes in struggles for competitive advantage” (para. 27). What does Brandt mean by the term stratified? What “stakes” is she referring to?

5. Giving the examples of Branch and Lopez as support, Brandt argues that race and class impact how much access people have to literacy sponsorship. Summarize the kinds of access Branch and Lopez had — for example, in their early education, access to books and computers, and parental support — and decide whether you agree with Brandt’s claim.

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Compare your own literacy history with that of Branch and of Lopez, using categories like those in discussion question 5 above. Then consider who your primary literacy sponsors were (people, as well as institutions such as churches or clubs or school systems) and what literacies they taught you (academic, civic, religious, and so on). Would you consider the access provided by these sponsors adequate? What literacies have you not had access to that you wish you had?

2. Have you ever had literacy sponsors who withheld (or tried to withhold) certain kinds of literacies from you? For example, did your school ban certain books? Have sponsors forced certain kinds of literacies on you (for example, approved reading lists in school) or held up some literacies as better than others (for example, saying that certain kinds of books didn’t “count” as reading)? Were you able to find alternative sponsors for different kinds of literacy?

3. Interview a classmate about a significant literacy sponsor in their lives, and then discuss the interview in an entry on a class wiki or blog, a brief presentation, or a one-page report. Try to cover these questions in your interview: a. Who or what was your literacy sponsor? b. What did you gain from the sponsorship? c. Did you “misappropriate” the literacy in any way? d. What materials, technologies, and so forth were involved?

In reflecting on the interview, ask yourself the following: a. Did the sponsorship connect to larger cultural or material developments?



b. Does the sponsorship let you make any hypotheses about the culture of your interviewee? How would you test that hypothesis? c. Does your classmate’s account have a “So what?” — a point that might make others care about it?

META MOMENT Review the goals for this chapter (p. 67): For which goals is Brandt’s article relevant? Are there experiences you’re currently having that Brandt’s ideas help to explain?




Framing the Reading

Sandra Cisneros is a successful and prolific writer of poetry, novels, stories, children’s books, and even a picture book for adults. Some of her best-known work includes The House on Mango Street (1984) and Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). She returns frequently to the theme of Chicana identity in her writing. She has won numerous awards for her work, including the MacArthur Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and a Texas Medal of Arts. Born to Mexican American parents, she grew up in Chicago with six brothers and now lives in Mexico. The following short narrative describes the struggle she faced to gain her father’s

approval for her writing. This narrative illustrates Brandt’s idea of literacy sponsorship, including ways that sponsors seek to promote certain kinds of literacy experiences and not others, and the way that the sponsored can “misappropriate” the literacy experiences available to them toward ends other than those intended by the sponsor. Cisneros’s text also asks you to think about what it means to be multilingual, and how literacy experiences differ (and are valued differently) across different cultural contexts. These ideas will be taken up in other ways later in this chapter.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:









Refresh your memory regarding Brandt’s definition of literacy sponsor in the previous reading.

Google Sandra Cisneros and learn a little more about what she has written.

As you read, consider the following questions:

How do Cisneros’s experiences illustrate the idea of literacy sponsorship?

In what ways are your experiences with literacy and family similar to and different from Cisneros’s?

Cisneros, Sandra. “Only Daughter.” Glamour, Nov. 1990, pp. 256–57.

ONCE, SEVERAL YEARS AGO, when I was just starting out my writing career, I was asked to write my own contributor’s note for an anthology I was part of. I wrote: “I am the only daughter in a family of six sons. That explains everything.”

Well, I’ve thought about that ever since, and yes, it explains a lot to me, but for the reader’s sake I should have written: “I am the only daughter in a Mexican family of six sons.” Or even: “I am the only daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican American mother.” Or: “I am the only daughter of a working-class family of nine.” All of these had everything to do with who I am today.

I was/am the only daughter and only a daughter. Being an only daughter in a family of six sons forced me by circumstance to spend a lot of time by myself because my brothers felt it beneath them to play with a girl in public. But that aloneness, that loneliness, was good for a would-be writer — it allowed me time to think and think, to imagine, to read and prepare myself.

Being only a daughter for my father meant my destiny would lead me to become someone’s wife. That’s what he believed. But when I was in fifth grade and shared my plans for college with him, I was sure he understood. I remember my father saying, “Que bueno, mi’ja, that’s good.” That meant a lot to me, especially since my brothers thought the idea hilarious. What I didn’t realize was that my father thought college was good for girls — for finding a husband. After four years in college and two more in graduate school, and still no husband, my father shakes his head even now and says I wasted all that education.

In retrospect, I’m lucky my father believed daughters were meant for husbands. It meant it didn’t matter if I majored in something silly like English. After all, I’d find a nice professional eventually, right? This allowed me the liberty to putter about embroidering my little poems and stories without my father interrupting with so much as a “What’s that you’re writing?”

But the truth is, I wanted him to interrupt. I wanted my father to understand what it was I was scribbling, to introduce me as “My only daughter, the writer.” Not as “This is my only daughter. She teaches.” El maestra — teacher. Not even profesora.














I wanted my father to understand what I was scribbling, to introduce me as “My only daughter, the writer.”

In a sense, everything I have ever written has been for him, to win his approval even though I know my father can’t read English words, even though my father’s only reading includes the brown-ink Esto sports magazines from Mexico City and the bloody ¡Alarma! magazines that feature yet another sighting of La Virgen de Guadalupe on a tortilla or a wife’s revenge on her philandering husband by bashing his skull in with a molcajete (a kitchen mortar made of volcanic rock). Or the fotonovelas, the little picture paperbacks with tragedy and trauma erupting from the characters’ mouths in bubbles..

My father represents, then, the public majority. A public who is uninterested in reading, and yet one whom I am writing about and for, and privately trying to woo.

When we were growing up in Chicago, we moved a lot because of my father. He suffered periodic bouts of nostalgia. Then we’d have to let go our flat, store the furniture with mother’s relatives, load the station wagon with baggage and bologna sandwiches, and head south. To Mexico City.

We came back, of course. To yet another Chicago flat, another Chicago neighborhood, another Catholic school. Each time, my father would seek out the parish priest in order to get a tuition break, and complain or boast: “I have seven sons.”

He meant siete hijos, seven children, but he translated it as “sons.” “I have seven sons.” To anyone who would listen. The Sears Roebuck employee who sold us the washing machine. The short-order cook, where my father ate his ham-and-eggs breakfasts. “I have seven sons.” As if he deserved a medal from the state.

My papa. He didn’t mean anything by that mistranslation, I’m sure. But somehow I could feel myself being erased. I’d tug my father’s sleeve and whisper: “Not seven sons. Six! and one daughter.”

When my oldest brother graduated from medical school, he fulfilled my father’s dream that we study hard and use this — our heads, instead of this — our hands. Even now my father’s hands are thick and yellow, stubbed by a history of hammer and nails and twine and coils and springs. “Use this,” my father said, tapping his head, “and not this,” showing us those hands. He always looked tired when he said it.

Wasn’t college an investment? And hadn’t I spent all those years in college? And if I didn’t marry, what was it all for? Why would anyone go to college and then choose to be poor? Especially someone who had always been poor.

Last year, after ten years of writing professionally, the financial rewards started to trickle in. My second National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. A guest professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. My book, which sold to a major New York publishing house.

At Christmas, I flew home to Chicago. The house was throbbing, same as always; hot tamales and sweet tamales hissing in my mother’s pressure cooker, and everybody — mother, six brothers, wives, babies, aunts, cousins — talking too loud and at the same time, like in a Fellini film, because that’s just how we are.

I went upstairs to my father’s room. One of my stories had just been translated into Spanish and published in an anthology of Chicano writing, and I wanted to show it to him. Ever since he recovered from a stroke two years ago, my father likes to spend his leisure hours horizontally. And that’s how I found him, watching a Pedro Infante movie on








Galavision and eating rice pudding. There was a glass filmed with milk on the bedside table. There were several vials of

pills and balled Kleenex. And on the floor, one black sock and a plastic urinal that I didn’t want to look at but looked at anyway. Pedro Infante was about to burst into song, and my father was laughing.

I’m not sure if it was because my story was translated into Spanish, or because it was published in Mexico, or perhaps because the story dealt with Tepeyac, the colonia my father was raised in, but at any rate, my father punched the mute button on his remote control and read my story.

I sat on the bed next to my father and waited. He read it very slowly. As if he were reading each line over and over. He laughed at all the right places and read lines he liked out loud. He pointed and asked questions: “Is this So-and-so?” “Yes,” I said. He kept reading.

When he was finally finished, after what seemed like hours, my father looked up and asked: “Where can we get more copies of this for the relatives?”

Of all the wonderful things that happened to me last year, that was the most wonderful.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. At the beginning of this piece, Cisneros writes several sentences about herself that she says “explain everything.” List those sentences. Why does she think these aspects of her identity and experience are so powerful? Now write several sentences about yourself that you think might “explain everything” in a similar way. Why are these aspects of your identity and experience so powerful?

2. Cisneros’s father supported her in attending college, but for very different reasons than her own. Explain how her father and college were what Brandt terms “literacy sponsors” (p. 72), and how Cisneros “misappropriated” the college literacy sponsorship that her father intended.

3. Cisneros’s father had his own literacy sponsors, some of which are mentioned in this reading. What are they? How do you think they impacted what he expected of his daughter? How do they differ from his daughter’s literacy sponsors?

4. Cisneros and her father have different ideas about what it means to be successful. How and why do they differ?

5. Cisneros has achieved extensive recognition for her writing, but she says that her father’s approval of one story was “the most wonderful” thing that happened to her the year before she wrote this narrative (para. 22). Why? What about that particular story helped her bridge the divide between what she valued and what her father valued?

6. Cisneros speaks one language with her family and uses another language in her professional life and writing, at least most of the time. What does this multilingual experience provide Cisneros that a monolingual experience would not? What challenges does it present her?

Applying and Exploring Ideas



1. In your own family, how is literacy understood? Which literacy practices are frequently engaged in? Which literacy practices are valued, and which are not?

2. In question 4 above, you listed some of Cisneros’s father’s literacy sponsors. Now think about your own parents and list some of their literacy sponsors. How are these similar to or different from your own? How did those sponsors show up in your house and impact your own literacy?

3. Do you speak different languages at home, school, and work? If so, what language(s) do you speak in which settings? What do you think you gain from being able to draw on these various languages in different contexts? Are there any times when these multiple languages present a challenge for you? If you speak the same language in all contexts, reach out to a classmate or friend who is multilingual, and ask them the above questions.

META MOMENT How does Cisneros’s experience help you understand yourself and your own literacy sponsors differently?



Learning to Read MALCOLM X

Framing the Reading

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925. Essentially orphaned as a child, he lived in a series of foster homes, became involved in criminal activity, and dropped out of school in eighth grade after a teacher told him his race would prevent him from being a lawyer. In 1945, he was sentenced to prison, where he read voraciously. After joining the Nation of Islam, he changed his last name to “X,” explaining in his autobiography that “my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little.’” A strong advocate for the rights of African Americans, Malcolm X became an influential leader in the Nation of Islam but left the organization in 1964, becoming a Sunni Muslim and founding an organization dedicated to African American unity. Less than a year later, he was assassinated. In this chapter we excerpt a piece from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he

narrated to Alex Haley shortly before his death. We see Malcolm X’s account as exemplifying many of the principles that Deborah Brandt introduces in “Sponsors of Literacy” (p. 68). For example, Malcolm X’s account of how he came to reading is remarkable for how clearly it shows the role of motivation in literacy and learning: When he had a reason to read, he read, and reading fed his motivation to read further. His account also demonstrates the extent to which literacies shape the worlds available to people and the experiences they can have, as well as how literacy sponsors affect the kinds of literacy




we eventually master. We expect that reading Malcolm X’s experiences in coming to reading will bring up your

own memories of this stage in your life, which should set you thinking about what worlds your literacies give you access to and whether there are worlds in which you would be considered “illiterate.” We think you’ll find a comparison of your experiences and Malcolm X’s provocative and telling.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Do some reading online about Malcolm X and his biography.

Start a discussion with friends, roommates, family, or classmates about whether, and how, “knowledge is power.”

As you read, consider the following questions:

How would Malcolm X’s life have been different if his literacy experiences had been different?

How was Malcolm X’s literacy inextricably entangled with his life experiences, his race, and the religion he chose?

How do Malcolm X’s early literacy experiences and literacy sponsors compare with your own?

IT WAS BECAUSE OF MY LETTERS that I happened to stumble upon starting to












acquire some kind of a homemade education. I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in

letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there — I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional. How would I sound writing in slang, the way I would say it, something such as “Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat, Elijah Muhammad — ”

Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.

It had really begun back in the Charlestown Prison, when Bimbi first made me feel envy of his stock of knowledge. Bimbi had always taken charge of any conversation he was in, and I had tried to emulate him. But every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said. So I had come to the Norfolk Prison Colony still going through only book- reading motions. Pretty soon, I would have quit even these motions, unless I had received the motivation that I did.

In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there — I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary — to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words — immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on — I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet — and I went on into the B’s. That












was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened. Let me tell you something: from then until I left that prison, in every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge. Between Mr. Muhammad’s teachings, my correspondence, my visitors — usually Ella and Reginald — and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.

The Norfolk Prison Colony’s library was in the school building. A variety of classes was taught there by instructors who came from such places as Harvard and Boston universities. The weekly debates between inmate teams were also held in the school building. You would be astonished to know how worked up convict debaters and audiences would get over subjects like “Should Babies Be Fed Milk?”

Available on the prison library’s shelves were books on just about every general subject. Much of the big private collection that Parkhurst had willed to the prison was still in crates and boxes in the back of the library — thousands of old books. Some of them looked ancient: covers faded, old-time parchment-looking binding. Parkhurst, I’ve mentioned, seemed to have been principally interested in history and religion. He had the money and the special interest to have a lot of books that you wouldn’t have in general circulation. Any college library would have been lucky to get that collection.

As you can imagine, especially in a prison where there was heavy emphasis on rehabilitation, an inmate was smiled upon if he demonstrated an unusually intense interest in books. There was a sizable number of well-read inmates, especially the popular debaters. Some were said by many to be practically walking encyclopedias. They were almost celebrities. No university would ask any student to devour literature as I did when this new world opened to me, of being able to read and understand.

I read more in my room than in the library itself. An inmate who was known to read a lot could check out more than the permitted maximum number of books. I preferred reading in the total isolation of my own room.

When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be outraged with the “lights out.” It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing.

Fortunately, right outside my door was a corridor light that cast a glow into my room. The glow was enough to read by, once my eyes adjusted to it. So when “lights out” came, I would sit on the floor where I could continue reading in that glow.

At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes — until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me. Often in the years in the streets I had slept less than that.

The teachings of Mr. Muhammad stressed how history had been “whitened” — when white men had written history books, the black man simply had been left out. Mr.










Muhammad couldn’t have said anything that would have struck me much harder. I had never forgotten how when my class, me and all of those whites, had studied seventh-grade United States history back in Mason, the history of the Negro had been covered in one paragraph, and the teacher had gotten a big laugh with his joke, “Negroes’ feet are so big that when they walk, they leave a hole in the ground.”

This is one reason why Mr. Muhammad’s teachings spread so swiftly all over the United States, among all Negroes, whether or not they became followers of Mr. Muhammad. The teachings ring true — to every Negro. You can hardly show me a black adult in America — or a white one, for that matter — who knows from the history books anything like the truth about the black man’s role. In my own case, once I heard of the “glorious history of the black man,” I took special pains to hunt in the library for books that would inform me on details about black history.

I can remember accurately the very first set of books that really impressed me. I have since bought that set of books and have it at home for my children to read as they grow up. It’s called Wonders of the World. It’s full of pictures of archeological finds, statues that depict, usually, non-European people.

I found books like Will Durant’s Story of Civilization. I read H. G. Wells’ Outline of History. Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois gave me a glimpse into the black people’s history before they came to this country. Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History opened my eyes about black empires before the black slave was brought to the United States, and the early Negro struggles for freedom.

J. A. Rogers’ three volumes of Sex and Race told about race-mixing before Christ’s time; about Aesop being a black man who told fables; about Egypt’s Pharaohs; about the great Coptic Christian Empires; about Ethiopia, the earth’s oldest continuous black civilization, as China is the oldest continuous civilization.

Mr. Muhammad’s teaching about how the white man had been created led me to Findings in Genetics by Gregor Mendel. (The dictionary’s G section was where I had learned what “genetics” meant.) I really studied this book by the Austrian monk. Reading it over and over, especially certain sections, helped me to understand that if you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man — because the white gene is recessive. And since no one disputes that there was but one Original Man, the conclusion is clear.

During the last year or so, in the New York Times, Arnold Toynbee used the word “bleached” in describing the white man. (His words were: “White (i.e., bleached) human beings of North European origin….”) Toynbee also referred to the European geographic area as only a peninsula of Asia. He said there is no such thing as Europe. And if you look at the globe, you will see for yourself that America is only an extension of Asia. (But at the same time Toynbee is among those who have helped to bleach history. He has written that Africa was the only continent that produced no history. He won’t write that again. Every day now, the truth is coming to light.)

I never will forget how shocked I was when I began reading about slavery’s total horror. It made such an impact upon me that it later became one of my favorite subjects when I became a minister of Mr. Muhammad’s. The world’s most monstrous crime, the sin and the blood on the white man’s hands, are almost impossible to believe. Books like the one by Frederick Olmstead opened my eyes to the horrors suffered when the slave was landed in the United States. The European woman, Fannie Kimball, who had married a Southern white slave-owner, described how human beings were degraded. Of course I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact, I believe that’s the only novel I have ever read since I started serious reading.










Parkhurst’s collection also contained some bound pamphlets of the Abolitionist Anti- Slavery Society of New England. I read descriptions of atrocities, saw those illustrations of black slave women tied up and flogged with whips; of black mothers watching their babies being dragged off, never to be seen by their mothers again; of dogs after slaves, and of the fugitive slave catchers, evil white men with whips and clubs and chains and guns. I read about the slave preacher Nat Turner, who put the fear of God into the white slavemaster. Nat Turner wasn’t going around preaching pie-in-the-sky and “non-violent” freedom for the black man. There in Virginia one night in 1831, Nat and seven other slaves started out at his master’s home and through the night they went from one plantation “big house” to the next, killing, until by the next morning 57 white people were dead and Nat had about 70 slaves following him. White people, terrified for their lives, fled from their homes, locked themselves up in public buildings, hid in the woods, and some even left the state. A small army of soldiers took two months to catch and hang Nat Turner. Somewhere I have read where Nat Turner’s example is said to have inspired John Brown to invade Virginia and attack Harper’s Ferry nearly thirty years later, with thirteen white men and five Negroes.

I read Herodotus, “the father of History,” or, rather, I read about him. And I read the histories of various nations, which opened my eyes gradually, then wider and wider, to how the whole world’s white men had indeed acted like devils, pillaging and raping and bleeding and draining the whole world’s non-white people. I remember, for instance, books such as Will Durant’s story of Oriental civilization, and Mahatma Gandhi’s accounts of the struggle to drive the British out of India.

Book after book showed me how the white man had brought upon the world’s black, brown, red, and yellow peoples every variety of the sufferings of exploitation. I saw how since the sixteenth century, the so-called “Christian trader” white man began to ply the seas in his lust for Asian and African empires, and plunder, and power. I read, I saw, how the white man never has gone among the non-white peoples bearing the Cross in the true manner and spirit of Christ’s teachings — meek, humble, and Christ-like.

I perceived, as I read, how the collective white man had been actually nothing but a piratical opportunist who used Faustian machinations to make his own Christianity his initial wedge in criminal conquests. First, always “religiously,” he branded “heathen” and “pagan” labels upon ancient non-white cultures and civilizations. The stage thus set, he then turned upon his non-white victims his weapons of war.

I read how, entering India — half a billion deeply religious brown people — the British white man, by 1759, through promises, trickery and manipulations, controlled much of India through Great Britain’s East India Company. The parasitical British administration kept tentacling out to half of the subcontinent. In 1857, some of the desperate people of India finally mutinied — and, excepting the African slave trade, nowhere has history recorded any more unnecessary bestial and ruthless human carnage than the British suppression of the non- white Indian people.

Over 115 million African blacks — close to the 1930s population of the United States — were murdered or enslaved during the slave trade. And I read how when the slave market was glutted, the cannibalistic white powers of Europe next carved up, as their colonies, the richest areas of the black continent. And Europe’s chancelleries for the next century played a chess game of naked exploitation and power from Cape Horn to Cairo.

Ten guards and the warden couldn’t have torn me out of those books. Not even Elijah Muhammad could have been more eloquent than those books were in providing indisputable proof that the collective white man had acted like a devil in virtually every contact he had with the world’s collective non-white man. I listen today to the radio, and watch television,











and read the headlines about the collective white man’s fear and tension concerning China. When the white man professes ignorance about why the Chinese hate him so, my mind can’t help flashing back to what I read, there in prison, about how the blood forebears of this same white man raped China at a time when China was trusting and helpless. Those original white “Christian traders” sent into China millions of pounds of opium. By 1839, so many of the Chinese were addicts that China’s desperate government destroyed twenty thousand chests of opium. The first Opium War was promptly declared by the white man. Imagine! Declaring war upon someone who objects to being narcotized! The Chinese were severely beaten, with Chinese-invented gunpowder.

The Treaty of Nanking made China pay the British white man for the destroyed opium; forced open China’s major ports to British trade; forced China to abandon Hong Kong; fixed China’s import tariffs so low that cheap British articles soon flooded in, maiming China’s industrial development.

After a second Opium War, the Tientsin Treaties legalized the ravaging opium trade, legalized a British-French-American control of China’s customs. China tried delaying that Treaty’s ratification; Peking was looted and burned.

“Kill the foreign white devils!” was the 1901 Chinese war cry in the Boxer Rebellion. Losing again, this time the Chinese were driven from Peking’s choicest areas. The vicious, arrogant white man put up the famous signs, “Chinese and dogs not allowed.”

Red China after World War II closed its doors to the Western white world. Massive Chinese agricultural, scientific, and industrial efforts are described in a book that Life magazine recently published. Some observers inside Red China have reported that the world never has known such a hate-white campaign as is now going on in this non-white country where, present birth-rates continuing, in fifty more years Chinese will be half the earth’s population. And it seems that some Chinese chickens will soon come home to roost, with China’s recent successful nuclear tests.

Let us face reality. We can see in the United Nations a new world order being shaped, along color lines — an alliance among the non-white nations. America’s U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson complained not long ago that in the United Nations “a skin game” was being played. He was right. He was facing reality. A “skin game” is being played. But Ambassador Stevenson sounded like Jesse James accusing the marshal of carrying a gun. Because who in the world’s history ever has played a worse “skin game” than the white man?

Mr. Muhammad, to whom I was writing daily, had no idea of what a new world had opened up to me through my efforts to document his teachings in books.

When I discovered philosophy, I tried to touch all the landmarks of philosophical development. Gradually, I read most of the old philosophers, Occidental and Oriental. The Oriental philosophers were the ones I came to prefer; finally, my impression was that most Occidental philosophy had largely been borrowed from the Oriental thinkers. Socrates, for instance, traveled in Egypt. Some sources even say that Socrates was initiated into some of the Egyptian mysteries. Obviously Socrates got some of his wisdom among the East’s wise men.

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status symbol upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in






America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.

Yesterday I spoke in London, and both ways on the plane across the Atlantic I was studying a document about how the United Nations proposes to insure the human rights of the oppressed minorities of the world. The American black man is the world’s most shameful case of minority oppression. What makes the black man think of himself as only an internal United States issue is just a catch-phrase, two words, “civil rights.” How is the black man going to get “civil rights” before first he wins his human rights? If the American black man will start thinking about his human rights, and then start thinking of himself as part of one of the world’s great peoples, he will see he has a case for the United Nations.

I can’t think of a better case! Four hundred years of black blood and sweat invested here in America, and the white man still has the black man begging for what every immigrant fresh off the ship can take for granted the minute he walks down the gangplank.

But I’m digressing. I told the Englishman that my alma mater was books, a good library. Every time I catch a plane, I have with me a book that I want to read — and that’s a lot of books these days. If I weren’t out here every day battling the white man, I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity — because you can hardly mention anything I’m not curious about. I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did. In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college. I imagine that one of the biggest troubles with colleges is there are too many distractions, too much panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola and all of that. Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. Who seems to be Malcolm X’s intended audience? How do you know? 2. How does Malcolm X define literacy? How does this definition compare with school-

based literacy? 3. Drawing on Deborah Brandt’s definition of literacy sponsor, list as many of Malcolm

X’s literacy sponsors as you can find. (Remember that sponsors don’t have to be people; they can also be ideas or institutions, which can withhold literacy as well as provide it.) Which sponsors were most influential? What were their motivations?

4. Brandt explains that people often subvert or misappropriate the intentions of their sponsors (see paras. 7 and 27). Was this ever the case with Malcolm X? If so, how?

5. Like Malcolm X, many readers have memories in which a reference work like a dictionary or an encyclopedia figures significantly. Did his account bring back any such memories for you? If so, what were they?

6. Malcolm X asserts that his motivation for reading — his desire to understand his own experiences — led him to read far more than any college student. Respond to his claim. Has a particular motivation helped you decide what, or how much, to read?



7. What was the particular role for writing that Malcolm X describes in his account of his literacy education? How do you think it helped him read? Can you think of ways that writing helped you become a better reader?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Both Deborah Brandt and Malcolm X wrote before much of the technology that you take for granted was invented. How do you think technologies such as the Internet, text messaging, and Skype shape what it means to be “literate” in the United States today?

2. Write a one-page narrative about the impact of an early literacy sponsor on your life. Recount as many details as you can and try to assess the difference that sponsor made in your literate life.

3. Malcolm X turned to the dictionary to get his start in acquiring basic literacy. If you met a person learning to read today, what primary resource would you suggest to them? Would it be print (paper) or electronic? How would you tell them to use it, and how do you think it would help them?

META MOMENT What is the most important idea for you to take away from the Malcolm X text?



Excerpt from Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color VICTOR VILLANUEVA

Framing the Reading

You’ve probably noticed, consciously or unconsciously, that some languages or dialects tend to be dominant in particular settings, while others seem marginalized. In many cases, language users have the ability to change their language for different audiences and purposes — that is, to “code-switch” or “code-mesh” (ideas taken up in more detail by Young later in this chapter [p. 148], and by Gee in Chapter 3 [p. 274]). Changing language use in this way might be as simple as speaking differently in a place of worship versus at work or school. Or it could be as complicated as speaking one language with your parents and grandparents, and another with your friends and teachers. There are many variations of a language; there is not just one “English” but many Englishes that are spoken and written to great effect by people from different countries, regions of a country, ethnicities, classes, and even genders.



The ability to move among different versions of a language, or different languages altogether, can be helpful in communicating effectively and powerfully in different circumstances. But moving and changing language like this can also require speakers and writers to give up something that is important to who they are. This is because to be human is to be aware of the interplay among languages and how they mark power, identity, status, and potential. In circumstances where individuals use a form of language that is not the dominant or powerful one in that context, they have choices to make: Should they use (or learn to use) the dominant and powerful language? Can they do so effectively (a question that Gee takes up [p. 274])? If so, when, where, and how much should they use it? What do they give up and gain by doing so (a question taken up by Young [p. 148])? Making decisions about what language practices to use is not just a matter of learning something new, but of becoming someone else. Victor Villanueva’s book Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color is a narrative

and an analysis of his own experience with this struggle. Villanueva grew up as a Puerto Rican in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, with parents who had emigrated from Puerto Rico with Spanish as their first language. As an adult, he became a successful professor of rhetoric, focusing on questions of race, language, and power. Bootstraps tells the story of his evolution, and the excerpt that you’ll read here focuses specifically on his movement from the U.S. Army into an English degree and graduate school. It’s a literacy narrative that captures the feelings of confusion and frustration, as well as elation and satisfaction, experienced by one member of a group whose language and ethnicity are not in the majority as he learns to participate in an academic community that requires its participants to use very different language practices. Villanueva’s story, like the other






literacy narratives included in this chapter, demonstrates the complexity of what it means to be “literate” — and who has the authority to decide what forms of literacy are understood as powerful or “legitimate.” Villanueva’s experiences illustrate what it might look like to try out new language practices in a new place; it also describes the frustrations of learning to write in school settings like the one you are in now. Villanueva is Regents Professor and Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of Liberal

Arts at Washington State University. In his work, he describes and theorizes the relationship between language and power, especially the ways that language is used as a tool of racism. He has won a wide range of honors and awards both from the field of writing studies and the universities in which he’s taught, researched, and administered.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Find out more about this writer and his experiences through a quick online search.

Think back to when you first considered going to college, whatever age that was. Did you think, back then, you could do it? If you didn’t feel confident, what prevented that confidence?

As you read, consider the following questions:

What school-writing experiences have you encountered that resemble any described by Villanueva?

What do you know about affirmative action in higher education, and how is this reading matching up with that knowledge?

I WANTED TO TRY my hand at college, go beyond the GED. But college scared me. I had been told long ago that college wasn’t my lot.

He drives by the University District of Seattle during his last days in the military and sees the college kids, long hair and sandals, baggy short pants on the men, long, flowing dresses on the women, some men in suits, some women in high heels, all carrying backpacks over one shoulder. There is both purpose and contentment in the air. Storefronts carry names like Dr. Feelgood and Magus Bookstore, reflecting the good feelings and magic he senses. A block away is the University, red tiles and green grass, rolling hills and tall pines, apple and cherry blossoms, the trees shading modern monoliths of gray concrete and gothic, church-like buildings of red brick. And he says to himself, “Maybe in the next life.”

He must be content with escaping a life at menial labor, at being able to bank on the skills in personnel management he had acquired in the Army. But there are only two takers. The large department-store chain would hire him as a management trainee — a shoe salesman on commission, no set income, but a trainee could qualify for GI Bill benefits as well as the








commissions. Not good enough, not getting paid beyond the GI Bill; and a sales career wasn’t good enough either, the thought of his mother’s years as a saleslady, years lost, still in memory. A finance corporation offers him a job: management trainee. The title: Assistant Manager. The job: bill collector, with low wage, but as a trainee, qualified to supplement with the GI Bill. The combined pay would be good, but he would surely lose his job in time, would be unable to be righteously indignant like the bill collectors he has too often had to face too often are, unable to bother people like Mom and Dad, knowing that being unable to meet bills isn’t usually a moral shortcoming but most often an economic condition.

The GI Bill had come up again, however, setting the “gettinover” wheels in motion. The nearby community college charges ninety dollars a quarter tuition, would accept him on the strength of his GED scores. That would mean nearly four hundred dollars a month from the GI Bill, with only thirty dollars a month for schooling (“forgetting” to account for books and supplies). What a get-over! There would be immediate profit in simply going to school. And if he failed, there would be nothing lost. And if he succeeded, an Associate degree in something. He’d be better equipped to brave the job market again.

So he walks onto the community college campus in the summer of 1976. It’s not the campus of the University of Washington. It’s more like Dominguez High School in California. But it is a college. Chemistry: a clumsiness at the lab, but relative grace at mathematical equations and memorization. French is listening to audiotapes and filling out workbooks. History is enjoyable stories, local lore from a retired newsman, easy memorization for the grade.

Then there is English. There are the stories, the taste he had always had for reading, now peppered with talk of philosophy and psychology and tensions and textures. Writing is 200 words on anything, preceded by a sentence outline. He’d write about Korea and why The Rolling Stone could write about conspiracies of silence, or he’d write about the problems in trying to get a son to understand that he is Puerto Rican when the only Puerto Ricans he knows are his grandparents; he’d write about whatever seemed to be on his mind at the time. The night before a paper would be due, he’d gather pen and pad, and stare. Clean the dishes. Stare. Watch an “I Love Lucy” rerun. Stare. Then sometime in the night the words would come. He’d write; scratch something out; draw arrows shifting paragraphs around; add a phrase or two. Then he’d pull out; the erasable bond, making changes even as he typed, frantic to be done before school. Then he’d use the completed essay to type out an outline, feeling a little guilty about having cheated in not having produced the outline first.

The guilt showed one day when Mrs. Ray, the Indian woman in traditional dress with a Ph.D. in English from Oxford, part-time instructor at the community college, said there was a problem with his writing. She must have been able to tell somehow that he was discovering what to write while writing, no prior thesis statement, no outline, just a vague notion that would materialize, magically, while writing. In her stark, small office she hands him a sheet with three familiar sayings mimeoed on it; instructs him to write on one, right there, right then. He writes on “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” No memory of what he had written, probably forgotten during the writing. Thirty minutes or so later, she takes the four or five pages he had written; she reads; she smiles; then she explains that she had suspected plagiarism in his previous writings. She apologizes, saying she found his writing “too serious,” too abstract, not typical of her students. He is not insulted; he is flattered. He knew he could read; now he knew he could write well enough for college.

English 102, Mr. Lukens devotes a portion of the quarter to Afro-American literature. Victor reads Ishmael Reed, “I’m a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra.” It begins,








I am a cowboy in the boat of Ra, sidewinders in the saloons of fools bit my forehead  like  O the untrustworthiness of Egyptologists Who do not know their trips. Who was that dog faced man? they asked, the day I rode from town.

School marms with halitosis cannot see the Nefertitti fake chipped on the run by slick germans, the hawk behind Sonny Rollins’ head or the ritual beard of his axe; a longhorn winding its bells thru the Field of Reeds.

There was more, but by this point he was already entranced and excited. Poetry has meaning, more than the drama of Mark Antony’s speech years back.

Mr. Lukens says that here is an instance of poetry more for effect (or maybe affect) than for meaning, citing a line from Archibald MacLeish: “A poem should not mean / But be.” But there was meaning in this poem. Victor writes about it. In the second stanza, the chipped Nefertitti, a reference to a false black history, with images from “The Maltese Falcon” and war movies. The “School marms” Reed mentions are like the schoolmasters at Hamilton, unknowing and seeming not to know of being unknowing. Sonny Rollins’ axe and the Field of Reeds: a saxophone, a reed instrument, the African American’s links to Egypt, a history whitewashed by “Egyptologists / Who do not know their trips.” He understood the allusions, appreciated the wordplay. The poem had the politics of Bracy, the language of the block, TV of the fifties, together in the medium Mr. D had introduced to Victor, Papi, but now more powerful. This was fun; this was politics. This was Victor’s history, his life with language play.

Years later, Victor is on a special two-man panel at a conference of the Modern Language Association. He shares the podium with Ishmael Reed. Victor gives a talk on “Teaching as Social Action,” receives applause, turns to see Ishmael Reed looking him in the eye, applauding loudly. He tries to convey how instrumental this “colleague” had been in his life.

He’ll be an English major. Mr. Lukens is his advisor, sets up the community college curriculum in such a way as to have all but the major’s requirements for a BA from the University of Washington out of the way. The University of Washington is the only choice: it’s relatively nearby, tuition for Vietnam veterans is $176 a quarter. “Maybe in this life.”

His AA degree in his back pocket, his heart beating audibly with exhilaration and fear, he walks up the campus of the University of Washington, more excited than at Disneyland when he was sixteen. He’s proud: a regular transfer student, no special minority waivers. The summer of 1977.

But the community is not college in the same way the University is. The community college is torn between vocational training and preparing the unprepared for traditional university work. And it seems unable to resolve the conflict (see Cohen and Brawer).1 His high community-college GPA is no measure of what he is prepared to undertake at the University. He fails at French 103, unable to carry the French conversations, unable to do the reading, unable to do the writing, dropping the course before the failure becomes a matter of record. He starts again. French 101, only to find he is still not really competitive with the








white kids who had had high school French. But he cannot fail, and he does not fail, thanks to hour after hour with French tapes after his son’s in bed.

English 301, the literature survey, is fun. Chaucer is a ghetto boy, poking fun at folks, the rhyming reminding him of when he did the dozens on the block; Chaucer telling bawdy jokes: “And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole … ‘A berd, a berd!; quod hende Nicholas.” So this is literature. Chaucer surely ain’t white. At least he doesn’t sound white, “the first to write poetry in the vernacular,” he’s told. Spenser is exciting: images of knights and damsels distressing, magic and dragons, the Lord of the Rings that he had read in Korea paling in the comparison. Donne is a kick: trying to get laid when he’s Jack Donne, with a rap the boys from the block could never imagine; building church floors with words on a page when he’s Dr. John Donne. Every reading is an adventure, never a nod, no matter how late into the night the reading. For his first paper, Victor, the 3.8 at Tacoma Community College, gets 36 out of a possible 100 — “for your imagination,” written alongside the grade.

I was both devastated and determined, my not belonging was verified but I was not ready to be shut down, not so quickly. So to the library to look up what the Professor himself had published: Proceedings of the Spenser Society. I had no idea what the Professor was going on about in his paper, but I could see the pattern: an introduction that said something about what others had said, what he was going to be writing about, in what order, and what all this would prove; details about what he said he was going to be writing about, complete with quotes, mainly from the poetry, not much from other writers on Spenser; and a “therefore.” It wasn’t the five-paragraph paper Mr. Lukens had insisted on, not just three points, not just repetition of the opening in the close, but the pattern was essentially the same. The next paper: 62 out of 100 and a “Much better.” Course grade: B. Charity.

I never vindicated myself with that professor. I did try, tried to show that I didn’t need academic charity. Economic charity was hard enough. I took my first graduate course from him. This time I got an “All well and good, but what’s the point?” alongside a “B” for a paper. I had worked on that paper all summer long.

I have had to face that same professor, now a Director of Freshman Writing, at conferences. And with every contact, feelings of insecurity well up from within, the feeling that I’m seen as the minority (a literal term in academics for those of us of color), the feeling of being perceived as having gotten through because I am a minority, an insecurity I face often. But though I never got over the stigma with that professor (whether real or imagined), I did get some idea on how to write for the University.

Professorial Discourse Analysis became a standard practice: go to the library; see what the course’s professor had published; try to discern a pattern to her writing; try to mimic the pattern. Some would begin with anecdotes. Some would have no personal pronouns. Some would cite others’ research. Some would cite different literary works to make assertions about one literary work. Whatever they did, I would do too. And it worked, for the most part, so that I could continue the joy of time travel and mind travel with those, and within those, who wrote about things I had discovered I liked to think about: Shakespeare and work versus pleasure, religion and the day-to-day world, racism, black Othello and the Jewish Merchant of Venice; Dickens and the impossibility of really getting into the middle class (which I read as “race,” getting into the white world, at the time), pokes at white folks (though the Podsnaps were more likely jabs at the middle class); Milton and social responsibility versus religious mandates; Yeats and being assimilated and yet other (critically conscious with a cultural literacy, I’d say now); others and other themes. And soon I was writing like I had written in the community college: some secondary reading beforehand, but composing the night before a paper was due, a combination of fear that nothing will come and faith that






something would eventually develop, then revising to fit the pattern discovered in the Professorial Discourse Analysis, getting “A’s” and “B’s,” and getting comments like “I never saw that before.”

I was both devastated and determined, my not belonging was verified but I was not ready to be shut down, not so quickly. So to the library to look up what the Professor himself had published: Proceedings of the Spenser Society. I had no idea what the Professor was going on about in his paper, but I could see the pattern.

There were failures, of course. One professor said my writing was too formulaic. One professor said it was too novel. Another wrote only one word for the one paper required of the course: “nonsense.” But while I was on the campus I could escape and not. I could think about the things that troubled me or intrigued me, but through others’ eyes in other times and other places. I couldn’t get enough, despite the pain and the insecurity.

School becomes his obsession. There is the education. But the obsession is as much, if not more, in getting a degree, not with a job in mind, just the degree, just because he thinks he can, despite all that has said he could not. His marriage withers away, not with rancor, just melting into a dew. The daily routine has him taking the kid to a daycare/school at 6:00 a.m., then himself to school, from school to work as a groundskeeper for a large apartment complex; later, a maintenance man, then a garbage man, then a plumber, sometimes coupled with other jobs: shipping clerk for the library, test proctor. From work to pick up the kid from school, prepare dinner, maybe watch a TV show with the kid, tuck him into bed, read. There are some girlfriends along the way, and he studies them too: the English major who won constant approval from the same professor who had given him the 36 for being imaginative; the art major who had traveled to France (French practice); the fisheries major whose father was an executive vice president for IBM (practice at being middle class). Victor was going to learn — quite consciously — what it means to be white, middle class. He didn’t see the exploitation; not then; he was obsessed. There were things going on in his classes that he did not understand and that the others did. He didn’t know what the things were that he didn’t understand, but he knew that even those who didn’t do as well as he did, somehow did not act as foreign as he felt. He was the only colored kid in every one of those classes. And he hadn’t the time nor the racial affiliation to join the Black Student Union or Mecha. He was on his own, an individual pulling on his bootstraps, looking out for number one. He’s not proud of the sensibility, but isolation — and, likely, exploitation of others — are the stuff of racelessness.

There were two male friends, Mickey, a friend to this day, and Luis el Loco. Luis was a puertoriceño, from Puerto Rico, who had found his way to Washington by having been imprisoned in the federal penitentiary at MacNeal Island, attending school on a prison-release program. Together, they would enjoy talking in Spanglish, listening to salsa. But Luis was a Modern Languages major, Spanish literature. Nothing there to exploit. It’s a short-lived friendship. Mickey was the other older student in Victor’s French 101 course, white, middle class, yet somehow other, one who had left the country during Vietnam, a disc jockey in Amsterdam. The friendship begins with simply being the two older men in the class, longer away from adolescence than the rest; the friendship grows with conversations about politics, perceptions about America from abroad, literature. But Victor would not be honest with his friend about feeling foreign until years later, a literary bravado. Mickey was well read in the









literary figures Victor was coming to know. Mickey would be a testing ground for how Victor was reading, another contact to be exploited. Eventually, Mickey and his wife would introduce Victor to their friend, a co-worker at the post office. This is Carol. She comes from a life of affluence, and from a life of poverty, a traveler within the class system, not a journey anyone would volunteer for, but one which provides a unique education, a path not unlike Paulo Freire’s. From her, there is the physical and the things he would know of the middle class, discussed explicitly, and there is their mutual isolation. There is love and friendship, still his closest friend, still his lover.

But before Carol there is simply the outsider obsessed. He manages the BA. He cannot stop, even as the GI Bill reaches its end. He will continue to gather credentials until he is kicked out. Takes the GRE, does not do well, but gets into the graduate program with the help of references from within the faculty — and with the help of minority status in a program decidedly low in numbers of minorities. “Minority,” or something like that, is typed on the GRE test results in his file, to be seen while scanning the file for the references. His pride is hurt, but he remembers All Saints, begins to believe in the biases of standardized tests: back in the eighth grade, a failure top student; now a near-failure, despite a 3.67 at the competitive Big University of State. Not all his grades, he knew, were matters of charity. He had earned his GPA, for the most part. Nevertheless, he is shaken.

More insecure than ever, there are no more overnight papers. Papers are written over days, weeks, paragraphs literally cut and laid out on the floor to be pasted. One comment appears in paper after paper: “Logic?” He thinks, “Yes.” He does not understand. Carol cannot explain the problem. Neither can Mickey. He does not even consider asking the professors. To ask would be an admission of ignorance, “stupid spic” still resounding within. This is his problem.

Then by chance (exactly how is now forgotten), he hears a tape of a conference paper delivered by the applied linguist Robert Kaplan. Kaplan describes contrastive rhetoric. Kaplan describes a research study conducted in New York City among Puerto Ricans who are bilingual and Puerto Ricans who are monolingual in English, and he says that the discourse patterns, the rhetorical patterns which include the logic, of monolingual Puerto Ricans are like those of Puerto Rican bilinguals and different from Whites, more Greek than the Latin-like prose of American written English. Discourse analysis takes on a new intensity. At this point, what this means is that he will have to go beyond patterns in his writing, become more analytical of the connections between ideas. The implications of Kaplan’s talk, for him at least, will take on historical and political significance as he learns more of rhetoric.

About the same time as that now lost tape on Kaplan’s New York research (a study that was never published, evidently), Victor stumbles into his first rhetoric course.

The preview of course offerings announces a course titled “Theories of Invention,” to be taught by Anne Ruggles Gere. His GRE had made it clear that he was deficient in Early American Literature. Somewhere in his mind he recalls reading that Benjamin Franklin had identified himself as an inventor; so somehow, Victor interprets “Theories of Invention” as “Theories of Inventors,” an American lit course. What he discovers is Rhetoric.

Not all at once, not just in that first class on rhetoric, I discover some things about writing, my own, and about the teaching of writing. I find some of modern composition’s insights are modern hindsights. I don’t mind the repetition. Some things bear repeating. The repetitions take on new significance and are elaborated upon in a new context, a new time. Besides, not everyone who teaches writing knows of rhetoric, though I believe everyone should.







I read Cicero’s de Inventione. It’s a major influence in rhetoric for centuries. The strategies he describes on how to argue a court case bears a remarkable resemblance to current academic discourse, the pattern I first discovered when I first tried to figure out what I had not done in that first English course at the University.

Janet Emig looks to depth psychology and studies on creativity and even neurophysiology, the workings of the brain’s two hemispheres, to pose the case that writing is a mode of learning. She explains what I had been doing with my first attempts at college writing, neither magic nor a perversion. Cicero had said much the same in his de Oratore in the first century BCE (Before the Common Era, the modern way of saying BC):

Writing is said to be the best and most excellent modeler and teacher of oratory; and not without reason; for if what is meditated and considered easily surpasses sudden and extemporary speech, a constant and diligent habit of writing will surely be of more effect than meditation and consideration itself; since all the arguments relating to the subject on which we write, whether they are suggested by art, or by a certain power of genius and understanding, will present themselves, and occur to us, while we examine and contemplate it in the full light of our intellect and all the thoughts and words, which are the most expressive of their kind, must of necessity come under and submit to the keenness of our judgment while writing; and a fair arrangement and collocation of the words is effected by writing, in a certain rhythm and measure, not poetical, but oratorical. (de Oratore I.cxxxiv)

Writing is a way of discovering, of learning, of thinking. Cicero is arguing the case for literacy in ways we still argue or are arguing anew.

David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky discuss literary theorists like Jonathan Culler and the pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire to come up with a curriculum in which reading is used to introduce basic writers, those students who come into the colleges not quite prepared for college work, to the ways of academic discourse. Quintilian, like others of his time, the first century CE, and like others before his time, advocates reading as a way to come to discover the ways of language and the ways of writing and the ways to broaden the range of experience.

Kenneth Bruffee, Peter Elbow, and others, see the hope of democratizing the classroom through peer-group learning. So did Quintilian:

But as emulation is of use to those who have made some advancement of learning, so, to those who are but beginning and still of tender age, to imitate their schoolfellows is more pleasant than to imitate their master, for the very reason that it is more easy; for they who are learning the first rudiments will scarcely dare to exalt themselves to the hope of attaining that eloquence which they regard as the highest; they will rather fix on what is nearest to them, as vines attached to trees fain the top by taking hold of the lower branches first (23–24).

Quintilian describes commenting on student papers in ways we consider new:

[T]he powers of boys sometimes sink under too great severity in correction; for they despond, and grieve, and at last hate their work; and what is most prejudicial, while they fear everything; they cease to attempt anything…. A teacher ought, therefore, to be as agreeable as possible, that remedies, which are rough in their nature, may be rendered









soothing by gentleness of hand; he ought to praise some parts of his pupils’ performances, tolerate some, and to alter others, giving his reasons why the alterations are made. (100)

Richard Haswell recommends minimal scoring of student papers, sticking to one or two items in need of correction per paper. Nancy Sommers warns against rubber-stamp comments on student papers, comments like “awk;” she says comments ought to explain. Both have more to say than Quintilian on such matters, but in essence both are Quintilian revisited.

Edward P. J. Corbett looks to Quintilian, Cicero, and others from among the ancients, especially Aristotle, to write Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. In some ways, the book says little that is different from other books on student writing. But the book is special in its explicit connections to ancient rhetorical traditions.

Without a knowledge of history and traditions, we risk running in circles while seeking new paths. Without knowing the traditions, there is no way of knowing which traditions to hold dear and which to discard. Self evident? Maybe. Yet the circles exist.

For all the wonders I had found in literature — and still find — literature seemed to me self-enveloping. What I would do is read and enjoy. And, when it was time to write, what I would write about would be an explanation of what I had enjoyed, using words like Oedipal complex or polyvocal or anxiety or unpacking, depending on what I had found in my discourse-analytical journeys, but essentially saying “this is what I saw” or “this is how what I read took on a special meaning for me” (sometimes being told that what I had seen or experienced was nonsense). I could imagine teaching literature — and often I do, within the context of composition — but I knew that at best I’d be imparting or imposing one view: the what I saw or the meaning for me. The reader-response theorists I would come to read, Rosenblatt, Fish, Culler, and others, would make sense to me, that what matters most is what the reader finds. Bakhtin’s cultural and political dimension would make even more sense: that all language is an approximation, generated and understood based on what one has experienced with language. In teaching literature, I thought, there would be those among students I would face who would come to take on reading, perhaps; likely some who would appreciate more fully what they had read. But it did not seem to me that I could somehow make someone enjoy. Enjoyment would be a personal matter: from the self, for the self.

And what if I did manage a Ph.D. and did get a job as a professor? I would have to publish. A guest lecturer in a medieval lit course spoke of one of the important findings in his new book: medieval scribes were conscious of the thickness of the lozenge, the medieval version of the comma. He found that thinner lozenges would indicate a slight pause in reading; thicker lozenges, longer pauses. Interesting, I reckon. Surely of interest to a select few. But so what, in some larger sense? What would I write about?

Then I stumbled onto rhetoric. Here was all that language had been to me. There were the practical matters of writing and teaching writing. There were the stylistic devices, the tricks of language use that most people think about when they hear the word rhetoric; “Let’s cut through the rhetoric.” It’s nice to have those devices at one’s disposal — nice, even important, to know when those devices are operating. But there is more. Rhetoric’s classic definition as the art of persuasion suggests a power. So much of what we do when we speak or write is suasive in intent. So much of what we receive from others — from family and friends to thirty-second blurbs on TV — is intended to persuade. Recognizing how this is done gives greater power to choose. But rhetoric is still more.

Rhetoric is the conscious use of language: “observing in any given case the available means of persuasion,” to quote Aristotle (I.ii). As the conscious use of language, rhetoric




would include everything that is conveyed through language: philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, literature, politics — “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols,” according to modern rhetorician Kenneth Burke (46).2 The definition says something about an essentially human characteristic: our predilection to use symbols. Language is our primary symbol system. The ability to learn language is biologically transmitted. Burke’s definition points to language as ontological, part of our being. And his definition suggests that it is epistemological, part of our thinking, an idea others say more about (see Leff).3

So to study rhetoric becomes a way of studying humans. Rhetoric becomes for me the complete study of language, the study of the ways in which peoples have accomplished all that has been accomplished beyond the instinctual. There were the ancient greats saying that there was political import to the use of language. There were the modern greats saying that how one comes to know is at least mediated by language, maybe even constituted in language. There were the pragmatic applications. There was the possibility that in teaching writing and in teaching rhetoric as conscious considerations of language use I could help others like myself: players with language, victims of the language of failure.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. This account shifts back and forth between the first person (“I”) and the third person (“Victor,” “he”). What effects does that shifting create? Does it break any rules you’ve been taught?

2. How does Villanueva define rhetoric? What else does he say that studying rhetoric helps you study?

3. Have you ever tried observing and imitating the writing moves that other writers make, as Villanueva describes doing with his English teachers (“Professorial Discourse Analysis”)? If so, what was your experience doing so? If not, what would you need to look for in order to do the kind of imitation Villanueva describes?

4. In paragraph 6, Villanueva describes his college writing process as, “The night before a paper was due, he’d gather pen and pad, and stare. Clean the dishes. Stare. Watch an ‘I Love Lucy’ rerun. Stare. Then sometime in the night the words would come.” What elements of this process resemble your own? How is yours different?

5. Villanueva is describing his own experience of encountering affirmative action — how he benefited from it, and how it also had some negative effects. Was this an account you might have expected to hear? If not, how did it differ from your perceptions of affirmative action?

6. In telling the story of his writing process and being called into Mrs. Ray’s office (para. 7), Villanueva suggests that he expected Mrs. Ray would take issue with his writing style of “discovering what to write by writing, no prior thesis statement, no outline, just a vague notion of what would materialize, magically, while writing.” What are some of your own experiences of being taught how you are supposed to plan and write?



7. Did you attend other colleges before attending the one at which you’re using this book? Villanueva describes the difference between his community college and the University of Washington (paras. 5–21). If you’ve attended both two-year and four- year schools, what differences do you see? If you’ve attended different schools of the same sort, what were the differences? Can you see your experiences at different schools as acquiring different “literacies”?

8. In a number of places in this excerpt, Villanueva talks not just about “literacy sponsors” but about authors whose ideas about writing and teaching writing shaped his own. Before coming to college, what authors had you read that shaped your thinking about writing?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Villanueva writes that “school became my obsession,” and yet he describes struggling with writing for school. In other words, he ran the risk of being barred from doing the thing he loved because of his writing. Consider the activities you most love being part of: Was there ever a moment where language or writing threatened to (or did) bar your access to them? Or where language or writing provided your gateway to them? Write a two- to three-page descriptive narrative (imitate Villanueva’s style, if you like) about that situation.

2. Analyze Villanueva’s piece using Brandt’s notion of literacy sponsorship. What literacy sponsors appear in Villanueva’s literacy narrative? (Start by making as complete a list as you can.) What did these sponsors allow and limit?

3. Do some Professorial Discourse Analysis of two college or high school teachers you’ve had. What did they each expect from your writing? Did they agree or differ in their expectations? Describe their expectations in two to three pages, and give specific examples of what each expected.

4. Look up information about Robert Kaplan’s “contrastive rhetoric.” Write a two-to- three-page explanation describing contrastive rhetoric and explaining why it might have helped a student like Villanueva make sense of his own experiences in college.

META MOMENT After reading Villanueva, what is your understanding of the relationship between language, identity, and power? How can this understanding help you better understand your own experiences or those of others?



Challenging Our Labels Rejecting the Language of Remediation


Framing the Reading



This article was written by five first-year composition students at California State University, San Bernardino, as part of their “rebellion” against being labeled “remedial” writers due to a standardized, timed test they took prior to entering college.



The issues these students raise here should be ones with which you can relate. Even if you were never labeled remedial, you likely had to take (and be judged by your performance on) timed writing tests. You’ve probably been labeled in some form, and then encountered specific treatment and experience based on those labels. You’ve probably encountered teachers whose perceptions of you colored your feelings about yourself and your ability. And certainly the type of school you attended determined the kinds of experiences and resources to which you were exposed.

This article illustrates many of the threshold concepts discussed in this book, and also many of the claims made by other scholars in this chapter. For example, Tejada et al. talk a great deal about how words, ideas, and labels made them who they are. In other words, that thoughts and ideas make reality, as we explained in Chapter 1 (p. 5). Their experiences illustrate what happens to students when the two stories about writing that we discussed in that chapter collide: Their administrators and high school teachers seem to be acting out of a traditional story about writing as error avoidance, while their college writing teacher seems to see writing as much richer than that. These writers illustrate repeatedly the ways that their writing (and their sense of themselves) is impacted by their prior experiences, that it is possible to see writing as a powerful way to get things done and take action (in this case, as rebellion against labels they don’t want to accept), and that all writers have more to learn — thus, it’s problematic to label any particular group of students as “remedial.”

Getting Ready to Read








Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Do you have any experience being tested and then “placed” into a writing or English class? If so, what was that experience like?

Conduct an Internet search for “remediation” and “remedial writer” and see what you find.

Google the “EPT California placement test” so that you understand what it is when the writers here refer to it.

As you read, consider the following questions:

Where do you relate to the authors’ feelings and experiences?

Are there any unfamiliar terms, particularly those related to testing, placement, and orientation, at their school? You may want to bring these up in class.

EVEN THOUGH MOST California State University campuses no longer offer remedial English courses, the university’s system-wide English Placement Test (EPT) continues to designate between 50–80% of first-year students enrolled on its twenty-three campuses as remedial writers, although sometimes using the label “not yet proficient.” English departments have resisted these categories in various ways, and now most of them have adopted local enactments of what Arizona State University calls “stretch” programs (Glau) in which students do substantive text work that is not, and is not named, remedial. On our campus, students are directed to one-, two-, or three-quarter first-year writing (FYW) courses in which they are taught in the same cohort by the same instructor.

However, on our campus, as on many others, despite these curricular and pedagogical changes, the language of remediation has continued to be imposed by institutional structures in both official communications and campus conversation — again, even though our English department has not offered remedial writing courses for several years.

Based on our EPT scores, we five FYW students were categorized as remedial. The implications of that assessment became clear to us in unexpected and conflicting ways. For example, although documents from the Chancellor’s Office as well as communications from our home campus personnel used the term remedial, we were assigned to a three-quarter (thirty-week) FYW “stretch” course, listed by the English department as nonremedial. In fact, far from being remedial in either its topics or its pedagogy, our coursework helped us to challenge the language of remediation that continues to mark students like us and our writing.

Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs’s Writing about Writing unmasked the language of remediation for us and for our professors, class TAs, and writing center tutors, pushing us all not only to stretch our own ideas about labeled writing populations but also to speak out to the academic community about how institutional language constructs students and shapes their relationships with their families, with other students, with professors, and within the professions they plan to enter.

As we read Deborah Brandt’s work on literacy sponsorship and Jean Anyon’s descriptions of socioeconomic-status (SES) differentiated high school curricula and



pedagogy, we began to challenge CSU’s administrative labeling practices, showing how these labels isolate and limit students. This has come to matter enormously to us, and thus we offer the following narratives, which have helped us to better understand the importance of language and labels. We hope to challenge others to think about how the language they use each day shapes writers and the writing that takes place in their spaces. We begin by explaining how we came to feel remedial and how that constructed us as students and writers, then show how those perceptions clashed with our experiences in our FYW class. Next we describe our research into labels and labeling. We conclude by showing some of the impact we believe our work has had locally and by challenging others to join in this work in their own spaces. We especially hope that we can encourage students who have been labeled remedial to realize that they are not alone and that they don’t have to accept someone else’s label.

WHY DID WE FEEL REMEDIAL WHEN WE WERE NOT IN A REMEDIAL COURSE? Even “remedial” students can read signs! Even before we arrived on campus, we knew that we were remedial. And if we didn’t, we quickly learned who we “really” were, and it wasn’t pretty.

Sonia: As a first-generation college student, I had been told by my parents that they would always try their best to support me and to help me reach my goals, so receiving an acceptance letter from a four-year university was the best feeling ever. My parents were beyond excited and proud of me. Any chance they had, they told people that I got accepted to a four-year university and that not many people can get in, but I did because I worked hard for it. Two weeks later, when I received my EPT results, I was confused. I didn’t know what my scores meant until I went to orientation and found out that I was placed in what they called a remedial course for English. I was speechless. The word remedial hit me like a brick. I knew I was being accepted by Cal State, but when I found out that I was placed in a remedial English course I began to question myself — if I were worthy of their sponsorship. I didn’t have the courage to tell my parents that their daughter needed to take a “remedial” course. Just the word itself was disappointing and made me feel embarrassed. That was two years ago. Even though I have successfully passed my English course and Cal State no longer labels me remedial, my parents still don’t know that I was in a remedial class, and I don’t know if they ever will.

Esther: Like Sonia, once I received my acceptance letter I was proud of myself that I had made it — against all odds I had made it. In fact, I was not aware of what the term remedial even meant until I came to orientation at CSUSB. But I quickly learned. As I sat through the dean of the natural sciences’ speech, I heard him use it about classes that were not “college level.” I remember the dean making specific remarks about these courses, that if you had to take any remedial classes you were already behind on being able to graduate in four years. This meant if you were not enrolled in Math 110 or English 107, you were behind. As I sat there looking at my paper that had on it the classes I was eligible to enroll in, I felt ashamed. My paper had 102 for English, while everyone around me had a 107 on theirs. I felt so embarrassed. I had never wanted to run and hide so much as I did at this moment. Already behind, and I had not even started? Hearing this come from someone of such power made me feel as though I was no match for all the other students who had placed into “college-level” English. My first thought after hearing this was, “Oh, great, now I must take high school English all over again.” Being labeled remedial shook my confidence as a student because all my life I had been told that going to college was basically not an option for me. Then once I







finally made it, I had to carry with me this “remedial” label which shows people that I wasn’t good enough to be a regular college student, that I was underprepared and needed fixing. Feeling accepted and welcomed to the university is very important as an incoming freshman. Once I left that orientation, I knew I would still have to demonstrate to the university administrators as well as myself that I belonged at CSUSB. The feeling of not belonging created an unnecessary barrier for me as a student because of the negative impact the label “remedial” carries.

Arturo: When I went to orientation, I was extremely confident because my hard work in high school, resulting in a high GPA, allowed me to gain acceptance into every school I applied to, and I chose Cal State, San Bernardino. When I received my schedule, I saw that I had an English 102 class and a Math 90 class. I had no idea what those meant, but the orientation instructor told us that students who were placed below Math 110 or below English 107 were in “remedial classes” and had one year to pass them or else they were kicked off the campus. Like the others here, these words stung so much because I had worked so hard to get here, only to find myself at the bottom of the food chain, which meant being looked down upon by everyone. I felt like I did not belong at this school.

As soon as I got home and told others about my classes, they scrutinized me intensely. My father even told me to go to a community college because he thought that I should not be in Cal State if I was a “remedial” student and that I would be discriminated against there. However, when he left me at my Cal State dorm, he said, “I know you are better than the label, but now you just have to prove to them how much you want it.”

My first reaction to the orientation adviser’s warning about finishing our “remedial” classes within one year or being kicked out was shock. The next was shame. But then I began to feel afraid — afraid that he was right to segregate me, that I would never be good enough to fit in. This fear either makes or breaks students because they can carry it for the rest of their college career, creating a sense of helplessness that may ultimately cause them to drop out: if they’ll never measure up, what point is there in continuing? Luckily, I instead used fear as motivation. I allowed it to consume me and become an obsession, the reason I got up every morning. My fear and anger of never measuring up in the eyes of my peers and superiors, due to the discrimination that came with the “remedial” label, made me want to do my absolute best to prove them wrong by working that much more on my craft — because in my eyes, failure was not an option.

Being discriminated against is painful, especially when it jeopardizes people’s futures. It’s been three years since I was labeled, and I’ve accomplished so much during that time. However, despite my accomplishments, the label still stings as much as it did at first. That fear of never measuring up, never being good enough, still consumes me to my very core. It shows up in my school-work, even in my day-to-day behavior. I’m constantly second-guessing myself; the question Do I belong here? will probably be in the back of my mind for the rest of my college career and maybe even my professional career. Much like so many others, no matter how much I fight against it, trying to prove that I’m not “remedial,” that label has become part of my identity because of the internal scars it’s inflicted. Not everyone has the good fortune to be stubborn in facing and enduring the label, in trying to prove it wrong, which is why all of us feel so keenly about this project.

Brisa: When I started college, I did know what remediation meant because of an explanation from my high school AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination, a college-readiness program) teacher. He said, “When you place in remedial it means that you have to take extra English classes in order to be considered a ‘real college student.’” That shocked me because I had worked so hard to get into a university, only to find out that I was






not a “real college student” after all. Like Sonia, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone in my family that I was remedial because I felt guilty. I almost felt ashamed when I told people what school I was going to because I didn’t know if one small move could jeopardize my university standing. I couldn’t enjoy my first year in college because the thought of being kicked out of the university followed my every move. If I had any doubts about what the university thought about me, they flew out the window when I was sitting in my philosophy class and another student asked the professor a question about the Crito. He answered, “It’s not like you are remedial!” That made me feel ashamed, lower than the other philosophy majors. I’m not saying that professors should watch every word they say in their classes, but it was another reminder that even though I was sitting in the same classroom with “regular” students, I would still be looked down upon if anyone discovered that I was remedial. I hoped no one would find out, and I wondered whether the philosophy major was off limits to people like me. It made me sad but also mad. I never knew how much a simple word could affect me until I was labeled remedial; I still feel the loss of that pride I had when I was first admitted. Instead of identifying as a legitimate student with my school — which is an important element in persistence — I still sometimes feel like a fake, as if someone will discover that I don’t really belong. I think that even when I receive my diploma, I’ll still be looking for the attachment that reads “provisional” or somehow not-real.

DeShonna: When I was graduating from high school, the majority of the teachers pushed students into going to a junior college not only because of price but because we would learn more there in order to transfer to a four-year university as “equals.” Already I felt remedial because I could see that going into college meant going into a hierarchy. You take a placement test and find out where you fall in that hierarchy. Then once I got my results and saw that I would be taking remedial courses, I knew for sure that I was not considered college level. Shocking, because no one had said that this test would rank us as remedial or not; it was instead described as showing whether or not students should take a freshman English class. I did not want to skip that class and didn’t think that I would be looked down on for taking it.

Having graduated high school with honors and thus gained admission to any CSU campus I chose, I thought as time went on that maybe I had escaped CSUSB’s hierarchy. But once I got to campus, the orientation session let me know that although I may have had a great past, the EPT made me remedial now. The counselors placed me in a thirty-week English class and emphasized that failing to complete remedial classes in my first year would get me kicked out of school. As a pre-nursing student, they stressed, I had no room for failure. I began to feel less and less sure of myself. They actually told me that because I had to take remedial courses, most likely I would in fact not even make it into the nursing major. This bothered me because the orientation staff, without knowing anything about me, judged my lifetime capabilities by one inaccurately described placement test. Although they may have thought they were doing a good deed in being realistic and welcoming students to “the real world,” they were only increasing the odds that I would fail by predicting that I would fail. The remedial title somehow also entered into the social fabric of the school, so that even in places like the writing center, I felt that some tutors treated me differently from other students once they found out what English class I was in — even if I came with work from another class like philosophy. So for most of that year, I went into the writing center only to fulfill assignments for my English class.

So — we all had plenty of people to tell us that we were remedial and exactly what that meant: not-good, fake, damaged, unlikely to succeed. We were embarrassed; we felt marginal, inferior, and alienated. Some of us were angry, but more of us just decided that we had to play the university’s game. However, the labels mattered so much to our identities that when other students asked us what “English” we were taking, we avoided the questions or we lied.







AND THEN WE SHOWED UP FOR OUR FIRST “NOT-REMEDIAL REMEDIAL” ENGLISH CLASS We came through the door not knowing what to expect, but expecting it not to be good — and again we were confused. Our professor didn’t seem to have heard that we were remedial. When we began reading and writing, she kept pestering us about “exigency,” which didn’t seem like something we remedial students should have. It didn’t seem like something that went along with the Google definition of remedial as “1. Giving or intended as a remedy or cure. 2. Provided or intended for students who are experiencing learning difficulties.” What we were called and what we were actually doing in class just didn’t add up, so we spent a lot of time wondering what we were being cured of, and exactly what “learning difficulties” had placed us in what the university, at least, thought was a remedial English course.

Sonia: I can still remember how nervous I was that first day of our class; my heart was pounding so fast that I thought I might explode as I sat there looking around. The classroom little by little started to fill in, and the professor came in and gave us our syllabus and explained what we would be doing for the quarter. I was shocked when I started reading the syllabus. I thought it would have a lot of grammar lessons or basic instructions on how to do an essay, but it didn’t. It had a lot of reading passages and articles by scholars like Michel Foucault, Peter Elbow, James Paul Gee, and many more. Why were we reading these scholars if this was a remedial course?

What surprised me the most was the professor. She never treated us like remedial students. She believed in us and knew from the beginning that we had a lot of potential. She gave us work that many other professors wouldn’t give their first-year students. At the end of class, I knew that I wasn’t a remedial student and neither were my classmates. We were labeled by the school, but our work said something else. It showed that we were capable of being scholars.

Arturo: Coming into my FYW class, I was so furious that the only thing I was interested in was proving to Professor Hanson that I could write just as well as, if not better than, any one of her students in the non-“remedial” ten-week course. I refused to accept the mediocrity, the failure, the being looked down on that I felt the university was assigning me. I was determined to prove not just to my professors and everyone around me but especially to myself that I belonged, that I was an equal, normal college student. But as we began to read John Swales, James Paul Gee, Deborah Brandt, Ann Johns, Sherman Alexie, bell hooks, Mike Rose, and others, I noticed that Professor Hanson believed in us, saw us as normal, and challenged us. One way she did this — beyond having us read difficult, “real” work — was by asking us, surprisingly, what we would say back to them, and how they might speak to us in response. She challenged us to prove we were not the label by first using the work to prove it to ourselves. She assigned us work that even graduate students did, and then had us apply those concepts in everyday life in order to prove to others that we were not “remedial.” I started to feel more confident — even proud. My dad was right: we were better than our labels, and now we had to work harder to challenge the entire structure of academia and prove who we really were — which, ironically enough, we discovered in our “remedial” class.

At the end of the class I knew that I wasn’t a remedial student and neither were my classmates. We were labeled by the school, but our work said something else. It showed that we were capable of being scholars.








Esther: As I stepped into my remedial English class, I was so sure I would be going over exactly the same material I had gone through in high school — because obviously I did not learn it the first time and I needed to go over it some more in order to be ready for “college- level” English. I was shocked when our professor did not hand out a grammar book and start teaching us how to construct sentences or how to properly use a comma. Instead she began by having us read scholarly journals and think critically about them. These journals were a new genre of writing we had never been exposed to. It was difficult to understand exactly what the authors were saying, but class discussion brought the meaning clearer and clearer as we began to adapt.

I was even more surprised when we began to read Jean Anyon’s essay “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” She writes about the difference in the teaching methods elementary teachers use, differences that depend on the economic status and social class of the community in which a school is placed. The “executive elite” method of teaching is for schools in wealthy communities, where students are imagined as leaders, to learn to challenge and remake others’ rules rather than just follow them. “In the executive elite school,” Anyon writes, “work is developing one’s analytical intellectual powers” (83). As we read Anyon, I could see that in K-12 I had been taught to be a follower, an obeyer; but in my FYW class, I was finally being challenged to think in more depth about the assignments, not just follow grammar rules. As the class proceeded and the level at which I was being challenged increased, I began to wonder who exactly decided this class was remedial. No one in our class needed to be cured of anything, and as far as I could see, no one had learning difficulties. We were all able to keep up, and we all worked together to unpack the readings. The term remedial implies that we are not at the college level, but in my “remedial” class all we ever did from the first day was college-level work.

Brisa: I took the remedial class, but to me it felt nothing like I thought a remedial class would be. We were reading everything from Gee to Foucault, and we were breaking the high school habit of Jane Schaffer paragraphs by writing college essays. I didn’t feel like a remedial student because of all the difficult reading that I was doing; when I asked my peers, none of them were reading what I was. I began to enjoy doing difficult work, to read in between the lines, to think critically, and to feel confident in my writing. I no longer felt that my essay was controlling me. I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew how to translate it into my paper; I controlled what I wrote.

DeShonna: When I entered the opening ten weeks of our thirty-week English course, I thought this would be easy, especially since I had graduated high school with honors. However, my professor did not do the expected grammar drills but instead told us this class would be no different from the English class that any incoming college students take, except that our class was stretched over a longer span. We would get a chance to learn in more depth, she said, which would help us excel in college. As the weeks went by, we learned a lot about the academic community and read articles that graduate students said they were having difficulty with. This led me to question why we were considered “not yet proficient” by the English department and remedial by everyone else, especially when my English class pedagogy was more advanced than some of the classes I saw “proficient” students taking. After icebreakers in class, I finally felt that I could speak on remediation without feeling ashamed. I began to wonder why over half of Cal State students were being labeled remedial, why the majority of the students who are defined as remedial are minorities, and why students who start off being classified as remedial and not yet proficient end up with lower retention rates (Tierney and Garcia 2).

However, exigency took on life when our professor offered us extra credit to attend the








Celebration of Writing for FYW and said that she hoped we might get excited about entering the contest ourselves. Us? Remedial students earning writing awards? It became even more confusing when during the awards ceremony, one of her colleagues in the composition department gave a speech celebrating the successful elimination of remedial classes on our campus. “What?” we demanded during our next class. How could she make that claim when we were all acutely aware of our own remedial status and the remedial status of our stretch class? Yes, we had begun not to feel remedial while we were actually in class, but we sure knew we were outside of it.

WE DID RESEARCH ON LABELS AND REMEDIATION AND BECAME EVEN MORE CONFUSED Our professor didn’t have any answers that satisfied us, but she agreed that we could take it on for our winter-quarter research project. Because we found the disjunction between what the institution said about us, what we were learning in class, and what we thought about ourselves puzzling, irritating, and at times enraging, we decided that we needed to look beyond our own experiences to the work of those we were now describing as “other scholars.” We were especially attracted to Brandt’s work on literacy sponsors, Gee’s on identity kits, Anyon’s on how different educations prepare and predestine students, Elbow’s and Rose’s on the effects of remediation and labeling, and that of some of our fellow CSUSB students.

Brisa: Things just didn’t add up. I learned while researching my remediation paper that over 60% of students place into some kind of remedial class in CSUSB (California State University). This shocked me when I thought about my philosophy professor’s comment about remedial students: didn’t he know about the 60%? Had my adviser missed the prerequisite for philosophy majors that said, “No remedial students permitted”?

I also was confused when I read Elbow’s comment that “the teachers of remedial classes are often the least well paid and the least respected” (588). When we discussed this in class, it seemed to us that if professors had the option of teaching a remedial class or a “regular” writing class, most often they would pick the regular class. How is that supposed to help us with our confidence, knowing we aren’t usually first choice? We enter as remedial students, so since we are considered unprepared, wouldn’t it make sense to have the most prepared professors teaching us? Although our professor was new, we were lucky in the sense that she actually wanted to teach our class. She wanted to teach our class because she was excited about us all learning together. Had she and my philosophy professor ever met?

Arturo: I was so furious when I began our class that I hardly could believe Professor Hanson when she told us that she did not see any of us as “remedial students.” I was amazed when she asked us if we wanted to do a paper on the topic of “remediation” for our term paper. I thought if I was going to prove that I wasn’t a remedial student, I would need to interview as many students, professors, and administrators that were directly associated with the label as I could, so I did just that. I interviewed over a hundred college students, most of whom said a lot of the same things that my peers and I said: remediation means that you don’t really belong, are doing “basic” work, and are less smart and less likely to succeed. When I asked the composition professors who have direct contact with students, they said that they don’t look at incoming freshmen as anything but developing writers. Even the chair said, “The content of the courses in our stretch program is university level and not remedial.” So why were we being labeled?

To find out I spoke to one of the college deans. He argued that, while it is not good that there is a negative connotation to being in certain classes, “the fact of the matter is that students








in these classes need additional help in these subjects.” When I asked him whether the EPT is flawed, he said that every test has some flaw in it, but the EPT is an “adequate” test that has been working for a long time, and there is no reason to discontinue its use. He said that there could be improvements to better evaluate students coming out of high school, but he had to work within the framework of the budget, and as of now the EPT is the best way to evaluate students.

The EPT was created many years ago to help the university place students in FYW classes that would give them the best chance to succeed as college students; that was its only purpose. However, this two-part exam — a multiple-choice grammar, usage, and critical thinking test, plus a thirty-minute essay — has become much more than that. Now it is seen as a proficiency test, one students can fail. Worse, it uses predicted outcomes to designate a system-wide “failure” rate of 50% or higher, depending on the population of individual campuses.

Further, the language the Educational Testing Service (ETS) website uses and the way the CSU system interprets the test conflict in how they present information about the test to incoming students. ETS tells students that the test is not for admission but simply helps determine which courses best match their level of performance in English (ETS). Prior to the test, I was told how insignificant and easy it was. The ETS website even tells people not to stress about the test, so when I went to take it, I was extremely confident. I followed the advice and relaxed — until none of the test was as I expected. The multiple-choice section asked questions unlike anything that I had seen before, even on the SATs and AP tests. The essay question took awhile just to figure out what I was being asked to write about — which wasn’t even being looked at by the graders, who were looking more at grammar. I did not finish the test because it took me a long time to figure out how I wanted to tackle the topic. When I write, it takes me hours just to write the first draft, which usually has numerous grammatical errors. How could I have been accurately evaluated by a test that eliminated that normal, extended writing process? Even more irritating was how my results hinged on the performance of others taking the test that day via the system’s predetermined “failure” rate.

Only after I had taken the test did I realize the importance of the very different language employed by the CSU campuses. They look at it as an evaluation as opposed to how the ETS presents it. There the language of remediation and the costs of failure are alive and well. I learned that EPT scores like mine result in students being unjustly labeled and prejudged prior to stepping foot inside a classroom of the university — to which they were already admitted prior to the test.

I was astonished to find out that even on our campus there was a huge difference in opinion regarding the topic of remediation depending on who you talked to and their ranking in academe. However, I was less surprised when I read Rose’s statements about how academics get their ideas about students:

There’s not a lot of close analysis of what goes on in classrooms, [and] the cognitive give and take of instruction and what students make of it…. We don’t get much of a sense of the texture of students’ lives … but even less of a sense of the power of learning things and through that learning redefining who you are. Student portraits when we do get them are too often profiles of failure rather than of people with dynamic mental lives. (12)

Maybe the administrators should talk to the professors and the students and get some of that texture into their definitions. And maybe they should be reading what we read in our research.

Sonia: College students see themselves partly through the images and frameworks that are constructed by their literacy sponsors. Brandt defines literacy sponsors as “any agents, local or






distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy — and gain advantage by it in some way” (334). Students might be sponsored by a scholarship, a sport, or their parents. The support they receive varies depending on the type of sponsors they have. Reading Brandt helped us reflect on our sponsors. Our families believed in us, but when they learned that we were remedial (that is, if we told them), some were afraid and warned us to scale down our hopes. They didn’t want us to take on higher goals until we were ready for them. Many family members and friends assumed that our placement was remedial for a reason. Most of our high school sponsors were like DeShonna’s, who said that after high school we were meant to either get jobs or go to community colleges. Brandt argues that some kinds of literacy sponsorship, in privileging one kind of literacy, actually suppress others. Cal State’s sponsorship was mixed: the administration was sponsoring us as somehow special or different, which wasn’t a vote of confidence, but our professor saw us as smart and capable. At first we weren’t sure whether to believe her, but since Professor Hanson was pretty powerful in her belief, we began to trust in what she and other scholars said about us. So our parents supported us in our literacy goals even though the EPT shook their faith; our high school and college administrators regulated and in some ways suppressed or even withheld literacy; and our professor and her colleagues and department modeled literacy and enabled us as literate persons.

Esther: Reading Anyon’s “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” was shocking and revealing. It was discouraging to discover that social and economic class differentiates teaching, so the school you attend can determine how well you become prepared to either go into the workforce or attend college. Anyon spent a full year researching five schools with different economic backgrounds. She found that although the same material was being taught throughout the five different schools, how the students were being taught had a huge impact. Coming from a “working-class” school, I have been taught since I was a child how to follow rules and regulations. These are the steps working-class students are taught because we are expected to go into the workforce once we are done with high school as opposed to attending college. We especially don’t learn that we are on the bottom rung of a ladder on which some other students are taught to become our thinkers and managers.

Students who come from a working-class school face a hard battle every day. By the ways we are taught and labeled, we face the oppression of being told we will not make it to college. Ever since I was little, I was told that people like me will find a job after high school, ending their schooling. When a high school teacher asked what I planned to do after high school, I told him I was hoping to go to CSU. He looked at me and said that if I wanted to go to a four-year university, I was in the wrong school. Our high school prepares students to go into the workforce or community college.

DeShonna: The disjunction between schools that Esther’s high school teacher was pointing out is a function of what Gee calls “Discourses,” and these differences also help explain validity problems with the EPT. A Discourse, according to Gee, “is a sort of ‘identity kit’, which comes complete with instructions on how to talk, act, and write as taking on a particular social role that others will recognize” (484). High school and college are two very different Discourses. When I entered college it bothered me that the community identified students as remedial based on invalid reasons — invalid because the EPT measures of critical thinking and college writing skills can, as Esther uses Anyon to point out, also be shaped by your socioeconomic status. As Anyon says, a major difference between elite and working-class schools can be instruction in critical thinking and writing. Working-class students may not be prepared to write as college students because they are not expected to go to college, having instead mostly been taught to follow directions so they can join the workforce. These different







ways of teaching are creating students who work within different Discourses, and why would we expect valid test results on potential for accomplishment in a Discourse many students haven’t even been taught yet?

There are two other reasons that labeling incoming college students remedial is a bad idea. First, many universities, including some Ivy League schools, offer all students thirty weeks of writing instruction without any negative connotation. However, for many public schools, budget cuts discourage any course over ten weeks, which resonates with Anyon’s assertions about socioeconomic status and education. This limitation contributes to the negative stereotype of students in the stretch programs. Second, psychology suggests that a critical period of identity formation occurs between the ages of thirteen and twenty, during which people (including the majority of first-year college students) clarify their values and try to experience success. They are also developing a sense of individuality, connectedness, and critical thinking. It’s not the time to critically undermine student self-efficacy with spurious labels.

In my own case, the remedial label affected my identity formation in that the university’s doubt whether I was a “real” college student weakened my own sense of identity and belonging as a college student. I started to feel like I had not accomplished anything in high school, and I felt powerless and confused, lacking confidence — and silenced, as I worried about telling other students and campus offices that I was in the stretch program. Gee argues that an identity kit for a role includes clothes, attitudes, language — both oral and print — and ways of interacting with others. Labeled a remedial writer, I started to wonder, “Well, am I remedial in my other classes as well? Will the teachers be able to tell I am a remedial writer? Can I even write a paper and get a good grade?”

OUR REBELLION Scholarship had helped us understand the issues. However, all the work we read was written by professors and other scholars, not by students who have actually lived with the stigma of being labeled remedial. We wanted our voices heard, so first we presented our work at the 2012 International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) Conference, which helped us complicate our thinking about institutional, tutor, and student language. Then Arturo entered his remediation research project into our campus’s FYW Celebration of Writing and took home the first prize, which helped us believe in ourselves and our words. And then we proposed and presented a session at the 2013 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), where the audience response encouraged us to reach farther with our ideas. So we began writing, hoping to someday publish our work. That was our rebellion against the unfair label. In rebelling we came to believe we do belong in college. We believe that our work shows how student-initiated and carefully theorized resistance to institutional language helped us, and our professors, to reexamine our own acceptance of institutional labeling as well as to challenge administrators and faculty to label students accurately: as writers.

One of our favorite class quotes is from Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Gee’s theory of identity formation speaks powerfully to labeling students as remedial, and it is why a university should put extra effort into understanding the effects of remedial labels on its writers. This could go a long way toward keeping students from feeling put down; they would be more motivated to meet the common goals of the other students in the university and not feel they are worth less than their colleagues. After all, college writing is very different from high school writing. There is no way students should be condemned for not exhibiting







characteristics of a style they have never been taught. Fortunately for the incoming students who followed us, prior to our speaking out,

numerous faculty members had already been laying the foundation to resolve the injustice done to us; all we did was bring it out in the open. In a sense, it was the perfect storm. The following year, things did end up changing at CSUSB, due in part to the implementation of a new initiative, directed self-placement (DSP), which gave students the opportunity to choose their own English placement. So throughout that year, our sophomore year, we asked numerous first-year students if any of them felt a “remedial” stigma related to writing; much to our surprise, they had no idea what we were talking about. Some even asked us to define the term. When we explained it and the effect it has had on us as university students, many were shocked. In speaking to them about the past, we felt as if we were telling a mythical tale because to them, last year was a page in an old history book. It was hard for them to believe because the present is so different.

Also in our sophomore year, though, the CSU system implemented the Early Start Program, a mandatory experience for students designated as “underprepared” by the EPT. They are required to attend a four-day class to “prepare” them for college-level writing. When we came to college, our university told us that our four years of high school hadn’t prepared us for college writing, yet they now believe four days will prepare new students. According to the composition faculty who have been working with us on this project, CSUSB and other CSU campuses with Stretch Composition and DSP have asked to be exempt from Early Start, but their requests have been denied. So now, even though several professors have commented that the work that came out of our class unmasked the harmful language regarding remediation and influenced both the professor-training materials and the ways Early Start classes are conducted on our campus, students in this year’s Early Start are still being discriminated against based on their EPT scores. Although they seem to have no awareness of the remedial label, they do know that their EPT scores were what required them to come to campus in the summer for the Early Start session. And while our faculty has worked hard to find and erase the language of remediation in our campus documents, it remains unchanged on the CSU and ETS websites.

We have helped to change the landscape, and even though Early Start may be the new obstacle that keeps students from equality, we are optimistic that it can be overcome as long as people keep speaking up. We hope that our class doing so will have some effect on other universities’ use of the remedial label. Seeing the interest in our presentations at the 2012 IWCA and the 2013 CCCC conferences gave us courage, and we encourage others to speak out. Being engaged as FYW students doing research that matters to us positioned us not just as research subjects for “real” writing scholars to study, but as scholars ourselves who can create knowledge and rewrite the terms of our own education.

As more of us let our voices be heard, there may come a time when all students are treated as normal. The scarring of the past need not continue in the future — a future which will be determined not just by administrators but by brave students who speak out and start making a difference.

Works Cited Anyon, Jean. “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.” Journal of Education 162.1 (1980):

67–92. Print. Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication 49 (1998): 165–85.

Rpt. in Wardle and Downs 332–50. Print. The California State University (CSU). “Analytic Studies: CSU Proficiency.” 15 April 2013. Web. 8



Oct. 2013. Elbow, Peter. “Response to Glynda Hull, Mike Rose, Kay Losey Fraser, and Marisa Castellano,

‘Remediation as Social Construct.’” College Composition and Communication 44 (1993): 587–88. Print.

ETS. “CSU: About the CSU Placement Tests.” 2013. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. Gee, James Paul. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” Journal of Education 171.1

(1989): 5–17. Rpt. in Wardle and Downs 482–95. Print. Glau, Gregory. “The ‘Stretch Program’: Arizona State University’s New Model of University-Level

Basic Writing Instruction.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 20.1–2 (1996): 79–91. Print. Rose, Mike. “Rethinking Remedial Education and the Academic-Vocational Divide.” Mind, Culture,

and Activity 19 (2012): 1–16. Print. Tierney, William G., and Lisa D. Garcia. “Preparing Underprepared Students for College: Remedial

Education and Early Assessment Programs.” Journal of At-Risk Issues 14.2 (2008): 1–7. Print. Wardle, Elizabeth, and Doug Downs. Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Boston: Bedford/St.

Martin’s, 2011. Print.


Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. What is a “remedial” writer, according to the definitions you researched prior to reading, and according to Tejada et al.?

2. What do you think Tejada et al. mean when they say that reading this book (Writing about Writing) “unmasked the language of remediation” for them? Is there anything in your experience of reading this book so far that might help you to understand and question what it means to be called a “remedial” writer?

3. The writers talk about the shame of what Esther calls “carrying this remedial label” (para. 8). Arturo’s father warned him that this label would cause him to be discriminated against at the university, and told him that he had to prove to university administrators that he was “better than the label” (para. 10). And Arturo argues that no matter how many successes he has had, the label of remedial has become a part of his identity. Why do you think labels have so much power to shape how people feel about themselves and even who they are?

4. Tejada and the other writers here were placed into their college writing course based on the California EPT placement test. How were you placed into your writing class? If you don’t know, do a little research to find out.

5. DeShonna talks about the “hierarchy” in education. Think back to your experiences with reading and writing throughout your school experience. What hierarchies were at play? How were you slotted into reading and writing groups, experiences, and classes? How did those experiences serve as “literacy sponsors” for you? Did these experiences increase the odds that you would fail or succeed by predicting that you would do so, as DeShonna argues?



6. The student writers here talk about the power of their teacher, who “seemed not to have heard that they were remedial” and who assigned them difficult work that showed they “were capable of being scholars” (para. 19). What experiences have you had with the power of teachers who either believed in you or did not? How have those experiences impacted you?

7. Brisa says that in her college writing class she finally felt that her essay was no longer controlling her. What do you think she means? Can you relate to her feeling of being “controlled” by your writing?

8. These authors demonstrate the difficulty of completing a timed essay. What’s your own experience with timed writing? Do you think such tests are a good way to judge your abilities as a writer? Why or why not?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Bring a set of index cards to class. With your classmates, fill the index cards with any of the labels that you have been given in your life, both academic and nonacademic. Post the labels on the board. Then as a class engage in the following activities:

Discuss who has had the power to assign these labels and write their names on the cards.

Consider how the labels have impacted what you could do, were willing to do, and have become. Next to each label write terms to explain how those labels affected you (for example, “limited,” “encouraged,” “hurt,” “created self-doubt”).

Decide which labels you would like to reject and then remove them from the board.

Decide which new labels you might want to name and choose for yourselves, and add them to the board.

2. Write a short manifesto about the power of labels, how labels impact your identity and your writing, and the labels you would like to claim for yourself.

3. Google and read the Jean Anyon article, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work” that the writers mention here. Write a short explanation of her argument, and then identify the social-class designation of the schools you have attended using her categories (working class, middle-class, affluent professional, or executive elite). Then explain whether the kinds of tasks engaged in at your schools were similar to the kinds of tasks Anyon outlines (for example, “following steps of a procedure” or “getting the right answer,” “creative activity carried out independently,” or “developing one’s analytical intellectual powers”). Finally, consider how the type of school you attended and its activities have “sponsored” your literacy and expanded or limited what you were asked to do and learned to do.

4. Do some research on the relationship of remediation to social class and race. What do you find? Given what you have learned so far from this book and from the activities



you engaged in above, try to write an explanation of why so many minority students are classified as remedial.

META MOMENT How would you like to label yourself as a writer? What labels have been given to you by others that you want to reject?



“Nah, We Straight” An Argument Against Code Switching


Framing the Reading

Vershawn Ashanti Young describes himself as a trans-disciplinary scholar and teacher. He studies and writes about the language issues that he discusses in this article, as well as about masculinity and representations of race in art, film, and literature. He has written and performed plays, and served as an anti-racism consultant, and he has been a high school teacher, an elementary school principal, and a school board administrator. He is currently an associate professor of drama and speech communication at the University of Waterloo in Canada. In this article he describes a phenomenon that linguists call “code switching,” which is

the act of using different versions of a language in different situations. In the United States, some scholars and teachers have argued for teaching code switching in schools, particularly to African American students. Young zargues vigorously against this practice, suggesting that no one form of English is superior to any other form and that arguing that any student’s language is inferior is harmful and a form of segregation. Young’s argument and analysis is another way of illustrating the threshold concept

you’ve been learning about in this chapter — that our literacy practices are impacted by prior experience. In this case, Young argues that our identity is deeply informed by our language and literacy practices, and that minority students have a right to see their various uses of language (and thus themselves) as valuable and equal to the more dominant






Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Google “African American English” and write a short definition.

Google “code switching” and write a short definition.

As you read, consider the following questions:

What ideas, terms, and phrases are unfamiliar to you? Make a note of these to ask about in class.

Highlight places where Young’s phrasing and tone surprise you, or seem unusual for an academic article.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA GARNERS as much media attention for his embodied performance of black culture as he does for being America’s first national leader of African descent. Comments about his swagger, his growing affinity for Hip Hop, and especially his public use of African American English (hereafter AAE), swiftly travel the airwaves and Internet. The primary title of this essay is excerpted, in fact, from a popular YouTube video that features a dialogue between Obama and a waitress at a pre-inaugural lunchtime stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl, a popular diner in Washington, D.C. In a crowded room, over the voices of people from many different races, the waitress asks Obama if he wants the change from the twenty dollar bill he’d given her. “Nah, we straight,” he replies (Henderson).

I do not intend this opening example to suggest that I will conduct a sociolinguistic analysis of Obama’s speech habits, nor do I wish to indicate that this essay is mostly about him. Instead I forefront Obama’s undeniable use of AAE in the mainstream public to exemplify my primary argument — an argument against code switching. Code switching may








be defined as the use of more than one language or language variety concurrently in conversation (Auer). Spanglish, the simultaneous linguistic production of Spanish and English in the same discourse, is an example of this kind of code switching. Spanglish, according to writer Santiago Vaquera-Vasquez, is “not that game played in that translation of the first chapter of Don Quixote. … Spanglish is not inserting words here y there, aveces inserting certain jerga to give it that toque nice y cool”; it is a real hybrid language.

Another example of code switching as hybrid language performance is Barack Obama’s blending of AAE and so-called standard English to produce what some linguists call Black Standard English (Hoover). Like Vaquera-Vasquez’s clarification of Spanglish, Princeton political scientist Melissa Harris-Lacewell observes that Obama’s black speech and cultural performance are less a product of dog-whistle politics, words dropped here, mannerisms employed there, to appeal to blacks for votes. It is instead an example, as she puts it, of “‘his blackness kind of squishing out of the edges. It’s not the same thing as deploying [words and phrases] like Bush did’” (qtd. in Henderson).

However, Spanglish and Black Standard English do not typify, nor do they exemplify, the prevailing definition of code switching that language educators promote as the best practice for teaching speaking and writing to African Americans and other “accent- and dialect-speakers” of English. The prevailing definition, the one most educators accept, and the one I’m against, advocates language substitution, the linguistic translation of Spanglish or AAE into standard English. This unfortunate definition of code switching is not about accommodating two language varieties in one speech act. It’s not about the practice of language blending. Rather it characterizes the teaching of language conversion.

In Code Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms (2006), linguist Rebecca S. Wheeler and elementary teacher Rachel Swords encourage teachers to employ the translation model of code switching. Indeed, they represent themselves as fellow teachers, writing that the job of language educators is to “help our students transition from home grammar to school grammar in the classroom” (11, emphasis added). Code switching for them is acquiring the facility to transition from one language variety to a different one. They are not promoting what I see as the better alternative — code meshing: blending dos idiomas or copping enough standard English to really make yo’ AAE be Da Bomb.

Wheeler and Swords also urge teachers to ignore race when teaching and discussing code switching. Even though they write, “We focus our discussion and draw our examples from African American English,” in their conclusion, they advise: “We suggest that you refrain from referring to race when describing code-switching. It’s not about race” (161). My first response to this blatant contradiction is: “Huh? What tha … ?! Code switching is nothing if it ain’t about race! How can you draw on the experiences of African Americans, then render them invisible, extract their historical and contemporary racial experience from the discussion?” My second response is this article.

The body of this essay is divided into two segments. In Part I, I seek to illustrate how code switching is all about race; how it is steeped in a segregationist, racist logic that contradicts our best efforts and hopes for our students. I do this by placing code switching within the discursive context of what sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois deemed the problem of double consciousness. In the second part, I discuss code switching within the context of the 1974 “The Students’ Right to Their Own Language” resolution and further expose code switching as a strategy to negotiate, side-step and ultimately accommodate bias against the working-class, women, and the ongoing racism against the language habits of blacks and other non-white peoples. In the end, I promote code meshing, the blending and concurrent use of American English dialects in formal, discursive products, such as political speeches,





student papers, and media interviews.


It’s a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness…. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife — this longing … to merge his double self into a better and truer self.

— W.E.B. Du Bois

Double-consciousness has a history and should not be manufactured in the composition classroom.

— Catherine Prendergast

Linguistic integration is preferable to segregation. — Gerald Graff

Seven years after the Supreme Court legalized racial segregation (Plessey v. Ferguson, 1896), upholding the right of individual states to restrict and prohibit black people’s public (and private) interaction with whites, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois published Souls of Black Folks (1903). Souls is an analysis and critique of the effects of Jim Crow on blacks in America. During this period when blacks were deemed a separate and inferior race in relation to whites, Du Bois used the term “double consciousness” to describe the psychological impact this judgment had on blacks. He borrows the term from medical terminology that was used to diagnose patients suffering from split-personality disorder. Du Bois believed that legal segregation produced a similar, if metaphorical, mental disorder in blacks — racial schizophrenia.1

The doubling of one’s racial self-consciousness is produced, he writes, from having to “always look at one’s self through the eyes of others” (2), from being recognized as an American citizen while simultaneously being denied the rights of citizenship, from trying to reconcile how one’s racial heritage justifies legal and social subordination not only to whites but to non-citizens residing in the United States (Thomas 58).2 Du Bois’s statement in the epigraph above illustrates blacks’ “longing” to resolve double consciousness, “to merge his double self” (2), the American and black selves, into a unified identity that would be better than either could ever be alone, divided, unmerged.

Yet more than a century later blacks still contend with double consciousness, despite the fact that the Supreme Court reversed its earlier sanctioning of segregation with its 1954 decision in Brown v. The Board of Education, in Topeka, Kansas. What’s so strange about the present circumstances of double consciousness is that it has been adopted and translated into an instructional strategy that is used, like legal segregation, to govern blacks’ social interactions in public, paradoxically in an era where allegedly, as linguist John McWhorter opines, “racism is quickly receding” (266).

Double consciousness shows up in one of its most pronounced and pernicious forms in both the theory and practice of teaching oral and written communication to black students, where code switching is offered as the best strategy. Code switching is a strategy whereby black students are taught contrastive analysis — a method comparing black English to standard English so that they can learn to switch from one to the other in different settings. The description on the back of Wheeler and Sword’s co-authored textbook reads: “The authors








recommend teaching [black] students to recognize the grammatical differences between home speech and school speech so that they are then able to choose the language style most appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose.”

On the surface this instructional method sounds fair because it appears to allow black students to have their racial identity and speak it too. Yet in truth, to teach students that the two language varieties cannot mix and must remain apart belies the claim of linguistic equality and replicates the same phony logic behind Jim Crow legislation — which held that the law recognized the equality of the races yet demanded their separation. Indeed, the arguments used to support code switching are startlingly and undeniably similar to those that were used to support racial separation.

Justice Billings Brown, who delivered the majority opinion in the case upholding segregation, wrote that the “assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority” was a false and mistaken view. He continues: “If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it” (Thomas 33). In dispute of this notion, Justice Thurgood Marshall argued 58 years later in the case that opened the way for desegregation that “separate is inherently unequal.” The badge of inferiority that was stamped upon blacks racially and that remains attached to black speech was and is not contrived by blacks. The evidence that they were considered racially inferior then as their speech is now resides in their experience in school where, as Graff writes, they are “urged to use Black English on the streets and formal English in school while keeping these languages separate” (27). Graff believes code switching is a misguided approach and argues: “Linguistic integration is better than segregation” (27).

Similarly, literacy scholar Catherine Prendergast substantiates Graff’s view in her study Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. The Board of Education (2003), which uncovers the segregationist practices that still inform the instruction of black students. As she explains, educational institutions still constitute a “site of racial injustice in America” (2), making literacy teachers accomplices, often unwittingly, in the continuation of racial inequality.

Literacy and Racial Justice is a conceptual enlargement of Prendergast’s earlier essay, “Race: The Absent Presence in Composition Studies,” where she focuses on writing instruction at the college level and uses Du Bois’s complaint about double consciousness to “describe the experience of domination and exclusion within a society which professes equality and integration” (39). While analyzing the writing of minority law professors (e.g. Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, and Patricia Williams), she points out how, like Du Bois, their writing reflects double consciousness because they view themselves as residing both inside and outside the legal profession. Their two-ness doesn’t stem from any insecurity on their parts, nor are they uncomfortable being lawyers. To the contrary, it arises from the way that everyday legal practices reflect a segregationist ideology, which recognizes the existence of minorities but often excludes their experience from legal discourse and decisions. Prendergast cautions writing teachers against imposing a segregationist logic on students by creating models of instruction, like code switching, out of double consciousness, which, as she puts it, “has a history and should not be manufactured in the composition classroom” (51).

Double consciousness is continually manufactured in writing classrooms.

Yet double consciousness is continually manufactured in writing classrooms. In fact, it’s commonly reproduced at all levels of literacy instruction because so many educators, including







many blacks, promote it. This is so even though double consciousness stems from the legacy of racism and generates the very racial schizophrenia Du Bois condemned. To be clear, educators who support code switching are not all conscious proponents of racism. Thus I am not suggesting that self-described anti-racist advocates of code switching are really intentional racists. Nevertheless, the inherent racism of code switching cannot be denied.

Racism is the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and abilities and that the different behaviors and capacities among distinct groups of people (e.g., blacks and whites) produce a racial taxonomy: One group’s behaviors are understood to be superior while another group’s abilities are perceived as inferior. Although racism is slowly being unhinged by our current understanding that race is not a naturally occurring biological fact but is rather a social construction, advocates of code switching apply old-time racial thinking to their current understanding of culture and language.

If, as linguists propose, standard English arises primarily from the speech habits of middle- and upper-class whites, and students who speak black English are required to give up their variety and switch to standard English in public and in school, then students are simultaneously required to recognize the superiority of standard English and the people associated with it. The response that Wheeler, Swords and teachers who promote language changing provide to this perspective is that neither black English nor standard English is superior. They say both are equal; each has prestige in their respective, separate sites (standard English in school, black English at home). This reasoning reflects the false logic of equality that permitted people to support legal segregation. It’s reasoning that doesn’t hold up when the two varieties meet in the public domain or in “formal settings.” Since black English is restricted in school and the mainstream public, it is, in effect, rendered inferior, even if it is euphemistically described by Wheeler and Swords as “appropriate for other settings, times, situations” (read: “ineffective” and “inappropriate” in formal communication3).

Therefore while many advocates of code switching also claim to be anti-racists who would never seek to reinstitute racial subordination, they nonetheless translate the racist logic of early twentieth century legal segregation into a linguistic logic that undergirds twenty-first century language instruction. Toni Cook, the outspoken member of the Oakland School Board who helped persuade other members “to unanimously support the nation’s first education policy recognizing Ebonics as the ‘primary language’ of many students,” personifies this paradox (Perry and Delpit 172). In an interview after the Oakland School Board’s decision, Cook was asked: “Why don’t children automatically know Standard English, since they hear it all the time on television and at school?” She responded:

African Americans whose economic status and exposure is closer to that of the Huxtables have the exposure to work with the youngsters and teach them about the ‘two-ness’ of the world they’re involved in. But some schools are located in very depressed areas, have a primary population of African Americans on a fixed income. They see very little, the young people are exposed to very little, and there isn’t a whole lot of reason in the home — this is just my guess — to adopt the behavior of duality (Perry and Delpit 176).

Cook’s observation of the “two-ness of the world” apparently refers to the vestiges of segregation that blacks must still negotiate. It’s illegal, of course, to restrict blacks from integration based on their “color.” But it’s currently legal to discriminate on the basis euphemistically called “the content of their character,” which in this context is manifested by whether or not they talk black in public.

In Cook’s view, blacks should develop a dual personality, acting and speaking one way






with whites, another with blacks in recognition of “the two-ness of the world their involved in.” From this perspective, what’s really wrong with code switching is that it seeks to transform double consciousness, the very product of racism, into a linguistic solution to racial discrimination. Thus the real irony of Cook’s belief that black people should “adopt the behavior of duality” is that the very anti-racist, liberal-minded individuals who claim to oppose racial discrimination are the same ones who unconsciously perpetuate it. Instead of attacking racism, they attempt to teach black folks how to cope with it. As school retention rates and test scores indicate, they fail quite miserably at convincing the majority of black students to embrace double consciousness as a coping strategy, but succeed at allowing the residue of racism to remain.

Double consciousness and the related belief in the value of code switching are so widespread that both are unfortunately encouraged by even prominent black linguists John Russell Rickford and Geneva Smitherman — two admirable scholars, who tirelessly pursue racial justice and the validation of black English. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, a book Rickford co-authored with his son, journalist Russell John Rickford, and for which Smitherman wrote the foreword, ends with a section titled “The Double Self.” This last section has only one chapter, “The Crucible of Identity.” The Rickfords begin it with the same epigraph from Du Bois’ Souls that I use above. And they close it with four strong “suggestions”: (1) Accept black English as a language. (2) Reject linguistic shame. (3) Urge black youth to “become proficient in Standard English, especially the black Standard English” (229, emphasis added). And, the last suggestion is worth quoting at some length:

Don’t ever shun or jeer a brother or sister because of the way he or she speaks. It is only when we have claimed both Spoken Soul and Standard English as our own, empowering our youth to appreciate and articulate each in their respective forums, that we will have mastered the art of merging our double selves into a better and truer self. Remember: to become an accomplished pianist (jazz and classical), you’ve got to be able to work both the ebonies and the ivories. (229, emphasis added)

Although they pursue very noble work in their book, Rickford and Rickford end with a fallacious claim. They believe that code switching can help one master the art of merging linguistic double selves. But how can the meshing occur if each self is restricted to “their respective forums,” each limited to its own environment? If the two languages are not used together, at the same time, in the same place, no merging will materialize. Really, how could one ever really learn to speak the “black Standard English” they say black youth must learn, the language that so many black leaders have used, the very product of code meshing, if we can’t combine the dialects together?

Even their ending music metaphor is at odds with code switching and actually supports code meshing. For pianists don’t use only white keys to perform classical music nor only the black ones to create jazz. Pianists use “both the ebonies and the ivories” all the time, in all cases, in classical, the blues, jazz, and hip hop to access a range a harmonic combinations and possibilities that make genres and styles of music. As the Rickfords themselves state in their introduction, to “abandon Spoken Soul and cleave only to Standard English is like proposing that we play only the white keys of a piano” (10). Their own comparison illustrates that the white keys, representing standard English, and the black keys, representing Spoken Soul, are always already co-existent. No music is created playing only white keys and none playing only black. To attempt to compose music or even speech for that matter using only one set of keys would mean consciously and strategically ignoring and avoiding the other set of keys. A sheer







impossibility! Yet this is the very arduous feat that code switching depicts. Both sets of keys must be used simultaneously to compose music. Likewise, both dialects should be used to communicate in all sites.

As a matter of fact, the Rickfords’ Spoken Soul itself is a beautiful composition using both the black and white keys. Note these examples: (1) The title of their first chapter “What’s Going On?” is adapted from black cultural discourse (Marvin Gaye’s musical critique of the Vietnam War in the title song of his hit R & B album What’s Going On? 1971); (2) In the second chapter where they discuss how various writers employ black English in literature, they write: “Charles Chesnutt and Alice Walker could have hung with [poet Stephen] Henderson” (15). Their use of “could have hung” follows the standard English grammatical formulation for the informal “hang out with,” which in black English means to leisurely loiter around with a group of like-minded people. And (3) in the conclusion, they write that Spoken Soul should be embraced in order for blacks “to determine for ourselves what’s good and what’s bad, even what’s baaad” (228). This use of “baaad” is a superlative expression meaning very amazing, the exact opposite of the standard English “bad.” It signifies cultural triumph and strength, especially in the face of mainstream oppression (remember Melvin Van Peeble’s film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song, 1971). These authors mix and mingle black English and standard dialect. They code mesh.

Smitherman’s “Foreword” is even more exemplary in its meshing (as is most of her writing). Her two short pages are replete with meshings of black English and standard dialect, beginning with her opening statement: “It’s been a long time coming, as the old song goes, but the change done come” (ix). In this sentence, like the Rickfords, she appeals to the black musical tradition to empower her rhetoric. The old song she refers to is Sam Cooke’s posthumous hit single A Change Is Gonna Come (1964), which was a score often used to exemplify the 1960’s civil rights movement. On the same page, she explains: “In writing that is rich and powerful — and funky and bold when it bees necessary — they dissect black writing and black speech …” (ix). Smitherman uses “bees,” an emphasized version of the verb “be” from the grammar of AAE, instead of the standard verb form “is.” And she later praises the Rickfords’ effort to discuss language, culture, race, and American history and offers their example to others, by writing: “To get it right, you have to do what the Rickfords have done. You have to represent” (x). In AAE “represent” means to be an outstanding example. In this case, the Rickfords exemplify both careful scholarship and cultural critique, doing both while also using black English. They indeed did represent.

Supporting linguistic segregation is fundamentally at odds with the social justice work the Rickfords and Smitherman seek to accomplish and even contradicts their very own writing. So why would such erudite intellectuals back code switching? I have argued elsewhere that the most unlikely people accept code switching because American racial logic exaggerates the differences between black and white people, which leads to exaggerations between black and white languages. Exaggerated perceptions of racial difference lead the very people who would never accept the idea that black and white people are biologically different to zealously displace that difference onto a vision of black and white language (Young, “Your Average Nigga” and Your Average Nigga). It makes sense then that code switching takes place in the mind, is essentially ideological, and that code meshing is what happens in actual practice — because in reality the languages aren’t so disparate after all. The ideology of code switching eclipses the wonderful code meshing that occurs in black people’s speech and writing. And it’s this pervasive ideology that needs to be critiqued, as the following cases typify.

While attending a session on the relationship between black English and academic writing at the Race and the Writing Center Conference held at the University of Illinois at Chicago (1







March 2008), a youngish white male writing professor, who identified himself as gay, and a young black female elementary school teacher, both proclaimed code switching as best for getting black students to shuttle between black and standard languages. I listened as the woman spoke about her difficulties learning standard English, while attending the same school where she now teaches on the South Side of Chicago, and how her students must learn to do as she did. I enjoyed the wonderful ring of black English in her speech, and asked her boldly but privately later if she wanted her students to give up that which she possesses. “Yes,” she said. “I want better for them.” We had a lively discussion about what I see as a contradiction in her ideology. She is a teacher of language arts, who can’t help but mesh identifiably black language patterns with her standardized language use, even in the academic setting of the conference. Yet she wants her students to somehow learn to turn off black language and use only standard, when she can’t herself. After I highlighted this observation, she gave a final “tsk” and walked away.

Later I spotted the white male and asked if he thought our nation should more fully implement the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gay people, if gays should be forced to carry out their lives as if their identities were confined to a set of habits carried out in private, in the bedroom? He looked aghast (I suppose by my seeming political incorrectness), but I pressed the issue. “What if linguists were to codify the speech habits of gay men, identifying the stereotypical lisp as a common feature, highlighting the rhetorical importance of camp, insults, and undercutting among gays,” I asked. “And then what if they developed approaches for gay men to avoid speaking ‘gay’ in public, at school, and at work and restricted them only to speaking gay at home and among other gay people?” He walked away.

Both teachers’ very own linguistic performances refute the code switching ideology and practice they choose to impose on their students. I offered to them what I will further explain below — how code meshing allows black people to play both the black and white keys on the piano at the very same time, creating beautiful linguistic performances that will hopefully help relieve double consciousness and facilitate the merging Du Bois actually hoped for.


If a student has a right to his own language, we have no right to change it at any point, and if we suggest helping him change it solely for the practical purposes of getting a job, we are advocating the cheapest form of hypocrisy and the most difficult sleight of hand act in the history of language, the development of a dual language for use at home and at work.

— Allen N. Smith

The opposing stakes of the minority language debate have remained constant since 1974 when they were most notably carved out in the well-known resolution “On the Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (STROL). That resolution “affirm[s] the students’ right to their own language — to the dialect that expresses their family and community identity, the idiolect that expresses their unique personal identity” (“Resolution”). Thus those who support this resolution promote students’ expression of their diverse dialects, while others argue that students’ futures are put at risk unless they learn the accepted forms of language performance. This debate has continued because code switching has been accepted by both sides. However, the logic of code switching contradicts the very issue that sparked this debate (the legitimate use of so called “nonstandard” dialects).

The major contradiction that code switching presents to STROL is acutely summarized by Allen N. Smith. Commenting on the inconsistency he observed among those supporting








STROL at an English conference he attended, he writes: “The conference opened with an amusing and thoughtful statement by Robert Hogan, Executive Secretary of NCTE, who advocated students’ right to their own language. His keynote address was followed by a panel which concerned itself with ‘How and When Do We Change the Student from His Own Dialect to Standard English?’” (155–56).

“The strange thing,” Smith points out, “was that no one appeared to recognize that the panel’s goal was at cross purposes with the basic thrust of the opening address” (156). As noted in the epigraph, Smith finds the very goal of code switching — developing “a dual language for use at home and at work” (156) — to be hypocritical and ideologically at odds with efforts to support linguistic rights. For him, as his title imparts, “No One Has a Right to His Own Language.” This does not mean what some supporters of code switching might like it to mean — that teaching standard English poses no threat to students’ dialects and identities since they have no fundamental claim to them in regard to the project of schooling, which is supposed to change everybody’s language. For Smith it doesn’t mean a change from home dialect to standard English, since, according to him, “there is no such standard.” The very concept of standard English, he says, “is mythical” (155).

What I believe he means, and what I expressly accept as true, is that American dialects of English are already building blocks of standard English. That is to say, dialects are part and parcel of standard English and standard English has strong elements in dialects. In this vein, Smith reasons that “no body of men and no computer, can survey, analyze and synthesize the speaking and writing of over 200 million delightfully varied American Citizens” (155). By way of elaboration, he adds that there is no “textbook or grammar which does in fact offer the definitive and comprehensive standard to apply in each and every individual choice of expression” (155). Still, there are those who put stock in “definitive” instruction, and who miss the point: to require folks to parse out the parts of their dialect that are standard and attempt to codify those into a form of acceptable public expression and then to parse the parts of their speech and writing that are “nonstandard” and codify those into a form of private, informal expression is both illogical and profoundly problematic.

On this front, many teachers have found, as linguist A. Suresh Canagarajah reports, that students resist the request to fork their tongues when producing formal written and oral communication. In his essay “The Place of World Englishes in Composition” (2006), Canagarajah writes: “Though [code switching] is a pragmatic resolution that is sensitive to the competing claims in this debate … I have experienced certain difficulties in implementing this approach. I have found that minority students are reluctant to hold back their Englishes even for temporary reasons” (597). Unlike so many others, he abandoned code switching in his literacy instruction and now advocates code meshing.

Unlike code switching, code meshing does not require students to “hold back their Englishes” but permits them to bring them more forcefully and strategically forward. The ideology behind code meshing holds that peoples’ so-called “nonstandard” dialects are already fully compatible with standard English. Code meshing secures their right to represent that meshing in all forms and venues where they communicate. This understanding becomes all the more important if we consider that many folks may not have as big of a choice as we believe they have in choosing the ways they speak and write.

To clarify, if from a linguistic perspective, we accept that black and white Englishes are different dialects, even if complementary and compatible, then the familiar linguistic concept of accent helps explain why substituting one version of English for another may be impossible and why code meshing is inevitable. Some linguists theorize that around five or six years old, efforts to learn a new language become more difficult, although certainly attainable. Still the







first, native, or home language will always impact, that is, be present and heard within, the target language. This is how someone’s, say, African, Spanish, Polish, or Russian accent and heritage are identified when they are speaking English. Their native language is breaking through the target language and becomes an inextricable feature of their communication. Although this breakthrough is undeniable in speech, some believe it also occurs just as frequently in writing (Coleman). So trying to separate the two languages for some is virtually impossible, and makes requirements to do so appear tyrannical, oppressive. Wouldn’t it be better to promote integrating them?

There’s enough cultural, educational, and linguistic evidence to challenge and hopefully end code switching. And, since teachers point to the world outside of school as the biggest obstacle to accepting language integration, it’s important to point out how code switching is out of sync with the social, racial, and political progress our nation has achieved and is pursuing. Without a doubt, the extraordinary 2008 presidential campaign points up just how retrograde code switching is.

In that election, for the first time in history, the final candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination were a white woman, Senator Hillary Clinton, and a black man, Senator Barack Obama. The contest between the two was itself positive proof that our nation may finally really be ready to value and respect all of its citizens, regardless of how different they may be from the white, male, heterosexual, middle-class façade often portrayed as the guardian image of American democracy. Even Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee signified hope in this regard — after all, at 72, many considered him a senior citizen. His age, Clinton’s gender, and Obama’s race reflect a triumph of Affirmative Action, or, as some might say (too swiftly I think), a triumph over the need for Affirmative Action. Either way, in aggregate, the candidates represent indisputable progress towards respect for diversity.

Yet despite this obvious progress neither Clinton nor Obama believe that their candidacies stand as the iconic image of racial and gender equity. In his speech on race (March 2008), Obama flat-out contradicts colorblind ideologies that suggest race is no longer a central American concern. “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” he says. In an effort to convince the American people that race is important in everyday concerns not just when someone is called a spic, a chink, a nigger, or hangs a noose or sports a Swastika, he explains that “the complexities of race in this country” have “never really [been] worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education.”

Similarly, in her speech of concession to Obama (June 2008), Clinton addresses those she calls the “Eighteen million of you, from all walks of life … women and men, young and old, Latino and Asian, African-American and Caucasian … rich, poor, and middle-class, gay and straight.” She says to them

Senator Obama and I achieved milestones essential to our progress as a nation…. [However] on a personal note, when I was asked what it means to be a woman running for president, I always gave the same answer, that I was proud to be running as a woman … [but] like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us.

In the following statement, Senator Clinton asks the American people in general terms the same thing I ask of literacy teachers in specific educational terms: “Let us resolve and work toward








achieving very simple propositions: There are no acceptable limits, and there are no acceptable prejudices in the 21st century in our country.”

Code switching does not — neither as ideology nor pedagogy — match nor advance the achievements in diversity that are reflected in the presidential campaign. Nor does it aid us in achieving the propositions Clinton promotes or the coming together that Obama says is required in order to solve educational challenges that racism produces. Instead it reinforces notions of “acceptable limits” and “acceptable prejudices” by telling people of dialect difference that there is an acceptable way to communicate in this nation, and their way isn’t it — at least not in official, graded school assignments, in public, or at work. It gives teachers permission to fail students who display linguistic difference in their speech and writing. It gives employers permission to place limitations on workers’ promotional opportunities or permits them not to hire diverse speakers — certainly not for important positions. And it sanctions accent discrimination and pronunciation prejudice.

Code meshing, on the other hand, while also acknowledging standard principles for communication, encourages speakers and writers to fuse that standard with native speech habits, to color their writing with what they bring from home. It has the potential to enlarge our national vocabulary, multiply the range of available rhetorical styles, expand our ability to understand linguistic difference and make us in the end multidialectical, as opposed to monodialectical.

“Ah,” some might say, “but aren’t Obama and Clinton examples of what our students can be if they learn standard English? And don’t their examples offer enough proof to support teaching it?” Indeed, both Clinton and Obama are outstanding role models for young and old people. They’ve done something truly “remarkable,” as Clinton expressed in her concession speech; they’ve made it now “unremarkable” for a black person or a woman to successfully run for the highest office of the Free World. Yet, perceptions of their language use illustrate the very trouble code switching presents to our students — and our nation.

For instance, Obama was often parodied in mainstream media for being too “professorial” in his rhetorical delivery and too “polysyllabic” in his usage. His linguistic performance might be compared to what Jay Semel, associate vice president for research at the University of Iowa, observes during a radio segment on black middle-class performance. Semel says he was intrigued as a Jewish college student by the verbal performance of his black professors, many of whom he knew came from urban cities, but spoke impeccable English — with a British clip! To boot, he says, they even regularly dressed to the nines — in full suits — when teaching. They stood in stark contrast to the white professors who were no match to them in dress and speech and who didn’t care or need to be. The conclusions Semel draws regarding his professors might also apply to Obama — that they hyper-performed standard language mastery as a way to (over) compensate for the stigma of their race (Know the Score).

On the surface, code switching may seem like a good thing for Obama. Not using too much AAE in the campaign, code switching advocates would say, helped him win the presidency. But the fact that he had to code switch is the problem; the fact that AAE is still subject to racism is the issue to correct, not the people who speak it. Furthermore, code switching also restricts how expressive he could be. Perhaps his earlier, stilted, professorial style was produced by being forced in the face of racial perceptions to keep the most expressive parts of his language out of the public’s ear. Perhaps what linguist Elaine Richardson calls “stereotype threat” set it and his language became neither expressive standard nor expressive AAE but a stilted middle brow discourse (2004). He faces the same problem other African Americans face who are forced to extract AAE from their speech: If they do give up AAE, they’re damned for being affected, overformal, artificial, even by those who require the







extraction. But if they do use AAE, they’re damned for being too black, too radical, too militant, profiled as ignorant. Being damned in both directions stems from not being able to blend the two together.

Consider, for example, that Michelle Obama’s use of AAE has had an endearing effect on African Americans but an alienating effect on whites when she referred to Obama as her “babies’ daddy” and her use of ain’t (“Ain’t no black people in Iowa”) after he won the first primary caucus. Her language use adds fuel to the political fire regarding her patriotism, spurred by her use of a black rhetorical sentiment after Obama’s initial primary victories: “This is the first time I’m proud of my country.” While Obama may have engaged code switching, the problem is the racial disparity. Had he employed more AAE, he would not have been perceived in the same way as, say, President George W. Bush, who, although often called stupid, has not suffered major consequences for his abuse of standard English and rhetoric. Instead, if Obama spoke more black English in public, it would likely instigate already circulating insinuations that he’s anti-American and unpatriotic. And no doubt Obama’s speech performance forms part of the basis for the trite speculations about whether he is “too black or not black enough.”

As a woman, Clinton has not been spared this linguistic catch-22. Some have said that the emotions she displayed in her concession speech should have been demonstrated much earlier, that it might have softened her, made her more feminine, and may have helped her clinch the nomination. She faces the “too feminine/not feminine enough” predicament. It was said that she tried too hard to perform a masculine rhetorical style, a style no doubt many believed she had to take on to be viable in a country that is still unaccustomed to women’s ways of knowing and speaking. So while Obama is criticized for a rhetorical style that is too professional, too stiff and unemotional, Clinton is criticized for not being emotional enough. Yes, both Clinton and Obama represent progress; but criticisms of their rhetorical styles also represent the problem: the progress we have yet to make.4

Code switching produces such racial and gender prejudice because it fosters linguistic confusion: What’s the right way to speak/write? Code switching suggests that women speak an incompatibly different language from blacks, who are believed to utter a completely different speech from white men — and the biggest lie of all is that there is one, set, specific, appropriate, formal way to communicate in America. Code switching, in short, fortifies language barriers. Those who appeal to code switching as a way to negotiate racism and sexism actually end up supporting a linguistic basis for facilitating them. If we’re to capitalize on the progress exemplified in the 2008 presidential election, then we should abandon code switching. And for this to happen requires a movement.

Indeed, concerned linguists and educational theorists have pursued efforts to make something like code meshing a national policy and an established pedagogy for some thirty years. Note the following excerpt from Geneva Smitherman’s Talkin’ and Testifyin’:

An ultimate goal would be for teachers to struggle for a national public policy on language which would reassert the legitimacy of languages other than English, and American dialects other than standard. If these goals seem far-fetched, teachers have only to reflect on the tremendous power potential of their teacher unions and professional educational organizations — such structures could form the massive political units needed to extend the concept of linguistic-cultural diversity and legitimacy beyond the classroom. (240-1)

Smitherman recognized the need for “a national public policy” on language integration in 1977. The same is needed now. The fact that no such policy currently exists is not because there are







no examples of code meshing or because it’s unintelligible, but because it stems from and supports dominant language ideology otherwise known as standard language ideology.

Standard language ideology is, according to linguist Rosina Lippi-Green, “a bias toward an abstracted, idealized, homogenous spoken language which is imposed and maintained by the dominant bloc institutions and which names as its model the written language, but which is drawn primarily from the spoken language of the upper middle class” (64). In other words, commercial, business, and educational institutions perpetuate and perpetrate the belief that there is a single dominant race (read as white), dominant culture (read as white middle/upper class), and that the way these speakers communicate forms the bases for standard modes of public expression.

The really big rub in standard language ideology is this: It doesn’t mean that white middle and upper class people actually speak standard English! (Think President George W. Bush.) But dominant language ideology persuades us to imagine they do. It demands that we participate in a fantasy that white middle class folks are entitled speakers of public English. And we’re asked to ignore those who regularly and glaringly muck up the standard grammar, since the consequences for their illiteracy are far less severe than for those outside of the supposed dominant culture.

Smitherman shares a revealing example of dominant language ideology:

I was trying to solicit support for a study of attitudes of potential employers toward black speech. This white research man … contended that such a study would only prove the obvious since everybody knew that you had to speak the King’s English to get ahead in America. With my research proposal thus dismissed, I started to leave. As I did so, the research division head turned to his assistant and said, “Listen, can you stay a few minutes? You and me have some work to do.” Now, me bein me, I had to correct my man’s, “bad grammar,” I said, “Hey, watch yo’ dialect — it’s you and I have some work to do.” He turned fifty shades o’ red, and I split. Naturally, that siggin of mine had shonuff blowed the possibility of me gitten any grant money! (Talkin’ 199).

The dominant language ideology behind code switching contends that minoritized dialect speakers must learn the accepted standard because it’s necessary for them to communicate in the public and at work. Yet Smitherman’s encounter shows that even whites, supposedly the majority of non-dialect speakers, don’t communicate in the accepted standard — and acquire and maintain good jobs without doing so. To underscore this point, the matter of illiteracy and middle-class white folks has come into the public, confirming what scholars have long observed — that Americans tend to believe that whites speak and write better than others when they really don’t. Consequently, whites are often led to believe their speech is standard when really it’s not.

This state of affairs is being exposed because of its negative consequences for literacy practices in the workplace. The writing ineptitude of most corporate workers has long been notorious and recently made the front page of the New York Times. According to one report “millions of employees must write more frequently on the job than previously. And many are making a hash of it.” The report concludes “that a third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies wrote poorly and that businesses were spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training” (Dillon 1). The tendency to exaggerate the writing competence of middle- class (or even upper-class) white people leads to the prevailing fallacy that they enjoy a higher level of literacy.5








Even university presidents and highly regarded English professors don’t always speak and write in the dominant standard, even when they believe they are doing so.

Even university presidents and highly regarded English professors don’t always speak and write in the dominant standard, even when they believe they are doing so. Former Duke English Department Chair and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Stanley Fish, publicly criticized the grammar of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers in a 2002 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Summers, who gained some notoriety for challenging the accessible nature of then Harvard professor and public intellectual Cornel West’s scholarship, offered an apology when the media publicized the encounter: “I regret any faculty member leaving a conversation feeling they are not respected” (qtd. in van Der Werf A30). It’s this apology Fish critiques, writing: “In a short, 13-word sentence, the chief academic officer of the highest ranked university in the country, and therefore in the entire world, has committed three grammatical crimes, failure to mark the possessive case, failure to specify the temporal and causal relationships between the conversations he has and the effects he regrets, and failure to observe noun-pronoun agreement” (Fish).

The three mistakes Fish finds in Summers’ one sentence are the same kinds of mistakes that English teachers believe African American students make when they use AAE. But what’s really interesting is that Fish’s correction of Summers’ sentence is also incorrect, according to a grammar evaluation by Professor Kyoko Inoue, a Japanese American linguist from Fish’s same university. According to Inoue, Summers’ usage is acceptable, if not correct, since “what the writer/speaker says (means) often controls the form of the sentence” (Unpublished).

Although in these examples, dominant language ideology is biting (albeit mildly) its perpetrators in the butt for once, the point of including them is to show the racial disparity that’s propagated by code switching. The ideology of code switching insists a minority student will never become an Ivy League English Department chair or president of Harvard University if she doesn’t perfect their mastery of standard English. At the same time the ideology instructs that white men will gain such positions, even with a questionable handle on standard grammar and rhetoric. And even though this is the current state of our country, it doesn’t mean we should accept it. We should combat it not only so people can become prominent political figures, but so they can just get a good job.

At the same Race and the Writing Center Conference where I encountered the gay man and the dialect speaking woman who supported code switching, there was a white, middle- aged, female, college professor who was distraught after my talk on code meshing. She reported that she and her colleagues were interviewing candidates to teach freshman writing. The committee was enamored with a black woman, but decided not to hire her because she conjugated one subject with the wrong verb (“he don’t”). The committee doubted her ability to correct her would-be students’ grammar if she couldn’t follow standard conjugation in her own speech during the interview. The female professor recounting the episode admitted that her committee may have been wrong, but she then asked, “What else can I do except teach my students to avoid such mistakes?”

“You should have resisted the language prejudice (I wanted to say racism) of the committee with tooth and nail!” I said. I then asked: “Have you or any of your colleagues mismatched a subject with a verb or made a pronoun/antecedent disagreement?” She said, “Yes, I’m sure we have,” then made the obvious point that she’s not black. She was, of course, proving my point that race is the biggest culprit, not the woman’s grammar. Still, I followed up








by asking if she’d ever read Joseph Williams’ essay “The Phenomenology of Error” where he shows how our ideological frameworks diminish even the most obvious errors of some writers (and I added speakers too) and makes us hyper-aware of some others’ mistakes based on how we perceive them socially. When grammar and usage are viewed too narrowly through the lens of social performance our understanding of “error” is based “less on a handbook definition,” Williams writes, “than on the reader’s [or listener’s] response, because it is that response [most often negatively constituted] that defines the seriousness of the error and its expected amendment” (164).

Williams’ essay explains what happened to the black woman, whose one verbal (natural) mishap cost the opportunity to obtain a good job. It wasn’t so much the conjugation error that caused the negative response; it was the stigma of her race reeling back into play when her language usage failed to assuage that stigma for the committee. Her failure was less about linguistic aptitude and more about her racial performance. She was not hyper-conscious enough about her verbs to over-compensate for her race. Had the white female committee member resisted the actions of the other committee members, she would have sounded a wake-up call, made an effort in the struggle to show how dominant language ideology intensifies and magnifies the error of blacks but reduces or ignores those of the dominant group. So teaching code switching to avoid errors in standard grammar won’t work because all writers and speakers make errors.

As a brief concession to a discussion of teaching standard English grammar, I return to the Fish/Summers example. After Summers uttered his “errors,” Fish mandated that writing instructors at his university, then the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I was still a graduate student, teach more grammar. In response Inoue writes: “I believe that grammar training for academic writing is necessary, but it is not sufficient…. What is most important in writing is selecting the linguistic expressions that will convey exactly what the writer intends to say” (“Linguist’s Perspective”).

I agree with Inoue that “grammar” if it is to be taught should be done “in conjunction with semantics and rhetoric (what linguists calls pragmatics), showing how and in what ways grammatical structures convey meanings and influence the rhetorical force of written work” (“Linguist’s Perspective” 2). This should not be misunderstood as a case for teaching the grammar of standard English. To the contrary, if anything, it’s an appeal to literacy educators to teach how the semantics and rhetoric of AAE are compatible/combinable with features of standard English. This way the rhetorical force of students’ written work and oral fluency will come from a combination of the two — not from translating one from the other, but from allowing them both to mingle together with vim and vigor.

It’s clear that my case has been to eliminate code switching as both an ideological and pedagogical feature within literacy instruction and to replace it with code meshing. Code switching spells failure for most students — and worse, it’s covered in the residue of racism. Code meshing is a better resolution to the minority language debate because it allows minoritized people to become more effective communicators by doing what we all do best, what comes naturally: blending, merging, meshing dialects. Code meshing is so very important to our work with minoritized peoples, to those who can not or will not extract their dialects from their use of standard English, to folks who speak and write with accents, really, to the majority of American citizens and English speakers across the globe.

POST SCRIPT: RETURN TO OBAMA I want to end with a speculation — a little further food for thought. As we think about



Obama’s language practice during his campaign and accept for the sake of argument that he played the code switching game (I say for the sake of argument, because some believe that he is heard differently by whites and blacks), then what if, just what if, he played the game to end the game? Not so only he could have the luxury to use AAE more freely after the election, both in informal settings, like Ben Chili’s referenced up top, and in formal settings, as he did in one interview with Diane Sawyer, where he says he “hipped” his personal aide Reggie Love to Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane, but so nobody else, no other AAE speakers would have to put on a show just to prove their worth (Sawyer). What if he played the game not to endorse the game but to show that the stigma against AAE in formal settings and academic writing is stupid? What if he played the game to end the game so that he could be free to show his black cultural and linguistic heritage and not have to worry about containing his blackness because it’s, as Harris-Lacewell describes, “squishing out of the edges?” If this were so, and I believe it is, then when teachers are asked to teach code switching and when students are urged to code switch, both groups should respond as Obama did to the waitress when she asked if he wanted his change; they too could say: “Nah, we straight.”

Notes 1. For an extended discussion of Du Bois, double-consciousness and racial schizophrenia in the

context of African American English, see Chapter 6, “To Be A Problem,” in my Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity. For more on double- consciousness as a synonym for schizophrenia, see the insightful analyses of Bruce, Jr., Early, and Wells.

2. Thomas explains that in Plessey v. Ferguson the only justice to oppose the decision based his dissent in part on what he considered to be a legal irony: that although Chinese immigrants were ineligible for U.S. citizenship, they were not subject to separate but equal laws, while black citizens were segregated.

3. It should be noted that Wheeler and Swords’ discussion of language has to do with pitting one language variety against another. When describing how they settled on using the unraced terms “informal English versus formal English,” they report they considered “nonstandard versus standard”; “community English versus Standard English; Everyday English versus Standard” (emphasis in original, 19–20).

4. For an insightful critique of the way standard English and academic discourse perpetuate patriarchal relations, particularly the domination of women, see Bleich.

5. This discussion of standard language ideology is adapted from Chapter 5, “Casualties of Literacy,” in my Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity, 2007.

Works Cited Auer, Peter. Code-Switching in Conversation: Language, Interaction and Identity. New York:

Routledge, 1988. Bleich, David. “Genders of Writing.” JAC 9 (1989): 10–25. Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Dilemma of Race.” American Literary History 7

(1995): 334–343. Canagarajah, A. Suresh. “The Place of World Englishes in Composition: Pluralization Continued.”

College Composition and Communication 57 (2006): 586–619. Clinton, Hillary. “ 8 June 2008. 11 Jan 2010.



<>. Transcript. Coleman, Charles F. “Our Students Write With Accents — Oral Paradigms for ESD Students.” College

Composition and Communication 48 (Dec. 1997): 486–500. Dillon, Sam. “What Corporate America Can’t Build: A Sentence.” New York Times 7 December 2004:

1. Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Thrift Edition, 1994. Early, Gerald. Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation. New

York: Penguin, 1993. Fish, Stanley. “Say It Ain’t So.” Chronicle of Higher Education 21 June 2002. 11 Jan 2010

<>. Graff, Gerald. Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. New Haven: Yale

UP, 2003. Henderson, Nia-Malika. “Blacks, Whites Hear Obama Differently.” Politico. 3 Mar 2009.11 Jan 2010.

< source=RSSattr=HOME_4840223>.

Hoover, Mary Rhodes. “Community Attitudes Toward Black English.” Language in Society 7(1978): 65–87.

Inoue, Kyoko. Unpublished Grammar Note. University of Illinois at Chicago. October, 2002. ——. “A Linguist’s Perspective on Teaching Grammar.” Unpublished paper. University of Illinois at

Chicago. October 2002. Know the Score. KSUI-FM 91.7, University of Iowa Radio. Clear Lake/Mason City, Iowa. 2 Nov. 2007. Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United

States. London: Routledge, 1997. McWhorter, John. Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. New York: Free, 2001. Organizing for America. 11 Jan 2010.

<> Obama, Barack. “A More Perfect Union.” Speech. Philadelphia, PA. March 18, 2008. Perry, Theresa, and Lisa Delpit, eds. The Real Ebonics Debate: Power, Language, and the Education of

African-American Children. Boston: Beacon, 1998. Prendergast, Catherine. Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning After Brown v. Board of

Education. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2003. ——. “Race: The Absent Presence in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication

50 (1998): 36–53. “Resolution on the Students’ Right to Their Own Language.” NCTE Position Statement, 1974. 12

January 2010. <>. Richardson, Elaine B. “Coming from the Heart: African American Students, Literacy Stories, and

Rhetorical Education.” African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Ed. Richardson, E. B. and R. L. Jackson II. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. 155–69.

Rickford, John Russell, and Russell John Rickford. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. New York: Wiley, 2000.

Sawyer, Diane. “Person of the Week: Reggie Love.” World News with Diane Sawyer. 23 Jan 2009. 12 Jan 2010. < id=6717051&page=2>.

Smith, Allen N. “No One Has a Right to His Own Language.” College Composition and Communication 27 (1976): 155–59.

Smitherman, Geneva. Foreword. Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English. Ed. John Russell Rickford



and Russell John Rickford. New York: Wiley, 2000. ix–x. ——. Talkin’ and Testifyin’: The Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1977. Thomas, Brook. Plessy v. Ferguson: A Brief History With Documents. St. Martins, 1996. Van Der Werf, Martin. “Lawrence Summers and His Tough Questions.” Chronicle of Higher Education

April 26, 2002: A29–A32. Vaquera-Vásquez, Santiago. “Meshed America: Confessions of a Mercacirce.” Code Meshing As World

English: Policy, Pedagogy, Performance. Eds. Vershawn Ashanti Young and Aja Y. Martinez. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, forthcoming.

Wells, Susan. “Discursive Mobility and Double Consciousness in S. Weir Mitchell and W. E. B. Du Bois.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 35 (2002): 120–137.

Wheeler, Rebecca S., and Rachel Swords. Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 2006.

Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomenology of Error.” Composition in Four Keys: Inquiring into the Field. Ed. M. Wiley, B. Gleason, and L. Wetherbee Phelps. London: Mayfield, 1996.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Your Average Nigga.” College Composition and Communication 55 (2004): 693–715.

——. Your Average Nigga: Performing Race, Literacy, and Masculinity. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2007.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. Explain the difference between code switching and code meshing that Young describes.

2. Explain Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness. How does Young extend this idea to what he calls “linguistic double consciousness”?

3. Young describes prevailing definitions of the translation model of code switching as “language conversion” (para. 4). What does he mean by this understanding, and why is he against it?

4. Young summarizes Catherine Prendergast’s argument that literacy teachers are “accomplices, often unwittingly, in the continuation of racial inequality” (para. 14), and he argues that “double consciousness is continually manufactured in writing classrooms … [and] commonly reproduced at all levels of literacy instruction” (para. 16). Explain what you think they mean.

5. Young argues that asking black students to use a different language at school than they do at home is a form of racial segregation. Explain this argument.

6. Earlier, we asked you to mark places where Young’s phrasing and tone surprised you during your reading. List some of these. Why did he use these? How do they help support and illustrate the argument he is making?

7. Young conveys Jay Semel’s story about his black professors at the University of Iowa who, although they came from urban backgrounds, spoke impeccable formal English and dressed in suits. Semel argues that they “hyper-performed standard language to



(over) compensate for the stigma of their race” (para. 44). Explain what you think this means, and then see if you can think of times when you or someone else engaged in this kind of overcompensation, and why.

8. Young points out that George W. Bush did not suffer any major political consequences for his “abuse of standard English and rhetoric,” but that if Barack Obama had spoken “more black English in public,” he would have been accused even more vehemently of being “anti-American and unpatriotic” (para. 46). Given what you’ve thought about so far in relation to language and identity, and the ways that different people are judged for using language, do you agree? If so, what do you think accounts for this different judgment of Bush’s and Obama’s uses of language?

9. What is “standard language ideology,” according to Young? How does this concept help explain the different reactions to Bush and Obama, if it does?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Young argues that in reality, “black and white languages … aren’t so disparate” (para. 26). He gives examples from the Rickford book that he criticizes in order to partially demonstrate this point. Today as you engage in your daily activities (talking with friends, listening to music, checking out at the store, working your job), listen to people’s spoken language and write down every example you hear that merges “black and white languages.” Once you have compiled this list, consider whether you agree with Young’s claim.

2. Young cites Smith, who argues that there really is no such thing as one “standard” English. What does this mean? As you were making your list of phrases and examples for question 1 above that merge “black and white language,” did you at any point notice the wide variety of dialects and grammatical variations, beyond just “black” and “white”? If so, what were some of the examples you heard? If not, try the exercise again and listen for these variations. Once you’ve done this, write a short argument for or against this claim: There is no single, identifiable, standard English in spoken practice.

3. Young is essentially arguing what other authors in this chapter, and in the next chapter, also argue: that language use is inextricably bound up with identity. Explore your ideas about this by first thinking about the examples you’ve read so far in this book, as well as examples in your own life and in those of your friends. Then write a 1- to 2-page reflection on your ideas about how language and identity are related, drawing on the examples you read and thought about.

4. Google the 1974 statement “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” that Young references and read it. What is your reaction to this statement? What was happening in 1974 that might have motivated teachers to write this statement? Does this statement help you better understand Young’s claims?



META MOMENT  Does Young help you think differently about how you judge people based on their language use? How?




Framing the Reading

Barbara Mellix is an African American woman born and raised in South Carolina who went on to earn a B.A. in English and M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She has since taught, worked as an assistant dean, and served as director of the advising center there. In this essay, Mellix explores her experiences and conflicts with black English and

standard English. We have included her essay here because she illustrates many of the conflicts and experiences that led Young, in the previous essay (p. 148), to argue against requiring minority speakers to engage in “code switching.” If you haven’t read Young, we recommend that you do so before reading Mellix. Mellix’s essay illustrates the many ways that language is bound up with identity, and how literacy practices are always informed by prior experiences. Who she is as a writer, and how she feels about writing and the language she uses when she writes, are all colored by her experiences in a particular place and time — experiences that include home, school, extended family, geographical location, race, class, and more.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Think about the ways you speak and write in different situations.

Consider the ways that your family and schooling have shaped how you speak, and






what kind of speech is considered “correct” in school and professional settings.

As you read, consider the following questions:

How do Mellix’s experiences relate to Young’s claims in the previous article?

Which part of Mellix’s experiences can you identify with, and which seem difficult to identify with?

TWO YEARS AGO, when I started writing this paper, trying to bring order out of chaos, my ten-year-old daughter was suffering from an acute attack of boredom. She drifted in and out of the room complaining that she had nothing to do, no one to “be with” because none of her friends were at home. Patiently I explained that I was working on something special and needed peace and quiet, and I suggested that she paint, read, or work with her computer. None of these interested her. Finally, she pulled up a chair to my desk and watched me, now and then heaving long, loud sighs. After two or three minutes (nine or ten sighs), I lost my patience. “Looka here, Allie,” I said, “you too old for this kinda carryin’ on. I done told you this is important. You wronger than dirt to be in here haggin’ me like this and you know it. Now git on outta here and leave me off before I put my foot all the way down.”

I was at home, alone with my family, and my daughter understood that this way of speaking was appropriate in that context. She knew, as a matter of fact, that it was almost inevitable; when I get angry at home, I speak some of my finest, most cherished black English. Had I been speaking to my daughter in this manner in certain other environments, she would have been shocked and probably worried that I had taken leave of my sense of propriety.

Like my children, I grew up speaking what I considered two distinctly different languages — black English and standard English (or as I thought of them then, the ordinary








everyday speech of “country” coloreds and “proper” English) — and in the process of acquiring these languages, I developed an understanding of when, where, and how to use them. But unlike my children, I grew up in a world that was primarily black. My friends, neighbors, minister, teachers — almost everybody I associated with every day — were black. And we spoke to one another in our own special language: That sho is a pretty dress you got on. If she don’t soon leave me off I’m gon tell her head a mess. I was so mad I could’a pissed a blue nail. He all the time trying to low-rate somebody. Ain’t that just about the nastiest thing you ever set ears on?

Then there were the “others,” the “proper” blacks, transplanted relatives and one-time friends who came home from the city for weddings, funerals, and vacations. And the whites. To these we spoke standard English. “Ain’t?” my mother would yell at me when I used the term in the presence of “others.” “You know better than that.” And I would hang my head in shame and say the “proper” word.

I remember one summer sitting in my grandmother’s house in Greeleyville, South Carolina, when it was full of the chatter of city relatives who were home on vacation. My parents sat quietly, only now and then volunteering a comment or answering a question. My mother’s face took on a strained expression when she spoke. I could see that she was being careful to say just the right words in just the right way. Her voice sounded thick, muffled. And when she finished speaking, she would lapse into silence, her proper smile on her face. My father was more articulate, more aggressive. He spoke quickly, his words sharp and clear. But he held his proud head higher, a signal that he, too, was uncomfortable. My sisters and brothers and I stared at our aunts, uncles, and cousins, speaking only when prompted. Even then, we hesitated, formed our sentences in our minds, then spoke softly, shyly.

My parents looked small and anxious during those occasions, and I waited impatiently for leave-taking when we would mock our relatives the moment we were out of their hearing. “Reeely,” we would say to one another, flexing our wrists and rolling our eyes, “how dooo you stan’ this heat? Chile, it just too hyooo-mid for words.” Our relatives had made us feel “country,” and this was our way of regaining pride in ourselves while getting a little revenge in the bargain. The words bubbled in our throats and rolled across our tongues, a balming.

As a child I felt this same doubleness in uptown Greeleyville where the whites lived. “Ain’t that a pretty dress you’re wearing!” Toby, the town policeman, said to me one day when I was fifteen. “Thank you very much,” I replied, my voice barely audible in my own ears. The words felt wrong in my mouth, rigid, foreign. It was not that I had never spoken that phrase before — it was common in black English, too — but I was extremely conscious that this was an occasion for proper English. I had taken out my English and put it on as I did my church clothes, and I felt as if I were wearing my Sunday best in the middle of the week. It did not matter that Toby had not spoken grammatically correct English. He was white and could speak as he wished. I had something to prove. Toby did not.

When we spoke standard English we acknowledged … that our customary way of speaking was inferior. We felt … diminished because we were ashamed to be our real selves.

Speaking standard English to whites was our way of demonstrating that we knew their language and could use it. Speaking it to standard-English-speaking blacks was our way of showing them that we, as well as they, could “put on airs.” But when we spoke standard







English, we acknowledged (to ourselves and to others — but primarily to ourselves) that our customary way of speaking was inferior. We felt foolish, embarrassed, somehow diminished because we were ashamed to be our real selves. We were reserved, shy in the presence of those who owned and/or spoke the language.

My parents never set aside time to drill us in standard English. Their forms of instruction were less formal. When my father was feeling particularly expansive, he would regale us with tales of his exploits in the outside world. In almost flawless English, complete with dialogue and flavored with gestures and embellishment, he told us about his attempt to get a haircut at a white barbershop; his refusal to acknowledge one of the town merchants until the man addressed him as “Mister”; the time he refused to step off the sidewalk uptown to let some whites pass; his airplane trip to New York City (to visit a sick relative) during which the stewardesses and porters — recognizing that he was a “gentleman” — addressed him as “Sir.” I did not realize then — nor, I think, did my father — that he was teaching us, among other things, standard English and the relationship between language and power.

My mother’s approach was different. Often, when one of us said, “I’m gon wash off my feet,” she would say, “And what will you walk on if you wash them off?” Everyone would laugh at the victim of my mother’s “proper” mood. But it was different when one of us children was in a proper mood. “You think you are so superior,” I said to my oldest sister one day when we were arguing and she was winning. “Superior!” my sister mocked. “You mean I’m acting ‘biggidy’?” My sisters and brothers sniggered, then joined in teasing me. Finally, my mother said, “Leave your sister alone. There’s nothing wrong with using proper English.” There was a half-smile on her face. I had gotten “uppity,” had “put on airs” for no good reason. I was at home, alone with the family, and I hadn’t been prompted by one of my mother’s proper moods. But there was also a proud light in my mother’s eyes; her children were learning English very well.

Not until years later, as a college student, did I begin to understand our ambivalence toward English, our scorn of it, our need to master it, to own and be owned by it — an ambivalence that extended to the public school classroom. In our school, where there were no whites, my teacher taught standard English but used black English to do it. When my grammar-school teachers wanted us to write, for example, they usually said something like, “I want y’all to write five sentences that make a statement. Anybody git done before the rest can color.” It was probably almost those exact words that led me to write these sentences in 1953 when I was in the second grade:

The white clouds are pretty. There are only 15 people in our room. We will go to gym. We have a new poster. We may go out doors.

Second grade came after “Little First” and “Big First,” so by then I knew the implied rules that accompanied all writing assignments. Writing was an occasion for proper English. I was not to write in the way we spoke to one another: The white clouds pretty; There ain’t but fifteen people in our room; We going to gym; We got a new poster; We can go out in the yard. Rather I was to use the language of “other”: clouds are, there are, we will, we have, we may.

My sentences were short, rigid, perfunctory, like the letters my mother wrote to relatives:







Dear Papa, How are you? How is Mattie? Fine I hope. We are fine. We will come to see you

Sunday. Cousin Ned will give us a ride. Love, Daughter

The language was not ours. It was something from outside us, something we used for special occasions.

But my coloring on the other side of that second-grade paper is different. I drew three hearts and a sun. The sun has a smiling face that radiates and envelops everything it touches. And although the sun and the world are enclosed in a circle, the colors I used — red, blue, green, purple, orange, yellow, black — indicate that I was less restricted with drawing and coloring than I was with writing standard English. My valentines were not just red. My sun was not just a yellow ball in the sky.

By the time I reached the twelfth grade, speaking and writing standard English had taken on new importance. Each year, about half of the newly graduated seniors of our school moved to large cities — particularly in the North — to live with relatives and find work. Our English teacher constantly corrected our grammar: “Not ‘ain’t,’ but ‘isn’t.’” We seldom wrote papers, and even those few were usually plot summaries of short stories. When our teacher returned the papers, she usually lectured on the importance of using standard English: “I am; you are; he, she, or it is,” she would say, writing on the chalkboard as she spoke. “How you gon git a job talking about ‘I is,’ or ‘I isn’t’ or ‘I ain’t’?”

In Pittsburgh, where I moved after graduation, I watched my aunt and uncle — who had always spoken standard English when in Greeleyville — switch from black English to standard English to a mixture of the two, according to where they were or who they were with. At home and with certain close relatives, friends, and neighbors, they spoke black English. With those less close, they spoke a mixture. In public and with strangers, they generally spoke standard English.

In time, I learned to speak standard English with ease and to switch smoothly from black to standard or a mixture, and back again. But no matter where I was, no matter what the situation or occasion, I continued to write as I had in school:

Dear Mommie, How are you? How is everybody else? Fine I hope. I am fine. So are Aunt and

Uncle. Tell everyone I said hello. I will write again soon. Love, Barbara

At work, at a health insurance company, I learned to write letters to customers. I studied form letters and letters written by co-workers, memorizing the phrases and the ways in which they were used. I dictated:

Thank you for your letter of January 5. We have made the changes in your coverage you requested. Your new premium will be $150 every three months. We are pleased to have been of service to you.

In a sense, I was proud of the letters I wrote for the company: they were proof of my ability to survive in the city, the outside world — an indication of my growing mastery of English.








But they also indicated that writing was still mechanical for me, something that didn’t require much thought.

Reading also became a more significant part of my life during those early years in Pittsburgh. I had always liked reading, but now I devoted more and more of my spare time to it. I read romances, mysteries, popular novels. Looking back, I realize that the books I liked best were simple, unambiguous: good versus bad and right versus wrong with right rewarded and wrong punished, mysteries unraveled and all set right in the end. It was how I remembered life in Greeleyville.

Of course I was romanticizing. Life in Greeleyville had not become very uncomplicated. Back there I had been — first as a child, then as a young woman with limited experience in the outside world — living in a relatively closed-in society. But there were implicit and explicit principles that guided our way of life and shaped our relationships with one another and the people outside — principles that a newcomer would find elusive and baffling. In Pittsburgh, I had matured, become more experienced. I had worked at three different jobs, associated with a wider range of people, married, had children. This new environment with different prescripts for living required that I speak standard English much of the time and slowly, imperceptibly, I had ceased seeing a sharp distinction between myself and “others.” Reading romances and mysteries, characterized by dichotomy, was a way of shying away from change, from the person I was becoming.

But that other part of me — that part which took great pride in my ability to hold a job writing business letters — was increasingly drawn to the new developments in my life and the attending possibilities, opportunities for even greater change. If I could write letters for a nationally known business, could I not also do something better, more challenging, more important? Could I not, perhaps, go to college and become a school teacher? For years, afraid and a little embarrassed, I did no more than imagine this different me, this possible me. But sixteen years after coming north, when my youngest daughter entered kindergarten, I found myself unable — or unwilling — to resist the lure of possibility. I enrolled in my first college course: Basic Writing, at the University of Pittsburgh.

For the first time in my life, I was required to write extensively about myself. Using the most formal English at my command, I wrote these sentences near the beginning of the term:

One of my duties as a homemaker is simply picking up after others. A day seldom passes that I don’t search for a mislaid toy, book, or gym shoe, etc. I change the Ty-D-Bol, fight “ring around the collar,” and keep our laundry smelling “April fresh.” Occasionally, I settle arguments between my children and suggest things to do when they’re bored. Taking telephone messages for my oldest daughter is my newest (and sometimes most aggravating) chore. Hanging the toilet paper roll is my most insignificant.

My concern was to use “appropriate” language, to sound as if I belonged in a college classroom. But I felt separate from the language — as if it did not and could not belong to me. I couldn’t think and feel genuinely in that language, couldn’t make it express what I thought and felt about being a housewife. A part of me resented, among other things, being judged by such things as the appearance of my family’s laundry and toilet bowl, but in that language I could only imagine and write about a conventional housewife.

For the most part, the remainder of the term was a period of adjustment, a time of trying to find my bearings as a student in a college composition class, to learn to shut out my black English whenever I composed, and to prevent it from creeping into my formulations; a time for trying to grasp the language of the classroom and reproduce it in my prose; for trying to







talk about myself in that language, reach others through it. Each experience of writing was like standing naked and revealing my imperfection, my “otherness.” And each new assignment was another chance to make myself over in language, reshape myself, make myself “better” in my rapidly changing image of a student in a college composition class.

But writing became increasingly unmanageable as the term progressed, and by the end of the semester, my sentences sounded like this:

My excitement was soon dampened, however, by what seemed like a small voice in the back of my head saying that I should be careful with my long awaited opportunity. I felt frustrated and this seemed to make it difficult to concentrate.

There is a poverty of language in these sentences. By this point, I knew that the clichéd language of my Housewife essay was unacceptable, and I generally recognized trite expressions. At the same time, I hadn’t yet mastered the language of the classroom, hadn’t yet come to see it as belonging to me. Most notable is the lifelessness of the prose, the apparent absence of a person behind the words. I wanted those sentences — and the rest of the essay — to convey the anguish of yearning to, at once, become something more and yet remain the same. I had the sensation of being split in two, part of me going into a future the other part didn’t believe possible. As that person, the student writer at that moment, I was essentially mute. I could not — in the process of composing — use the language of the old me, yet I couldn’t imagine myself in the language of “others.”

I found this particularly discouraging because at midsemester I had been writing in a much different way. Note the language of this introduction to an essay I had written then, near the middle of the term:

Pain is a constant companion to the people in “Footwork.” Their jobs are physically damaging. Employers are insensitive to their feelings and in many cases add to their problems. The general public wounds them further by treating them with disgrace because of what they do for a living. Although the workers are as diverse as they are similar, there is a definite link between them. They suffer a great deal of abuse.

The voice here is stronger, more confident, appropriating terms like “physically damaging,” “wounds them further,” “insensitive,” “diverse” — terms I couldn’t have imagined using when writing about my own experience — and shaping them into sentences like, “Although the workers are as diverse as they are similar, there is a definite link between them.” And there is the sense of a personality behind the prose, someone who sympathizes with the workers: “The general public wounds them further by treating them with disgrace because of what they do for a living.”

What caused these differences? I was, I believed, explaining other people’s thoughts and feelings, and I was free to move about in the language of “others” so long as I was speaking of others. I was unaware that I was transforming into my best classroom language my own thoughts and feelings about people whose experiences and ways of speaking were in many ways similar to mine.

The following year, unable to turn back or let go of what had become something of an obsession with language (and hoping to catch and hold the sense of control that had eluded me in Basic Writing), I enrolled in a research writing course. I spent most of the term learning how to prepare for and write a research paper. I chose sex education as my subject and spent hours in libraries, searching for information, reading, taking notes. Then (not






without messiness and often-demoralizing frustration) I organized my information into categories, wrote a thesis statement, and composed my paper — a series of paraphrases and quotations spaced between carefully constructed transitions. The process and results felt artificial, but as I would later come to realize I was passing through a necessary stage. My sentences sounded like this:

This reserve becomes understandable with examination of who the abusers are. In an overwhelming number of cases, they are people the victims know and trust. Family members, relatives, neighbors and close family friends commit seventy-five percent of all reported sex crimes against children, and parents, parent substitutes and relatives are the offenders in thirty to eighty percent of all reported cases. While assault by strangers does occur, it is less common, and is usually a single episode. But abuse by family members, relatives and acquaintances may continue for an extended period of time. In cases of incest, for example, children are abused repeatedly for an average of eight years. In such cases, “the use of physical force is rarely necessary because of the child’s trusting, dependent relationship with the offender. The child’s cooperation is often facilitated by the adult’s position of dominance, an offer of material goods, a threat of physical violence, or a misrepresentation of moral standards.”

The completed paper gave me a sense of profound satisfaction, and I read it often after my professor returned it. I know now that what I was pleased with was the language I used and the professional voice it helped me maintain. “Use better words,” my teacher had snapped at me one day after reading the notes I’d begun accumulating from my research, and slowly I began taking on the language of my sources. In my next set of notes, I used the word “vacillating”; my professor applauded. And by the time I composed the final draft, I felt at ease with terms like “overwhelming number of cases,” “single episode,” and “reserve,” and I shaped them into sentences similar to those of my “expert” sources.

If I were writing the paper today, I would of course do some things differently. Rather than open with an anecdote — as my teacher suggested — I would begin simply with a quotation that caught my interest as I was researching my paper (and which I scribbled, without its source, in the margin of my notebook): “Truth does not do so much good in the world as the semblance of truth does evil.” The quotation felt right because it captured what was for me the central idea of my essay — an idea that emerged gradually during the making of my paper — and expressed it in a way I would like to have said it. The anecdote, a hypothetical situation I invented to conform to the information in the paper, felt forced and insincere because it represented — to a great degree — my teacher’s understanding of the essay, her idea of what in it was most significant. Improving upon my previous experiences with writing, I was beginning to think and feel in the language I used, to find my own voices in it, to sense that how one speaks influences how one means. But I was not yet secure enough, comfortable enough with the language to trust my intuition.

Now that I know that to seek knowledge, freedom, and autonomy means always to be in the concentrated process of becoming — always to be venturing into new territory, feeling one’s way at first, then getting one’s balance, negotiating, accommodating, discovering one’s self in ways that previously defined “others” — I sometimes get tired. And I ask myself why I keep on participating in this highbrow form of violence, this slamming against perplexity. But there is no real futility in the question, no hint of that part of the old me who stood outside standard English, hugging to herself a disabling mistrust of a language she thought could not represent a person with her history and experience. Rather, the question represents




a person who feels the consequence of her education, the weight of her possibilities as a teacher and writer and human being, a voice in society. And I would not change that person, would not give back the good burden that accompanies my growing expertise, my increasing power to shape myself in language and share that self with “others.”

To write … can involve tremendous emotional and psychological conflict for those attempting to master academic discourse.

“To speak,” says Frantz Fanon, “means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”* To write means to do the same, but in a more profound sense. However, Fanon also says that to achieve mastery means to “get” to a position of power, to “grasp,” to “assume.” This, I have learned — both as a student and subsequently as a teacher — can involve tremendous emotional and psychological conflict for those attempting to master academic discourse. Although as a beginning student writer I had a fairly good grasp of ordinary spoken English and was proficient at what Labov calls “code switching” (and what John Baugh in Black Street Speech terms “style shifting”), when I came face to face with the demands of academic writing, I grew increasingly self-conscious, constantly aware of my status as a black and a speaker of one of the many black English vernaculars, a traditional outsider. For the first time, I experienced my sense of doubleness as something menacing, a built-in enemy. Whenever I turned inward for salvation, the balm so available during my childhood, I found instead this new fragmentation which spoke to me in many voices. It was the voice of my desire to prosper, but at the same time it spoke of what I had relinquished and could not regain: a safe way of being, a state of powerlessness which exempted me from responsibility for who I was and might be. And it accused me of betrayal, of turning away from blackness. To recover balance, I had to take on the language of the academy, the language of “others.” And to do that, I had to learn to imagine myself a part of the culture of that language, and therefore someone free to manage that language, to take liberties with it. Writing and rewriting, practicing, experimenting, I came to comprehend more fully the generative power of language. I discovered — with the help of some especially sensitive teachers — that through writing one can continually bring new selves into being, each with new responsibilities and difficulties, but also with new possibilities. Remarkable power, indeed. I write and continually give birth to myself.


Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. Mellix argues that Toby, the Greeleyville town policeman, did not need to speak grammatically correct English because “He was white and could speak as he wished.” Mellix herself, on the other hand, “had something to prove. Toby did not” (para. 7). Explain what she means.

2. Young (p. 148) makes similar arguments regarding why Barack Obama needed to speak more correctly than George W. Bush, and why the black professors at the



University of Iowa spoke what Jay Semel called the “hyper-performed standard language” (para. 44). Now that you’ve read several arguments and illustrations of this felt need, try to explain it. Why does this happen? Why do Obama, the professors, Mellix, and others who don’t speak “the language” (or what Gee (p. 274) will call the “dominant Discourse”) feel this pressure?

3. Mellix says that “speaking standard English to whites was our way of demonstrating that we knew their language and could use it …. But when we spoke standard English, we acknowledged … that our customary way of speaking was inferior” (para. 8). What does she mean by this? How would Young explain the damage this dual speaking was causing?

4. Young talked about the ways that school teaches children standard English. Where did Mellix learn standard English? Where have you learned standard English? Do you speak it in every situation or just some?

5. For many years, having to write in standard English made writing feel “mechanical” to Mellix, and she says she felt “separate from the language” (paras. 16, 20). Do you feel like your spoken, home, or social English is the same as the kind of English you are expected to use in school and workplace writing? If not, do you think that has an impact on your writing, as it did on Mellix’s writing? Is there anything about your home/social and spoken language(s) you feel you have to “shut out” when you write?

6. Go back to Young and review his idea of “double consciousness.” Does that idea describe Mellix’s experiences? Why? How?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Mellix says she was “shy in the presence of those who owned and/or spoke the language” (para. 8). Drawing on what you’ve learned from Young and/or others in this chapter, write 2–3 pages in which you explain what “the language” is, why it is seen as “the language,” how that is determined, and why certain people are seen to own it.

2. Young argues that asking black students to use a different language at school than they do at home is a form of racial segregation. Write 1–2 pages about whether you agree or disagree with Young, and support your argument by drawing on Mellix’s experiences.

3. Young argues vehemently against code switching, arguing that it is dangerous and damaging to people who have to engage in it. Most of Mellix’s essay seems to suggest she would agree with him; however, at the end she seems to change her position. How do you think Mellix would respond to Young’s claims? Write a short dialogue between Young and Mellix on the subject of code switching.

4. Conduct short interviews with three people you know from different areas of your life. Try to ensure these people are as different from one another as possible. Ask those people the following questions:



Do you speak the same way in every situation?

Do you feel like the way you speak at home with your family is the way you speak at school and/or at work?

If not, what are some of the differences? Can you give examples?

Do you feel like one of the ways you speak is valued more highly than the others? How do you know?

Summarize your results in 2–3 pages, and then share them with your classmates. What are some themes or trends that you find as a class? What questions does this raise for you? Do any of the answers you received relate to any of the readings you’ve done so far in this book?

META MOMENT How can Mellix help you understand your feelings about the way that you and others speak? When your feelings or judgments about language varieties (your own or others’) arise in the future, how can you respond to and reflect on them differently as a result of reading Mellix?




Framing the Reading



These authors take up a topic that researchers refer to as transfer — the ability of learners to draw on what they already know or have learned in order to do something new, or something in a new context. This research area has been very complicated for a long time (over a hundred years), as researchers have repeatedly had trouble seeing evidence of people applying what they’ve learned in one setting to another setting. This is a pretty major problem for school, since the expectation is that what students learn in school will be useful to them elsewhere. But transfer researchers have found that very often people don’t use what they already know, don’t see it as relevant, or can’t figure out how to use it in helpful ways. There are ways to teach that are better at encouraging this use of prior knowledge than others. The researchers who wrote this article have been conducting studies on that very topic — how to help writing teachers “teach for transfer,” so that what students learn about writing in their courses can be useful to them in the many other settings where they will write.

TRANSFER Sometimes called generalization or repurposing, transfer refers to the act of applying existing knowledge, learned in one kind of situation, to new situations. For example, a writer who learns how to write a summary in her College Writing I class in English is expected to transfer that summary-writing knowledge to her “history of the telescope” project in astronomy. Transfer, we are learning, is not automatic — people learn many things that they forget and/or don’t or can’t use in different circumstances. Research suggests that learning in particular ways (for example, being mindful) can increase the likelihood of later transfer.

Robertson, Liane, et al. “Notes Toward a Theory of Prior Knowledge and Its Role in College Composers’ Transfer of Knowledge and Practice.” Composition Forum, vol. 26, Fall 2012,




Kathleen Blake Yancey is the Kellogg W. Hunt Professor of English and Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University. Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak were her doctoral students there. Now, Robertson is an assistant professor of English at William Paterson University, and Taczak is a Teaching Professor in the writing program at the University of Denver. Together they published a book on the topic of teaching to encourage transfer called Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, which won the 2015 Research Impact Award from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. So far in this chapter, the articles have examined prior experience and knowledge in

terms of literacy broadly understood — in particular, how early experiences with reading, writing, and language use are central to people’s identities and to how they fare (and are treated) in school and other contexts. In this article, the focus shifts a little to look specifically at how people write is useful to them when they try to write in new situations. And, of course, everything you’ve read about so far is still relevant here. Robertson et al. note that students draw on their prior knowledge in various ways. What they don’t say, but you can likely guess from what you’ve been reading, is that students’ prior literacy experiences, culture, class, language use, and sense of self all impact how they are going to use and transfer prior knowledge.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Think of those times when teachers expected you to be able to complete a writing task by drawing on what you already knew. How did that go? Were you successful or unsuccessful?

Google “mindfulness” and see what you find.

Google “self-efficacy” and see what you find.

As you read, consider the following questions:

Do you see yourself in the students they describe?

Are there terms and ideas you don’t understand? Make a note to ask about them in class.

DURING THE LAST DECADE, especially, scholars in composition studies have investigated how students “transfer” what they learn in college composition into other academic writing sites. Researchers have focused, for example, on exploring with students how they take up new writing tasks (e.g., McCarthy, Wardle); on theorizing transfer with




specific applicability to writing tasks across a college career (e.g., Beaufort); and on developing new curricula to foster such transfer of knowledge and practice (e.g., Dew, Robertson, Taczak). Likewise, scholars have sought to learn what prior knowledge from high school first-year students might draw on, and how, as they begin college composition (e.g., Reiff and Bawarshi). To date, however, no study has actively documented or theorized precisely how students make use of such prior knowledge as they find themselves in new rhetorical situations, that is, on how students draw on and employ what they already know and can do, and whether such knowledge and practice is efficacious in the new situation or not. In this article, we take up this task, within a specific view of transfer as a dynamic activity through which students, like all composers, actively make use of prior knowledge as they respond to new writing tasks. More specifically, we theorize that students actively make use of prior knowledge and practice in three ways: by drawing on both knowledge and practice and employing it in ways almost identical to the ways they have used it in the past; by reworking such knowledge and practice as they address new tasks; and by creating new knowledge and practices for themselves when students encounter what we call a setback or critical incident, which is a failed effort to address a new task that prompts new ways of thinking about how to write and about what writing is.

In this article, then, we begin by locating our definition of transfer in the general literature of cognition; we then consider how students’ use of prior knowledge has been represented in the writing studies literature. Given this context and drawing on two studies, we then articulate our theory of students’ use of prior knowledge, in the process focusing on student accounts to illustrate how they make use of such knowledge as they take up new writing tasks.1 We then close by raising questions that can inform research on this topic in the future.2

MODELS OF TRANSFER Early transfer research in the fields of psychology and education (Thorndike, Prather, Detterman) focused on specific situations in which instances of transfer occurred. Conducted in research environments and measuring subjects’ ability to replicate specific behavior from one context to another, results of this research suggested that transfer was merely accidental, but it did not explore transfer in contexts more authentic and complex than those simulated in a laboratory.

In 1992, Perkins and Salomon suggested that researchers should consider the conditions and contexts under which transfer might occur, redefining transfer according to three subsets: near versus far transfer, or how closely related a new situation is to the original; high-road (or mindful) transfer involving knowledge abstracted and applied to another context, versus low- road (or reflexive) transfer involving knowledge triggered by something similar in another context; and positive transfer (performance improvement) versus negative transfer (performance interference) in another context. With consideration of the complexity of transfer and the conditions under which it may or may not occur, Perkins and Salomon suggest deliberately teaching for transfer through hugging (using approximations) and bridging (using abstraction to make connections) as strategies to maximize transfer (7).

In composition studies, several scholars have pursued “the transfer question.” Michael Carter, Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, and Linda Bergmann and Janet Zepernick, for example, have theorized that students develop toward expertise, or “write into expertise” (Sommers and Saltz 134), when they understand the context in which the writing is situated



and can make the abstractions that connect contexts, as Perkins and Salomon suggest (6). David Russell likewise claims that writing happens within a context, specifically the “activity system” in which the writing is situated, and that when students learn to make connections between contexts, they begin to develop toward expertise in understanding writing within any context, suggesting that transfer requires contextual knowledge (Russell 536). In a later article, Russell joins with Arturo Yañez to study the relationship of genre understanding to transfer, finding, in the case of one student, that students’ prior genre knowledge can be limited to a single instance of the genre rather than situated in a larger activity system; such limited understanding can lead to confusion and subsequent difficulty in writing (n.p.).

Other research has contributed to our understanding of the complexity of transfer as well, notably of the role that motivation and metacognition play in transfer. For instance, Tracy Robinson and Tolar Burton found that students are motivated to improve their writing when they understand that the goal is to transfer what they learn between contexts, an understanding also explored by Susan Jarratt et al. in a study involving interview research with students in upper-division writing courses to determine what might have transferred to those contexts from the first-year composition experience. Results of the research offer three categories from which students accounted for transfer: (1) active transfer, which requires the mindfulness that Perkins and Salomon define as high-road transfer, (2) unreflective practice, in which students cannot articulate why they do what they do, and (3) transfer denial, in which students resist the idea of transfer from first-year composition or don’t see the connection between it and upper-division writing (Jarratt et al. 3). The Jarratt et al. study, perhaps most importantly, suggests that metacognition students develop before transfer occurs can be prompted; students may not necessarily realize that learning has occurred until they are prompted, but this is the point at which transfer can occur (6).

Metacognition as a key to transfer is identified by Anne Beaufort as well: in College Writing and Beyond, Beaufort suggests conceptualizing writing according to five knowledge domains, which together provide a frame within which writers can organize the context- specific knowledge they need to write successfully in new situations. These domains — writing process knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, genre knowledge, discourse community knowledge, and content knowledge — provide an analytical framework authors can draw on as they move from one context to another. Using this conceptual model, students can learn to write in new contexts more effectively because they understand the inquiry necessary for entering the new context. Beaufort suggests that the expertise students need to write successfully involves “mental schema” they use to organize and apply knowledge about writing in new contexts (17).

More recent scholarship about transfer, including the “writing about writing” approach advocated by Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, suggests that teaching students about concepts of writing will help foster transfer through a curricular design based on reading and writing as scholarly inquiry such that students develop a rhetorical awareness (553). This writing-as-writing-course-content approach dismisses the long-held misconception that content doesn’t matter, and others are pursuing this same end although with different curricular models (e.g., Sargent and Slomp; Bird; Dew; Robertson; and Taczak).

A little-referenced source of research on transfer that is particularly relevant to this study on how students use prior knowledge in new situations, however, is the National Research Council volume How People Learn: Mind, Brain, Experience, and School. Here transfer “is best viewed as an active, dynamic process rather than a passive end-product of a particular set of learning experiences” (53). As important, according to this generalized theory of transfer, all “new learning involves transfer based on previous learning” (53). All such prior learning is not efficacious, however; according to this theory, prior knowledge can function in one of three





ways. First, an individual’s prior knowledge can match the demands of a new task, in which case a composer can draw from and build on that prior knowledge; we might see this use of prior knowledge when a first-year composition student thinks in terms of audience, purpose, and genre when entering a writing situation in another discipline. Second, an individual’s prior knowledge might be a bad match, or at odds with, a new writing situation; in FYC, we might see this when a student defines success in writing as creating a text that is grammatically correct without reference to its rhetorical effectiveness. And third, an individual’s prior knowledge — located in a community context — might be at odds with the requirements of a given writing situation; this writing classroom situation, in part, seems to have motivated the Vander Lei-Kyburz edited collection documenting the difficulty some FYC students experience as a function of their religious beliefs coming into conflict with the goals of higher education. As this brief review suggests, we know that college students call on prior knowledge as they encounter new writing demands; the significant points here are that students actively use their prior knowledge and that some prior knowledge provides help for new writing situations, while other prior knowledge does not.

College students call on prior knowledge as they encounter new writing demands; the significant points here are that students actively use their prior knowledge and that some prior knowledge provides help for new writing situations, while other prior knowledge does not.

This interest in how first-year students use prior knowledge in composing, however, has not been taken up by composition scholars until very recently. During the last four years, Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi have undertaken this task. Their 2011 article, Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition, provides a compilation of this research, which centers on if and how students’ understanding and use of genre facilitates their transition from high school to college writing situations. Conducted at the University of Washington and the University of Tennessee, Reiff and Bawarshi’s study identified two kinds of students entering first year comp: first, what they call boundary crossers, “those students who were more likely to question their genre knowledge and to break this knowledge down into useful strategies and repurpose it”; and second, boundary guarders, “those students who were more likely to draw on whole genres with certainty, regardless of task” (314). In creating these student prototypes, the researchers drew on document-based interviews focused on students’ use of genre knowledge early in the term, first as they composed a “preliminary” essay and second, as they completed the first assignment of the term:

Specifically, we asked students to report on what they thought each writing task was asking them to do and then to report on what prior genres they were reminded of and drew on for each task. As students had their papers in front of them, we were able to point to various rhetorical conventions and ask about how they learned to use those conventions or why they made the choices that they made, enabling connections between discursive patterns and prior knowledge of genres. (319)

Based on this study, Reiff and Bawarshi identify two kinds of boundary-guarding students, and key to their definition is the use of what they call “not talk”:







The first, what might be called “strict” boundary guarding, includes students who report no “not” talk (in terms of genres or strategies) and who seem to maintain known genres regardless of task. The second kind of boundary guarding is less strict in that students report some strategy-related “not” talk and some modification of known genres by way of adding strategies to known genres. (329)

These students, in other words, work to maintain the boundary marking their prior knowledge, and at the most add only strategies to the schema they seek to preserve. By way of contrast, the boundary crossing student accepts noviceship, often as a consequence of struggling to meet the demands of a new writing task. Therefore, this writer seems to experience multiple kinds of flux — such as uncertainty about task, descriptions of writing according to what genre it is not, and the breakdown and repurposing of whole genres that may be useful to students entering new contexts in FYC (329).

What’s interesting here, of course, isn’t only the prototypes, but how those prototypes might change given other contexts. For example, what happens to students as they continue learning in the first term of FYC? What happens when students move on to a second term and take up writing tasks outside of first-year composition? Likewise, what difference might both curriculum and pedagogy make? In other words, what might we do to motivate those students exhibiting a boundary-guarding approach to take up a boundary-crossing one? And once students have boundary-crossed, what happens then? How can we support boundary-crossers and help them become more confident and competent composers?3

WHERE MANY STUDENTS BEGIN: ABSENT PRIOR KNOWLEDGE As documented above, it’s a truism that students draw on prior knowledge when facing new tasks, and when that acquired knowledge doesn’t fit the new situation, successful transfer is less likely to occur; this is so in writing generally, but it’s especially so as students enter first- year composition classrooms in college. At the same time, whether students are guarding or crossing, they share a common high school background. Moreover, what this seems to mean for virtually all first-year college composition students, as the research literature documents but as we also learned from our students, is that as students enter college writing classes, there’s not only prior knowledge, but also an absence of prior knowledge, and in two important areas: (1) key writing concepts and (2) non-fiction texts that serve as models. In part, that’s because the “writing” curricula at the two sites — high school and college — don’t align well. As Arthur Applebee and Judith Langer’s continuing research on the high school English/Language Arts curriculum shows, the high school classroom is a literature classroom, whereas the first-year writing classroom — which despite the diverse forms it takes, from first-year seminars to WAC-based approaches to cultural studies and critical pedagogy approaches (see Fulkerson; Delivering College Composition) — is a writing classroom. The result for our students — and, we think, others like them — is that they enter college with very limited experience with the conceptions and kinds of writing and reading they will engage with during the first year of postsecondary education.

In terms of how such an absence might occur, the Applebee and Langer research is instructive, especially in its highlighting of two dimensions of writing in high school that are particularly relevant in terms of absent prior knowledge. First is the emphasis that writing receives, or not, in high school classrooms; their studies demonstrate an emphasis placed on






literature with deleterious effects for writing instruction:

In the English classes observed, 6.3% of time was focused on the teaching of explicit writing strategies, 5.5% on the study of models, and 4.2% on evaluating writing, including discussion of rubrics or standards. (Since multiple things were often going on at once, summing these percentages would overestimate the time devoted to writing instruction.) To put the numbers in perspective, in a 50-minute period, students would have on average just over three minutes of instruction related to explicit writing strategies, or a total of 2 hours and 22 minutes in a nine-week grading period. (“A Snapshot” 21)

Second, and as important, is the way that writing is positioned in the high school classes Applebee and Langer have studied: chiefly as preparation for test-taking, with the single purpose of passing a test, and the single audience of Britton’s “teacher-as-examiner.” Moreover, this conclusion echoes the results of the University of Washington Study of Undergraduate Learning (SOUL) on entering college writers, which was designed to identify the gaps between high school and college that presented obstacles to students. Their findings suggest that the major gaps are in math and writing, and that in the latter area, writing tests themselves limit students’ understanding of and practice in writing. As a result, writing’s purposes are truncated and its potential to serve learning is undeveloped. As Applebee and Langer remark, “Given the constraints imposed by high-stakes tests, writing as a way to study, learn, and go beyond — as a way to construct knowledge or generate new networks of understandings … is rare” (26). One absence of prior knowledge demonstrated in the scholarship on the transition from high school to college is thus a conception and practice of writing for authentic purposes and genuine audiences.

Writers are readers as well, of course. In high school, the reading is largely (if not exclusively) of imaginative literature, whereas in college, it’s largely (though not exclusively) non-fiction, and for evidence of impact of such a curriculum, we turn to our students. What we learned from them, through questionnaires and interviews, is that their prior knowledge about texts, at least in terms of what they choose to read and in terms of how such texts represent good writing, is located in the context of imaginative literature, which makes sense given the school curriculum. When asked “What type of authors represent your definition of good writing?” these students replied with a list of imaginative writers. Some cited writers known for publishing popular page-turners — Michael Crichton, James Patterson, and Dan Brown, for instance; others pointed to writers of the moment — Jodi Picoult and Stephenie Meyer; and still others called on books that are likely to be children’s classics for some time to come: Harry Potter, said one student, “is all right.” Two other authors were mentioned — Frey, whose A Million Little Pieces, famously, was either fiction or non-fiction given its claim to truth (or not); and textbook author Ann Raimes. In sum, we have a set of novels, one “memoir,” and one writing textbook — none of which resembles the non-fiction reading characteristic of first-year composition and college more generally. Given the students’ reading selections, what we seem to be mapping here, based on their interviews, is a second absence of prior knowledge.

Of course, the number of students is small, their selections limited. These data don’t prove that even these students, much less others, have no prior knowledge about non-fiction. But the facts (1) that the curricula of high schools are focused on imaginative literature and (2) that none of the students pointed to even a single non-fiction book — other than the single textbook, which identification may itself be part of the problem — suggest that these may not have models of non-fiction to draw on when writing their own non-fiction. Put another way, when these students write the non-fiction texts characteristic of the first-year composition classroom,





they have neither pre-college experience with the reading of non-fiction texts nor mental models of non-fiction texts, which together constitute a second absence of prior knowledge.

Perhaps not surprisingly, what at least some students do in this situation is draw on and generalize their experience with imaginative texts in ways that are at odds with what college composition instructors expect, particularly when it comes to concepts of writing.4 When we asked students how they wrote and how they defined writing, for example, we saw a set of contradictions. On the one hand, students reported writing in various genres, especially outside of school. Moreover, unlike the teenagers in the well-known Pew study investigating teenagers’ writing habits and understandings — for whom writing inside school is writing and writing outside school is not writing but communication — the students we interviewed do understand writing both inside and outside school as writing. More specifically, all but one of the students identified writing outside school as a place where they “use writing most,” for example, with all but one identifying three specific practices — taking notes, texting, and emailing — as frequent (i.e., daily) writing practices. In addition, two writers spoke to particularly robust writing lives; one of them noted, for instance, writing

[i]nside school. Taking notes. Inside the classroom doing notes. If not its writing assignments. Had blog for a while; blog about everyday life [she and three friends]; high school sophomore through senior year; fizzled out b/c of life; emails; hand written letters to family members.

A second one described a similar kind of writing life, his located particularly in the arts: “Probably [it would] be texting … the most that I write. I also write a little poetry; I’m in a band so I like to write it so that it fits to music; a pop alternative; I play the piano, synth and sing.”

On the other hand, given that many of these texts — emails and texts, for example — are composed to specific audiences and thus seem in that sense to be highly rhetorical, it was likewise surprising that every one of the students, when asked to define writing, used a single word: expression. One student thus defined writing as a “way to express ideas and feelings and to organize my thoughts,” while another summarized the common student response: “I believe writing is, um, a way of expressing your thoughts, uh, through, uh, text.” In spite of their own experience as writers to others, these students see writing principally as a vehicle for authorial expression, not as a vehicle for dialogue with a reader or an opportunity to make knowledge, both of which are common conceptions in college writing environments. We speculate that this way of seeing writing — universally as a means of expression in different historical and intellectual contexts — may be influenced by the emphasis on imaginative authorship in the high school literature curriculum, in which students read poets’, novelists’, and dramatists’ writing as forms of expression. Likewise, the emphasis on reading in high school, at the expense of writing, means that it’s likely that reading exerts a disproportionate influence on how these students understand writing itself, especially since the writing tasks, often a form of literary analysis, are also oriented to literature and literary authorship. And more generally, what we see here — through these students’ high school curricula, their own reading practices, and their writing practices both in but mostly out of school — is reading culture-as-prior- experience, an experience located in pre-college reading and some writing practices, but one missing the conceptions, models, and practices of writing as well as practices of reading that could be helpful in a new postsecondary environment emphasizing a rhetorical view of both reading and writing. Or: absent prior knowledge.






A TYPOLOGY OF PRIOR KNOWLEDGE, TYPE ONE: ASSEMBLAGE While we speculate that college students, like our students, enter college with an absence of prior knowledge relevant to the new situation, how students take up the new knowledge relative to the old varies; and here, based on interview data, writing assignments, and responses to the assignments, we describe three models of uptake. Some students, like Eugene, seem to take up new knowledge in a way we call assemblage: by grafting isolated bits of new knowledge onto a continuing schema of old knowledge. Some, like Alice, take up new knowledge in ways we call remix: by integrating the new knowledge into the schema of the old. And some, like Rick, encounter what we call a critical incident — a failure to meet a new task successfully — and use that occasion as a prompt to re-think writing altogether.

Eugene, who seems to be an example of Reiff and Bawarshi’s border guarders, believes that what he is learning in FYC is very similar to what he learned in high school. How he makes use of prior knowledge and practice about writing is what we call assemblage: such students maintain the concept of writing they brought into college with them, breaking the new learning into bits, atomistically, and grafting those isolated “bits” of learning onto the prior structure without either recognition of differences between prior and current writing conceptions and tasks, or synthesis of them. Such bits may take one or both of two forms: key terms and strategies. Taken together, the conception of writing that students develop through an assemblage model of prior knowledge is very like the assemblage “Vorwarts!” in its remaking of the earlier structure of the eye chart: the new bits are added to it, but are not integrated into it but rather on top of it, such that the basic chart isn’t significantly changed at all.

When Eugene, a successful AP student in high school whose score enabled him to exempt the first of the two first-year composition courses at Florida State, entered English 1102, the





second-term, research and argument course, he articulated a dualistic view of writing — for writing to be successful, “you have the right rhetoric and the right person in the right manner,” he observed — and believed that writing operates inside a transmission model through which his writing would allow him “to get his message across.” Interestingly, he believed that he was “really prepared for college”: “[in high school] we were doing a lot of papers that talked about literary devices so I basically knew a lot of literacy devices so there wasn’t a lot more to learn necessarily, I guess more fine-tuning of what I had already learned.” And what there was to learn, Eugene didn’t find worthwhile, in part because it fell outside what he did know: “I don’t like research papers because I don’t know how they work very well and collecting sources and analyzing.” He noted that he was better at “evaluating an article and finding a deeper meaning,” which is the purpose, of course, of the literary analysis texts he wrote in high school.

As he begins his college writing career, then, Eugene establishes a three-part pattern that continues throughout English 1102 and the next term: (1) he confuses and conflates the literary terms of high school and the literacy and rhetorical terms and practices of college; (2) he continues to believe that “there wasn’t a lot more to learn”; and (3) he relies on his prior knowledge of writing, one located chiefly in the role of the unconscious in writing process. As he analyzes his progress in terms of writing, for example, he notes the central role of the unconscious:

my main point is that writing is unconsciously understanding that certain genres that have certain formalities where I have progressed and so where I have progressed is I can put names and places to genres; writing is pretty much unconscious how you are adjusting the person you are talking to and how you are writing.

In this case, the unconscious element of writing provides the central element of Eugene’s concept of writing, and as English 1102 continues and in the semester that follows, Eugene struggles to find terms that he can comfortably graft onto that central understanding.

During the course of two semesters, Eugene was interviewed four times, each time nominating his key terms for composing, and in this data set, we can also see Eugene struggling to make his prior conception of writing work with the new conception of writing to which he is being introduced. In all, he nominated 18 terms: audience and genre were both mentioned three times (once each in three of the four interviews), with other terms each suggested once: reflection, tone, purpose, theme, exigence, diction, theory of writing, imagination, creativity, and rhetorical situation. Some of the terms — rhetorical situation and exigence, for instance — came from his first-year composition class, while others — diction and imagination — were terms located in his high school curriculum. As he continued into the semester following English 1102, Eugene held on to genre, saying in one interview immediately following English 1102 that “I still have to go with genre [as] important and everything else is subcategories,” in the next that genre was still important but not something he needed to think about, as he worked “unconsciously”:

A lot of my writing is like unconsciously done because it’s been ingrained in me to how writing is done. Even though I probably think of genre I don’t really think of it. Writing just kind of happens for me.

And in the final interview, Eugene retrospectively notes that what he gained was a “greater appreciation” of genre, “for the role genre plays in writing. [I]t went from being another aspect of writing to the most important part of writing as a result of ENC 1102.” Genre for Eugene,






then, seems to be mapped assemblage-like onto a fundamental and unchanging concept of writing located in expression and the unconscious.

In the midst of trying to respond to new tasks like the research project and unable to frame them anew, Eugene defaults to two strategies that he found particularly helpful. One of these was multiple drafting, not to create a stronger draft so much, however, as to have the work scaffolded according to goals: “Most useful was the multiple drafts, being able to have smaller goals to work up to the bigger goal made it easier to manage.” The second strategy Eugene adopted both for English 1102 and for writing tasks the next semester was “reverse outlining,” a practice in which (as its name suggests) students outline a text once it’s in draft form to see if and how the focus is carried through the text. This Eugene found particularly helpful: “something new I hadn’t experienced before was the reverse outline because it helped me to realize that my paragraphs do have main points and it helps me realize where I need main points.” Interestingly, the parts-is-parts approach to writing Eugene values in the smaller goals leading to larger ones in the multiple drafting process is echoed in his appreciation of reverse outlining, where he can track the intent of each paragraph rather than how the paragraphs relate to each other, a point he makes explicitly as English 1102 closes:

Um, my theory of writing when I first started the class was very immature. I remember describing it as just putting your emotions and thoughts on the paper I think was my first theory of writing and I think from the beginning of fall it’s gotten to where I understand the little parts of writing make up the important part of writing, so I think in that way it’s changed.

As the study concludes and Eugene is asked to comment retrospectively on what he learned in English 1102, he re-states not what he learned, but rather the prior knowledge on writing that he brought with him to college. He observes that, “For me, there wasn’t much of a difference between high school and college writing” and

Like I came from a really intensive writing program in high school, so coming into [the first-year comp] class wasn’t that different, so, um, I mean obviously any writing that I do will help me become better and hopefully I will progress and become better with each piece that I write, so in that regard I think it was helpful.

What thus seems to help, according to Eugene, is simply the opportunity to write, which will enable him to progress naturally through “any writing that I do.”

And not least, as the study closes, Eugene, in describing a conception of writing developed through an assemblage created by grafting the new key term “genre” onto an unconscious process resulting in writing that is dichotomously “good” or “bad,” repeats the definition he provided as English 1102 commenced:

I mean writing is, like, when you break it down it’s a lot more complex than what you describe it to me. I mean you can sit all day and talk about literary devices but it comes down to writing. Writing is, um, it’s more complex, so, it’s like anything, if you are going to break down, it’s going to be more complex than it seems. Writing is emotionally based. Good writing is good and bad writing is bad.

Writing here is complex, something to be analyzed, much like literature, “when you break it down.” But it’s also a practice: “you can sit all day and talk about literacy devices but it comes down to writing.” Likewise, the strategies Eugene appreciated — revising toward larger goals






and reverse outlining to verify the points of individual paragraphs — fit with the assemblage model as well: they do not call into question an “unconscious” approach, but can be used to verify that this approach is producing texts whose component parts are satisfactory. Of course, this wasn’t the intent of the teacher introducing either the multiple drafting process or the reverse outlining strategy. But as Eugene makes use of prior knowledge, in an assemblage fashion, the conceptual model of unconscious writing he brought to college with him shapes his uptake of the curriculum more broadly, from key terms to process strategies.

TYPE TWO: REMIX Students who believe that what they are learning differs from their prior knowledge in some substantive way(s) and value that difference behave differently. They begin to create a revised model of writing we characterize as a remix: prior knowledge revised synthetically to incorporate new concepts and practices into the prior model of writing. Remix, in this definition, isn’t a characteristic of hip-hop only or of modernism more generally, but a feature of invention with a long history:

Seen through a wider lens … remix — the combining of ideas, narratives, sources — is a classical means of invention, even (or perhaps especially) for canonical writers. For example, … as noted in Wikipedia, Shakespeare arguably “remixed” classical sources and Italian contemporary works to produce his plays, which were often modified for different audiences. Nineteenth century poets also utilized the technique. Examples include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which was produced in multiple, highly divergent versions, and John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci, which underwent significant revision between its original composition in 1819 and its republication in 1820 (Remix). In sum, remixing, both a practice and a set of material practices, is connected to the creation of new texts (Yancey, Re-designing 6).

Here, we use remix with specific application to writing: a set of practices that links past writing knowledge and practice to new writing knowledge and practice, as we see in the experience of Alice.

Alice entered English 1102 with a conception of writing influenced by three sets of experience: preparing for and taking the Florida K-12 writing exams, known as the FCAT; completing her senior AP English class; and taking her English 1101 class, which she had completed in the summer before matriculating at Florida State. Alice had literally grown up as an “FCAT writer,” given that the writing curriculum in the state is keyed to these essay exams and for many if not most students, the writing exam is the curriculum (e.g., Scherff and Piazza). In her senior year, however, Alice enrolled in an AP English class, where she learned a different model of text that both built on and contrasted with her experience as an FCAT writer: “[my senior English teacher] explained his concept as instead of writing an intro, listing your three points, then the conclusion, to write like layers of a cake. Instead of spreading out each separate point … layer them.” The shift here, then, is one of remix: the arrangement of texts was to remain the same, while what happened inside the texts was to be changed, with Alice’s explanation suggesting that the shift was from a listing of points to an analysis of them. During the third experience, in the summer before her first year in college, Alice learned a new method of composing: she was introduced to “process writing,” including drafts, workshops and peer reviews.

When Alice entered English 1102, she defined writing as a Murray-esque exercise:






“Writing,” Alice said, “is a form of expression that needs to have feeling and be articulate in order to get the writer’s ideas across. The writing also needs to have the author’s own unique voice,” an idea that provided something of a passport for her as she encountered new conceptions of writing located in key terms like rhetorical situation, context, and audience. In Alice’s retrospective account of English 1102, in fact, she focuses particularly on the conception of rhetorical situation as one both new to her and difficult to understand, in part because it functioned as something of a meta-concept: “Rhetorical situation had a lot of things involved in that. It was a hard concept for me to get at first but it was good.” By the end of the course, however, Alice was working hard to create an integrated model of writing that included three components: her own values, what she had learned during the summer prior to English 1102, and what she had learned in English 1102:

I still find writing to be a form of expression, it should have the author’s own voice and there should be multiple drafts and peer reviews in order to have the end result of a good and original paper. Along with that this year I learned about concepts such as rhetorical situation…. This opened me up to consider audience, purpose, and context for my writing. I need to know why I am writing and who I am writing to before I start. The context I am writing in also brings me to what genre I’m writing in.

Alice’s conception of writing here seems to rely on the layering strategy recommended by her AP teacher: voice, mixed with process, and framed rhetorically, defined here layer by layer.

As Alice continues into the term after she completes English 1102, two writing-related themes emerge for her. One: a key part of the process for Alice that begins to have new salience for her is reflecting on her writing, both as she drafts and after she completes a text. Two: she finds that the study itself has helped her develop as a writer but that she needs more time and more writing activity to make sense of all that she’s been offered in English 1102.

In English 1102, Alice had been asked to reflect frequently: in the midst of drafting; at the end of assignments; and at the end of the course itself in a reflection-in-presentation where she summarized what she had learned and also theorized about writing. These reflective practices she found particularly helpful and, in the next term, when she wrote assignments for her humanities and meteorology classes, she continued to practice a self-sponsored reflection: it had become part of her composing process. As she explains, her own sense is that through reflection, she is able to bring together the multiple factors that contribute to writing:

I do know that I really liked reflection, like having that because I haven’t done that before. And whatever term was writing with a purpose and I like that so I guess writing with some purpose. Like when you are done writing you do reflection because before I would be done with a writing and go to the next one and so then in between we go over each step or throughout.

As the study concluded, Alice linked reflection and rhetorical situation as the two most important concepts for writing that she learned in English 1102, but as she did earlier, she also includes a value of her own, in this case “being direct,” into a remixed model of writing:5

Two of the words I would use to describe my theory of writing would be the key terms, rhetorical situation, reflection and the last that isn’t would just be being direct. Rhetorical situation encompasses a lot about anybody’s theory of writing. It deals with knowing the purpose of my writing, understanding the context of my writing, and thinking about my






audience. I chose being direct for lack of a better term. I don’t think my writing should beat around the bush. It should just say what needs to be said and have a purpose. As for reflection that’s something we do in life and not just writing. In the context of writing it really helps not just as a review of grammar or spelling errors but as a thought back on what I was thinking about when I wrote what I wrote, and that could change as I look back on my writing.

Being direct, of course, was Alice’s contribution to a curricular-based model of writing informed by reflective practice and rhetorical situation. Reflection she defines as a “thought back,” a variation of the “talk backs” that students were assigned in English 1102, here a generalized articulation of a meta-cognitive practice helping her “change as I look back on my writing.” In addition, Alice works toward making reflection her own as she theorizes about it — “that’s something we do in life and not just writing” — in the process seeing it as a life- practice as well as a writing practice. More generally, what we see here is that Alice is developing her own “remixed” model of composing, combining her values with curricular concepts and practices. Not least, reflection was thus more than an after-the-fact activity for Alice; rather, it provided a mechanism for her to understand herself as a learner and prepare for the future whether it was writing or another activity.

Alice, however, is also aware of the impact of the study and of the need for more time to integrate what she has learned in English 1102 into her model and practice of writing. On the one hand, she seems to appreciate the study since, in her view, it functions as a follow-up activity extending the class itself, which is particularly valuable as she takes up new writing tasks the next semester:

I feel as though I forget a lot about a class after I take it. I definitely don’t remember everything about my English class, but I feel I remember what will help me the most in my writing and I think that information will stay with me. This study has helped me get more from the class than just taking it and after not thinking about it anymore. The study helped me in a way to remind me to think about what we went over in English as I wrote for my other classes.

On the other hand, Alice understands that she has been unable to use all that was offered in English 1102:

I feel like I haven’t used everything; there were a lot of terms that we went over I don’t use and there are some that I do and those are the ones that [the teacher] used the most anyways. I feel like this has helped me remember those that I will use and I feel like this has helped me retain a lot of information and now I have had to write a lot more besides our class and the stuff I gave to you. I was still thinking about what we did in that comp class, so it has really helped me. But I still think I could use a lot more experiences with writing papers and getting more from a college class, I mean like getting away from the FCAT sound. I wrote like that until 10th grade.

Alice hopes that she has identified the best terms from the class and thinks that she has, given that “those are the ones that the teacher used the most,” which repetition was, as she observes, one reason she probably remembers them. But because of the interviews, she “was still thinking about what we did in the comp class”: she is continuing to think about the terms more intentionally than she might have had no interviews taken place. But as important, Alice







believes that she “could use a lot more experiences with writing papers and getting more from a college class,” here pointing to the need to get “away from the FCAT.” Given that Alice “wrote like that until 10th grade,” “getting away from the FCAT sound” is more difficult than it might first appear.

In sum, there is much to learn from Alice’s experience. Through her integration of her own values, prior knowledge, and new knowledge and practice, we see how students develop a remix model of composing, one that may change over time but that remains a remix. We see as well how a composing practice like reflection can be generalized into a larger philosophy of reflection, one more characteristic of expertise. And, not least, we see, through a student’s observations, how a term that we see as a single concept functions more largely, as a meta- concept, and we see as well how hard it can be to remix prior knowledge, especially when that prior knowledge is nearly deterministic in its application and impact.6

CRITICAL INCIDENTS: MOTIVATING NEW CONCEPTIONS AND PRACTICES OF COMPOSING Often students, both in first-year composition and in other writing situations, encounter a version of what’s called, in fields ranging from air traffic control and surgery to teaching, a “critical incident”: a situation where efforts either do not succeed at all or succeed only minimally. What we have found is that writing students also encounter critical incidents, and some students can be willing or able to let go of prior knowledge as they re-think what they have learned, revise their model and/or conception of writing, and write anew. In other words, the set-backs motivated by critical incidents can provide the opportunity for conceptual breakthroughs, as we shall see in the case of Rick.

The surgeon Atul Gawande describes critical incidents as they occur in surgery and how they are later understood in his account of medical practice titled Complications. Surgical practice, like air traffic control, routinely and intentionally engages practitioners in a collective reviewing of what went wrong — in surgery, operations where the patient died or whose outcome was negative in other ways; in air traffic control, missteps large (e.g., a crash) and small (e.g., a near miss) — in the belief that such a review can reduce error and thus enhance practice. Accordingly, hospital-based surgeons meet weekly for the Morbidity and Mortality Conference, the M&M for short, its purpose both to reduce the incidence of mistakes and to make knowledge. As Gawande explains,

There is one place, however, where doctors can talk candidly about their mistakes, if not with the patients, then at least with one another. It is called the Morbidity and Mortality Conference — or, more simply, M & M — and it takes place, usually once a week, at nearly every academic hospital in the country…. Surgeons, in particular, take the M & M seriously. Here they can gather behind closed doors to review the mistakes, untoward events, and deaths that occurred on their watch, determine responsibility, and figure out what to do differently next time. (57–58)

The protocol for the M&M never varies. The physician in charge speaks for the entire team, even if she or he wasn’t present at the event under inquiry. In other words, a resident might have handled the case, but the person responsible — called, often ironically, the attending physician — speaks. First presented is information about the case: age of patient, reason for surgery, progress of surgery. Next the surgeon outlines what happened, focusing on







the error in question; that there was an error is not in question, so the point is to see if that error might have been discerned more readily and thus to have produced a positive outcome. The surgeon provides an analysis and responds to questions, continuing to act as a spokesperson for the entire medical team. The doctor members of the team, regardless of rank, are all included but do not speak; the other members of the medical team, including nurses and technicians, are excluded, as are patients. The presentation concludes with a directive about how such prototypic cases should be handled in the future, and it’s worth noting that, collectively, the results of the M&Ms have reduced error.

Several assumptions undergird this community of practice, in particular assumptions at odds with those of compositionists. We long ago gave up a focus on error, for example, in favor of the construction of a social text. Likewise, we might find it surprising that the M&M is so focused on what went wrong when just as much might be learned by what went right, especially in spite of the odds, for instance, on the young child with a heart defect who surprises by making it through surgery. Still, the practice of review in light of a critical incident suggests that even experts can revise their models when prompted to do so.

This is exactly what happened to Rick, a first-year student with an affection for all things scientific, who experienced a misfit between his prior knowledge and new writing tasks as he entered English 1102. Rick identified as a novice writer in this class, in part because he was not invested in writing apart from its role in science. A physics and astrophysics major, he was already working on a faculty research project in the physics laboratory and was planning a research career in his major area. He professed:

I am a physics major so I really like writing about things I think people should know about that is going on in the world of science. Sometimes it’s a challenge to get my ideas across to somebody that is not a science or math type, but I enjoy teaching people about physics and the world around them.

Rick credited multiple previous experiences for his understanding of writing, including his other high school and college courses; in addition, he mentioned watching YouTube videos of famous physicists lecturing and reading Einstein’s work. He also believed that reading scientific materials had contributed to his success in writing scientific texts: “I think I write well in my science lab reports because I have read so many lectures and reports that I can just kind of copy their style into my writing.”7

Rick’s combination of prior knowledge and motivation, however, didn’t prove sufficient when he began the research project in English 1102. He chose a topic with which he was not only familiar but also passionate, quantum mechanics, his aim to communicate the ways in which quantum mechanics benefits society. He therefore approached the research as an opportunity to share what he knew with others, rather than as inquiry into a topic and discovery of what might be significant. He also had difficulty making the information clear in his essay, which he understood as a rhetorical task: “The biggest challenge was making sure the language and content was easy enough for someone who is not a physics major to understand. It took a long time to explain it in simple terms, and I didn’t want to talk down to the audience.” In this context, Rick understood the challenge of expressing the significance of his findings to his audience, which he determined was fellow college students. But the draft he shared with his peers was confusing to them, not because of the language or information, as Rick had anticipated, but instead because of uncertainty about key points of the essay and about what they as readers were being asked to do with this information.

As a self-identified novice, however, Rick reported that this experience taught him a







valuable lesson about audience. “I tried to make it simple so … my classmates would understand it, but that just ended up messing up my paper, focusing more on the topic than on the research, which is what mattered. I explained too much instead of making it matter to them.” Still, when the projects were returned, he admitted his surprise at the evaluation of the essay but was not willing to entertain the idea that his bias or insider knowledge about quantum mechanics had prevented his inquiry-based research:

After everyone got their papers back, I noticed that our grades were based more on following the traditional conventions of a research paper, and I didn’t follow those as well as I could have. I don’t really see the importance of following specific genre conventions perfectly.

In the next semester, however, these issues of genre and audience came together in a critical incident for Rick as he wrote his first lab report for chemistry. Ironically, Rick was particularly excited about this writing because, unlike the writing he had composed in English 1102, this was science writing: a lab report. But as it turned out, it was a lab report with a twist: the instructor specified that the report have a conclusion to it that would link it to “everyday life”:

We had to explain something interesting about the lab and how that relates to everyday life. I would say it is almost identical to the normal introduction one would write for a paper, trying to grab the reader’s attention, while at the same time exploring what you will be talking about.

Aware of genre conventions and yet in spite of these directions for modification, Rick wrote a standard lab report. In fact, in his highlighting of the data, he made it more lab-report- like rather than less: “I tried to have my lab report stick out from the others with better explanations of the data and the experiment.” The chemistry instructor noticed, and not favorably: Rick’s score was low, and he was more than disappointed. Eager to write science, he got a lower grade than he did on his work in English 1102, and it wasn’t because he didn’t know the content; it was because he hadn’t followed directions for writing.

This episode constituted a critical incident for Rick. Dismayed, he went to talk to the teacher about the score; she explained that he indeed needed to write the lab report not as the genre might strictly require, but as she had adapted it. Chastened, he did so in all the next assigned lab reports, and to good effect: “My lab reports were getting all the available points and they were solid too, very concise and factual but the conclusions used a lot of good reflection in them to show that the experiments have implications on our lives.” The ability to adapt to teacher directions in order to get a higher grade, as is common for savvy students, doesn’t in and of itself constitute a critical incident; what makes it so here is Rick’s response and the re-seeing that Rick engages in afterwards. Put differently, he begins to see writing as synthetic and genres as flexible, and in the process, he begins to develop a more capacious conception of writing, based in part on his tracing similarities and differences across his own writing tasks past and present.

This re-seeing operates at several units of analysis. On the first level, Rick articulates a new appreciation for the value of the assignment, especially the new conclusion, and the ways he is able to theorize it: “I did better on the conclusions when I started to think about the discourse community and what is expected in it. I remembered that from English 1102, that discourse community dictates how you write, so I thought about it.” On another level, while







Rick maintains that the genres were different in the lab courses than in 1102, as in fact they are, he is able to map similarities across them:

One similarity would be after reading an article in 1102 and writing a critique where we had to think about the article and what it meant. This is very similar to what we do in science: we read data and then try to explain what it means and how it came about. This seems to be fundamental to the understanding of anything really, and is done in almost every class.

This theorizing, of course, came after the fact of the critical incident, and one might make the argument that such theorizing is just a way of coming to terms with meeting the teacher’s directions. But as the term progressed, Rick was able to use his new understanding of writing — located in discourse communities and genres and keyed to reading data and explaining them — as a way to frame one of his new assignments, a poster assignment. His analysis of how to approach it involved his taking the terms from English 1102 and using them to frame the new task:

I have this poster I had to create for my chemistry class, which tells me what genre I have to use, and so I know how to write it, because a poster should be organized a certain way and look a certain way and it is written to a specific audience in a scientific way. I wouldn’t write it the same way I would write a research essay – I’m presenting the key points about this chemistry project, not writing a lot of paragraphs that include what other people say about it or whatever. The poster is just the highlights with illustrations, but it is right for its audience. It wasn’t until I was making the poster that I realized I was thinking about the context I would present it in, which is like rhetorical situation, and that it was a genre. So I thought about those things and I think it helped. My poster was awesome.

Here we see Rick’s thinking across tasks, genres, and discourse communities as he maps both similarities and differences across them. Moreover, as he creates the chemistry poster, he draws on new prior knowledge, that prior knowledge he developed in his English 1102 class, this a rhetorical knowledge keyed to three features of rhetorical situations generally: (1) an understanding of the genre in which he was composing and presenting, (2) the audience to whom he was presenting, and (3) the context in which they would receive his work. Despite the fact that this chemistry poster assignment was the first time he had composed in this genre, he was successful at creating it, at least in part because he drew on his prior knowledge in a useful way, one that allowed him to see where similarities provided a bridge and differences a point of articulation.8

All this, of course, is not to say that Rick is an expert, but as many scholars in composition, including Sommers and Saltz, and Beaufort, as well as psychologists like Marcia Baxter-Magolda argue, students need the opportunity to be novices in order to develop toward expertise. This is exactly what works for Rick when the challenges in college writing, in both English 1102 and more particularly in chemistry, encourage him to think of himself as a novice and to take up new concepts of writing and new practices. Moreover, the critical incident prompts Rick to develop a more capacious understanding of writing, one in which genre is flexible and the making of knowledge includes application. Likewise, this new understanding of writing provides him with a framework that he can use as he navigates new contexts and writing tasks, as he does with the chemistry poster.

If indeed some college students are, at least at the beginning of their postsecondary career,






boundary guarders, and others boundary crossers, and if we want to continue using metaphors of travel to describe the experience of college writers, then we might say that Rick has moved beyond boundary crossing: as a college writer, he has taken up residence.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS Our purpose in this article is both to elaborate more fully students’ uses of prior knowledge and to document how such uses can detract from or contribute to efficacy in student writing. As important, this analysis puts a face on what transfer in composition as “an active, dynamic process” looks like: it shows students working with such prior knowledge in order to respond to new situations and to create their own new models of writing. As documented here, both in the research literature and in the students’ own words, students are likely to begin college with absent prior knowledge, particularly in terms of conceptions of writing and models of non- fiction texts. Once in college, students tap their prior knowledge in one of three ways. In cases like Eugene’s, students work within an assemblage model, grafting pieces of new information — often key terms or process strategies — onto prior understandings of writing that serve as a foundation to which they frequently return. Other students, like Alice, work within a remix model, blending elements of both prior knowledge and new knowledge with personal values into a revised model of writing. And still other students, like Rick, use a writing setback, what we call a critical incident, as a prompt to re-theorize writing and to practice composing in new ways.

The prototype presented here is a basic outline that we hope to continue developing; we also think it will be helpful for both teaching and research. Teachers, for example, may want to ask students about their absent prior knowledge and invite them to participate in creating a knowledge filling that absence. Put differently, if students understand that there is an absence of knowledge that they will need — a perception which many of them don’t seem to share — they may be more motivated to take up a challenge that heretofore they have not understood. Likewise, explaining remix as a way of integrating old and new, personal and academic knowledge and experience into a revised conception and practice of composing for college may provide a mechanism to help students understand how writing development, from novice to expertise, works and, again, how they participate in such development. Last but not least, students might be alerted to writing situations that qualify as critical incidents; working with experiences like Rick’s, they may begin to understand their own setbacks as opportunities. Indeed, we think that collecting experiences like Rick’s (of course, with student permissions) to share and consider with students may be the most helpful exercise of all.

There is more research on student uptake of prior knowledge to conduct as well, as a quick review of Rick’s experience suggests. The critical incident motivates Rick to re-think writing, as we saw, but it’s also so that Rick is a science major and, as he told us, science not only thrives on error, but also progresses on the basis of error. Given his intellectual interests, Rick was especially receptive to a setback, especially — and it’s worth noting this — when it occurred in his preferred field, science. For one thing, Rick identifies as a scientist, so he is motivated to do well. For another and more generally, failure in the context of science is critical to success. Without such a context, or even an understanding of the context as astute as Rick’s, other students may look upon such a setback as a personal failure (and understandably so), which view can prompt not a re-thinking, but rather resistance. In other words, we need to explore what difference a student’s major, and the intellectual tradition it represents, makes in a student’s use of prior knowledge. Likewise, we need to explore other instantiations of the



assemblage model of prior knowledge uptake as well as differentiations in the remix model. And we need to explore the relationship between these differentiations and efficacy: surely some are more efficacious than others. And, not least, we need to explore further what happens to those students, like Rick, who through critical incidents begin to take up residence as college composers.

Notes 1. In this article, we draw on two studies of transfer, both connected to a Teaching for Transfer

composition curriculum for first-year students: Liane Robertson’s “The Significance of Course Content in the Transfer of Writing Knowledge from First-Year Composition to other Academic Writing Contexts” and Kara Taczak’s “Connecting the Dots: Does Reflection Foster Transfer?”

2. A more robust picture includes an additional dimension of prior knowledge: what we call a point of departure. We theorize that students make progress, or not, in part relative to their past performances as writers — as represented in external benchmarks like grades and test scores. See Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Cultures of Writing.

3. The travel metaphor in composition has been variously used and critiqued: for the former, see Gregory Clark; for the latter, see Nedra Reynolds. Regarding the use of such a metaphor in the transfer literature in college composition, it seems first to have been used by McCarthy in her reference to students in strange lands. Based on this usage and on our own studies, we theorize that what students bring with them to college, by way of prior knowledge, is a passport that functions as something of a guide. As important, when students use the guide to reflect back rather than to cast forward, it tends to replicate the past rather than to guide for the future, and in that sense, Reynolds’s observations about many students replicating the old in the new are astute. See our Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Cultures of Writing, forthcoming.

4. According to How People Learn, prior knowledge can function in three ways, as we have seen. But when the prior knowledge is a misfit, it may be because the “correct” prior knowledge, or knowledge that is more related, isn’t available, which leads us to conceptualize absent prior knowledge. For a similar argument in a very different context, materials science, see Krause et al.

5. Alice’s interest in “being direct,” of course, may be a more specific description of her voice, whose value she emphasized upon entering English 1102.

6. Ironically, the function of such tests, according to testing advocates, is to help writers develop; here the FCAT seems to have mis-shaped rather than to have helped, as Alice laments.

7. Rick’s sense of the influence of his reading on his conception of text, of course, is the point made above about students’ reading practices.

8. This ability to read across patterns, discerning similarities and differences, that we see Rick engaging in, is a signature practice defining expertise, according to How People Learn.

Works Cited Applebee, Arthur, and Judith Langer. “What’s Happening in the Teaching of Writing?” English Journal

98.5 (2009): 18–28. Print. ——. “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools.” English Journal 100.6



(2011): 14–27. Print. Baxter-Magolda, Marcia B. Making Their Own Way: Narratives for Transforming Higher Education to

Promote Self-Development. Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2001. Print. Beaufort, Anne. College Writing and Beyond: A New Framework for University Writing Instruction.

Logan: Utah State UP, 2007. Print. Bergmann, Linda S., and Janet S. Zepernick. “Disciplinarity and Transference: Students’ Perceptions of

Learning to Write.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1/2 (2007): 124–49. Print. Beyer, Catharine Hoffman, Andrew T. Fisher, and Gerald M. Gillmore. Inside the Undergraduate

Experience, the University of Washington’s Study of Undergraduate Learning. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing, 2007. Print.

Bird, Barbara. “Writing about Writing as the Heart of a Writing Studies Approach to FYC: Response to Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle, ‘Teaching about Writing/Righting Misconceptions’ and to Libby Miles et al., ‘Thinking Vertically’.” College Composition and Communication 60.1 (2008): 165–71. Print.

Bransford, John D., James W. Pellegrino, and M. Suzanne Donovan, eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: National Academies P, 2000. Print.

Britton, James, et al. The Development of Writing Abilities (11–18), London: MacMillan Education, 1975. Print.

Carter, Michael. “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing.” College Composition and Communication 41.3 (1990): 265–86. Print.

Clark, Gregory. “Writing as Travel, or Rhetoric on the Road.” College Composition and Communication 49.1 (1998): 9–23. Print.

Detterman, Douglas K., and Robert J. Sternberg, eds. Transfer on Trial: Intelligence, Cognition, and Instruction. New Jersey: Ablex, 1993. Print.

Dew, Debra. “Language Matters: Rhetoric and Writing I as Content Course.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 26.3 (2003): 87–104. Print.

Downs, Douglas, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions: (Re)Envisioning ‘First-Year Composition’ as Introduction to Writing Studies.” College Composition and Communication 58.4 (2007): 552–84. Print.

Fulkerson, Richard. “Summary and Critique: Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.” College Composition and Communication 56.4 (2005): 654–87. Print.

Gawande, Atul. Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. New York: Holt/Picador, 2002. Print.

Jarratt, Susan, et al. “Pedagogical Memory and the Transferability of Writing Knowledge: an Interview- Based Study of Juniors and Seniors at a Research University.” Writing Research Across Borders Conference. University of California Santa Barbara. 22 Feb 2008. Presentation.

Krause, Steve, et al. “The Role of Prior Knowledge on the Origin and Repair of Misconceptions in an Introductory Class on Materials Science and Engineering Materials Science.” Proceedings of the Research in Engineering Education Symposium 2009, Palm Cove, QLD. Web.

Langer, Judith A., and Arthur N. Applebee. How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning. Urbana, IL: NCTE P, 1987. Print.

Lenhart, Amanda, et al. Writing, Technology, and Teens. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet and American Life Project, April 2008. Web. 12 Jan 2012.

McCarthy, Lucille. “A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing across the Curriculum.” Research in the Teaching of English 21.3 (1987): 233–65. Print.

Perkins, David N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of



Education. 2nd ed. Oxford: Pergamon P, 1992. 2–13. Print. Prather, Dirk C. “Trial and Error versus Errorless Learning: Training, Transfer, and Stress.” The

American Journal of Psychology 84.3 (1971): 377–86. Print. Reiff, Mary Jo, and Anis Bawarshi. “Tracing Discursive Resources: How Students Use Prior Genre

Knowledge to Negotiate New Writing Contexts in First-Year Composition.” Written Communication 28.3 (2011): 312–37. Print.

Reynolds, Nedra. Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

Robertson, Liane. “The Significance of Course Content in the Transfer of Writing Knowledge from First-Year Composition to other Academic Writing Contexts.” Diss. Florida State University, 2011. Print.

Robinson, Tracy Ann, and Vicki Tolar Burton. “The Writer’s Personal Profile: Student Self Assessment and Goal Setting at Start of Term.” Across the Disciplines 6 (Dec 2009). Web. 12 Jan 2012.

Russell, David R. “Rethinking Genre and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis.” Written Communication 14.4 (1997): 504–54. Print.

Russell, David R., and Arturo Yañez. “‘Big Picture People Rarely Become Historians’: Genre Systems and the Contradictions of General Education.” Writing Selves/Writing Societies: Research From Activity Perspectives. Ed. Charles Bazerman and David R. Russell. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse and Mind, Culture and Activity, 2002. Web. 12 Jan 2012.

Scherff, Lisa, and Carolyn Piazza. “The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same: A Survey of High School Students’ Writing Experiences.” Research in the Teaching of English 39.3 (2005): 271–304. Print.

Slomp, David H., and M. Elizabeth Sargent. “Responses to Responses: Douglas Downs and Elizabeth Wardle’s ‘Teaching about Writing, Righting Misconceptions.’ ” College Composition and Communication 60.3 (2009): 595–96. Print.

Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication 56.1 (2004): 124–49. Print.

Taczak, Kara. “Connecting the Dots: Does Reflection Foster Transfer?” Diss. Florida State University, 2011. Print.

Thorndike, E. L., and R. S. Woodworth. “The Influence of Improvement in One Mental Function upon the Efficiency of Other Functions.” Psychological Review 8 (1901): 247–61. Print.

Vander Lei, Elizabeth, and Bonnie Lenore Kyburz, eds. Negotiating Religious Faith in the Composition Classroom. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2005. Print.

Wardle, Elizabeth. “Understanding ‘Transfer’ from FYC: Preliminary Results of a Longitudinal Study.” WPA: Writing Program Administration 31.1–2 (2007), 65–85. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “William Shakespeare.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 4 Jan. 2012. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Ed. Delivering College Composition: The Fifth Canon. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2006. Print.

——. “Re-designing Graduate Education in Composition and Rhetoric: The Use of Remix as Concept, Material, and Method.” Computers and Composition 26.1 (2009): 4–12. Print.

——, Laine Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Cultures of Writing. Utah State UP, 2014.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling



1. Drawing on what you learned in this article, write a definition of transfer. 2. What are the three subsets of transfer that Perkins and Salomon offered? Can you

think of an example for each of these kinds of transfer in your own experience? For example, can you think of a time when you mindfully drew on prior knowledge to complete a new task?

3. The authors here draw on research to suggest that most entering college students lack knowledge about key writing concepts and how to write nonfiction texts for anything other than taking tests. Think back on your high school writing experience. Do you share this lack of prior knowledge? If not, where did you learn these things? Do you feel there is prior knowledge about writing that you find yourself lacking in college? How can you go about gaining that absent knowledge?

4. Try to explain in your own words what you think Reiff and Bawarshi mean by boundary crossers and boundary guarders. Which do you think you are? Draw on some examples to support your claim about yourself.

5. Explain the three ways (assemblage, remix, critical incident) that students use prior knowledge, according to Robertson et al. You can draw on examples from the three students they describe: Eugene, Alice, and Rick. Which student — and which approach to using prior knowledge about writing — do you think best describes your approach to writing in college so far?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Robertson et al. emphasize the importance of conceptions of writing, which we also have emphasized heavily in this book, especially in Chapter 1. Try to write 2–3 paragraphs in which you explain what you think writing is. If you completed the major writing assignment at the end of Chapter 1, compare what you wrote here with what you wrote there, and see if your ideas have changed.

2. With your classmates, divide up into groups of three. Bring with you a text that you have written at any point in recent memory where something went wrong or did not succeed. As a group, conduct your own “M&M” or critical incident review. First, present information about the case — what you were writing, for whom, under what circumstances. Second, explain what happened, focusing specifically on what went wrong or what mistakes you made. Then, take questions from your two group members. Finally, as a group, consider what you might have done to see the problem or mistake sooner, and how you might have avoided it. Once all of you have completed your presentation and analysis, together write a 1–2 page group reflection on what you just did together. Was it helpful? Was it uncomfortable? Did you learn anything? How did it make you feel to focus on the negative? Is there anything from this critical incident review that you would like to do in the future? How can you see your apparent setbacks as opportunities?



META MOMENT Given what you’ve read here, explain how mindfulness can help students more usefully draw on their prior knowledge. How might the “meta moments” assigned in this book after each reading assist with mindfulness?



I Stand Here Writing NANCY SOMMERS

Framing the Reading

Nancy Sommers teaches and researches at Harvard University, where she has served a number of roles over nearly three decades, including directing Harvard’s Expository Writing Program and several other programs, and launching the Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing, which tracked four hundred students throughout their college experience in order to investigate what they were writing and how. Throughout her career, Sommers’s work has focused on the development of high school

and college students’ literacies and writing. She has been a significant advocate and practitioner of empirical research on writing: interviewing writers directly, getting them to write about writing, and studying what they say, and collecting (often at great expense) and reading the writing they actually produce. Her work has been of tremendous value to other writing researchers. In this piece, however, Sommers works more reflectively, examining her own practices as a reader, thinker, and writer in order to consider the role of reading and “sources” in invention — how writers come up with what to say in their writing.

INVENTION Invention comprises the processes, strategies, or techniques writers use to come up with what to say in their writing. While the term suggests the notion of “making things up,” a significant part of invention is not saying brand-new things but rather combing one’s memory and written resources for things that have already been said that will



work. Ancient rhetorical theorists such as Aristotle thought carefully about how stock arguments they called common topics could help a speaker — for instance, the idea “that which has happened frequently before is likely to happen again,” which could be recalled through invention and included in many pieces of writing.

As you’ve already read in this chapter, our prior experiences, sense of self, literacy sponsors, language practices, and much more all impact who we are as writers. Here Sommers directly looks at how prior experience comes to bear on how we come up with things to write. If you hadn’t already stopped to think about it, this question about where our words come from seems to be an important one for writers — so important (and complicated) that many researchers can study that question from many angles for many years without fully answering it. The topic of how we write, and where our ideas come from, is taken up again in Chapter 5.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Consider where your ideas come from when you write.

Consider whether as you write you are aware of how who you are and what you’ve experienced impact what you are thinking about and doing?

As you read, consider the following questions:







Is Sommers discussing any familiar ideas? What ideas are new to you? Is she looking in a new or different way at some ideas you’ve thought about before?

I STAND IN MY KITCHEN, wiping the cardamom, coriander, and cayenne off my fingers. My head is abuzz with words, with bits and pieces of conversation. I hear a phrase I have read recently, something about “a radical loss of certainty.” But, I wonder, how did the sentence begin? I search the air for the rest of the sentence, can’t find it, shake some more cardamom, and a bit of coriander. Then, by some play of mind, I am back home again in Indiana with my family, sitting around the kitchen table. Two people are talking, and there are three opinions; three people are talking, and there are six opinions. Opinions grow exponentially. I fight my way back to that sentence. Writing, that’s how it begins: “Writing is a radical loss of certainty.” (Or is it uncertainty?) It isn’t so great for the chicken when all these voices start showing up, with all these sentences hanging in mid-air, but the voices keep me company. I am a writer, not a cook, and the truth is I don’t care much about the chicken. Stories beget stories. Writing emerges from writing.

The truth. Has truth anything to do with the facts? All I know is that no matter how many facts I might clutter my life with, I am as bound to the primordial drama of my family as the earth is to the sun. This year my father, the son of a severe Prussian matriarch, watched me indulge my daughters, and announced to me that he wished I had been his mother. This year, my thirty-ninth, my last year to be thirty-something, my mother — who has a touch of magic, who can walk into the middle of a field of millions of clovers and find the one with four leaves — has begun to think I need help. She sends me cards monthly with four-leaf clovers taped inside. Two words neatly printed in capital letters — GOOD LUCK!! I look at these clovers and hear Reynolds Price’s words: “Nobody under forty can believe how nearly everything’s inherited.” I wonder what my mother knows, what she is trying to tell me about the facts of my life.

When I was in high school studying French, laboring to conjugate verbs, the numerous four-leaf clovers my mother had carefully pressed inside her French dictionary made me imagine her in a field of clovers lyrically conjugating verbs of love. This is the only romantic image I have of my mother, a shy and conservative woman whose own mother died when she was five, whose grandparents were killed by the Nazis, who fled Germany at age thirteen with her father and sister. Despite the sheer facts of her life, despite the accumulation of grim knowable data, the truth is my mother is an optimistic person. She has the curious capacity always to be looking for luck, putting her faith in four-leaf clovers, ladybugs, pennies, and other amulets of fortune. She has a vision different from mine, one the facts alone can’t explain. I, her daughter, was left, for a long time, seeing only the ironies; they were my defense against the facts of my life.

In this world of my inheritance in which daughters can become their fathers’ mothers and mothers know their daughters are entering into a world where only sheer good luck will guide them, I hear from my own daughters that I am not in tune with their worlds, that I am just like a 50s mom, that they are 90s children, and I should stop acting so primitive. My children laugh uproariously at my autograph book, a 1959 artifact they unearthed in the basement of my parents’ home. “Never kiss by the garden gate. Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t,” wrote one friend. And my best friend, who introduced herself to me on the first day of first grade, looking me straight in the eye — and whispering through her crooked little teeth “the Jews killed Jesus” — wrote in this autograph book: “Mary had a little lamb. Her father shot it









dead. Now she carries it to school between two slices of bread.” My ten-year-old daughter, Rachel, writes notes to me in hieroglyphics and tapes signs on

the refrigerator in Urdu. “Salaam Namma Man Rachaal Ast” reads one sign. Simply translated it means “Hello, my name is Rachel.” Alex, my seven-year-old daughter, writes me lists, new lists each month, visibly reminding me of the many things I need to buy or do for her. This month’s list includes a little refrigerator filled with Coke and candy; ears pierced; a new toilet; neon nail polish and real adult make-up.

How do I look at these facts? How do I embrace these experiences, these texts of my life, and translate them into ideas? How do I make sense of them and the conversations they engender in my head? I look at Alex’s list and wonder what kind of feminist daughter I am raising whose deepest desires include neon nail polish and real adult make-up. Looking at her lists a different way, I wonder if this second child of mine is asking me for something larger, something more permanent and real than adult make-up. Maybe I got that sentence wrong. Maybe it is that “Love (as well as writing) involves a radical loss of certainty.”

Love is blind, but the neighbors ain’t. Mary’s father shot her little lamb dead, and now she carries it to school between two slices of bread. I hear these rhymes today, and they don’t say to me what they say to my daughters. They don’t seem so innocent. I hear them and think about the ways in which my neighbors in Indiana could only see my family as Jews from Germany, exotic strangers who ate tongue, outsiders who didn’t celebrate Christmas. I wonder if my daughter Rachel needs to tell me her name in Urdu because she thinks we don’t share a common language. These sources change meaning when I ask the questions in a different way. They introduce new ironies, new questions.

I want to understand these living, breathing, primary sources all around me. I want to be, in Henry James’s words, “a person upon whom nothing is lost.” These sources speak to me of love and loss, of memory and desire, of the ways in which we come to understand something through difference and opposition. Two years ago I learned the word segue from one of my students. At first the word seemed peculiar. Segue sounded like something you did only on the Los Angeles freeway. Now I hear that word everywhere, and I have begun using it. I want to know how to segue from one idea to the next, from one thought to the fragment lying beside it. But the connections don’t always come with four-leaf clovers and the words GOOD LUCK neatly printed beside them.

My academic need to find connections sends me to the library. There are eleven million books in my University’s libraries. Certainly these sanctioned voices, these authorities, these published sources can help me find the connections. Someone, probably some three thousand someones, has studied what it is like to be the child of survivors. Someone has written a manual on how the granddaughter of a severe Prussian matriarch and the daughter of a collector of amulets ought to raise feminist daughters. I want to walk into the fields of writing, into those eleven million books, and find the one book that will explain it all. But I’ve learned to expect less from such sources. They seldom have the answers. And the answers they do have reveal themselves to me at the most unexpected times. I have been led astray more than once while searching books for the truth.

I want to walk into the fields of writing, into those eleven million books, and find the one book that will explain it all. But I’ve learned to expect less from such sources. They seldom have the answers.

Once I learned a lesson about borrowing someone else’s words and losing my own.











I was fourteen, light years away from thirty-something. High school debate teams across the nation were arguing the pros and cons of the United States Military Aid Policy. It all came back to me as I listened to the news of the Persian Gulf War, as I listened to Stormin’ Norman giving his morning briefings, an eerie resonance, all our arguments, the millions of combative words — sorties — fired back and forth. In my first practice debate, not having had enough time to assemble my own sources, I borrowed quote cards from my teammates. I attempted to bolster my position that the U.S. should limit its military aid by reading a quote in my best debate style: “W. W. Rostow says: ‘We should not give military aid to India because it will exacerbate endemic rivalries.’”

Under cross-examination, my nemesis, Bobby Rosenfeld, the neighbor kid, who always knew the right answers, began firing a series of questions at me without stopping to let me answer:

“Nancy, can you tell me who W. W. Rostow is? And can you tell me why he might say this? Nancy, can you tell me what ‘exacerbate’ means? Can you tell me what ‘endemic rivalries’ are? And exactly what does it mean to ‘exacerbate endemic rivalries’?”

I didn’t know. I simply did not know who W. W. Rostow was, why he might have said that, what “exacerbate” meant, or what an “endemic rivalry” was. Millions of four-leaf clovers couldn’t have helped me. I might as well have been speaking Urdu. I didn’t know who my source was, the context of the source, nor the literal meaning of the words I had read. Borrowing words from authorities had left me without any words of my own.

Borrowing words from authorities had left me without words of my own.

My debate partner and I went on that year to win the Indiana state championship and to place third in the nationals. Bobby Rosenfeld never cross-examined me again, but for twenty years he has appeared in my dreams. I am not certain why I would dream so frequently about this scrawny kid whom I despised. I think, though, that he became for me what the Sea Dyak tribe of Borneo calls a ngarong, a dream guide, someone guiding me to understanding. In this case, Bobby guided me to understand the endemic rivalries within myself. The last time Bobby appeared in a dream he had become a woman.

I learned a more valuable lesson about sources as a college senior. I was the kind of student who loved words, words out of context, words that swirled around inside my mouth, words like exacerbate, undulating, lugubrious, and zeugma. “She stained her honour or her new brocade,” wrote Alexander Pope. I would try to write zeugmas whenever I could, exacerbating my already lugubrious prose. Within the English department, I was known more for my long hair, untamed and untranslatable, and for my long distance bicycle rides than for my scholarship.

For my senior thesis, I picked Emerson’s essay “Eloquence.” Harrison Hayford, my advisor, suggested that I might just get off my bicycle, get lost in the library, and read all of Emerson’s essays, journals, letters. I had picked one of Emerson’s least distinguished essays, an essay that the critics mentioned only in passing, and if I were not entirely on my own, I had at least carved out new territory for myself.

I spent weeks in the library reading Emerson’s journals, reading newspaper accounts from Rockford and Peoria, Illinois, where he had first delivered “Eloquence” as a speech. Emerson stood at the podium, the wind blowing his papers hither and yon, calmly picking them up, and proceeding to read page 8 followed by page 3, followed by page 6, followed by








page 2. No one seemed to know the difference. Emerson’s Midwestern audience was overwhelmed by this strange man from Concord, Massachusetts, this eloquent stranger whose unit of expression was the sentence.

As I sat in the library, wearing my QUESTION AUTHORITY T-shirt, I could admire this man who delivered his Divinity School Address in 1838, speaking words so repugnant to the genteel people of Cambridge that it was almost thirty years before Harvard felt safe having him around again. I could understand the Midwestern audience’s awe and adulation as they listened but didn’t quite comprehend Emerson’s stunning oratory. I had joined the debate team not to argue the U.S. Military Aid Policy, but to learn how to be an orator who could stun audiences, to learn a personal eloquence I could never learn at home. Perhaps only children of immigrant parents can understand the embarrassing moments of inarticulateness, the missed connections that come from learning to speak a language from parents who claim a different mother tongue.

As an undergraduate, I wanted to free myself from that mother tongue. Four-leaf clovers and amulets of oppression weighed heavy on my mind, and I could see no connection whatsoever between those facts of my life and the untranslatable side of myself that set me in opposition to authority. And then along came Emerson. Like his Midwest audience, I didn’t care about having him whole. I liked the promise and the rhapsodic freedom I found in his sentences, in his invitation to seize life as our dictionary, to believe that “Life was not something to be learned but to be lived.” I loved his insistence that “the one thing of value is the active soul.” I read that “Books are for the scholar’s idle time,” and I knew that he had given me permission to explore the world. Going into Emerson was like walking into a revelation; it was the first time I had gone into the texts not looking for a specific answer, and it was the first time the texts gave me the answers I needed. Never mind that I got only part of what Emerson was telling me. I got inspiration, I got insight, and I began to care deeply about my work.

Today I reread the man who set me off on a new road, and I find a different kind of wisdom. Today I reread “The American Scholar,” and I don’t underline the sentence “Books are for the scholar’s idle time.” I continue to the next paragraph, underlining the sentence “One must be an inventor to read well.” The second sentence doesn’t contradict the one I read twenty years ago, but it means more today. I bring more to it, and I know that I can walk into text after text, source after source, and they will give me insight, but not answers. I have learned too that my sources can surprise me. Like my mother, I find myself sometimes surrounded by a field of four-leaf clovers, there for the picking, waiting to see what I can make of them. But I must be an inventor if I am to read those sources well, if I am to imagine the connections.

As I stand in my kitchen, the voices that come to me come by way of a lifetime of reading, they come on the waves of life, and they seem to be helping me translate the untranslatable. They come, not at my bidding, but when I least expect them, when I am receptive enough to listen to their voices. They come when I am open.

If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to see themselves as Emerson’s transparent eyeball, all that they have read and experienced — the dictionaries of their lives — circulating through them. I want them to learn how sources thicken, complicate, enlarge writing, but I want them to know too how it is always the writer’s voice, vision, and argument that create the new source. I want my students to see that nothing reveals itself straight out, especially the sources all around them. But I know enough by now that this











Emersonian ideal can’t be passed on in one lesson or even a semester of lessons. Many of the students who come to my classes have been trained to collect facts; they act

as if their primary job is to accumulate enough authorities so that there is no doubt about the “truth” of their thesis. They most often disappear behind the weight and permanence of their borrowed words, moving their pens, mouthing the words of others, allowing sources to speak through them unquestioned, unexamined.

At the outset, many of my students think that personal writing is writing about the death of their grandmother. Academic writing is reporting what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross has written about death and dying. Being personal, I want to show my students, does not mean being autobiographical. Being academic does not mean being remote, distant, imponderable. Being personal means bringing their judgments and interpretation to bear on what they read and write, learning that they never leave themselves behind even when they write academic essays.

Last year, David Gray came into my essay class disappointed about everything. He didn’t like the time of the class, didn’t like the reading list, didn’t seem to like me. Nothing pleased him. “If this is a class on the essay,” he asked the first day, “why aren’t we reading real essayists like Addison, Steele, and Lamb?” On the second day, after being asked to read Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” David complained that a weasel wasn’t a fit subject for an essay. “Writers need big subjects. Look at Melville. He needed a whale for Moby-Dick. A weasel — that’s nothing but a rodent.” And so it continued for a few weeks.

I kept my equanimity in class, but at home I’d tell my family about this kid who kept testing me, seizing me like Dillard’s weasel, and not letting go. I secretly wanted him out of my class. But then again, I sensed in him a kindred spirit, someone else who needed to question authority.

I wanted my students to write exploratory essays about education, so I asked them to think of a time when they had learned something, and then a time when they had tried to learn something but couldn’t. I wanted them to see what ideas and connections they could find between these two very different experiences and the other essays they were reading for the class. I wanted the various sources to work as catalysts. I wanted my students to find a way to talk back to those other writers. The assigned texts were an odd assortment with few apparent connections. I hoped my students would find the common ground, but also the moments of tension, the contradictions, and the ambiguities in those sources.

David used the assigned texts as a catalyst for his thinking, but as was his way, he went beyond the texts I offered and chose his own. He begins his essay, “Dulcis Est Sapientia,” with an account of his high school Latin class, suggesting that he once knew declensions, that he had a knack for conjugations, but has forgotten them. He tells us that if his teacher were to appear suddenly today and demand the perfect subjunctive of venire, he would stutter hopelessly.

About that Latin class, David asks, “What is going on here? Did I once know Latin and forget it through disuse? Perhaps I never learned Latin at all. What I learned was a bunch of words which, with the aid of various ending sounds, indicated that Gaius was either a good man delivering messages to the lieutenant or a general who struck camp at the seventh hour. I may have known it once, but I never learned it.” The class never gave David the gift of language. There was something awry in the method.

What is learning? That’s what David explores in his essay as he moves from his Latin lesson to thinking about surrealist paintings, to thinking about barriers we create, to Plato, to an airplane ride in which he observed a mother teaching her child concepts of color and










number, all the time taking his readers along with him on his journey, questioning sources, reflecting, expanding, and enriching his growing sense that learning should stress ideas rather than merely accumulating facts and information.

David draws his essay to a close with an analysis of a joke: A man goes to a cocktail party and gets soused. He approaches his host and asks, “Pardon me, but do lemons whistle?”

The host looks at him oddly and answers, “No, lemons don’t whistle.” “Oh dear,” says the guest, “then I’m afraid I just squeezed your canary into my gin and

tonic.” David reflects about the significance of this joke: “One need not be an ornithologist to

get the joke, but one must know that canaries are yellow and that they whistle…. What constitutes the joke is a connection made between two things … which have absolutely nothing in common except for their yellowness. It would never occur to us to make a comparison between the two, let alone to confuse one with the other. But this is the value of the joke, to force into our consciousness the ideas which we held but never actively considered…. This knocking down of barriers between ideas is parallel to the process that occurs in all learning. The barriers that we set … suddenly crumble; the boundaries … are extended to include other modes of thought.” Learning, like joking, David argues, gives us pleasure by satisfying our innate capacity to recognize coherence, to discern patterns and connections.

David’s essay, like any essay, does not intend to offer the last word on its subject. The civilizing influence of an essay is that it keeps the conversation going, chronicling an intellectual journey, reflecting conversations with sources. I am confident that when David writes for his philosophy course he won’t tell a joke anywhere in his essay. But if the joke — if any of his sources — serves him as a catalyst for his thinking, if he makes connections among the sources that circulate within him, between Plato and surrealism, between Latin lessons and mother-child lessons — the dictionaries of his life — then he has learned something valuable about writing.

I say to myself that I don’t believe in luck. And yet. Not too long ago Rachel came home speaking with some anxiety about an achievement test that she had to take at school. Wanting to comfort her, I urged her to take my rabbit’s foot to school the next day. Always alert to life’s ironies, Rachel said, “Sure, Mom, a rabbit’s foot will really help me find the answers. And even if it did, how would I know the answer the next time when I didn’t have that furry little claw?” The next day, proud of her ease in taking the test, she remained perplexed by the one question that seized her and wouldn’t let go. She tried it on me: “Here’s the question,” she said. “Can you figure out which of these sentences cannot be true?”

(a) We warmed our hands by the fire. (b) The rain poured in and around the windows. (c) The wind beckoned us to open the door.

Only in the mind of someone who writes achievement tests, and wants to close the door on the imagination, could the one false sentence be “The wind beckoned us to open the door.” Probably to this kind of mind, Emerson’s sentence “Life is our dictionary” is also not a true sentence.

But life is our dictionary, and that’s how we know that the wind can beckon us to open the door. Like Emerson, we let the wind blow our pages hither and yon, forcing us to start in the middle, moving from page 8 to page 2, forward to page 7, moving back and forth in time,






losing our certainty. Like Emerson, I love basic units, the words themselves, words like cardamom,

coriander, words that play around in my head, swirl around in my mouth. The challenge, of course, is not to be a ventriloquist — not to be a mouther of words — but to be open to other voices, untranslatable as they might be. Being open to the unexpected, we can embrace complexities: canaries and lemons, amulets and autograph books, fathers who want their daughters to be their mothers, and daughters who write notes in Urdu — all those odd, unusual conjunctions can come together and speak through us.

The other day, I called my mother and told her about this essay, told her that I had been thinking about the gold bracelet she took with her as one of her few possessions from Germany — a thin gold chain with three amulets: a mushroom, a lady bug, and, of course, a four-leaf clover. Two other charms fell off years ago — she lost one, I the other. I used to worry over the missing links, thinking only of the loss, of what we could never retrieve. When I look at the bracelet now, I think about the Prussian matriarch, my grandmother, and my whole primordial family drama. I think too of Emerson and the pages that blew in the wind and the gaps that seemed not to matter. The bracelet is but one of many sources that intrigues me. Considering them in whatever order they appear, with whatever gaps, I want to see where they will lead me, what they tell me.

With writing and with teaching, as well as with love, we don’t know how the sentence will begin and, rarely ever, how it will end. Having the courage to live with uncertainty, ambiguity, even doubt, we can walk into all of those fields of writing, knowing that we will find volumes upon volumes bidding us enter. We need only be inventors, we need only give freely and abundantly to the texts, imagining even as we write that we too will be a source from which other readers can draw sustenance.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. How would you state the “problem” that this article addresses? In other words, why is Sommers writing it? What issue is she taking up here, and why?

2. When Sommers says that texts “will give me insight, but not answers” (para. 21), what distinction is she drawing between the two things? In your own experience, have you been encouraged to look at texts as sources of insight or sources of answers? Why do you think this is?

3. Consider Sommers’s distinctions among personal, academic, and autobiographical: “Being personal, I want to show my students, does not mean being autobiographical. Being academic does not mean being remote, distant, imponderable …” (para. 25). What’s your understanding of the distinctions she’s making between these terms? Do you feel like you know how to be “personally academic” or “academically personal” or how to be personal without being autobiographical? How academic does Sommers’s piece itself feel to you? Why?

4. In paragraph 23, Sommers starts a new section with the line, “If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to see themselves as Emerson’s transparent eyeball, all



that they have read and experienced — the dictionaries of their lives — circulating through them.” Do you see yourself like this, as a source of ideas with all that you “have read and experienced … circulating” through you? Have any other pieces in this chapter helped you see yourself like this? If you don’t see yourself like this, how do you see yourself?

5. Sommers describes reading a text by Emerson at two very different times in her life and finding different lines in the text to be meaningful to her at each time. How have you seen the passage of time affecting what you find most meaningful in the things you read?

6. Early in the essay, we get Sommers’s account of “a lesson about borrowing someone else’s words and losing my own” (para. 10). Has this ever happened to you? If you read Young’s piece in this chapter (p. 148), can you relate Sommers’s claim to his?

7. If you read Robertson et al.’s piece in this chapter (p. 184), what resonances did you encounter between their thinking about prior knowledge and Sommers’s account of her changing ideas as a writer?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Choose another reading you’ve encountered in this chapter that reminds you most of Sommers’s piece. What connections do you find between the pieces? Now get in a small group and see how other students answered this question and why. What connections are you all seeing across the readings in this chapter?

2. Where does your writing usually come from? In other words, how do you tend to come up with ideas? Look at the last two or three memorable writing projects you’ve done and write two to three pages explaining where your ideas come from. Then get into a small group with other students and compare your findings. What is similar across your various experiences, and what is different?

3. Sommers gives an example of how puzzled her daughter was about a question on a standardized achievement test, and argues that “only in the mind of someone who writes achievement tests, and wants to close the door on imagination, could the one false sentence be ‘The wind beckoned us to open the door’” (para. 37). How does this experience compare with your own experiences on standardized writing tests you took throughout school? In what ways did those tests encourage or discourage your imagination as a writer? Were there any ways in which those tests were helpful to your thinking and writing?

4. Review the pieces you’ve read so far in this chapter. How many of them seem to be making some use of “the personal,” as Sommers describes it? Write two to three pages in which you describe some of the pieces in this chapter that use “the personal” and try to identify patterns in when and why the authors use it.



META MOMENT What would change about your invention process for writing if you took Sommers’s argument seriously that writers should value their own experiential and reading knowledge by “mak[ing] connections among the sources that circulate within [us]” (para. 36)?



All Writing Is Autobiography DONALD M. MURRAY

Framing the Reading

By the time you’ve gotten to college, it’s very likely that at least one teacher has told you not to use “I” in your school papers. Push the question, and you might be told that academic writing (especially if it uses research) isn’t supposed to be “personal” — rather, you should strive to be as objective as possible. The paper, after all, isn’t about you — so you shouldn’t be in it. But after reading the other pieces in this chapter — about how personal experience and prior knowledge seeps into what we know, how we speak, what we invent to write about, and so on — you should be starting to question such teachers. Donald M. Murray probably had the same voices echoing in his head when he wrote this

article for the writing teachers who read College Composition and Communication — and he did not accept what they had to say. Having made his living as a writer (including winning a Pulitzer Prize as a newspaper columnist, writing textbooks, and publishing a range of poetry and fiction), Murray knew that prior personal experience should and must impact writing. Writing, he thought, is always personal, whatever else it is. So he sat down to catalog the various ways that writing of any sort includes the writer — the ways that, in a sense, all writing is autobiography. This article is one result of his thinking on this topic.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY Literally, autobiography is writing about one’s own life. (“Auto” = self, “bio” = life, and “graphy” = writing.) The genre of autobiography is a book-length text containing a retrospective account of the author’s life.



More broadly, autobiographical means simply about, or having to do with, one’s own life. Donald Murray and others contend that all writing is autobiographical — that is, that one’s writing always has some connection to one’s own life and that a writer can never completely remove all traces of her life from her writing.

Some readers object to Murray’s argument because they misunderstand his use of the term autobiography, assuming he’s referring to all writing as books in which people tell the stories of their lives. Murray makes it clear, though, that he’s not thinking that research papers and workplace memos are autobiographies. Rather, Murray is referring to the autobiographical nature of texts, all of which necessarily contain traces of their creators. If you understand autobiography in this sense, it will be easier to fairly weigh Murray’s arguments.

Murray’s arguments are explicitly about writing, but his broader focus is all literacy activities, as we’ve been discussing them in this chapter. He is really arguing for the threshold concept that all our past literacy experiences inform our present literacy experiences — how we write, what language we use, even (he suggests in the end) how we read. Traces of our literate pasts unavoidably emerge in our writing. As we discussed in Chapter 1, this book is also about how actual research about writing

challenges many of the commonsense “rules” or ideas or conceptions we’re taught about writing as young people. In this case, Murray is challenging the ideas that you can keep yourself out of your writing, and (as Sommers also argued in the previous essay [p. 212]) that research writing is purely factual and objective. Murray is sharing a more complicated conception about writing that does a better job explaining the actual writing we do and see around us.



Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, try the following activity:

Think back to what you’ve been taught about how “personal” your school or work writing (that is, not your diary, journal, poetry, songwriting, or other “expressive” writing) can be. What kinds of rules or guidance did you get? If you have friends or classmates around, compare notes with them.

As you read this article, consider the following questions:

What reasons does Murray give for his contention that all writing is autobiography?

What genres (kinds) of writing does Murray discuss? Why? Does he leave any out?

GENRE Genre comes from the French word for “kind” or “type” and is related to the Latin word genus, which you might remember from the scientific classification system for animals and plants. In the field of rhetoric, genres are broadly understood as categories of texts. For example, the poem, the short story, the novel, and the memoir are genres of literature; memos, proposals, reports, and executive summaries are genres of business writing; hiphop, bluegrass, trance, pop, new age, and electronica are genres of music; and the romantic comedy, drama, and documentary are genres of film. Genres are types of texts that are recognizable to readers and writers and that

meet the needs of the rhetorical situations in which they function. So, for example, we recognize wedding invitations and understand them to be different from horoscopes. We know that when we are asked to write a paper for school, our teacher probably does not want us to turn in a poem instead. Genres develop over time in response to recurring rhetorical needs. We have

wedding invitations because people keep getting married, and we need an efficient way to let people know and to ask them to attend. Rather than making up a new rhetorical solution every time the same situation occurs, we generally turn to the genre that has developed — in this case, the genre of the wedding invitation. Genre theorists have suggested that the concept of genre actually goes well

beyond texts; accordingly, some theorists use genre to describe a typified but dynamic social interaction that a group of people use to conduct a given activity. (Typified means it follows a pattern, and dynamic means that people can change the pattern to fit their circumstances as long as it still helps them do the activity.) In “Rethinking Genre,” for example, David Russell says that genres are actually “shared expectations among some group(s) of people” (513). For more on genre and genre theory, see Chapter 1.

Why did Murray choose to write as he did (for example, by using poetry), where he did (in the scholarly journal College Composition and Communication), and for whom he did? (You may need to do some research to answer this question.) What did he hope to









I PUBLISH IN MANY FORMS — poetry, fiction, academic article, essay, newspaper column, newsletter, textbook, juvenile nonfiction and I have even been a ghost writer for corporate and government leaders — yet when I am at my writing desk I am the same person. As I look back, I suspect that no matter how I tuned the lyre, I played the same tune. All my writing — and yours — is autobiographical.

To explore this possibility, I want to share a poem that appeared in the March 1990 issue of Poetry.


The present comes clear when rubbed with memory. I relive a childhood of texture; oatmeal, the afternoon rug, spears of lawn, winter finger tracing frost on window glass, August nose squenched against window screen. My history of smell: bicycle oil, leather catcher’s mitt, the sweet sickening perfume of soldiers long dead, ink fresh on the first edition. Now I am most alone with others, companioned by silence and the long road at my back, mirrored by daughters. I mount the evening stairs with mother’s heavy, wearied step, sigh my father’s long complaint. My beard grows to the sepia photograph of a grandfather I never knew. I forget if I turned at the bridge, but arrive where I intended. My wife and I talk without the bother of words. We know Lee is 32 today. She did not stay twenty but stands at each room’s doorway. I place my hand on the telephone. It rings.

What is autobiographical in this poem? I was 64 when I wrote it. The childhood memories were real once I remembered them by writing. I realized I was mirrored by daughters when the line arrived on the page. My other daughter would have been 32 on the day the poem was written. Haven’t you all had the experience of reaching for the phone and hearing it ring?

There may even be the question of autobiographical language. We talk about our own language, allowing our students their own language. In going over this draft my spellcheck hiccupped at “squenched” and “companioned.” As an academic I gulped; as a writer I said, “Well they are now.”

Then Brock Dethier, one of the most perceptive of the test readers with whom I share drafts, pointed out the obvious — where all the most significant information is often hidden.











He answered my question, “What is autobiographical in this poem?” by saying, “Your thinking style, your voice.” Of course.

We are autobiographical in the way we write; my autobiography exists in the examples of writing I use in this piece and in the text I weave around them. I have my own peculiar way of looking at the world and my own way of using language to communicate what I see. My voice is the product of Scottish genes and a Yankee environment, of Baptist sermons and the newspaper city room, of all the language I have heard and spoken.

We are autobiographical in the way we write; my autobiography exists in the examples of writing I use in this piece and in the text I weave around them.

In writing this paper I have begun to understand, better than I ever have before, that all writing, in many different ways, is autobiographical, and that our autobiography grows from a few deep taproots that are set down into our past in childhood.

Willa Cather declared, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Graham Greene gave the writer five more years, no more: “For writers it is always said that the first 20 years of life contain the whole of experience — the rest is observation.”

Those of us who write have only a few topics. My poems, the novel I’m writing, and some of my newspaper columns keep returning to my family and my childhood, where I seek understanding and hope for a compassion that has not yet arrived. John Hawkes has said, “Fiction is an act of revenge.” I hope not, but I can not yet deny the importance of that element in my writing. Revenge against family, revenge against the Army and war, revenge against school.

Another topic I return to is death and illness, religion and war, a great tangle of themes. During my childhood I began the day by going to see if my grandmother had made it through the night; I ended my day with, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

I learned to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers Marching as to War,” and still remember my first dead German soldier and my shock as I read that his belt buckle proclaimed God was on his side. My pages reveal my obsession with war, with the death of our daughter, with that territory I explored in the hours between the bypass operation that did not work and the one that did.

Recently, Boynton/Cook/Heinemann published Shoptalk, a book I began in Junior High School that documents my almost lifelong fascination with how writing is made. I assume that many people in this audience are aware of my obsession with writing and my concern with teaching that began with my early discomfort in school that led to my dropping out and flunking out. My academic writing is clearly autobiographical.

Let’s look now at a Freshman English sort of personal essay, what I like to call a reflective narrative. I consider such pieces of writing essays, but I suppose others think of them in a less inflated way as newspaper columns. I write a column, Over Sixty, for the Boston Globe, and the following one was published October 10th of 1989. It was based on an experience I had the previous August.

Over sixty brings new freedoms, a deeper appreciation of life and the time to celebrate it, but it also brings, with increasing frequency, such terrible responsibilities as sitting with the dying.

Recently it was my turn to sit with my brother-in-law as he slowly left us, the victim of a consuming cancer.




When I was a little boy, I wanted — hungered — to be a grown-up. Well, now I am a grown- up. And when someone had to sit with the dying on a recent Saturday, I could not look over my shoulder. I was the one. My oldest daughter will take her turn. She is a grown-up as well, but those of us over sixty have our quota of grown-upness increase. Time and again we have to confront crisis: accident, sickness, death. There is no one else to turn to. It is our lonely duty.

Obligation has tested and tempered us. No one always measures up all the time. We each do what we can do, what we must do. We learn not to judge if we are wise, for our judgments boomerang. They return. At top speed and on target.

Most of us, sadly and necessarily, have learned to pace ourselves. We have seen friends and relatives destroyed by obligation, who have lost themselves in serving others. There is no end to duty for those who accept it.

And we have seen others who diminish by shirking responsibility. When we call them for help the door is shut. We hear silence.

We grow through the responsible acceptance of duty, obligation balanced by self-protection. We teeter along a high wire trying to avoid guilt or sancrimoniousness as we choose between duty and avoidance.

And so my mind wanders as Harry sleeps, blessedly without pain for the moment, moving steadily toward a destination he seems no longer to fear.

He would understand that as we mourn for him, we mourn for ourselves. Of course. We are learning from his dying how to live. We inevitably think of what he did that we can emulate and what we should try to avoid.

And we learn, from his courage and his example, not to fear death. I remember how horrified I was years ago when a mother of a friend of mine, in her late eighties, feeling poorly in the middle of the night, would get up, change into her best nightgown, the one saved for dying, and go back to sleep.

Now I understand. During my last heart attack I had a volcanic desire to live but no fear of dying. It was not at all like my earlier trips to the edge.

Harry continues my education. He did not want trouble while he lived and now he is dying the same way, causing no trouble, trying to smile when he wakes, trying to entertain me.

He needs the comfort of sleep and I leave the room, turning outside his door to see how quickly his eyes close. He wants nothing from us now. Not food, not drink, not, we think, much companionship. He accepts that his road is lonely and he does not even show much impatience at its length.

It is not a happy time, alone in the house with a dying man, but it is not a dreadful time either. I pat the cat who roams the house but will not go to the room where Harry lies; I read, write in my daybook, watch Harry, and take time to celebrate my living.

This house, strange to me, in an unfamiliar city, is filled with silence. No music, no TV, just the quiet in which I can hear his call. But he does not call. I cannot hear his light breathing. Every few minutes I go to the door to see if the covers still rise and fall.

He would understand as I turn from him to watch the tree branch brush the roof of the house next door, as I spend long moments appreciating the dance of shadows from the leaves on the roof, then the patterns of sunlight reflected up on the ceiling of the room where I sit, as I celebrate my remaining life.

Again I stand at the edge of the door watching, waiting, and take instruction from his dying. We should live the hours we have in our own way, appreciating their passing. And we should each die in our own way. I will remember his way, his acceptance, his not giving trouble, his lonely, quiet passing.

This is simple narrative with the facts all true, but it is really not that simple; few things are in writing or in life. The details are selective. A great deal of family history is left out. A great many details about the day, the illness, where it was taking place and why were left out. In fact, I wrote it in part for therapy, and it began as a note to myself several weeks after the







experience to help me cut through a jungle of thoughts and emotions, to try to recover for myself what was happening that day. Later I saw that it might speak to others, give comfort or form to their own autobiographies. I did not write the whole truth of that day, although the facts in the piece are accurate; I wrote a limited truth seeking a limited understanding, what Robert Frost called “a momentary stay of confusion.”

Yes, I confess it, I wrote, and write, for therapy. Writing autobiography is my way of making meaning of the life I have led and am leading and may lead.

Let’s look at another autobiographical poem, one of my favorites, which, I suppose, means that it was one I especially needed to write for no autobiographical reason I can identify. It has not yet been published, although a great many of the best poetry editors in the country have failed in their obligation to Western culture by rejecting it.


On the first Saturday of winter, the boy skated alone on Sailor’s Home Pond, circling from white ice to black, further each time he rode the thin ice, rising, dipping, bending the skin of the water until the crack raced from shore to trick him but he heard, bent his weight to the turn, made it back in time.

That winter he saw the fish frozen in ice, its great unblinking eye examining him each time he circled by. He dreamt that eye all summer, wondered if Alex had seen the fish eye before he rode the black ice, did not hear the crack sneak out from shore, imagined he learned to skate on water.

At night, after loving you, I fall back to see that fish eye staring down, watch Alex in shoe skates and knickers from below as he skates overhead, circling faster, faster, scissor legs carrying him from white ice to black. His skates sing their cutting song, etching larger, larger circles in my icy sky.

It is true that the boy, myself, skated on thin ice and that he skated at Sailor’s Home Pond in Quincy, Massachusetts, although the thin ice may not have been on that pond. He did not, however, see a fish in the ice until he wrote the poem, although he was obsessed with the eyes of the fish, haddock and cod, that followed him when he went to Titus’s fish store in Wollaston. Readers believe that Alex is my brother, although I was an only child. There was no Alex; no one I knew had drowned by falling through the ice until I received the poem; I did not, after loving, stare up to see him skating above me until after I wrote the poem. I do now. The poem that was for a few seconds imaginary has become autobiographical by being written.

Ledo Ivo, the Latin American writer, said, “I increasingly feel that my writing creates




me. I am the invention of my own words” (Lives on the Line, Ed. Doris Meyer, U of California P, 1988). Don DeLillo explains, “Working at sentences and rhythms is probably the most satisfying thing I do as a writer. I think after a while a writer can begin to know himself through his language. He sees someone or something reflected back at him from these constructions. Over the years it’s possible for a writer to shape himself as a human being through the language he uses. I think written language, fiction, goes that deep. He not only sees himself but begins to make himself or remake himself” (Anything Can Happen, Ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery, U of Illinois P, 1988).

We become what we write. That is one of the great magics of writing. I am best known as a nonfiction writer, but I write fiction and poetry to free myself of small truths in the hope of achieving large ones. Here are the first pages from a novel I am writing.

Notebook in his lap, pen uncapped, Ian Fraser sat in the dark green Adirondack chair studying the New Hampshire scene that had so often comforted him as he put in his last years in his Washington office. The green meadow sloping unevenly over granite ledge to the lake and the point of land with its sentinel pine that marked the edge of his possession, and across the lake the hills rising into mountains touched with the reds, oranges, yellows that would flame into autumn this week or next. He was settled in at last and ready to begin the book he had so long delayed, but he could not write until he scanned this quiet scene with his infantryman’s eyes for it still was, as were all his landscapes, a field of fire.

He had to know where to dig in, where the enemy would attack, what was at his back. He supposed it was what had attracted him to this old farmhouse, he could hold this position, he had a good field of fire. First he scanned the lake. Left to right, far edge to near, not one boat or canoe, nothing breaking the surface, no wind trail or wake. Now right to left to see what might be missed. Nothing.

The point of land, his furthest outpost. Scraggly pines, hulking ledge, ideal cover. He studied it close up, knew the pattern of shadows, where the ledge caught the light, where crevice was always dark. This is ridiculous, he thought, an old man whose wars are all over, but he could not stop the search for the enemies that had been there at the edge of other fields so long ago, so recent in memory.

The woods left, on the other side from sentinel point. Sweep his eyes at the woods a half a field away, open ground any enemy would have to cross. He made himself still; anyone watching would not know his eyes were on patrol. He could have hidden a platoon in these woods, tree and bush, ledge and rock wall, but there was no shadow that moved, no unexpected sound, no leaves that danced without wind.

And yet, Ian felt a presence as if he, the watcher, were being watched. He scanned the woods on the left again, moving from lake edge up. Nothing.

Now the woods on the right, he had cut back from the house when he bought it, saying he needed sun for vegetables. He needed open field. More hardwoods here, more openness, the road unseen beyond. It was where someone would come in. His flood lights targeted these woods, but it was not night. He examined these familiar woods, suddenly looking high in the old oak where a pileated woodpecker started his machine gun attack. Ian studied squirrel and crow, the pattern of light and dark, followed the trail of the quiet lake breeze that rose through the woods and was gone.

Now the field of fire itself, where a civilian would think no-one could hide. He smiled at the memory of a young paratrooper, himself, home on leave, telling Claire, who would become his first wife, to stand at the top of the field and spot him if she could as he crept up the slope, taking cover where there seemed no cover. She was patient with his soldiering — then. She knew her quarry and did not laugh as this lean young man crawled up the slope moving quickly from ledge to slight hollow to the cover of low bush blueberries that July in 1943.

He never knew if she saw him or not.









Do I have a green lawn that reaches down to a New Hampshire lake? No. Do I still see when I visit a new place, forty-six years after I have been in combat, a good field of fire? Yes. Did I have another wife than Minnie Mae? Yes. Was her name Claire? No. Did I play that silly game in the field when I was home on leave? Yes. Is the setting real? Let Herman Melville answer, “It is not down on any map: true places never are.”

What is true, what is documentally autobiographical, in the novel will not be clear to me when I finish the last draft. I confess that at my age I am not sure about the source of most of my autobiography. I have written poems that describe what happened when I left the operating table, looked back and decided to return. My war stories are constructed of what I experienced, what I heard later, what the history books say, what I needed to believe to survive and recover — two radically different processes.

I dream every night and remember my dreams. Waking is often a release from a greater reality. I read and wear the lives of the characters I inhabit. I do not know where what I know comes from. Was it dreamt, read, overheard, imagined, experienced in life or at the writing desk? I have spun a web more coherent than experience.

But of course I’ve been talking about fiction, a liar’s profession, so let us turn to the realistic world of nonfiction. That novel from which I have quoted is being written, more days than not, by a technique I call layering that I describe in the third edition of Write to Learn:

One technique, I’ve been using, especially in writing the novel, is to layer my writing. Once I did quite a bit of oil painting and my pictures were built up, layer after layer of paint until the scene was revealed to me and a viewer. I’ve been writing each chapter of the novel the same way, starting each day at the beginning of the chapter, reading and writing until the timer bings and my daily stint is finished. Each day I lay down a new layer of text and when I read it the next day, the new layer reveals more possibility.

There is no one way the chapters develop. Each makes its own demands, struggles towards birth in its own way. Sometimes it starts with a sketch, other times the first writing feels complete [next day’s reading usually shows it is not]; sometimes I race ahead through the chapter, other times each paragraph is honed before I go on to the next one. I try to allow the text to tell me what it needs.

I start reading and when I see — or, more likely, hear — something that needs doing, I do it. One day I’ll read through all the written text and move it forward from the last day’s writing; another time I’ll find myself working on dialogue; the next day I may begin to construct a new scene [the basic element of fiction]; one time I’ll stumble into a new discovery, later have to set it up or weave references to it through the text; I may build up background description, develop the conflict, make the reader see a character more clearly; I may present more documentation, evidence, or exposition, or hide it in a character’s dialogue or action.

Well, that is academic writing, writing to instruct, textbook writing. It is clearly nonfiction, and to me it is clearly autobiography. And so, I might add, is the research and scholarship that instructs our profession. We make up our own history, our own legends, our own knowledge by writing our autobiography.

This has enormous implications for our students, or should have. In Notebooks of the Mind (U of New Mexico P, 1985), a seminal book for our discipline, Vera John-Steiner documents the importance of obsession. “Creativity requires a continuity of concern, an intense awareness of one’s active inner life combined with sensitivity to the external world.” Again and again she documents the importance of allowing and even cultivating the obsessive interest of a student in a limited area of study. I read that as the importance of encouraging and supporting the exploration of the autobiographical themes of individual







students — and the importance of allowing ourselves to explore the questions that itch our lives.

I do not think we should move away from personal or reflective narrative in composition courses, but closer to it; I do not think we should limit reflective narrative to a single genre; I do not think we should make sure our students write on many different subjects, but that they write and rewrite in pursuit of those few subjects which obsess them.

But then, of course, I am writing autobiographically, telling other people to do what is important to me.

And so all I can do is just rest my case on my own personal experience. I want to read my most recent poem in which the facts are all true. I had not seen as clearly before I wrote the poem the pattern of those facts, the way I — and a generation of children in the United States and Germany and Britain and Japan and China and Spain and France and Italy and Russia and so many other countries — was prepared for war. This piece of writing is factually true but watch out as you hear it. Writing is subversive and something dangerous may happen as you hear my autobiography.

A woman hearing this poem may write, in her mind, a poem of how she was made into a docile helpmate by a society that had its own goals for her. A black may write another autobiography as mine is heard but translated by personal history. A person who has been mistreated in childhood, a person who is a Jew, a person whose courage was tested at the urging of jeering peers on a railroad bridge in Missouri, will all hear other poems, write other poems in their mind as they hear mine.


December and we comb our hair wet, pocket our stocking caps and run, uniformed in ice helmets,

to read frost etched windows: castle, moat, battlements, knight, lady, dragon, feel our sword

plunge in. At recess we fence with icicles, hide coal in snow balls, lie freezing

inside snow fort, make ice balls to arc against the enemy; Hitler. I lived in a town of Jews,

relatives hidden in silences, letters returned, doors shut, curtains drawn. Our soldier

lessons were not in books taught by old women. In East Boston, city of Mussolinis, we dance

combat, attack and retreat, sneak,




hide, escape, the companionship of blood. No school, and side

staggered by icy wind we run to the sea wall, wait for the giant seventh wave

to draw back, curl mittens round iron railing, brace rubber boots, watch

the entire Atlantic rise until there is no sky. Keep mittens tight round iron rail,

prepare for the return of ocean, that slow, even sucking back, the next rising wave.

I suspect that when you read my poem, you wrote your own autobiography. That is the terrible, wonderful power of reading: the texts we create in our own minds while we read — or just after we read — become part of the life we believe we lived. Another thesis: all reading is autobiographical.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. Remember that one of the goals of this book is to help you consider threshold concepts about writing that help you rethink how writing actually works. Pick one of the threshold concepts that Murray addresses and write a paragraph that explains your evolving ideas about it.

2. Murray argues that “all writing, in many different ways, is autobiographical, and that our autobiography grows from a few deep taproots that are set down into our past childhood” (para. 7). He lists a variety of ways that writing is autobiographical. What are they?

3. Other writers in this chapter have been making similar arguments to Murray’s, that writing “grows from a few deep taproots” set in our past (para. 7). What are some ways that others in this chapter have suggested that our writing and language use are influenced by our past?

4. Murray writes, “ … at my age I am not sure about the source of most of my autobiography” (para. 21). But we suspect this is true for most writers, at any age. Before reading the pieces in this chapter, had you thought about the experiences that had shaped you as a writer? Now that you have done so, do you understand your writing, language use, and writing processes any differently than before? Why or why



not? 5. Murray’s article was published in a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal, yet it does not

share the typical features of that genre. Murray’s writing is more informal, more “literary,” and easier to read in some ways. Make a list of the ways that Murray’s article is different from the other scholarly articles in this chapter. Then consider some reasons why Murray would have wanted to break out of the usual “rules” for writing in the scholarly article genre.

6. If you’ve answered question 5, you have already considered the ways in which this piece is unusual for a scholarly article. Now consider the opposite question: Make a list of the features that mark Murray’s article as belonging to the genre of “scholarly article.”

7. Consider the implications of Murray’s arguments: If he’s right, how do his ideas change the way you think about writing? Would they encourage you to write any differently than you currently do?

8. Consider the last few texts that you have written, whether for school, work, or personal reasons. Consider the ways that these texts are — or are not — autobiography in the sense that Murray describes.

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. In question 5 above you listed some ways that Murray’s writing departs from typical “academic” writing. But other authors in this chapter have done the same. Make a list of what you expect academic writing to be and sound like. Then go back to some of the other pieces you’ve read in this chapter and list ways they conform to those expectations of academic writing, and the ways they differ from those expectations. Once you’ve made this list, write one to two pages arguing for or against this claim: All academic writing sounds the same and uses the same conventions.

2. Write a one- to two-page response to Murray that explains your reaction to his piece and gives reasons for your thinking. You could write your piece a number of different ways: as a letter to Murray, or to a friend; as an article in the same style as Murray’s; or as a review of the article (like a review of a new album or movie).

3. If you’ve heard before that writing — especially academic writing — should be impersonal and keep the writer out, Murray’s article might inspire you to argue against that point of view. Take one to two pages and freewrite comments you might make to a teacher or other authority figure who told you in the past to write “objectively” and keep yourself out of the text.

4. Near the end of this piece, Murray offers a second thesis, that all reading is autobiographical as well. In order to test this claim, talk with a classmate about how they responded to another piece that you’ve read in this chapter so far (Malcolm X, Sandra Cisneros, and Vershawn Ashanti Young would be good choices). As they



share their reactions with you, ask them some probing questions, such as:

Why do you think you read it that way instead of this way? What experiences have you had in the past that helped you read this or made it harder for you to understand? When you struggled with a particular idea, can you point to a reason in your own experience that would explain why that was hard for you?

Once you’ve heard their responses, compare them with your own. Now write one to two pages explaining Murray’s claim that all reading is autobiography, and then arguing for or against that claim.

META MOMENT Name two or three ways that understanding Murray’s claims here can have a positive impact on you as a writer and/or on your attitude about writing.



“Don’t Panic: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to My Literacy” LUCAS PASQUALIN

Framing the Reading

Lucas Pasqualin was a first-year student at the University of Central Florida when he wrote this piece. As you will learn in his narrative, he was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and moved to South Florida when he was young. The literacy struggles associated with that move form the backbone of his piece. His story illustrates quite a few of the ideas covered in this chapter related to languages spoken in different settings, to literacy sponsorship, to the power that teachers and schools have to label and limit students, and to the ways that students can take control of their own literacy experiences and identities when given the opportunity.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Google Douglas Adams’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you are not familiar with it, read a quick overview of it, as it provides the title for Pasqualin’s piece.

Google Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing.” It’s very short, so read it if you can find it, as Pasqualin finds himself relating to Alexie.

Google Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, if you are not familiar with it.

Take a quick peek at Tony Mirabelli in the next chapter (p. 298) in order to get a sense of his argument about multiliteracies, which Pasqualin references.




MULTILITERACIES Multiliteracies is a term that reflects the recent, broader understanding of literacy as consisting of more than mastery of the “correct” use of alphabetic language. Multiliteracies include the ability to compose and interpret texts showing multimodality (including oral, written, and audio components, among other possibilities), as well as the ability to make meaning in various contexts. A group of scholars known as the New London Group is generally credited with coining the term multiliteracies.

As you read, consider the following questions:

Can you relate to Pasqualin’s story in any way?

Mark the text in places where Pasqualin references and uses other readings from this book.

WHITE BLEACHED WALLS — that was the first thing I saw as I stepped into my room. Walls scrubbed clean of Sharpied poems, lyrics, and quotes; walls which were completely void of my Crayola stick figures, Woodstock posters, maps, and pictures of completely everything and absolutely nothing. There were no more clothes on the floor, old locks hanging from my curtains, or messages scribbled here and there from all of the people who had passed through my room and my life. I wonder if Malcolm X ever meant his phrase “bleached history” to be taken literally (356)? Despite that all of this had been taking place, and even when I was forced to take down everything from my walls, or when the painters came in, or when I came home to find my bed had been taken, I still had not realized that room was no longer my room until I had to pack away the last of my belongings into boxes for storage. Out of the thousands of books I had read, the relatively small amount I could





keep was now packed into two neat rows, each stacked three boxes high. As I was packing I looked up above my door, where a sign used to read, “Don’t Panic.” I

thought — quite dramatically, if I might add — that a more fitting sign would probably have been, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” My door swung open and the smile quickly dropped from my lips as my mom entered the room in a hurry. “There is no way you are keeping another box of books,” she said. The words escaped from her lips with her breath as she dropped a box on the floor: “We do not have room for any more of your junk.” I had a decision to make. I could sit here and argue that my stuff was not junk, or I could stay quiet and live to fight another day. Silence prevailing, my mom arched her eyebrows in a way that said, “Get rid of it,” before she hurried back out.

I went over to the opened box she’d dropped off and took a look inside. She must have been dreaming. Did she really believe I could ever have gotten rid of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the entire Harry Potter series? How could I possibly give up my National Forensics League Rule Book, The Art of War, or any of the countless treasures I had hidden inside? She had to understand, it wasn’t possible. How is it that she could only see junk where I saw my entire life story?

LUCAS PASQUALIN AND THE SORCERER’S STONE By the time I was in the first grade, I was lugging around books that were almost too heavy for me to lift. Writer Sherman Alexie described my predicament exactly: “[I] read books at recess, then during lunch, and in the minutes left after I had finished my classroom assignments” (365). Out of all the hundreds of books I’ve read, I can say with confidence that I really wouldn’t be the same person I am today without J.K. Rowling.

By the time I was in the first grade, I was lugging around books that were almost too heavy for me to lift.

The story goes that, at a time when I was just developing my literacy, my sister began to read me a story. Definitely not just any bedtime story, the over three hundred-page Sorcerer’s Stone was teased and spoon-fed to me in bite-sized pieces. Poor Amanda. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered she was just trying to get me to fall asleep. She couldn’t have made a bigger mistake. When the time came that I finally couldn’t take the anticipation any longer, I decided to pick up the book myself and struggle my way through. I can remember reading that book until once again, just like Sherman Alexie, “I could barely keep my eyes open” (365).

Even though they might not have known it, Amanda and J.K. Rowling served as perfect examples of Deborah Brandt’s theory about literacy sponsors. While they gave me my initial hunger for reading, perhaps a more important sponsor would be the person who literally made it all possible — my mother. I arrived in the United States from Brazil not knowing a word of English, so as you can imagine I was quite surprised when I was placed in classrooms in the United States and expected to read. Granted, most students in those early years were just getting a grasp on language, but the expectations put on me at that time had implications that lasted well into my life. I don’t remember exactly what I did, but what I do remember is the general sense of being the “stupid kid.” I wasn’t expected to know how to read, so I just shuffled through the school system not really gaining any knowledge. I specifically remember times when the teachers would talk about me right in front of my face. Someone should have mentioned how close “idiot” is to “idiota.”






As tragic as that may sound, my story would completely change when I got home from school. When I was home, I was expected to be smart; I was expected not to complain, and most of all I was expected to be equal parts Abduch (my middle name as well as my mother’s family’s name) and Pasqualin, which to my family meant never giving up. I was on the verge of failing in school until my mother took time off her busy schedule to help me study. I remember she would set up these wild games involving crazy chases through the house just to match a picture to the correct spelling of a word. While I did not realize it at the time, these games and her attention are probably the reasons why I took to reading as quickly as I did. While my actual love affair with reading and writing did not start until much later, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love the looks on the faces of the other kids when they saw me reading books they couldn’t dream of understanding. But what spurred me on even more than that was ultimately the pride I could hear in my mother’s voice when she chided me about reading so much. Forever and always I will think of my mother as Professor McGonagall. My mother is tough as rocks, but also incredibly loving and caring. She is someone who will always be regarded as my strongest literacy sponsor, even if she did want me to throw away all my stuff.

THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY While I have said before it would be hard to single out a book as my favorite, Douglas Adam’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy definitely would not miss the mark by much. To understand just exactly what this book means to me you need some background knowledge of what I was going through at the time I picked it up. While there really is no short and sweet version — I was a melodramatic teenager — let’s just say I was in a position where I felt depressed and alone in a world that no longer made sense to me. My parents were on the verge of a divorce, my brother was on the edge of being deported, and our entire family was about to go bankrupt. And, just to top it all off, my best friend had moved to another country, and it seemed like all my other friends had deserted me right as I was coming of age.

I felt like the two old women in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sitting on a bench by the Pacific, one turns to the other and complains that she thought it would be bigger. I could relate in that I felt growing up was certainly not all that it had been built up to be. But, then again, I could relate anything in my life to that book. In fact my motto — the same motto written on the cover of any copy of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — is “Don’t Panic.” I learned from Douglas Adams that, while I didn’t understand why my brother continued to get into trouble, or why my parents didn’t want to be together anymore, or why it seemed I was left alone, it was all okay; things didn’t always need to make sense.

If J.K. Rowling gave me a hunger for reading, Adams is who made me respect literacy as a force to be reckoned with. After all, it took Malcolm X from behind bars and turned him into the leader of a movement. It took a poor Indian child from a reservation and turned him into Sherman Alexie — winner of the World Heavyweight Poetry Bout, writer of screenplays, and much more. And it turned out to also be the vehicle of my escape.

BUSBOY My family’s financial situation wasn’t really getting better over time, and my curiosity was growing almost as fast as my list of extracurricular activities, so by the time I graduated high school I was definitely well-versed in several different multiliteracies. Mirabelli would have a field day researching my experiences.

For example, the first job I held was busing tables, so I was totally astonished to read in







Mirabelli’s article, “Learning to Serve: The Language and Literacy of Food Service Workers,” that the National Skills Labor Board had labeled waiting tables as a “low skilled profession” (540). As young as I was at the time (around fifteen-years-old), there was still a host of definitions, protocols, and norms I had to learn. Just as Mirabelli described in his article, I experienced firsthand that answering a question most of the time did not only require knowledge of what words meant on the menu, but also of the specific process my restaurant used in making the food they served. Likewise, since a big portion of my job included getting drink orders, knowing the distinctions between wines and what they meant was essential to my job experience.

One thing Mirabelli did not mention was the role physical communication plays in the service industry. People do not like being pestered while they eat and they do not want to be watched, yet they want their own private appetites fulfilled without having to ask. As a busboy, I found it was important I not only understood technical knowledge about the food and wine, but it was just as important that I had a really keen eye and an acute understanding of body language. It takes practice to know the numerous signals people use to communicate they’re ready for their check, they are finished with their plates, or they would like to order dessert.

PET DETECTIVE Another way I became multiliterate was by working as a sales associate for Pet Supermarket. You’d be surprised just how much discourse goes on between sales associates and customers. Similar to food service, at Pet Supermarket there were also two parts to that literacy: first, the technical knowledge, and, second, the knowledge about the customers. Just in the fish department alone, for example, it was necessary to know words like pH, ammonia, nitrates, cichlids, and gobies. And while these words are more objective in their meaning, there is an entire process that goes into pinpointing your customers’ problems, and then actually convincing them you can fix them. Mirabelli wrote of a waiter who when questioned about the menu, “would make it sound so elaborate that they would just leave it up to [him] …” (546). While I was always trying to help my customers, the best strategy sometimes involved doing the same thing. Just as the waiter used his superiority in the restaurant literacy to control the flow of the conversation, I would use my pet store literacy to convince customers I knew what I was talking about.

While working as a busboy the most I would talk to someone was maybe a couple of minutes. However, a big sale at Pet Supermarket could literally go on and on for days. I knew it was pertinent in retail to know how to spot a customer who has needs you can fill, instead of one just looking for a petting zoo. And even then I would still have to discern how much they wanted to pay and what products they needed. If someone was very adamant about a pet, and, for example, referred to pets like children, then most likely that individual would end up wanting the security of having paid a higher price for pet products. I also learned how to tell if customers were ready to buy something just by the physical contact they had with the product.

THE DEBATE TEAM AND THE ART OF WAR Ah, debate. Like modern day linguistic gladiator fights. This is where literacies come to battle it out and, in some cases, even die. I joined the debate team really early in my high school career, and if I had not held a wide range of multiliteracies by then, I would have developed them at that time. Obviously, I needed very clear communication skills just to be able to compete. The ability to write ten minute speeches, or, for that matter, even four minute







speeches, is not something everyone possesses. But the intricacies, the “kill words,” the strategies that would upstage Sun Tzu — it is in those skills where the real literacy of debate lies. While there is no instruction manual on winning a debate, doing so requires a very clear understanding of what your judges want to hear, what your adversary is actually communicating (and not just what he wants to communicate), and much, much more.

“Always” (just to name one from the dozens) was a kill word. Since it’s not often something is “always” true, using that word by accident or on purpose usually meant that an adversary could “kill” you on that claim. But that’s just where it starts. Sometimes people would bait others with kill words just to pull attention from other weaker claims they were using. Or better yet, cite untrustworthy sources just so their opponents could waste the rest of the remaining time citing the dozens they had to back them up. Mirabelli speaks about the struggle for control in the interactions between waiter and customer. As can be seen, this struggle for control is manifested in the debate world in a much more tangible way. Hand signals, changes in pitch, even moments of silence are all used to gain control of the debate, just as a soccer player fights for control of a ball.

The best debaters were also literate in the signals someone made when they were bluffing on a claim, or better yet when they were about to break down. Losing your cool in a debate, screaming, or using language that was a little too passionate usually resulted in that person losing. One important strategy in any debate is spotting a weak point and then striking that weak point until your opponent is frantic, all the while making sure it still appears you are amicable to the judge. Being literate in this kind of knowledge actually prepared me for watching the presidential debates. I knew exactly what Biden was doing when he was laughing at Paul Ryan’s arguments. When Obama stayed quiet while Romney was arguing with him, I knew he was just baiting him to look foolish. On a much larger scale, the literacy of the private struggle for power in communication has also allowed me to spot those kinds of situations in my own life.

Now, whenever I write, there is always a little voice inside my head asking for evidence, checking for loopholes in my arguments, and really just being a general nuisance.

A lot of what I learned from debate has also gone into my writing. When I was writing claims for debate, I had to have all these strategic elements in mind. Not supporting any one claim was a failure of biblical proportions, a failure that would undoubtedly crucify me in front of the judges. It was that serious. Now, whenever I write, there is always a little voice inside my head asking for evidence, checking for loopholes in my arguments, and really just being a general nuisance.

DON’T PANIC Sitting alone in my room and looking through that box of books, it was crazy to think about just how much reading had positively impacted my life. I’m curious to know if other people have had the same kind of experiences as me. What kind of impact does not just reading but also developing many different kinds of multiliteracies actually have on people long-term? It would be interesting to study whether there is a correlation between developing various multiliteracies early in childhood and success later in life, just as I believe there has been in my life. Would my grades have been the same without all of my sponsors? Would I still have been accepted to UCF without the many literacies I have acquired? Would I still have been that same



21 kid, sitting in my room alone and scared as all hell of leaving home?

What life and literacy have shown me so far is that you can’t abandon hope. I’ve learned that the world can be a very confusing place, especially if you’re not versed in all of its literacies. I’ve also learned to keep that in mind, and when life throws me in a new direction, I try to embrace that. Life and literacy have taught me that when your walls are painted blank, you should let them represent a new page in your life. When it’s three a.m., and you’ve been stuck on the same sentence for the past three hours, and your paper is due in the morning, you can’t abandon hope. And when your adversaries drive you into a corner, when you feel like everyone around you is speaking a foreign language, when everything is going wrong, and especially when you’re going to a new place with sure to be alien literacies, I’ve learned the best thing you can do is to take it all in, remember to pick up your towel, and never, never ever forget that motto — don’t panic.

Works Cited Alexie, Sherman. “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” Wardle and Downs 362–65.

Print. Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” Wardle and Downs 332–50. Print. Mirabelli, Tony. “Learning to Serve: The Language and Literacy of Food Service Workers.” Wardle

and Downs 538–54. Print. Wardle, Elizabeth, and Doug Downs, eds. Writing about Writing: A College Reader. Boston:

Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print. X, Malcolm. “Learning to Read.” Wardle and Downs 354–60. Print.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. Pasqualin lists and describes a number of his formative literacy experiences and sponsors. Do the same for yourself.

2. Earlier, we asked you to mark places where Pasqualin references other readings in this book. Go back to your markings and consider how he used those sources. What did he do with them? Why did he use them? How do they help introduce his own ideas? Are there any places where Pasqualin’s use of other sources seems like a stretch to you?

3. Pasqualin covers a lot of ground here. However, there is much that he does not say. Are there aspects of his story you wish he had written more about? Why? How can you use this feeling as a reader in order to help you figure out when to say more as a writer?

4. Have you ever had a job that required using specialized language? If so, how did you learn the specialized literacies required there?

5. Pasqualin describes the varied strategies employed by successful debaters, and then he explains how that knowledge translated into an ability to better understand what is happening in presidential debates and to better use evidence when he writes. Can you think of a specialized literacy you have in one area that is useful elsewhere? If you



read Robertson et al. in this chapter (p. 184), draw on their ideas to help explain this use of prior knowledge in new settings.

6. Pasqualin ends by talking about the fear of going to a new place with “alien literacies” (para. 21). Can you think of a time when you encountered an alien literacy? What happened? Did you conquer it? Why or why not?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Take one of the literacy experiences or sponsors you listed for question 1 above and turn it into a short narrative, using Pasqualin’s story as a model.

2. In question 6 above, you considered a time when you encountered an alien literacy. Develop this experience and write about it in one to two pages.

3. Pasqualin begins with a descriptive narrative of himself sorting out his room, preparing to move. How effective was this narrative as a way of opening his piece? Write an alternate opening, and explain why you think it is more or less effective than Pasqualin’s.

META MOMENT How do your various language and literacy experiences impact what you are willing and able to do with writing? Is there anything you’d like to change about your writing? Why?



Revisualizing Composition Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students


Framing the Reading



Jeff Grabill is a professor and Bill Hart-Davidson is an associate professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. Stacey Pigg was a doctoral student at Michigan State when she coauthored this article, and she is currently an assistant professor of scientific and technical communication at North Carolina State University. Together with the other authors, they are part of a large team of researchers that make up the Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center, which Grabill and Hart-Davidson co-direct. This research center looks at a variety of questions about digital communication. It explores questions about what first-year college students are writing, what writing they most value, and what technologies are mediating their writing.

Grabill, Jeff, et al. “Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students.” WIDE Research Center, Michigan State University, 7 Sept. 2010,

So far, the readings in this chapter have suggested a variety of factors and experiences





that impact you as a literate person. This reading asks you to expand your thinking in that regard to imagine how technologies are also a part of your literate self and inform what Murray would imagine as your autobiography.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Make a quick list of the technologies that you think have had the most impact on your literacy “autobiography.”

Do a Google search for the Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center. What is this group? Who is involved? What do they study? If you can find this paper on their website, take a look at the studies they published before and after this one.

In Section 3, the authors explain that the type of college or university students attend is a good predictor of which genres students have written. You may not have thought very much before about the kind of college or university you are attending — at least not using the categories that the WIDE researchers assign: the Carnegie classification system (explained briefly in their “About This Study” section). Do a quick Google search to discover what the Carnegie classification system is, and then find out what Carnegie category your college or university falls under.

As you read, consider the following questions:

How do the findings of WIDE researchers compare with your own experiences?

Keep your school’s Carnegie classification in mind and see whether your experience seems to correlate with the type of school you attend, as the WIDE researchers suggest it will in sections 3.1 and 3.2.


This white paper reports initial findings from a Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center study entitled Revisualizing Composition: Mapping the Writing Lives of First-Year College Students. These initial findings are drawn from a survey of students enrolled in writing classes at a sample of US postsecondary institutions.

Writing practices and technologies have changed considerably over recent years. Given these changes, we know that contemporary college students are highly literate, but we lack clear and comprehensive portraits of how writing works in their lives. The primary aim of this study is to generate a large and uniform data set that leads to a better understanding of the writing behaviors of students across a variety of institutions and locations. Working from the assumption that students lead complex writing lives, this study is interested in a broad range of writing practices and values both for the classroom and beyond it, as well as the technologies, collaborators, spaces, and audiences they draw upon in writing. Initial findings





include the following:

SMS texts (i.e., texts using short message services on mobile devices), emails, and lecture notes are three of the most frequently written genres (or types) of writing

SMS texts and academic writing are the most frequently valued genres

Some electronic genres written frequently by participants, such as writing in social networking environments, are not valued highly

Students’ write for personal fulfillment nearly as often as for school assignments

Institution type is related in a meaningful way to the writing experiences of participants, particularly what they write and the technologies used

Digital writing platforms — cell phones, Facebook, email — are frequently associated with writing done most often

Students mostly write alone, and writing alone is valued over writing collaboratively

Working from the assumption that students lead complex writing lives, this study is interested in a broad range of writing practices and values both for the classroom and beyond it, as well as the technologies, collaborators, spaces, and audiences they draw upon in writing.

These findings, along with others reported in this white paper, shed light on the writing practices and values of contemporary college students. In particular, these findings point to the pervasiveness of writing in the lives of our participants and the importance of hand-held devices like mobile phones as a writing platform.

Our findings also raise a number of questions related to how students experience, use, and value new writing technologies and environments in the larger context of their writing lives. We hope the findings in this report raise questions for further research and scholarship.

ABOUT THE SURVEY This report is based on the findings of a survey (n = 1366) distributed to students enrolled in a first-year writing class during April-June of the Spring 2010 semester. Students at seven institutions completed the survey (Elon University [Elon, North Carolina]; Indiana University- Purdue University at Fort Wayne [Ft. Wayne, Indiana]; Lansing Community College [Lansing, Michigan]; Leeward Community College [Pearl City, Hawaii]; Michigan State University [East Lansing, Michigan]; the University of North Carolina at Pembroke [Pembroke, North Carolina]; the University of Texas at El Paso [El Paso, Texas]).

These institutions represent a range of institution types according to the Carnegie classification system, including Research University, very high activity, Michigan State University; Research University, high activity, the University of Texas at El Paso; Master’s Colleges and University, Medium, Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke; Master’s Colleges and Universities, Small, Private, Elon University; Associate’s Public Rural-serving, Large, Lansing Community College; and Associate’s Public 2-year Colleges under 4-year Universities, Leeward Community College. Of the 2110 students who began the survey, 1366 completed it, for a completion rate of 65% (see Methodology for more details).




The survey asked for demographic information and included a series of questions related to what participants write. Participants were first asked to identify types of writing that they do based on a list of 30 writing types. Then participants were asked to rank order the five types of writing that they do most often. Next they were asked to rank order the types of writing that they value the most. For each type of writing, participants were asked to detail why, where, with whom, for whom, and with what technologies they typically write. The meaning of “writing” in this survey included a wide range of practices, from lists to research papers to texting to multi-media compositions….


1.1: SMS Texts, Emails, and Lecture Notes Are Three of the Most Frequently Written Genres The genres — or types — of writing that participants report writing most frequent are SMS text messages, emails, and lecture notes. Texting and emailing were ranked highly by participants when asked to identify all of their writing practices and by participants when asked to rank their most frequent writing practices. This finding reinforces common perceptions that texting and email have become commonplace writing practices. This finding also highlights the importance of the phone as a platform for writing. However, in highlighting the importance of a practice like texting, this finding may challenge other common perceptions of what counts as “writing.”

When considering the simple ranking of writing practices, we find that 91% of participants selected texting from the thirty choices available of all writing that they have done, and 78% said that texting was one of the five kinds of writing they do most often. In fact, nearly half of all participants (46%) indicated that texting was the kind of writing that they performed more than any other. A greater percentage of participants overall (94%) selected email as a type of writing practice they had performed in the past, but fewer placed it within their top five types of writing done most often (57%), and less than ten percent selected it as the genre they write the most (9%).

A number of academic writing practices were highly ranked, which is not surprising given the participants and sampling approach. 78% of participants selected lecture notes as a type of writing they have done, while 93% and 82% chose research and academic papers respectively (meaning, in turn, that almost 7% and 20% respectively report having not written academic or research papers).

Beyond the Data:

Cell Phones: The New Pencil for Personal Life? Cell phones have become a prominent writing technology for students for self-sponsored writing. Students use phones most often for SMS texting, but they also use them for a range of other digital writing, including emails, status message updates, instant messaging, and comments on status messages or posts. Cell phones are also frequently used for lists, and even occasionally for academic genres including lecture notes, reading notes, research papers, academic papers, and outlines. We have had students report using their phones to compose academic essays.






We utilized a statistical weighting method for the ranked lists of most frequent and valued writing practices for our findings that accounted for the placement of a given writing practice somewhere in the top 5 listings for frequency and value. We believe that this method provides a stronger measure of both frequency and value. When considering the weighted ranking of writing practices, the top 10 most frequently written genres are as follows: 1. Texting

2. E-mail

3. Lecture notes

4. Academic papers

5. Research papers

6. Lists

7. Instant messaging

8. Comments on status messages or posts

9. Status message updates

10. Reading notes

We see in this list a range of traditional academic genres along with types of writing that we think of as “helpers” for larger tasks (e.g., notes). We see as well a number of genres that are a function of networked communication technologies. They have a clear place in the writing lives of these participants.

1.2: As Expected, Students Frequently Write Traditional School Genres Including Academic Papers and Research Papers The top five most often used types of writing include the academic and research paper, as well as more informal types of writing that often support the academic and research paper such as lecture and reading notes, lists, and even email and texting. Additional inquiry is needed to explore how, whether, and how often the more informal types of writing are used (or not) to support traditional school writing such as the academic and research paper.

1.3: Several Digital Genres Are Written by Almost All Participants, but Several Others Are Practiced by Less Than Half of Participants As described above, half of the ten genres that participants report writing most frequently are digital genres. Along with email and texting, which we detail above, instant messaging was practiced by 83% of participants, and status message updates (65%) and comments on status message updates (75%) were likewise prominent, indicating the importance of social media in the writing lives of these participants. However, other types of electronic communication were not as pervasive. Chat rooms had been utilized previously by just over half of all students. A total of 49% of participants reported writing for websites, and 39% of students reported writing for blogs.

1.4: Gender Is a Relevant Factor in What Students Write but in a Limited Number of Genres






For many types of writing, gender is not significantly related to frequency in our sample. For the fifteen genres where gender is significantly related to frequency, only three categories skewed male, and only one of these in a strong way: websites, with over half of males (53%) and less than half of females (45%) reporting writing this genre. The other, business writing, was reported by 25% of males and 20% of females. Female respondents were significantly more likely than males to use academic “helper” genres: outlines, reading notes, lecture notes, and lists.


2.1: SMS Texts and Academic Writing Are the Most Frequently Valued Genres Participants were asked to rank how they valued 30 genres of writing by selecting the five most valuable types of writing to them. When considering the simple ranking of writing practices, we find that students ranked the following five genres most frequently as one of their top five most valued: Texting (47%), Academic Paper (45%), Lecture Notes (43%), Email (43%), and Research Paper (41%).

The weighted scores for value results in the following list of most valued genres of writing: 1. Texting

2. Academic Paper

3. Lecture Notes

4. Research Paper

5. Email

6. Resume

7. List

8. Letter

9. Journal/Diary

10. Forms





Figure 1 Display of top five most valued genres based on un-weighted rankings.

School-sponsored genres are valued highly by survey participants: academic paper and research paper ranked second and fourth, respectively. Lecture notes ranked third. As Figure 1 indicates, 21% of participants ranked academic papers as their first or second most valued genre. 19% of students ranked research papers as their first or second most valued genre. Finally, for those who selected lecture notes, 19% of participants ranked lecture notes as their first or second most valued genre.

2.2: Some Less Frequently Written Genres Are Valued Highly by Student Writers Among the ten most valued genres, four genres are valued highly but written relatively infrequently. Resumes ranked 6th for value, but 20th for frequency. Journal/diary ranked 9th for value, but 12th for frequency. Letters ranked 8th for value, but 14th for frequency. Finally, poetry ranked 12th for value, but 15th for frequency.

2.3: Some Electronic Genres Written Frequently by Participants Are Not Valued Very Highly There are a number of electronic genres that rank higher among participants for use than for value. Notably, while texting ranked as most valued and most frequently used among all genres, participants do not value this form of writing at the same level that they practice it. As Figure 2 indicates, while 1049 participants (78%) selected texting as one of their top five most frequently used genres, only 641 participants (47%) ranked it in their top five most valued genres. Similarly, email was the second most frequently used genre (776 students, 57%), but it ranked 5th for value (586 students, 43%).





Figure 2 Top five most valued genres compared with their frequency numbers.

Several electronic genres which are used frequently did not rank in the top ten most valued. Comments on status messages or posts in social software environments were ranked 8th for frequency but ranked 21st for value. Instant messaging ranked 7th for frequency but 15th for value. Finally status message updates were ranked 9th for frequency, but 18th for value.


3.1: Institution Type Is a Meaningful Predictor of the Writing Experiences of Participants In our sample, institution was statistically significant in predicting what genres participants at different types of institutions had written. Participants who attended research universities were significantly more likely than participants from Master’s or Associates institutions to have engaged in play/screenwriting and website writing. Survey participants who attended associate- granting institutions were significantly more likely to have written cover letters. Participants who attend master’s-granting institutions were significantly more likely to have written many genres, including academic genres (academic papers, research papers, lab reports), helper academic genres (reading notes, outlines, lecture notes, peer responses), digital genres (texting, status message updates and responses, emails, instant messages), and more (poetry, journal, lists, letters, forms).

3.2: Use of Digital Genres Differed Across Institution Types




Figure 3 Percentage of students at each institution type reporting having written digital genres. Relationships shown are statistically significant.

Each institution type was significantly more likely to write a set of particular digital genres. Master’s University students were most likely to use email at least once, followed by Associate’s College students and then Research University students. More participants enrolled in Associate’s Colleges used chat rooms, but these participants were least likely to make status updates or comment on status updates. Participants enrolled in Master’s Universities were most likely to email, use instant messenger, write status message updates, comment on status messages, and to text. Participants enrolled in Research Universities were most likely to write for websites and least likely to use instant messenger. These findings suggest that we need further investigation into how students at different kinds of institutions incorporate digital genres into their writing lives.

Beyond the Data:

Facebook … meh Our results show that Facebook is used frequently among first-year college students, and they use it to write a broad range of genres. The reasons why students do not report valuing this writing as highly are unclear, but it likely means that when faced with a list of types of writing, they still attach a lot of value to traditional print forms such as research papers and academic writing vs. shorter, born-digital forms such as status messages and instant messages.

Most of the writing students report doing on Facebook is directly related to interpersonal messaging. Though many think of social networking platforms as places where people write indulgently about themselves, our survey shows participants who more often comment on the posts and status updates of others than post things to their own profile. They also use Facebook to send messages: texts, IM, and email. Participants also report using the platform for writing everything from lists to screenplays to poetry.


4.1: Participants Are Most Often Motivated by the Need to Complete







School Assignments Half (50%) of all frequently written and most valued genres were associated with writing for school, 97% of participants reported that one of their most valued or most often completed genres was done to fulfill a school assignment.

4.2: Participants Write for Personal Fulfillment Nearly as Often as for School Assignments Nearly half (44%) of all valued and frequently written genres were associated with personal fulfillment. 93% of participants said that one of their most valued or most often completed genres was done for personal fulfillment. This finding is especially interesting given the fact that participants were solicited through academic avenues (e.g., college email addresses, course websites) and sometimes took the survey in college classrooms, where we might expect them to focus on school-sponsored motivations for writing.

4.3: Participants Associate Their Writing with Entertainment, Civic Participation, and for Their Jobs Much Less Often Than for School or Personal Fulfillment After writing for school and personal fulfillment, writing for entertainment was the next most frequently identified motivation for the writing participants to do most often and value most highly. Almost a third (31%) of the most frequently written and most valued genres were associated with entertainment. Writing for civic participation (16%) and writing to fulfill the requirements of a job (12%) were associated much less frequently with participants’ writing. Notably, although writing for civic participation and for the job were related less frequently to most of the types of writing participants identified, over half of students associated these motivations with at least one of their most frequent or valued kinds of writing. 61% of participants reported writing for civic participation at least once among their most often written and valued genres, and 55% reported writing for the job at least once, suggesting that these motives are present in the lives of many participants, even if less pervasively.


5.1: Participants Who Associate Particular Technologies with at Least One of Their Most Frequently or Valued Genres Use That Technology Frequently

As Figure 4 shows, 90% of participants associate word processors with at least one of their most frequently or valued written genres. Word processing technologies are used most often to write academic or research papers, but they also are used often for outlines, lecture notes, and emails. Users also rate word processing technologies as the technology most often associated with their most valued writing (79%).







Word Processor 90% 91%

Notebook or Paper 89% 94%

Cell Phone 86% 98%

Pencil 80% 92%

Email 76% 90%

Facebook 67% 95%

Figure 4 Percentage of students who associated each technology at least once with the writing they do, and the percentage of students who associated each technology with a most often written genre.

5.2: Blogs, Twitter, and Wikis Are Not Used by Many Participants, but Among Those Participants Who Use These Technologies, They Are Used Frequently In contrast to how often they are associated with writing done most often, these technologies are only moderately or minimally associated with valued writing. This inverse relationship may reinforce the popular perception that a small percentage of people write the majority of blog, twitter, and wiki posts. This data also suggests that use of these technologies is not age specific or always connected to or influenced by writing in a school setting.


6.1: Participants Do Much of Their Most Common and Valued Writing Alone While participants write with friends or classmates, writing with these two groups is not valued nearly as much as writing alone.

Beyond the Data:

Students are often writing alone and for personal fulfillment motives. But what does this mean? Our findings suggest that students are doing a great deal of personal writing. They report writing alone and for personal fulfillment quite often. We hope that this finding helps us better understand the nature of personal writing for contemporary students. While they are often doing personal writing, we do not think that this writing is always private. For example, students are frequently writing alone when using cell phones, though they are frequently using them to connect to others through texting and social media platforms.






6.2: Only 245 Participants Report Collaborating with Writing Center Consultants for Their Most Valued or Frequently Written Genres (One of the Lowest Ranked Collaborators, Behind Only “Other”) When compared with all of the other types of collaborators, the fewest number of participants worked with writing center consultants while writing their most frequent and valued genres. Among those participants who report working with writing center consultants, they list it as their least used collaboration. Further, participants identified collaborating with writing center consultants as least valued (second only to “Other”).

Figure 5 Percentage of students who associated each technology at least once with the writing they do, and the percentage of students who associated each technology with a most often written genre.

6.3: Writing with Work Colleagues Is Reported Less Often and Not Highly Valued 38% of participants report collaborating with work colleagues to write at least one of their most frequent of valued genres. While 33% associate work colleagues with one of their most often written genres, only 12% of participants associate it with a most valued genre.


Sampling In this study, we constructed a purposive, stratified sample in an attempt to match the demographic profile of US college students (those enrolled in both four-year and two-year institutions in 2010). We identified institutions for recruitment that had enabled us to construct a reasonable sample of US institutions of higher education. With regard to data analysis, in order to arrive at the findings in this report, two similar tests were utilized. Fisher’s Exact Test was used to determine relationships between variables when possible (i.e., when results formed a 2 × 2 contingency table). Chi-square tests were used in all other situations. Results were considered significant at the .05 level.







Figure 6 Percentage of students who associate each collaborator with their most frequently written and valued genres.

Our sampling resulted in the following profile:

Age: The vast majority of participants (90%) were a “traditional” age for US institutions of higher education (18–23). Half of all participants were 19 years old, indicating that they had enrolled in college immediately after graduating from high school.

Institution: 58% of participants attended a research university, 20% of participants attend a master’s granting institution, and 11% of participants attend a Community college.

Race and ethnicity: 43% of our sample was non-white, with 5% Black, 28% Hispanic, 8% Asian, and 2% Native American.

Comparison to Race and Ethnicity Profiles of Students in Higher Education To further assess our sample, we compared the demographic data of those completing our survey with both the 1999–2000 and the 2003–2004 “National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education institutions” report issued by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The 2003–2004 version of the NCES report included a special focus on two-year institutions, and so in its 2004 report of demographic data the center breaks out community colleges and 4-year institutions. The figure below shows how our sample compares with the NCES numbers:

As Figure 7 shows, we likely oversampled Hispanic students and, to a lesser degree, Asian students. We undersampled African American students. That our sample includes a slightly higher percentage of non-white participants than the NCES demographic profile of college students reflects a concerted effort on our part to construct a diverse student profile. The participation of the University of Texas, El Paso and Leeward Community College, respectively, contributed in large measure to the numbers in all of the minority population categories above with the exception of African American students. For future surveys, we should focus more carefully on ways to sample African American students at a level consistent with their numbers in the overall demographic profile (12–15%).




Figure 7 Race and ethnicity breakdown for Revisualizing Composition and two National Centers for Education Statistics Studies.

Survey Distribution Distribution methods varied by institution based on local IRB recommendations. The survey was distributed via email to all students in first-year composition classes at Michigan State University, University of Texas, El Paso, and Leeward Community College. At Lansing Community College and the University of North Carolina, Pembroke, writing program faculty who teach first-year composition were contacted via email with the online survey link and distributed the survey link to students enrolled in their courses, some of which included first- year business and technical writing classes. At IPFW, the survey was distributed to all students enrolled in any writing course during the spring of 2010, including advanced writing and technical writing students, and a majority of students enrolled in first-year and intermediate composition courses. At Elon University, the survey was sent via email to all first-year students who matriculated in 2009 and were still enrolled in Spring 2010.


Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. What research questions did the WIDE researchers ask here, and what research methods did they use to answer those questions? How do their research methods differ from those used by other authors in this chapter?

2. The WIDE researchers, along with other writing scholars in this chapter and throughout this book, understand writing broadly. The WIDE authors found that 78 percent of student respondents said that texting was one of the five most common types of writing they have done. However, they note that texting challenges “common perceptions of what counts as ‘writing’” (para. 7). Drawing on your own experiences



with texting and considering what you have read so far in this book, write a few sentences exploring your opinion of texting and how it fits into your developing understanding of what “writing” is.

3. The WIDE authors made a list of the top ten genres most frequently written by students. Make your own top-ten list based on your own experience. How does it compare with the WIDE findings? If there are differences, what do you think accounts for them? Now consider how these types of writing (and the technologies needed for engaging in them) impact who you are as a literate person. How would things be different if you didn’t have access to those technologies?

4. The WIDE researchers found that students valued texting the most, but the next three genres they valued most were academic. When the WIDE researchers asked students what kind of writing they valued, how do you think students were defining “value”? Do you think they value texting and research papers in the same way? Consider the list of genres you write (that you made for question 3, above). How are these different genres valuable to you? What is it about them that makes them valuable? Is it easy for you to compare and rank the kinds of value that each of those genres has for you, or is it like comparing apples and oranges?

5. Where do you think your perception of what is “valuable” comes from? Drawing on what you’ve learned so far in this book, is there any reason to question the kinds of writing you see as valuable and make room for other kinds of writing, or other ways of valuing that writing?

6. In addition to the genres that students write, WIDE also organizes findings by the purposes for which students write: school, work, entertainment, personal fulfillment, civic participation. Think about the genres that you and other students write. Do they take on different kinds of value and different conventions depending on the purpose and context? For example, is an e-mail always an e-mail, or do e-mails differ a lot if they are written for work, school, and entertainment?

7. Before this reading, we asked you to research and identify the type of institution you attend. Why do you attend this type of school? What in your history led you here, versus to another kind of institution? How does the experience of being here, along with the previous experiences that led you here, shape your literate self? What might be different if you had attended different kinds of institutions? Imagine those types of institutions as what Brandt calls literacy sponsors. How have they sponsored you? What various literacy practices have they pushed you toward and away from?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. The WIDE researchers found that students write alone quite frequently, but that their technologies and genres are actually linking them to others. Write several pages imagining how you think technology has changed what it means to write alone. For



example, is posting on Facebook while you are alone in your dorm room the same as writing in your diary while alone in an isolated farmhouse in 1872? How has technology changed the way writing connects people? If you want, you could try writing a page as your current self, and then a page as the self you might have been if you were writing in 1872 or 1972.

2. Because this study involves surveying college students about the kinds of writing in which they regularly engage, it invites you to compare your own experiences with their findings and to follow up with your own research projects. Work with a partner to identify two or three research questions you would like to explore further as a result of what you read here and elsewhere in this chapter. What are you interested in learning about — what people’s literacy experiences are, what has shaped those experiences, what technologies, goals, and values impact their literacy, and so on?

3. How would you go about finding answers to the questions you posed above in question 2?

4. The authors state that they are “working from the assumption that students lead complex writing lives” (para. 2). They then go on to all of the ways that students’ writing lives are complex. Make a list of the various ways that your writing life is and has been complex, using their discussion as a model.

5. Conduct an informal survey of your classmates, your roommates, fraternity or sorority, or some other group in order to come up with a list of all the technologies Grabill et al. use to engage with writing, using the list in Section 5 as a starting point. Then research the technologies people used to engage in writing 20 or 40 years ago, perhaps by interviewing your parents, grandparents, older cousins, or people at work. Once you have the two lists, write two to three pages that outline the different technologies used in different time periods, and explore how you think those technologies impact writers’ identities, behaviors, and values.

META MOMENT If you haven’t thought before now about the ways that technology and writing are deeply intertwined, keep it in mind as you write going forward. Ask yourself what would happen if you used a different technology to complete the writing task, or if you valued writing in various modes differently than you have in the past.




To help you learn and explore the ideas in this chapter, we are suggesting three Assignment Options for larger writing projects: Literacy Narrative, Group Analysis of Literacy History, and Linguistic Observation and Analysis, an extensive synthesis of some of the activities in this chapter.




Drawing on what you have read in this chapter, examine your own literacy history, habits, and processes. The purpose of this inquiry is to get to know yourself better as a reader and writer. As Malcolm X argued, awareness gives power and purpose: The more you know about yourself as a reader and writer, the more control you are likely to have over these processes.

Invention, Research, and Analysis

Start your literacy narrative by considering your history as a reader and writer. Try to get at what your memories and feelings about writing/reading are and how you actually write/read now. Do not make bland generalizations (“I really love to write”), but go into detail about how you learned to write/read. Mine your memory, thinking carefully about where you’ve been and where you are as a reader and writer. You might begin by answering questions such as these:

How did you learn to write and/or read?

What kinds of writing/reading have you done in the past?

How much have you enjoyed the various kinds of writing/reading you’ve done?

What are particularly vivid memories that you have of reading, writing, or activities that involved them?

What is your earliest memory of reading and of writing?

What sense did you get, as you were learning to read and write, of the value of reading and writing, and where did that sense come from?

What frustrated you about reading and writing as you were learning and then as you progressed through school? By the same token, what pleased you about them?

What kind of writing and reading do you do most commonly?

What is your favorite kind of writing and reading?

What are your current attitudes, feelings, or stance toward reading and writing?

Where do you think your feelings about and habits of writing and reading come from? How did you get to where you are as a writer/reader? What in your past has made you the kind of writer/reader you are today?

Who are some people in your life who have acted as literacy sponsors?

What are some institutions and experiences in your life that have acted as literacy sponsors?



What technologies impact you as a writer? When, where, and why did you start using them?

What have any of the readings in this chapter reminded you about from your past or present as a reader and writer?

Questions such as these help you start thinking deeply about your literate past. You should try to come up with some answers for all of them, but it’s unlikely that you’ll actually include all the answers to all those questions in your literacy narrative itself. Right now you’re just thinking and writing about what reading and writing was like for you. When you plan the narrative, you’ll select from among all the material you’ve been remembering and thinking about. The question then becomes, how will you decide what to talk about out of everything you could talk about? This depends in part on your analysis of what you’re remembering. As you consider what all these memories and experiences suggest, you should be

looking for an overall “so what?” — a main theme, a central “finding,” an overall conclusion that your consideration leads you to draw. It might be an insight about why you read and write as you do today based on past experience. It might be an argument about what works or what doesn’t work in literacy education, on the basis of your experience. It might be a resolution to do something differently, or to keep doing something that’s been working. It might be a description of an ongoing conflict or tension you experience when you read and write — or the story of how you resolved such a conflict earlier in your literacy history. (It could also be a lot of other things.)

Planning and Drafting

Your consideration and analysis of your previous experience, one way or another, will lead you to a main point that your literacy narrative will demonstrate and support. That main point is what you’ve learned in your analysis; the literacy narrative then explains why you think what you do about that main point. It draws in whatever stories, experiences, moments, and descriptions help explain the point. Because your literacy narrative tells the particular story of a particular person — you — its shape will depend on the particular experiences you’ve had and the importance you attach to them. Therefore, it’s difficult to suggest a single structure for the literacy narrative that will work for all writers. The structure that you use should support your particular intention and content. Headings or sections (such as Part I or Act I or “Early Literacy Memories”), may be

helpful, but your content may better lend itself to write one coherent, unbroken essay. Do what works for you, given the material you want to include. Just be sure to organize and make some sort of point (or points). Because your literacy narrative is about you, you may find it difficult to write without

talking about yourself in the first person. Using “I” when you need to will make the piece



feel somewhat informal, which is appropriate to this kind of writing. If you wish, include pictures or artifacts with your narrative. You could bring in your first

spelling test or the award you won for the essay contest or the article in the school newspaper about your poem. If your circumstances make it appropriate, write this narrative in some mode other than alphabet-on-paper: for example, write it as a blog entry on your website and incorporate multimedia, or write it as a performed or acted presentation, or make it a PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video, a poster, or whatever else works to reach the audience you want to and to help you make your point.

What Makes It Good?

This assignment asks you to carefully think about your history as a reader and writer, to tell a clear story that helps make a point, and to write a readable piece. So, be sure your piece (1) tells a story or stories about your literacy history, (2) talks about where you are now as a writer and reader and how your past has shaped your present, and (3) makes some overall point about your literacy experiences. Of course, this essay should also be clear, organized, interesting, and well-edited. The strongest literacy narratives will incorporate ideas and concepts from the readings in this chapter to help frame and explain your experiences.




Collaborate with a group of classmates on a formal research study of some theme that emerges when everyone’s literacy experiences are compared. You can use the following instructions to guide the writing of this kind of study, which lends itself to answering “bigger” questions or making larger points than a single literacy narrative really can.

Conduct a Self-Study

Post your answers to the following questions on the class blog, wiki, website, or learning management system:

How did you learn to write and/or read?

What kinds of writing/reading have you done in the past?

How much have you enjoyed the various kinds of writing/reading you’ve done?

What are particularly vivid memories that you have of reading, writing, or activities that involved them?

What is your earliest memory of reading and your earliest memory of writing?

What sense did you get, as you were learning to read and write, of the value of reading and writing, and where did that sense come from?

What frustrated you about reading and writing as you were learning and then as you progressed through school? By the same token, what pleased you about them?

What kind of writing/reading do you do most commonly?

What is your favorite kind of writing/reading?

What are your current attitudes, feelings, or stance toward reading and writing?

Where do you think your feelings about and habits of writing and reading come from?

How did you get to where you are as a writer/reader? What in your past has made you the kind of writer/reader you are today?

Who are some people in your life who have acted as literacy sponsors?

What are some institutions and experiences in your life that have acted as literacy sponsors?

What have any of the readings in this chapter reminded you about from your past or present as a reader and writer?

Discuss and Code the Self-Studies



In your group, read the answers to the self-interviews. Look together for common themes, recurring trends, or unique experiences, and determine which of these might be most interesting to further research and write about. What data will you need to collect to explore these themes? (For example, do you need to interview some classmates further? Interview people outside the class?) Common themes that emerge from this sort of study include the role of technology in literacy, hobbies as literacy sponsors, motivations for literacy learning, privilege and access, and help overcoming literacy struggles.

Collaborate to Write about Emergent Themes

Pair up with another student by choosing an emergent theme to write a paper about. As a pair, pinpoint a specific research question related to your theme and gather whatever further data is necessary. Drawing on terms and ideas from this chapter’s readings, you can then write your analysis of and findings on this theme.

Planning and Drafting

Before beginning to write, the group as a whole should consider the audience and genre appropriate for this paper. Discuss the following questions together:

Who should be the audience for what you write? How can you best reach them?

How would you like to write about your findings? In a somewhat formal, scholarly way? In a more storytelling, narrative way?

What content and format would make this narrative most effective? Paper, text-only? Paper, text, and images? Online text and images? Online text, images, and video?

As you analyze and begin to write with your partner, you should consider the following questions:

What is your research question?

What answers to this question do your research and analysis suggest?

What data support each of these answers?

These questions will actually help you arrange your paper, too, in most cases. That is, the paper includes an introduction that poses your research question and explains the value of it. It goes on to explain how you attempted to answer the question — what methods you used to gather the data you gathered to try to reach answers. Next, you talk about that data and what answers it led you to. The paper concludes with your sense of “so what?” — the implications that your findings seem to suggest. What have you learned about this emergent theme from your research, and what does it mean for the rest of us?



If you haven’t written collaboratively before, you may find it a bit of a challenge to coordinate schedules with your co-author, to decide how to break up the work of writing the piece, and to make sure you both always have current information and the other writer’s most up-to-date ideas so that you can write the part of the piece you need to when you need to. You’ll also find that you rewrite each other’s material a bit — this will help it sound like the piece was written by a single voice or mind rather than two people.

What Makes It Good?

A good analysis of an issue emerging from your group’s literacy history may take a number of different shapes but will tend to have these traits in common:

A clear, directly stated research question

A detailed description of what methods you used to try to answer the question

A clear explanation of what you found in your research and what conclusions it leads you to

An explanation of “so what?” — why your findings might matter

The usual: readable, fluent prose; transitions that make the paper easy to follow; and editing and proofreading that keep the paper from distracting readers with typos and goofs




In this chapter, Young and Mellix illustrate that there are a variety of “Englishes,” and that different varieties of English are valued differently. People who learn and speak the dominant “standard” version of English at home have power, authority, and privilege that those who learn other versions do not. However, Young also argues that different versions of English really aren’t so different, and that in our culture people are more often than not borrowing freely from different forms of English in their daily interactions, resulting in what he calls “code meshing.” If you read Young and Mellix, you likely conducted some quick field research in order to test their claims. Here, you will continue that research in order to reach some conclusions about what it means to “speak English” and what forms of English have power — and in what settings.

Observations and Interviews

First, choose three different sites where you can expect to find people of different ages, occupations, genders, races, interests, linguistic backgrounds, etc. — for example, outside a movie theater, in your sorority, at a convenience store, at a bar or restaurant, in an office. Consult with your teacher and classmates about sites that would be appropriate for observation. You want to be cautious about conducting observations in sites where you might make people uncomfortable. As a result, it might be easiest to choose sites where you regularly interact. Arrange for one to two hours where you can sit in each setting and listen and observe

people interacting. Get permission if the site isn’t public. Take careful notes. Who are you seeing? What are you hearing? Write down phrases, words, notes about tone and loudness, etc. Next, conduct interviews with three people who are different from one another in some

significant ways — age, race, gender, class, occupation, where they were raised, etc. Be respectful of people and their time when you set up the interviews. Ask them these questions:

Do you speak the same way in every situation?

Do you feel like the way you speak at home with your family is the way you speak at school and/or at work?

If not, what are some of the differences? Can you give examples?

Do you feel like one of the ways you speak is valued more highly than the others? How do you know?

Caution: When you interview and observe, record what people actually say, not what you



expect them to say. It will be easy to stereotype and to turn stereotypes into expectations. Listening to people and really hearing them must precede making conclusions or judgments. Ask yourself as you are listening to people whether your stereotypes and expectations are getting in the way of collecting data.

Analyzing Data

Take a look at the data that you collected. Lay out your interview notes and transcripts and read them carefully, annotating as you go. Then ask yourself the following questions:

What are you seeing?

Do you see everyone (or anyone) speaking one clear version of a standard English? If not, what are some of the variations?

Do you see people switching back and forth between different versions of English? Do they do this within one setting, or in different settings? What are some examples?

Do you think they are code switching, code meshing, or both?

What do your interviewees say about their experiences changing language forms?

What forms of language seem to have power or authority, and in what situations? How do you know?

Considering What You Think

Given what you read in this chapter, what you saw in your research, and what you’ve experienced in your own life, what do you have to say about the following questions:

Is there one standard form of English?

Are some forms of English inherently “superior” to other forms? If not, are some forms of English treated as though they are inherently “superior” to other forms?

How can you tell when a certain form of English has power and authority? What happens to suggest that this is the case?

How do you think those forms of English gained that power and authority?

How have you personally been impacted by people’s attitudes about appropriate and dominant forms of English?

What did you expect to hear and find going into this study?

Did your expectations make it difficult for you to really listen to people without stereotyping them?

What does your experience trying to listen and observe suggest about the difficulties of



conducing “unbiased” research?

Write a Reflection

It will not be possible or desirable for you to write a definitive argument-driven research essay about what you found. In order to do that, you would need much more data, collected across wider varieties of sites, and much more training in how to conduct linguistic analysis. Instead, we want to engage here in a formal, data- and research-driven reflection about what you are learning, thinking, and struggling with around issues of language use. Write a five- to six-page reflection that explores your growing understanding of what it

means to “speak English,” what it means in practice for people to speak different forms of English, how power is enacted through various versions of English, and how your own expectations and experiences impact your ability to conduct research. As you reflect and take positions, draw on the data that you’ve collected, as well as your

own experiences. As you’ve learned in this chapter, your own experiences are always going to shape what you think and understand, and will inevitably shape your writing. This is why it’s important for you to also reflect on yourself, your expectations of what you would find, and how your expectations impacted your ability to collect and analyze data. In a project like this, you should be cautious about trying to speak authoritatively about

other people’s experience. The purpose of this assignment is to grow and expand your thinking on difficult questions by gathering data and reflecting on what you find when you really listen to other people in order to interrogate your ideas and assumptions. Be cautious about assuming that your language variation is “normal” or superior to what you are hearing from the people you observe and speak with.

What Makes It Good?

This is what writing scholars would call a “writing to learn” assignment. The primary goal is for you to think about, reflect on, and grapple with ideas about language that you may not have considered before, and to learn how to try to collect some data in order to test out ideas and assumptions. In assessing whether your completed reflection is successful, consider the following


Have you integrated ideas and terms from relevant readings in this chapter?

Have you collected data and used it to inform your ideas?

Have you written about your ideas and reflected on them in ways that readers (likely your classmates and teacher) will be able to follow?



Have you supported your thinking with data from readings and from your research?

Have you been careful to reflect on what you actually heard when you listened to others and to avoid stereotyping people and their languages?

Have you thought about your own positionality and the history and expectations you brought to this project?

If you’ve done these things, and demonstrated that you are trying hard to think through questions that are difficult, then you’ve written a good reflection.





How Does Writing Help People Get Things Done?

n the previous chapter, you explored your own literacy history and considered how individuals’ literate pasts influence their current literacy practices and attitudes. In this chapter, you will broaden your scope to consider how groups and communities influence readers, writers, and texts. People don’t write in a vacuum. Their literate histories influence their current writing practices, but their purposes for writing texts, and the people to and with whom they write, also influence how they write, what they write, how their texts are used, and how users make meaning of their texts. The central idea, the threshold concept, in this chapter is that people use texts and discourse in order to do something, to make meaning. And the texts and language they create mediate meaningful activities. (Mediate here means something like “intervene to shape an experience” — see the Glossary entry for more.) People construct meaning through texts and language, and texts construct meaning as people use them.



THRESHOLD CONCEPTS Threshold concepts are ideas that literally change the way you experience, think about, and understand a subject. Every specialized field of study (or discipline — history, biology, mathematics, etc.) has threshold concepts that learners in that field must become acquainted with in order to fully understand the ideas of that field of study. Threshold concepts, once learned, help the learner see the world differently. They can be hard to learn (what researchers Jan Meyer and Ray Land call “troublesome”) for a variety of reasons, including the possibility that they might directly conflict with ideas you already have. Once you’re aware of these new and troublesome threshold concepts and you really start to understand them, they are hard to unlearn — Meyer and Land say they are “irreversible.” Very often, learning threshold concepts doesn’t just change the way you think about the subject, but also the way you think about yourself. But what makes them most powerful is that they help you understand a whole set of other ideas that are hard to imagine without knowing the threshold concept — so they let you do a whole lot of learning at once by helping entire sets of ideas “fall into place.” Chapter 1 discusses the main threshold concepts addressed in Writing about Writing.

MEDIATE People use texts in order to get things done. They read in order to learn something (for example, they read instructions in order to figure out how to put together a new desk); they write in order to communicate something (for example, a student might write an e-mail to let her mom know she is short on money). When a text helps people accomplish an activity as in these examples, we say the text mediates the activity. To mediate is to help make things happen, to play a role in situations and enable communication and activities to take place. In the examples offered above, reading the instructions mediates assembly of the desk; sending Mom an e-mail mediates receiving $200 to buy much needed school supplies.

In the photo on the previous page, the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida is using their website to encourage possible donors to host a “virtual” food drive. Here they use text to explain how a virtual food drive works, and they use visuals, alphabetic text, numbers, and colors. They create these materials for the possible food drive hosts to use so that they don’t have to create anything themselves. This page serves multiple purposes: to encourage people to host virtual food drives, to convince them that doing so is easy, and to provide the needed materials for doing so — and those materials can be “recomposed” and reused in another setting, to encourage others to sponsor food drives for the hungry (the virtual food drive materials gain what Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss in the next chapter call “rhetorical velocity” [p. 512]). The text here is all about getting things done — helping readers make meaning about hunger, and helping them take action to feed the hungry. Consider another related example from the perspective of the writer and the site in which

she is writing. Another way for food banks to raise money to feed the hungry is through “appeal letters” that they might send out to all past volunteers and donors at Christmas. How the staff person who writes the letter does so is influenced by her understanding of



the ideas and interests of the people reading it — what they need, want, and value — as well as by her own training as a fundraiser, all of her past writing experiences, her supervisor’s expectations, and her own and other staff members’ experiences with past fundraising letters. The letter the staff person writes mediates the activities of fundraising and feeding the hungry. It is read by many people who have very different reactions to it (some will throw it away, others will set it aside and forget about it, others will volunteer but not donate money, others will donate money). Readers’ responses to this letter will continue to shape the work of the food bank, and

the food bank and its donors and volunteers and clients all shape how future fundraising letters are written. The fundraising letter, in turn, shapes the work of the food bank — how it is understood, or whether it can be done at all. If this letter is not effective, the food bank might have to cut back services, and it will surely revise how future fundraising letters are written or distributed. The people who read the letter might start thinking about hunger and poverty differently as a result of what they read. Meaning and activities about hunger, poverty, fundraising, and so on are constructed through the fundraising letter. For example, the writer might want to help possible donors think about hungry children, and thus include a photo of a child in the letter — not the stereotypical “homeless person” that might first come to people’s minds — and emphasize the number of hungry children in the area. In doing so, he is shaping meaning for the readers. This chapter asks you to take a close look at how texts are constructed as a result of the

needs and activities of various groups, and how groups of people use communication to achieve their shared goals and purposes. In this chapter, you’ll learn one or more theoretical terms that will help you look at and understand groups: Discourses (that’s from Gee, p. 274),discourse communities (that’s from Johns, p. 319), and activity systems (that’s from Kain and Wardle, p. 395). You’ll consider how the texts construct meaning for the people who read, write, and otherwise use them. You’ll consider the expectations, norms, histories, and people who influence, construct, and interpret texts, and you’ll consider how texts help groups get work done and achieve shared goals — or impede work when they are not successful. And you’ll think carefully about the language — the discourse(s) — that help or hinder people in their efforts to make meaning, get work done, accomplish goals, and become part of new groups (or not).

DISCOURSE/DISCOURSE At its most basic, discourse is language in action, or language being used to accomplish something. Discourse can describe either an instance of language (e.g., “His discourse was terse and harsh”) or a collection of instances that all demonstrate some quality (e.g., “Legal discourse tries to be very precise”). Because groups of people united by some activity tend to develop a characteristic discourse, we can talk about communities that are identified by their discourse — thus, discourse community. James Paul Gee uses Discourse with an uppercase D to differentiate his



specialized meaning of the term.

DISCOURSE COMMUNITY Scholars continue to debate the meaning of discourse community, as the selections in this book suggest. For the sake of simplicity, we will use John Swales’s definition from his 1990 book, Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. According to Swales, a discourse community is made up of individuals who share common goals agreed upon by most members; further, it has “mechanisms of intercommunication among its members,” “uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback,” has and uses “one or more genres” that help the group achieve its shared goals, “has acquired some specific lexis,” and has “a reasonable ratio” of “novices and experts” (24–27).

ACTIVITY SYSTEM In his 1997 article “Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis,” David Russell describes an activity system as “any ongoing, object- directed, historically conditioned, dialectically structured, tool-mediated human interaction.” In simpler terms, an activity system consists of a group of people who act together over time as they work toward a specific goal. The people in the system use many kinds of tools, both physical (like computers or books) and symbolic (like words), to do their work together. The group’s behaviors and traditions are influenced by their history, and when one aspect of the system changes, other aspects of it change in response.

The authors whose work appears in this chapter are describing something you do every day: When you go to your dorm and interact with your roommates, for example, you are in one discourse community; when you go to biology class, you are in another. And most of us are amazingly efficient at navigating multiple discourse communities: What you learn in biology about evolution might conflict with what you are taught in your Bible study course, for example, but most of you learn to manage that tension and figure out how to talk and interact differently in different settings. The language and texts you use in each discourse community help you accomplish your collective purposes there. As you examine texts through the analytical lenses described in this chapter, you’ll want

to begin thinking of texts as genres, a term we explained in Chapter 1 (see pages 17–21), and which is referenced in this chapter by several of the authors. A reminder here about what genres are: If you see a particular text and you recognize it as having a particular name and expected characteristics or conventions that respond to recurring situations, it is a genre. Scholar Carolyn Miller tells us that genres arise in response to repeated rhetorical situations (a term described more fully in Chapter 4). As a familiar example, people do nice things for others repeatedly and recipients of the kindness need to do something in return; thus, the genre of thank-you cards came into being. These cards make easier the task of responding the next time someone does something nice for you; instead of having to think through all the ways you could respond, you can just buy a thank- you card and write the standard words of gratitude you were likely taught as a child. As



you’ve already considered in Chapter 1, syllabi are another example you’ll recognize: Each time you go into a new classroom, you need to know what is expected of you. Teachers over time came to respond to this situation similarly by providing students with a syllabus. There are thousands of examples of these kinds of texts: horoscopes, obituaries, job application letters, etc. All of them arose in response to the fact that certain situations happened again and again and were easier to respond to with recognizable forms.

GENRE Genre comes from the French word for “kind” or “type” and is related to the Latin word genus, which you might remember from the scientific classification system for animals and plants. In the field of rhetoric, genres are broadly understood as categories of texts. For example, the poem, the short story, the novel, and the memoir are genres of literature; memos, proposals, reports, and executive summaries are genres of business writing; hiphop, bluegrass, trance, pop, new age, and electronica are genres of music; and the romantic comedy, drama, and documentary are genres of film. Genres are types of texts that are recognizable to readers and writers and that

meet the needs of the rhetorical situations in which they function. So, for example, we recognize wedding invitations and understand them to be different from horoscopes. We know that when we are asked to write a paper for school, our teacher probably does not want us to turn in a poem instead. Genres develop over time in response to recurring rhetorical needs. We have

wedding invitations because people keep getting married, and we need an efficient way to let people know and to ask them to attend. Rather than making up a new rhetorical solution every time the same situation occurs, we generally turn to the genre that has developed — in this case, the genre of the wedding invitation. Genre theorists have suggested that the concept of genre actually goes well

beyond texts; accordingly, some theorists use genre to describe a typified but dynamic social interaction that a group of people use to conduct a given activity. (Typified means it follows a pattern, and dynamic means that people can change the pattern to fit their circumstances as long as it still helps them do the activity.) In “Rethinking Genre,” for example, David Russell says that genres are actually “shared expectations among some group(s) of people” (513). For more on genre and genre theory, see Chapter 1.

RHETORICAL SITUATION Rhetorical situation is the particular circumstance of a given instance of communication or discourse. The rhetorical situation includes exigence (the need or reason for the communication), context (the circumstances that give rise to the exigence, including location in time/history and space/place/position), rhetor (the originator of the communication — its speaker or writer), and audience (the auditor, listener, or reader of the rhetor’s discourse). The rhetorical situation is a moment in a larger rhetorical ecology, the network of relationships among rhetors in the situation.

Genres are interesting because, although they are recognizable due to their common features across texts, no two examples of a genre are ever exactly the same, and their



features change over time. So one teacher’s syllabus is not exactly like the next teacher’s syllabus. And the syllabi teachers give out today are different than the ones teachers gave out a hundred years ago — which might not even have been called a “syllabus.” The point is that genres help people get things done as they engage in different activities. Having a syllabus means that students have to guess a lot less than they would without a syllabus, and teachers don’t have to repeat instructions as much. In other words, genres help mediate the activities in which groups of people (in this example, teachers and students) engage. This chapter presents three lenses for analyzing how texts mediate work in communities:

discourse theory (Gee), discourse community theory (Johns), and activity theory (Kain and Wardle). For each theory, you will first read an explanation and description, and then examples of how scholars and students use that theory.


To understand the threshold concept that language and texts (genres) mediate group activities

To define and understand key terms related to that threshold concept, including Discourse, discourse community, activity system, and genre

To gain tools for examining the discourse and texts used by various communities

To gain tools for conducting primary research

To conduct research and write about it for various audiences

To understand writing and research as processes

To improve as readers of complex, research-based texts



Tagged Reading

Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics Introduction


Framing the Reading

James Paul Gee (his last name is pronounced like the “gee” in “gee whiz”) is a Regents’ Professor and Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University. Gee has taught linguistics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Stanford University, Northeastern University, Boston University, and the University of Southern California. His book Sociolinguistics and Literacies (1990) was important in the formation of the interdisciplinary field known as “New Literacy Studies,” and he’s published a number of other works on literacy as well, including Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul (2005). Based on his research, he’s a widely respected voice on literacy among his peers. In this article, Gee introduces his term Discourses, which he explains as “saying

(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” that are “ways of being in the world.” (The capital D is important for Gee, to make a Discourse distinct from discourse, or “connected stretches of language” that we use every day to communicate with each other.) Gee spends a lot of time working to make these definitions clear, using a variety of examples. A number of other terms crop up as well in his work: dominant and nondominant Discourses, primary and secondary Discourses, literacy, apprenticeship, metaknowledge, and mushfake, among others. Probably the most useful way to read this article for the first time is to try to (1)



define terms and (2) apply what Gee is saying to your own experience by trying to think of related examples from your own life.

DISCOURSE/DISCOURSE At its most basic, discourse is language in action, or language being used to accomplish something. Discourse can describe either an instance of language (e.g., “His discourse was terse and harsh”) or a collection of instances that all demonstrate some quality (e.g., “Legal discourse tries to be very precise”). Because groups of people united by some activity tend to develop a characteristic discourse, we can talk about communities that are identified by their discourse — thus, discourse community. James Paul Gee uses Discourse with an uppercase D to differentiate his

specialized meaning of the term.

LITERACY, LITERATE Literacy denotes fluency in a given practice. In its original use, literacy referred to alphabetic literacy — that is, to fluency in reading and writing “letters,” or alphabetic text. This kind of literacy was contrasted with orality, which was characterized as a lack of literacy. Over time, however, in academic circles, the meaning of literacy and literate has broadened to encompass fluency in other areas; most academics therefore now use the term literacies (plural) and discuss digital, electronic, musical, visual, oral, mathematical, and gaming literacies, among many other kinds.

APPRENTICESHIP Apprenticeship is a term used to describe the relationship between a master and a student, or a mentor and a mentee, in which the student or mentee undergoes training in order to become an expert in a profession or group. In his 1998 book, Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger argues that

apprentices move from peripheral participation to more central participation in a group as they become engaged with and more skilled at the group’s practices. (See also community of practice.)

METAKNOWLEDGE Metaknowledge is knowledge about knowledge — that is, what we can determine about our learning, its processes, and its products.

MUSHFAKE Mushfake is a term used by James Paul Gee to describe a partially acquired Discourse, a Discourse that people use to “make do” when they participate in or communicate with a group to which they don’t belong. Gee borrows the term from prison culture, in which mushfake refers to making do with something when the real thing is not available.



As you read, think back to the underlying threshold concepts of this chapter: that people use texts and Discourse in order to do something, to make meaning; that the texts and language they create mediate meaningful activities; and that people construct meaning through texts and language, and texts construct meaning as people use them. Ask yourself how the Discourses that Gee talks about are tools for helping people make meaning or not, get things done or not. You’ll find one particularly controversial argument in the article. Gee insists that you

can’t “more or less” embody a Discourse — you’re either recognized by others as a full member of it, or you’re not. Many readers can’t make this argument line up with their perceptions of their own experiences in acquiring new Discourses; they haven’t experienced this “all-or-nothing” effect. It’s also possible to read Gee’s article as undermining itself: He explains that we are never “purely” members of a single Discourse, but rather, that a given Discourse is influenced by other Discourses of which we’re also members. By this reasoning, there may be no such thing as embodying a Discourse fully or perfectly. The important thing is this: When you encounter that subargument, or others you

might have trouble accepting, your job as a reader is to stay engaged in the overall argument while “setting aside” the particular argument you’re not sure about. As you know from your own experience, people can be wrong about smaller points while still being right about bigger ones. Further, scholarly arguments are made very precisely with very careful language; Gee’s argument might work if you read it exactly as he intended it to be understood, without trying to apply it too broadly. Gee’s text is one we have chosen to tag, partially because of its complexity. Before

you begin, review the explanation of the reading tags in Chapter 1 (pp. 58–59) in order to get the most from them.




Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Google the term mushfake. What comes up?

Consider two or three activities you take part in that are very different from each other, having different languages and purposes (for example, college, volunteering, and a hobby like gaming). Does one influence the way you do the others, or do they remain distinctly separate in your life? Explain.

As you read, consider the following questions:

Why is Gee so concerned with how people learn Discourses? What does it have to do with education?

Are there alternative explanations for the knowledge Gee describes? Could we have similar knowledge for some reason other than that there are Discourses?

Does Gee’s discussion of Discourses sound similar to ideas you’ve encountered in other chapters in this book? If so, which ones?

1 WHAT I PROPOSE in the following papers, in the main,

is a way of talking about literacy and linguistics. I believe that a new field of study, integrating “psycho” and “socio” approaches to language from a variety of disciplines, is emerging, a field which we might call literacy studies.

1 – CARS: Territory

2 Much of this work, I think (and hope), shares at least some of the assumptions of the following papers.

2 – Conversation

3 These papers, though written at different times, and for different purposes, are, nonetheless, based on the claim that the focus of literacy studies or applied linguistics should not be language, or literacy, but social practices.

3 – CARS: Occupy

4 This claim, I believe, has a number of socially important and






cognitively interesting consequences.

4 – So What? Because this article introduces a collection of others, its organization is unusual. Instead of explaining the consequences covered in all the articles right here, Gee next transitions to explaining the problem they all work on.

“Language” is a misleading term; it too often suggests “grammar.” It is a truism that a person can know perfectly the grammar of a language and not know how to use that language. It is not just what you say, but how you say it. If I enter my neighborhood bar and say to my tattooed drinking buddy, as I sit down, “May I have a match please?” my grammar is perfect, but what I have said is wrong nonetheless. It is less often remarked that a person could be able to use a language perfectly and still not make sense. It is not just how you say it, but what you are and do when you say it. If I enter my neighborhood bar and say to my drinking buddy, as I sit down, “Gime a match, wouldya?,” while placing a napkin on the bar stool to avoid getting my newly pressed designer jeans dirty, I have said the right thing, but my “saying-doing” combination is nonetheless all wrong. Look Ahead

— Look Ahead As an introduction, this piece doesn’t have sections and headings. Scan for transition words at the beginning of paragraphs, like “So,” “Now,” “Furthermore,” “Finally,” “First,” “Second,” and “But.”

F. Niyi Akinnaso and Cheryl Ajirotutu (1982) present “simulated job interviews” from two welfare mothers in a CETA job training program. The first woman, asked whether she has ever shown initiative in a previous job, responds: “Well, yes, there’s this Walgreen’s Agency, I worked as a microfilm operator, OK. And it was a snow storm, OK. And it was usually six people workin’ in a group …” and so forth (p. 34). This woman is simply using the wrong grammar (the wrong “dialect”) for this type of (middle-class) interview. It’s a perfectly good grammar (dialect), it just won’t get you this type of job in this type of society.

The second woman (the authors’ “success” case) responds to a similar question by saying “ … I was left alone to handle the office. I didn’t really have a lot of experience. But I had enough experience to deal with any situations that came up … and those that I couldn’t handle at the time, if there was someone who had more experience than myself, I asked questions to find out what procedure I would use. If something came up and if I didn’t know who to really go to, I would jot it down … on a piece of paper, so that I wouldn’t forget that if anyone that was more qualified than






myself, I could ask them about it and how I would go about solving it. So I feel I’m capable of handling just about any situation, whether it’s on my own or under supervision” (p. 34). This woman hasn’t got a real problem with her grammar (remember this is speech, not writing), nor is there any real problem with the use to which she puts that grammar, but she is expressing the wrong values. She views being left in charge as just another form of supervision, namely, supervision by “other people’s” knowledge and expertise. And she fails to characterize her own expertise in the overly optimistic form called for by such interviews. Using this response as an example of “successful training” is only possible because the authors, aware that language is more than grammar (namely, “use”), are unaware that communication is more than language use.

At any moment we are using language we must say or write the right thing in the right way while playing the right social role and (appearing) to hold the right values, beliefs, and attitudes.

5 Thus, what is important is not language, and surely not grammar, but saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations. These combinations I call “Discourses,” with a capital “D” (“discourse” with a little “d,” to me, means connected stretches of language that make sense, so “discourse” is part of “Discourse”). Discourses are ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes.

5 – Making Knowledge Gee differentiates previous knowledge from new by emphasizing his concept. The “I” statement says he is contributing new knowledge to the conversation.

A Discourse is a sort of “identity kit” which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act, talk, and often write, so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize. Being “trained” as a linguist meant that I learned to speak, think, and act like a linguist, and to recognize others when they do so. Some other examples of Discourses: (enacting) being an American or a Russian, a man or a woman, a member of a certain socioeconomic class, a factory worker or a boardroom executive, a doctor or a hospital patient, a teacher, an administrator, or a student, a student of physics or a student of literature, a member of a sewing circle, a club, a street gang, a lunchtime social gathering, or a regular at a local bar. We all have many Discourses.

6 How does one acquire a Discourse? It turns out that much that is claimed, controversially, to be true of second language acquisition or socially situated cognition (Beebe, 1988;





Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982; Grosjean, 1982; Krashen, 1982, 1985a, 1985b; Krashen & Terrell, 1983; Lave, 1988; Rogoff & Lave, 1984) is, in fact, more obviously true of the acquisition of Discourses.

6 – Conversation

7 Discourses are not mastered by overt instruction (even less so than languages, and hardly anyone ever fluently acquired a second language sitting in a classroom), but by enculturation (“apprenticeship”) into social practices through scaffolded and supported interaction with people who have already mastered the Discourse (Cazden, 1988; Heath, 1983). This is how we all acquired our native language and our home-based Discourse. It is how we acquire all later, more public-oriented Discourses. If you have no access to the social practice, you don’t get in the Discourse, you don’t have it. You cannot overtly teach anyone a Discourse, in a classroom or anywhere else. Discourses are not bodies of knowledge like physics or archeology or linguistics. Therefore, ironically, while you can overtly teach someone linguistics, a body of knowledge, you can’t teach them to be a linguist, that is, to use a Discourse. The most you can do is to let them practice being a linguist with you.

7 – Extending

The various Discourses which constitute each of us as persons are changing and often are not fully consistent with each other; there is often conflict and tension between the values, beliefs, attitudes, interactional styles, uses of language, and ways of being in the world which two or more Discourses represent. Thus, there is no real sense in which we humans are consistent or well integrated creatures from a cognitive or social viewpoint, though, in fact, most Discourses assume that we are (and thus we do too, while we are in them).

8 All of us, through our primary socialization early in life in the home and peer group, acquire (at least) one initial Discourse. This initial Discourse, which I call our primary Discourse, is the one we first use to make sense of the world and interact with others. Our primary Discourse constitutes our original and home-based sense of identity, and, I believe, it can be seen whenever we are interacting with “intimates” in totally casual (unmonitored) social interaction. We acquire this primary Discourse, not by overt instruction, but by being a member of a primary socializing group (family, clan, peer group). Further, aspects and pieces of the primary Discourse become a “carrier” or






“foundation” for Discourses acquired later in life. Primary Discourses differ significantly across various social (cultural, ethnic, regional, and economic) groups in the United States.

8 – Making Knowledge

9 After our initial socialization in our home community, each of us interacts with various non-home-based social institutions — institutions in the public sphere, beyond the family and immediate kin and peer group. These may be local stores and churches, schools, community groups, state and national businesses, agencies and organizations, and so forth. Each of these social institutions commands and demands one or more Discourses and we acquire these fluently to the extent that we are given access to these institutions and are allowed apprenticeships within them. Such Discourses I call secondary Discourses.

9 – Making Knowledge

We can also make an important distinction between dominant Discourses and nondominant Discourses. Dominant Discourses are secondary Discourses the mastery of which, at a particular place and time, brings with it the (potential) acquisition of social “goods” (money, prestige, status, etc.). Nondominant Discourses are secondary Discourses the mastery of which often brings solidarity with a particular social network, but not wider status and social goods in the society at large.

Finally, and yet more importantly, we can always ask about how much tension or conflict is present between any two of a person’s Discourses (Rosaldo, 1989). We have argued above that some degree of conflict and tension (if only because of the discrete historical origins of particular Discourses) will almost always be present. However, some people experience more overt and direct conflicts between two or more of their Discourses than do others (for example, many women academics feel conflict between certain feminist Discourses and certain standard academic Discourses such as traditional literary criticism).

10 I argue that when such conflict or tension exists, it can deter acquisition of one or the other or both of the conflicting Discourses, or, at least, affect the fluency of a mastered Discourse on certain occasions of use (e.g., in stressful situations such as interviews).

10 – Making Knowledge







Very often dominant groups in a society apply rather constant “tests” of the fluency of the dominant Discourses in which their power is symbolized. These tests take on two functions: they are tests of “natives” or, at least, “fluent users” of the Discourse, and they are gates to exclude “non-natives” (people whose very conflicts with dominant Discourses show they were not, in fact, “born” to them). The sorts of tension and conflict we have mentioned here are particularly acute when they involve tension and conflict between one’s primary Discourse and a dominant secondary Discourse.

Discourses, primary and secondary, can be studied, in some ways, like languages. And, in fact, some of what we know about second language acquisition is relevant to them, if only in a metaphorical way. Two Discourses can interfere with one another, like two languages; aspects of one Discourse can be transferred to another Discourse, as one can transfer a grammatical feature from one language to another. For instance, the primary Discourse of many middle-class homes has been influenced by secondary Discourses like those used in schools and business. This is much less true of the primary Discourse in many lower socio-economic black homes, though this primary Discourse has influenced the secondary Discourse used in black churches.

Furthermore, if one has not mastered a particular secondary Discourse which nonetheless one must try to use, several things can happen, things which rather resemble what can happen when one has failed to fluently master a second language. One can fall back on one’s primary Discourse, adjusting it in various ways to try to fit it to the needed functions; this response is very common, but almost always socially disastrous. Or one can use another, perhaps related, secondary Discourse. Or one can use a simplified, or stereotyped version of the required secondary Discourse. These processes are similar to those linguists study under the rubrics of language contact, pidginization, and creolization.

11 I believe that any socially useful definition of “literacy” must be couched in terms of the notion of Discourse.

11 – CARS: Niche Gee uses his preceding discussion of Discourse to open a new niche for conversation about literacy, which he raises here for the first time.

12 Thus, I define “literacy” as the mastery of or fluent control over a secondary Discourse. Therefore, literacy is always plural: literacies (there are many of them, since there are many secondary Discourses, and we all have some and fail to have others). If we wanted to be rather pedantic and literalistic, then we





could define “literacy” as “mastery of or fluent control over secondary Discourses involving print” (which is almost all of them in a modern society). But I see no gain from the addition of the phrase “involving print,” other than to assuage the feelings of people committed (as I am not) to reading and writing as decontextualized and isolable skills. We can talk about dominant literacies and nondominant literacies in terms of whether they involve mastery of dominant or nondominant secondary Discourses. We can also talk about a literacy being liberating (“powerful”) if it can be used as a “meta-language” (a set of meta- words, meta-values, meta-beliefs) for the critique of other literacies and the way they constitute us as persons and situate us in society. Liberating literacies can reconstitute and resituate us.

12 – CARS: Occupy

13 My definition of “literacy” may seem innocuous, at least to someone already convinced that decontextualized views of print are meaningless. Nonetheless, several “theorems” follow from it, theorems that have rather direct and unsettling consequences.

13 – So What?

14 First theorem: Discourses (and therefore literacies) are not like languages in one very important regard. Someone can speak English, but not fluently. However, someone cannot engage in a Discourse in a less than fully fluent manner. You are either in it or you’re not. Discourses are connected with displays of an identity; failing to fully display an identity is tantamount to announcing you don’t have that identity, that at best you’re a pretender or a beginner. Very often, learners of second languages “fossilize” at a stage of development significantly short of fluency. This can’t happen with Discourses. If you’ve fossilized in the acquisition of a Discourse prior to full “fluency” (and are no longer in the process of apprenticeship), then your very lack of fluency marks you as a non-member of the group that controls this Discourse. That is, you don’t have the identity or social role which is the basis for the existence of the Discourse in the first place. In fact, the lack of fluency may very well mark you as a pretender to the social role instantiated in the Discourse (an outsider with pretensions to being an insider).

14 – Making Knowledge Gee’s theorems are claims, not facts, so is it strange to call them “knowledge”? No. New knowledge is always first a claim to be tested by readers.








There is, thus, no workable “affirmative action” for Discourses: you can’t be let into the game after missing the apprenticeship and be expected to have a fair shot at playing it. Social groups will not, usually, give their social goods — whether these are status or solidarity or both — to those who are not “natives” or “fluent users” (though “mushfake,” discussed below, may sometimes provide a way for non-initiates to gain access). While this is an empirical claim, I believe it is one vastly supported by the sociolinguistic literature (Milroy, 1980, 1987; Milroy & Milroy, 1985).

This theorem (that there are no people who are partially literate or semiliterate, or, in any other way, literate but not fluently so) has one practical consequence: notions like “functional literacy” and “competency-based literacy” are simply incoherent. As far as literacy goes, there are only “fluent speakers” and “apprentices” (metaphorically speaking, because remember, Discourses are not just ways of talking, but ways of talking, acting, thinking, valuing, etc.).

Second theorem: Primary Discourses, no matter whose they are, can never really be liberating literacies. For a literacy to be liberating it must contain both the Discourse it is going to critique and a set of meta-elements (language, words, attitudes, values) in terms of which an analysis and criticism can be carried out. Primary Discourses are initial and contain only themselves. They can be embedded in later Discourses and critiqued, but they can never serve as a meta-language in terms of which a critique of secondary Discourses can be carried out. Our second theorem is not likely to be very popular. Theorem 2 says that all primary Discourses are limited.

15 “Liberation” (“power”), in the sense I am using the term here, resides in acquiring at least one more Discourse in terms of which our own primary Discourse can be analyzed and critiqued.

15 – Making Knowledge

This is not to say that primary Discourses do not contain critical attitudes and critical language (indeed, many of them contain implicit and explicit racism and classism). It is to say that they cannot carry out an authentic criticism, because they cannot verbalize the words, acts, values, and attitudes they use, and they cannot mobilize explicit meta-knowledge. Theorem 2 is quite traditional and conservative — it is the analogue of Socrates’s theorem that the unexamined life is not worth living. Interestingly enough, Vygotsky (1987, chapter 6) comes very closely to stating this theorem explicitly.

Other theorems can be deduced from the theory of literacy here developed, but these two should make clear what sorts of





consequences the theory has. It should also make it quite clear that the theory is not a neutral meta-language in terms of which one can argue for just any conclusions about literacy.

Not all Discourses involve writing or reading, though many do. However, all writing and reading is embedded in some Discourse, and that Discourse always involves more than writing and reading (e.g., ways of talking, acting, valuing, and so forth). You cannot teach anyone to write or read outside any Discourse (there is no such thing, unless it is called “moving a pen” or “typing” in the case of writing, or “moving one’s lips” or “mouthing words” in the case of reading).

16 Within a Discourse you are always teaching more than writing or reading. When I say “teach” here, I mean “apprentice someone in a master-apprentice relationship in a social practice (Discourse) wherein you scaffold their growing ability to say, do, value, believe, and so forth, within that Discourse, through demonstrating your mastery and supporting theirs even when it barely exists (i.e., you make it look as if they can do what they really can’t do).” That is, you do much the same thing middle- class, “super baby” producing parents do when they “do books” with their children.

16 – CARS: Occupy Here Gee shifts to another theme of this piece, how to teach Discourses.

Now, there are many Discourses connected to schools (different ones for different types of school activities and different parts of the curriculum) and other public institutions. These “middle-class mainstream” sorts of Discourses often carry with them power and prestige.

17 It is often felt that good listeners and good readers ought to pay attention to meaning and not focus on the petty details of mechanics, “correctness,” the superficial features of language. Unfortunately, many middle-class mainstream status-giving Discourses often do stress superficial features of language. Why? Precisely because such superficial features are the best test as to whether one was apprenticed in the “right” place, at the “right” time, with the “right” people. Such superficial features are exactly the parts of Discourses most impervious to overt instruction and are only fully mastered when everything else in the Discourse is mastered. Since these Discourses are used as “gates” to ensure that the “right” people get to the “right” places in our society, such superficial features are ideal. A person who writes in a petition or office memo: “If you cancel the show, all the performers would have did all that hard work for nothing” has signaled that he or she isn’t the “right sort of person” (was not fully acculturated to the Discourse that supports this identity).






That signal stays meaningful long after the content of the memo is forgotten, or even when the content was of no interest in the first place.

17 – Conversation With this passive voice construction (“It is often felt that …”), Gee cites a conversation without naming its participants, whom Gee’s original readers will know. This conversation extends through the next few paragraphs.

18 Now, one can certainly encourage students to simply “resist” such “superficial features of language.” And, indeed, they will get to do so from the bottom of society, where their lack of mastery of such superficialities was meant to place them anyway. But, of course, the problem is that such “superficialities” cannot be taught in a regular classroom in any case; they can’t be “picked up” later, outside the full context of an early apprenticeship (at home and at school) in “middle-class-like’’ school-based ways of doing and being. That is precisely why they work so well as “gates.” This is also precisely the tragedy of E. D. Hirsch, Jr.’s much-talked-about book Cultural Literacy (1987), which points out that without having mastered an extensive list of trivialities people can be (and often are) excluded from “goods” controlled by dominant groups in the society. Hirsch is wrong in thinking that this can be taught (in a classroom of all places!) apart from the socially situated practices that these groups have incorporated into their homes and daily lives. There is a real contradiction here, and we ignore it at the peril of our students and our own “good faith” (no middle-class “super baby” producing parents ignore it).

18 – Conversation Gee uses quotation-marked but uncited phrases to separate his own language from that of other researchers that he is calling into question.

Beyond changing the social structure, is there much hope? No, there is not. So we better get on about the process of changing the social structure. Now, whose job is that? I would say, people who have been allotted the job of teaching Discourses, for example, English teachers, language teachers, composition teachers, TESOL teachers, studies-skills teachers. We can pause, also, to remark on the paradox that even though Discourses cannot be overtly taught, and cannot readily be mastered late in the game, the University wants teachers to overtly teach and wants students to demonstrate mastery. Teachers of Discourses take on an impossible job, allow themselves to be evaluated on how well they do it, and accept fairly low status all the while for doing it.

So what can teachers of Discourses do? Well, there happens





to be an advantage to failing to master mainstream Discourses, that is, there is an advantage to being socially “maladapted.” When we have really mastered anything (e.g., a Discourse), we have little or no conscious awareness of it (indeed, like dancing, Discourses wouldn’t work if people were consciously aware of what they were doing while doing it). However, when we come across a situation where we are unable to accommodate or adapt (as many minority students do on being faced, late in the game, with having to acquire mainstream Discourses), we become consciously aware of what we are trying to do or are being called upon to do. Let me give an example that works similarly, that is, the case of classroom second language learning. Almost no one really acquires a second language in a classroom. However, it can happen that exposure to another language, having to translate it into and otherwise relate it to your own language, can cause you to become consciously aware of how your first language works (how it means). This “metaknowledge” can actually make you better able to manipulate your first language.

Vygotsky (1987) says that learning a foreign language “allows the child to understand his native language as a single instantiation of a linguistic system” (p. 222).

19 And here we have a clue. Classroom instruction (in language, composition, study skills, writing, critical thinking, content-based literacy, or whatever) can lead to metaknowledge, to seeing how the Discourses you have already got relate to those you are attempting to acquire, and how the ones you are trying to acquire relate to self and society. Metaknowledge is liberation and power, because it leads to the ability to manipulate, to analyze, to resist while advancing. Such metaknowledge can make “maladapted” students smarter than “adapted” ones. Thus, the liberal classroom that avoids overt talk of form and superficialities, of how things work, as well as of their socio- cultural-political basis, is no help. Such talk can be powerful so long as one never thinks that in talking about grammar, form, or superficialities one is getting people to actually acquire Discourses (or languages, for that matter). Such talk is always political talk.

19 – Extending Gee signals that he is about to carry Vygotsky’s insight into this other area of learning.

But, the big question: If one cannot acquire Discourses save through active social practice, and it is difficult to compete with the mastery of those admitted early to the game when one has entered it as late as high school or college, what can be done to see to it that metaknowledge and resistance are coupled with Discourse development? The problem is deepened by the fact that







true acquisition of many mainstream Discourses involves, at least while being in them, active complicity with values that conflict with one’s home- and community-based Discourses, especially for many women and minorities.

The question is too big for me, but I have two views to push nonetheless. First, true acquisition (which is always full fluency) will rarely if ever happen. Even for anything close to acquisition to occur, classrooms must be active apprenticeships in “academic” social practices, and, in most cases, must connect with these social practices as they are also carried on outside the “composition” or “language” class, elsewhere in the University.

Second, though true acquisition is probably not possible, “mushfake” Discourse is possible.

20 Mack (1989) defines “mushfake,” a term from prison culture, as making “do with something less when the real thing is not available. So when prison inmates make hats from underwear to protect their hair from lice, the hats are mushfake. Elaborate craft items made from used wooden match sticks are another example of mushfake.” “Mushfake Discourse” means partial acquisition coupled with metaknowledge and strategies to “make do” (strategies ranging from always having a memo edited to ensure no plural, possessive, and third-person “s” agreement errors to active use of black culture skills at “psyching out” interviewers, or to strategies of “rising to the meta-level” in an interview so the interviewer is thrown off stride by having the rules of the game implicitly referred to in the act of carrying them out).

20 – Framework Gee will make Mack’s notion of mushfake a major means of structuring his own argument through the rest of the piece.

“Mushfake,” resistance, and metaknowledge: this seems to me like a good combination for successful students and successful social change.

21 So I propose that we ought to produce “mushfaking,” resisting students, full of metaknowledge. But isn’t that to politicize teaching? A Discourse is an integration of saying, doing, and valuing, and all socially based valuing is political. All successful teaching, that is, teaching that inculcates Discourse and not just content, is political. That too is a truism.

21 – CARS: Occupy

As a linguist I am primarily interested in the functioning of language in Discourses and literacies. And a key question in this sort of linguistics is how language-within-Discourses is acquired



(in socially situated apprenticeships) and how the languages from different Discourses transfer into, interfere with, and otherwise influence each other to form the linguistic texture of whole societies and to interrelate various groups in society. To see what is at stake here, I will briefly discuss one text, one which clearly brings out a host of important issues in this domain. The text, with an explanation of its context, is printed below. The text is demarcated in terms of “lines” and “stanzas,” units which I believe are the basis of speech:

CONTEXT OF TEXT A young middle-class mother regularly reads storybooks to both her 5- and 7-year-old daughters. Her 5-year-old had had a birthday party, which had had some problems. In the next few days the 5-year-old has told several relatives about the birthday party, reporting the events in the language of her primary Discourse system. A few days later, when the mother was reading a storybook to her 7-year-old, the 5-year-old said she wanted to “read” (she could not decode), and pretended to be reading a book, while telling what had happened at her birthday party. Her original attempt at this was not very good, but eventually after a few tries, interspersed with the mother reading to the other girl, the 5 year-old produced the following story, which is not (just) in the language of her primary Discourse system:

STANZA ONE (Introduction) 1. This is a story

2. About some kids who were once friends

3. But got into a big fight

4. And were not

STANZA TWO (Frame: Signalling of Genre) 5. You can read along in your storybook

6. I’m gonna read aloud [story-reading prosody from now on]

STANZA THREE (Title) 7. “How the Friends Got Unfriend”

STANZA FOUR (Setting: Introduction of Characters) 8. Once upon a time there was three boys ’n three girls

9. They were named Betty Lou, Pallis, and Parshin, were the girls

10. And Michael, Jason, and Aaron were the boys

11. They were friends




STANZA FIVE (Problem: Sex Differences) 12. The boys would play Transformers

13. And the girls would play Cabbage Patches

STANZA SIX (Crisis: Fight) 14. But then one day they got into a fight on who would be which team

15. It was a very bad fight

16. They were punching

17. And they were pulling

18. And they were banging

STANZA SEVEN (Resolution 1: Storm) 19. Then all of a sudden the sky turned dark

20. The rain began to fall

21. There was lightning going on

22. And they were not friends

STANZA EIGHT (Resolution 2: Mothers punish) 23. Then um the mothers came shooting out ’n saying

24. “What are you punching for?

25. You are going to be punished for a whole year”

STANZA NINE (Frame) 26. The end

27. Wasn’t it fun reading together?

28. Let’s do it again

29. Real soon!

This text and context display an event, which I call filtering, “in the act” of actually taking place.

22 “Filtering” is a process whereby aspects of the language, attitudes, values, and other elements of certain types of secondary Discourses (e.g., dominant ones represented in the world of school and trans-local government and business institutions) are filtered into primary Discourse (and, thus, the process whereby a literacy can influence home-based practices). Filtering represents transfer of features from secondary Discourses into primary Discourses. This transfer process allows the child to practice aspects of dominant secondary Discourses in the very act of acquiring a primary Discourse. It is a key device in the creation of a group of elites who appear to demonstrate quick and effortless mastery of dominant secondary Discourses, by “talent” or “native









ability,” when, in fact, they have simply practiced aspects of them longer.

22 – Making Knowledge

The books that are part of the storybook reading episodes surrounding this child’s oral text encode language that is part of several specific secondary Discourses. These include, of course, “children’s literature,” but also “literature” proper. Such books use linguistic devices that are simplified analogues of “literary” devices used in traditional, canonical “high literature.” These devices are often thought to be natural and universal to literary art, though they are not. Many of them have quite specific origins in quite specific historical circumstances (though, indeed, some of them are rooted in universals of sense making and are devices that occur in nonliterary talk and writing).

One device with a specific historical reference is the so- called “sympathetic fallacy.” This is where a poem or story treats natural events (e.g., sunshine or storms) as if they reflected or were “in harmony” or “in step” with (sympathetic with) human events and emotions. This device was a hallmark of 19th-century Romantic poetry, though it is common in more recent poetry as well.

Notice how in the 5-year-old’s story the sympathetic fallacy is not only used, but is, in fact, the central organizing device in the construction of the story. The fight between the girls and boys in stanza 6 is immediately followed in stanza 7 by the sky turning dark, with lightning flashing, and thence in line 22: “and they were not friends.” Finally, in stanza 8, the mothers come on the scene to punish the children for their transgression. The sky is “in tune” or “step” with human happenings.

The function of the sympathetic fallacy in “high literature” is to equate the world of nature (the macrocosm) with the world of human affairs (the microcosm) as it is depicted in a particular work of art. It also suggests that these human affairs, as they are depicted in the work of literary art, are “natural,” part of the logic of the universe, rather than conventional, historical, cultural, or class-based.

In the 5-year-old’s story, the sympathetic fallacy functions in much the same way as it does in “high literature.” In particular, the story suggests that gender differences (stanza 4: boy versus girl) are associated with different interests (stanza 5: Transformers versus Cabbage Patches), and that these different interests inevitably lead to conflict when male and female try to be “equal” or “one” or sort themselves on other grounds than gender (stanza 6: “a fight on who would be which team”).

The children are punished for transgressing gender lines






(stanza 8), but only after the use of the sympathetic fallacy (in stanza 7) has suggested that division by gender, and the conflicts which transgressing this division lead to, are sanctioned by nature — are “natural” and “inevitable” not merely conventional or constructed in the very act of play itself.

Notice, then, how the very form and structure of the language, and the linguistic devices used, carry an ideological message.

23 In mastering this aspect of this Discourse, the little girl has unconsciously “swallowed whole,” ingested, a whole system of thought, embedded in the very linguistic devices she uses.

23 – So What?

Reread This, by the way, is another example of how linguistic aspects of Discourses can never be isolated from nonlinguistic aspects like values, assumptions, and beliefs.

— Reread Look again at the line of arguments Gee made to reach this conclusion.

Let’s consider how this text relates to our theory of Discourse and literacy. The child had started by telling a story about her birthday to various relatives, over a couple of days, presumably in her primary Discourse. Then, on a given day, in the course of repeated book reading episodes, she reshapes this story into another genre. She incorporates aspects of the book reading episode into her story. Note, for example, the introduction in stanza 1, the frame in stanza 2, the title in stanza 3, and then the start of the story proper in stanza 4. She closes the frame in stanza 9. This overall structure shapes the text into “storybook reading,” though, in fact, there is no book and the child can’t read. I cannot help but put in an aside here: note that this girl is engaged in an apprenticeship in the Discourse of “storybook reading,” a mastery of which I count as a literacy, though in this case there is no book and no reading. Traditional accounts of literacy are going to have deep conceptual problems here, because they trouble themselves too much over things like books and reading.

Supported by her mother and older sister, our 5-year-old is mastering the secondary Discourse of “storybook reading.” But this Discourse is itself an aspect of apprenticeship in another, more mature Discourse, namely “literature” (as well as, in other respects, “essayist Discourse,” but that is another story). This child, when she goes to school to begin her more public apprenticeship into the Discourse of literature, will look like a “quick study” indeed. It will appear that her success was






inevitable given her native intelligence and verbal abilities. Her success was inevitable, indeed, but because of her earlier apprenticeship. Note too how her mastery of this “storybook reading” Discourse leads to the incorporation of a set of values and attitudes (about gender and the naturalness of middle-class ways of behaving) that are shared by many other dominant Discourses in our society. This will facilitate the acquisition of other dominant Discourses, ones that may, at first, appear quite disparate from “literature” or “storybook reading.”

It is also clear that the way in which this girl’s home experience interpolates primary Discourse (the original tellings of the story to various relatives) and secondary Discourses will cause transfer of features from the secondary Discourse to the primary one (thanks to the fact, for instance, that this is all going on at home in the midst of primary socialization). Indeed, it is just such episodes that are the locus of the process by which dominant secondary Discourses filter from public life into private life.

The 5-year-old’s story exemplifies two other points as well. First, it is rather pointless to ask, “Did she really intend, or does she really know about such meanings?” The Discourses to which she is apprenticed “speak” through her (to other Discourses, in fact). So, she can, in fact, “speak” quite beyond herself (much like “speaking in tongues,” I suppose). Second, the little girl ingests an ideology whole here, so to speak, and not in any way in which she could analyze it, verbalize it, or critique it. This is why this is not an experience of learning a liberating literacy.

To speak to the educational implications of the view of Discourse and literacy herein, and to close these introductory remarks, I will leave you to meditate on the words of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. “Fortunately, in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square” (quoted in Ellman, 1988, p. 561).

References Akinnaso, F. N., & Ajirotutu, C. S. (1982). Performance and

ethnic style in job intervews. In J. J. Gumperz (Ed.), Language and social identity (pp. 119–144). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beebe, L. M. (Ed.) (1988). Issues in second language acquisition: Multiple perspectives. New York: Newbury House.

Cazden, C. (1988). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Dulay, H., Burt, M., & Krashen, S. (1982). Language two. New York: Oxford University Press.



Ellman, R. (1988). Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage Books. Grosjean, F. (1986). Life with two languages. Cambridge:

Harvard University Press. Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work

in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hirsch, E. D. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.

Krashen, S. (1985a). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. Harlow, U.K.: Longman.

Krashen, S. (1985b). Inquiries and insights. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.

Krashen, S., &. Terrell, T. (1983). The natural approach: Language acquisition in the classroom. Hayward, CA: Alemany Press.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mack, N. (1989). The social nature of words: Voices, dialogues, quarrels. The Writing Instructor, 8, 157–165.

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (1985). Authority in language: Investigating language prescription and standardisation. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Milroy, L. (1980). Language and social networks. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Milroy, L. (1987). Observing and analysing natural language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Rogoff, B., & Lave, J. (Eds.). (1984). Everyday cognition: Its development in a social context. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rosaldo, R. (1989). Culture and truth: The remaking of social analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky, Volume 1: Problems of general psychology. Including the volume thinking and speech (R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton, Eds.). New York: Plenum.

Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. What does Gee mean when he says that you can speak with perfect grammar and yet be “wrong nonetheless” (para. 2)? Does this conflict with what you’ve been taught in school about grammar?

2. Gee argues that you can say something in the right way but do the wrong thing, which he calls the “saying-doing combination” (para. 2). What does this mean?



How does this impact people’s ability to make meaning together?

3. Explain Gee’s distinction between Discourse with a capital D and discourse with a lowercase d. Does it make sense to you? Why or why not?

4. What does Gee mean by the terms primary Discourse, secondary Discourse, dominant Discourse, and nondominant Discourse?

5. What does it mean to say that “Discourses are connected with displays of identity” (para. 18)? What are the implications of this claim, if it is true?

6. Gee argues that reading and writing never happen, and thus can’t be taught, apart from some Discourse. Further, he argues, teaching someone to read or write also means teaching them to “say, do, value, and believe” as members of that Discourse do (para. 24). How is this connected to his claims about the relationship between Discourse and identity?

7. Gee argues that members of dominant Discourses apply “constant ‘tests’” (para. 13) to people whose primary Discourse is not the dominant one. Later, he explains that members of dominant Discourses often pay close attention to how mechanically “correct” others’ language is because these features are the “best test as to whether one was apprenticed in the ‘right’ place, at the ‘right’ time, with the ‘right’ people” (para. 25). What is Gee talking about here? Can you think of an example you have seen or experienced that illustrates what Gee is describing?

8. Why do you think dominant Discourse “tests” happen? What is the benefit to members of the dominant Discourse? What goals (and whose goals) are being mediated through such Discourse tests?

9. How does Gee define literacy? What is his attitude toward print-based literacy, specifically?

10. How does Gee define enculturation?

11. What is metaknowledge and what is its value, according to Gee?

12. Consider a Discourse that you believe you are already a part of. How do you know you are a part of it? How did you become a part of it?

13. Consider a Discourse to which you do not belong but want to belong — a group in which you are or would like to be what Gee calls an apprentice. What is hardest about learning to belong to that Discourse? Who or what aids you the most in becoming a part? Do you ever feel like a “pretender”? If so, what marks you as a pretender?

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Write a description of the “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing” of your own primary Discourse (the one you were enculturated into at birth). Be sure to note things like grammatical usage, common phrases, tone of voice, formality of speech, and values related to that Discourse. Once you have done this, write a description of the “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing” of academic Discourse as you have encountered it so far. Finally, discuss sources of transfer



(overlap) and sources of conflict between these two Discourses.

2. Gee argues that English teachers are the ones who have to do something about the fact that people from nondominant Discourses can’t join dominant Discourses late in life. Write a letter to one of your high school or college English teachers in which you explain what Discourses are, describe the difference between dominant and nondominant Discourses, and ask the teacher to take some specific action of your choosing to better help students from nondominant Discourses.

3. Gee notes that there are often conflicts and tensions between Discourses. Consider different Discourses you belong to that have different values, beliefs, attitudes, language use, etc. How do you navigate between or among these Discourses?

META MOMENT What have you learned from Gee that you can usefully apply elsewhere in your life? How does Gee help you understand your experiences (or those of other people) better? Finally, how does Gee help you better understand the threshold concepts of this chapter: that people use texts and discourse in order to do something, to make meaning, and that the texts and language they create mediate meaningful activities?



Learning to Serve The Language and Literacy of Food Service Workers


Framing the Reading

Tony Mirabelli earned a Ph.D. in Education in Language, Literacy, and Culture from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001 and is currently a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at that same institution. He is also the Coordinator of the Tutorial Program for the Athletic Study Center there, as well as a graduate advisor for the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education Program and an academic specialist who works with athletes who have special academic needs. Mirabelli’s article focuses on theories about language use in communities to examine

how workers in a diner use language and texts to interact. He is interested in the language and literacy practices of blue-collar service workers. In fact, he introduces the concept of multiliteracies to argue that these workers do not just read texts: They also read people and situations.

MULTILITERACIES Multiliteracies is a term that reflects the recent, broader understanding of literacy as consisting of more than mastery of the “correct” use of alphabetic language. Multiliteracies include the ability to compose and interpret texts showing multimodality (including oral, written, and audio components, among other possibilities), as well as the ability to make meaning in various contexts. A group of scholars known as the New London Group is generally credited with coining the term multiliteracies.



If you read James Gee earlier in this chapter (p. 274), this argument should be familiar to you. Gee, you will remember, argues that there is too much focus on textual literacies and that print-based literacies cannot be separated from what he called the “saying (writing)- doing-being-valuing-believing” within Discourses. The connection between Gee and Mirabelli is not accidental. Mirabelli relies on assumptions from an academic area called New Literacy Studies, which Gee was instrumental in establishing. As you might expect, knowing this, Mirabelli cites Gee when defining his theoretical terms. (And if you look at the publication information for the book in which Mirabelli’s article appears, you’ll find that Gee reviewed that book for the publisher.) Remember that in Chapter 1 we challenged you to see written academic texts as conversations between people. Mirabelli’s article provides a good place for you to test this way of seeing texts.

DISCOURSE/DISCOURSE At its most basic, discourse is language in action, or language being used to accomplish something. Discourse can describe either an instance of language (e.g., “His discourse was terse and harsh”) or a collection of instances that all demonstrate some quality (e.g., “Legal discourse tries to be very precise”). Because groups of people united by some activity tend to develop a characteristic discourse, we can talk about communities that are identified by their discourse — thus, discourse community. James Paul Gee uses Discourse with an uppercase D to differentiate his




specialized meaning of the term.

Mirabelli’s focus on the everyday literacies of a diner should illustrate the underlying threshold concepts of this chapter in very clear ways. The people in the diner use texts and discourse in order to do something and to make meaning. The texts (for example, the menu) and specialized language they create and use together mediate the activities they are trying to accomplish in the diner.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

Think back to your first job. What was it like learning to do it? What did you have to learn? In particular, what terms, language, and vocabulary did you have to learn? What texts helped you do the work of that job (remember to consider even mundane texts like notes, menus, and so on)? How difficult did you find it? Why?

Find some friends who have worked in food service, and have them compare notes: Are there different Discourses for different kinds of food service?

As you read, consider the following questions:

How do you understand the notion of Discourses differently depending on which (or what kind of) Discourse is being studied and analyzed?

How many kinds of literacies do you imagine there are? Is there a literacy for every kind of reading? How many kinds of reading are there?

How do Discourses avoid stereotyping people? Is that possible? What are the consequences of this kind of stereotyping?

BITTERWAITRESS.COM IS ONE of the newest among a burgeoning number of worker- produced websites associated with the service industry.1 The menu on the first page of this website offers links to gossip about celebrity behavior in restaurants, gossip about chefs and restaurant owners, accounts from famous people who were once waitresses,2 and customer- related horror stories. There is also a forum that includes a “hate mail” page that posts email criticisms of the website itself, as well as general criticisms of waitressing, but the criticisms are followed by rebuttals usually from past or present waitresses. Predictably, most of the criticisms either implicitly or explicitly portray waitresses as ignorant and stupid. One email respondent didn’t like what he read on the customer horror story page and sent in this response:

If you find your job [as a waitress] so despicable, then go get an education and get a REAL job. You are whining about something that you can fix. Stop being such a







weakling, go out and learn something, anything, and go make a real contribution to society…. Wait, let me guess: you do not have any marketable skills or useful knowledge, so you do what any bumbling fool can do, wait on tables. This is your own fault.

This response inspired a number of rebuttals of which the following two best summarize the overall sentiment expressed in response to the rant above. The first is from the webmaster of

Is it possible that I have an education, maybe I went to, oh say, Duke, and I just waitressed for some free time? Or that there are very many people in the industry who do this so that they CAN get an education? Not all of us were born with a trust fund. — There is, I might add, considerably more or less to a job than a “clear cut” salary. If you … live in New York, … you’ll know that empty stores and un-crowded subways are half the reason to work at night. By the way, what are the three Leovilles? What are the two kinds of tripe? Who was Cesar Ritz’ partner? What is the JavaScript for a rollover? I guess I would have to ask a bumbling fool those questions. So, tell me then.

Assumptions that waitresses (and waiters) are ignorant and stupid and that waiting on tables contributes little to society are not new. The rebuttals to commonplace, pejorative understandings of the food service industry suggest, however, that there is complexity and skill that may go unrecognized by the general public or institutions such as universities.

The second is from a mother of four:

I might not have a college education, but I would love to see those so called intelligent people get a big tip out of a bad meal, or from a person who is rude and cocky just because that’s the way they are — that takes talent and its not a talent you can learn at any university. So, think about it before you say, “poor girl — too dumb to get a real job….”

Assumptions that waitresses (and waiters) are ignorant and stupid and that waiting on tables contributes little to society are not new. The rebuttals to commonplace, pejorative understandings of the food service industry suggest, however, that there is complexity and skill that may go unrecognized by the general public or institutions such as universities. Indeed institutions, particularly government and corporate entities in the United States, like the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the National Skills Labor Board, define waiting on tables as a low skilled profession. By defining this kind of work as low skilled, there is a concomitant implication that the more than one-third of America’s workforce who do it are low skilled.

Service occupations, otherwise known as “in-person” services (Reich, 1992) or “interactive services” (Leidner, 1993; MacDonald and Sirianni, 1996), include any kind of work which fundamentally involves face-to-face or voice-to-voice interactions and conscious manipulation of self-presentation. As distinguished from white-collar service work, this category of “emotional proletariat” (MacDonald and Sirianni, 1996) is comprised primarily of retail sales workers, hotel workers, cashiers, house cleaners, flight attendants, taxi drivers, package delivery drivers, and waiters, among others. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor





Statistics (1996), one-fifth of the jobs in eating, drinking, and grocery store establishments are held by youth workers between the ages of 16 and 24. While this kind of work is traditionally assumed to be primarily a stop-gap for young workers who will later move up and on to other careers, it also involves youths who will later end up in both middle- and working-class careers. It should not be forgotten that more than two thirds of the workers involved in food service are mature adults — many or most who began their careers in the same or similar industries. Interactive service work is a significant part of the economy in the U.S. today, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs will be “abundant” in this category through 2006.

Economists such as Peter Drucker (1993) suggest that interactive service workers lack the necessary education to be “knowledge” workers. These economists support general conceptions that service work is “mindless,” involving routine and repetitive tasks that require little education. This orientation further suggests that these supposedly low skilled workers lack the problem identifying, problem solving, and other high level abilities needed to work in other occupations. However, relatively little specific attention and analysis have been given to the literacy skills and language abilities needed to do this work. My research investigates these issues with a focus on waiters and waitresses who work in diners. Diner restaurants are somewhat distinct from fast food or fine-dining restaurants, and they also epitomize many of the assumptions held about low skilled workplaces that require interactive services. The National Skills Standard Board, for instance, has determined that a ninth-grade level of spoken and written language use is needed to be a waiter or a waitress. Yet, how language is spoken, read, or written in a restaurant may be vastly different from how it is used in a classroom. A seemingly simple event such as taking a customer’s food order can become significantly more complex, for example, when a customer has a special request. How the waitress or waiter understands and uses texts such as the menu and how she or he “reads” and verbally interacts with the customer reflect carefully constructed uses of language and literacy.

This chapter explores these constructed ways of “reading” texts (and customers) along with the verbal, “performances” and other manipulations of self-presentation that characterize interactive service work. In line with MacDonald and Sirianni (1996), I hope this work will contribute to the development of understandings and policies that build more respect and recognition for service work to help ensure it does not become equated with servitude.

LITERACY AND CONTEMPORARY THEORY In contrast to institutional assessments such as the National Skills Standards Board (1995), current thinking in key areas of education, sociology, anthropology and linguistics views language, literacy, and learning as embedded in social practice rather than entirely in the minds of individuals (Street, 1984; Gee, 1991; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Kress, 1993; Mahiri and Sablo, 1996; New London Group, 1996; Gee, Hull, and Lankshear, 1996). As earlier chapters in this book have noted, Gee (1991: 6) — a key proponent of this conception of literacy — explains that to be literate means to have control of “a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or ‘social network.’” In a similar fashion, research work located explicitly within workplace studies proposes that literacy is “a range of practices specific to groups and individuals of different cultures, races, classes and genders” (Hull et al., 1996: 5).

In most societal institutions, however, literacy continues to be defined by considerations of






achievement and by abstract, standardized tests of individual students. Also, there is a decided focus on printed texts over other mediums of communication like visual and audio. Such a focus limits our understanding of literacy in terms of its use in specific situations in multiple modes of communication. The New Literacy Studies orientation that shapes the work reported in this book argues that literacy extends beyond individual experiences of reading and writing to include the various modes of communication and situations of any socially meaningful group or network where language is used in multiple ways. The New London Group (1996), for example, claims that due to changes in the social and economic environment, schools too must begin to consider language and literacy education in terms of “multiliteracies.” The concept of multiliteracies supplements traditional literacy pedagogy by addressing the multiplicity of communications channels and the increasing saliency of cultural and linguistic diversity in the world today. Central to this study is the understanding that literate acts are embedded in specific situations and that they also extend beyond the printed text involving other modes of communication including both verbal and nonverbal. In this chapter, I illustrate something of the character of literacies specific to the “social network” of waiting on tables and show how they are distinct from the conceptions of literacy commonly associated with formal education. This is not simply to suggest that there is a jargon specific to the work, which of course there is, but that there is something unique and complex about the ways waiters and waitresses in diners use language and literacy in doing their work.

METHODOLOGY Taken together, extant New Literacies Studies research makes a formidable argument for the need to re-evaluate how we understand literacy in the workplace — particularly from the perspective of interactive service workers. The research reported here is modeled after Hull and her colleagues’ groundbreaking ethnographic study of skill requirements in the factories of two different Silicon Valley computer manufacturing plants (1996). Instead of studying manufacturing plants, the larger research study I conducted and that underpins the study reported here involves two diner restaurants — one that is corporately owned and one that is privately owned. In this chapter, however, I focus only on the one that is privately owned to begin addressing the specific ways that language use and literacy practices function in this kind of workplace.

To analyze the data, I relied on some of the methodological tools from the work of Hull and her colleagues (1996). In short, I looked at patterns of thought and behavior in the setting; I identified key events taking place; I did conversational analysis of verbal interactions; and I conducted sociocultural analyses of key work events.

The data used in this chapter came from direct participation, observation, field notes, documents, interviews, tape recordings, and transcriptions, as well as from historical and bibliographic literature. I myself have been a waiter (both part-time and full-time over a ten- year period), and I was actually employed at the privately owned restaurant during my data collection period. In addition to providing important insights into worker skills, attitudes, and behaviors, my experience and positioning in this setting also enabled access to unique aspects of the work that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. The primary data considered in this chapter were collected during eight-hour periods of participant observation on Friday and/or Saturday nights in the restaurant. I chose weekend nights because they were usually the busiest times in the diner and were therefore the most challenging for the workers. Weekend shifts are also the most lucrative for the restaurant and the workers.








LOU’S RESTAURANT Lou’s Restaurant3 is a modest, privately owned diner restaurant patterned in a style that is popular in the local region. It has an open kitchen layout with a counter where individual customers can come and sit directly in front of the cooks’ line and watch the “drama” of food service unfold while enjoying their meals. The food served at Lou’s is Italian-American and it includes pastas, seafood, and a variety of sautéed or broiled poultry, beef, and veal. As is often the case with diner restaurants, Lou’s has over ninety main course items, including several kinds of appetizers and salads, as well as a number of side dishes. The primary participants focused on in this chapter are three waiters at Lou’s: John, Harvey, and myself.

After finishing my master’s degree in English literature and deciding to move out of the state where I taught English as a Second Language at a community college, I ended up working as a waiter for two years at Lou’s. This work allowed me to survive financially while further advancing my academic career. At the time I began my study at this site, the only waiter to have worked longer than two years at Lou’s was John. Like myself, John began working in the restaurant business to earn extra money while in school after he had been discharged from the Marines, where he had been trained as a radio operator, telephone wireman, and Arabic translator. Two days after his honorable discharge, he started working in the restaurant that four years later would become Lou’s. He subsequently has worked there for ten years. John also is the most experienced waiter at Lou’s, and although the restaurant does not have an official “head” waiter, John is considered by his peers to be the expert. In an interview, he noted that it took almost ten years before he felt that he had really begun to master his craft.

Harvey might also be considered a master waiter, having been in the profession for over thirty years. However, at the beginning of the study he had been with Lou’s for only two weeks. He was initially reticent to participate in the study because he said he lacked experience at this restaurant, and “didn’t know the menu.” Having left home when he was 14 years old to come “out West,” over the years he had done a stint in the Air Force, held a position as a postal clerk, worked as a bellhop and bartender, and even had the opportunity to manage a local cafe. He decided that he did not like managerial work because he missed the freedom, autonomy, and customer interaction he had as a waiter and took a position at Lou’s.

THE MENU Harvey’s concern over not knowing the menu was not surprising. The menu is the most important printed text used by waiters and waitresses, and not knowing it can dramatically affect how they are able to do their work. The menu is the key text used for most interactions with the customer, and, of course, the contents of menus vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant. But, what is a menu and what does it mean to have a literate understanding of one?

The restaurant menu is a genre unto itself. There is regularity and predictability in the conventions used such as the listing, categorizing, and pricing of individual, ready-made food items. The menu at Lou’s contains ninety main course items, as well as a variety of soups, salads, appetizers, and side dishes. In addition, there are numerous selections where, for example, many main course items offer customers a choice of their own starch item from a selection of four: spaghetti, ravioli, french fries, or a baked potato. Some of the main course items, such as sandwiches, however, only come with french fries — but if the customer prefers something such as spaghetti, or vegetables instead of fries, they can substitute another item for a small charge, although this service is not listed in the menu. In addition to the food menu, there is also a wine menu and a full service bar meaning that hard liquor is sold in this








restaurant. There are twenty different kinds of wine sold by the glass and a selection of thirty- eight different kinds of wine sold by the bottle, and customers can order most other kinds of alcoholic beverages.

In one context, waitresses and waiters’ knowing the meaning of the words in the menus means knowing the process of food production in the restaurant. But this meaning is generally only used when a customer has a question or special request. In such situations the meaning of the words on the page are defined more by the questions and the waiters or waitresses’ understanding of specific food preparation than by any standard cookbook or dictionary. For example, the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (1996) presents a recipe for marinara sauce calling for a thick sauce all sautéed and simmered for over thirty minutes. At Lou’s, a marinara sauce is cooked in less than ten minutes and is a light tomato sauce consisting of fresh tomatoes, garlic, and parsley sautéed in olive oil. At a similar restaurant nearby — Joe’s Italian Diner — marinara sauce is a seafood sauce, albeit tomato based. Someone who is familiar with Italian cooking will know that marinara sauce will have ingredients like tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic, but, in a restaurant, to have a more complete understanding of a word like marinara requires knowing how the kitchen prepares the dish. Clearly, the meanings of the language used in menus are socially and culturally embedded in the context of the specific situation or restaurant. To be literate here requires something other than a ninth-grade level of literacy. More than just a factual, or literal interpretation of the words on the page, it requires knowledge of specific practices — such as methods of food preparation — that take place in a particular restaurant.

On one occasion Harvey, the new but experienced waiter, asked me what “pesto” sauce was. He said that he had never come across the term before, and explained that he had never worked in an Italian restaurant and rarely eaten in one. Pesto is one of the standard sauces on the menu, and like marinara, is commonly found on the menus of many Italian-American restaurants. I explained that it comprised primarily olive oil and basil, as well as garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and a little cream. Harvey then told me that a customer had asked him about the sauce, and since he could not explain what it was, the customer did not order it.

On another occasion a mother asked Harvey if her child could have only carrots instead of the mixed vegetables as it said in the menu. Although he initially told her this was not possible, explaining that the vegetables were premixed and that the cooks would have to pick the carrots out one by one, the mother persisted. After a few trips from the table to the cooks’ line, Harvey managed to get the carrots, but the customer then declined them because everyone had finished eating. Later, I explained to Harvey that it would have been possible to go to the back of the restaurant where he could find the vegetables in various stages of preparation. While the cooks only have supplies of premixed vegetables on the line, Harvey could have gone to the walk-in refrigerator and picked up an order of carrots himself to give to the cooks.

Harvey’s interactions with his customers highlight how much of what he needs to know to be a good waiter is learned within the specific situations and social networks in which that knowledge is used. The instantiation of the meaning of words like pesto and marinara often occurs in the interaction between co-workers as well as with customers. Conversation becomes a necessary element in achieving an appropriately literate understanding of the menu.

Harvey’s understanding and use of the menu and special requests also involves more than his knowledge of food preparation. It involves the manipulation of power and control. Sociocultural theories of literacy consider the role of power and authority in the construction of meaning (Kress, 1993). From his perspective, the order of carrots was not simply an order of carrots, but a way of positioning one’s self in the interaction. The customer saw her desire for the carrots as greater than what was advertised in the menu and thus exercised authority as a






customer by requesting them despite Harvey’s attempt to not make the carrots an option. While such a request might seem fairly innocuous in isolation, when considered in the specific situation of Lou’s at that time — that is, peak dinner hour — it becomes more complex.

Special requests and questions can extend the meaning of the menu beyond the printed page and into the conversation and interaction between the waiter or waitress and the customer. Furthermore, special requests and questions can be as varied as the individual customers themselves. The general public shares a diner restaurant menu, but it is used by each individual patron to satisfy a private appetite. How to describe something to an individual customer and satisfy their private appetite requires not only the ability to read the menu, but also the ability to read the customer. This is achieved during the process of the dinner interaction, and it includes linguistic events such as greeting the customer or taking food orders and involves both verbal and non-verbal communication. In such events the meaning of the menu is continually reconstructed in the interaction between the waitress or waiter and the individual customer, and as a text functions as a “boundary object” that coordinates the perspectives of various constituencies for a similar purpose (Star and Griesmer, 1989); in this case the satisfaction of the individual patron’s appetite. The degree to which private appetite is truly satisfied is open to debate, however. Virtually everyone who has eaten at a restaurant has his or her favorite horror story about the food and/or the service, and more often than not these stories in some way involve the menu and an unfulfilled private appetite.

In addition to being a text that is shared by the general public and used by the individual patron to satisfy a private appetite, the menu is also a text whose production of meaning results in ready-made consumable goods sold for profit. The authors of a printed menu, usually the chefs and owners of the restaurant, have their own intentions when producing the hard copy. For example, it is common practice to write long extensively itemized menus in diner restaurants like Lou’s. As was pointed out earlier, Lou’s menu has over ninety selections from which to choose, and many of these can be combined with a range of additional possible choices. Printing a large selection of food items gives the appearance that the customer will be able to make a personal — and personalized — selection from the extensive menu. In fact, it is not uncommon for patrons at Lou’s to request extra time to read the menu, or ask for recommendations before making a choice. The authors of the printed menu at Lou’s constructed a text that appears to be able to satisfy private appetites, but they ultimately have little control over how the patron will interpret and use the menu.

The waiters and waitresses, however, do have some control. While customers certainly have their own intentions when asking questions, waitresses and waiters have their own intentions when responding. When customers ask questions about the menu, in addition to exercising their own authority, they also introduce the opportunity for waiters and waitresses to gain control of the interaction. A good example of how this control could be manipulated by a waiter or waitress comes from Chris Fehlinger, the web-master of, in an interview with New Yorker magazine:

“A lot of times when people asked about the menu, I would make it sound so elaborate that they would just leave it up to me,” he said, “I’d describe, like, three dishes in excruciating detail, and they would just stutter, ‘I, I, I can’t decide, you decide for me.’ So in that case, if the kitchen wants to sell fish, you’re gonna have fish.” He also employed what might be called a “magic words” strategy: “All you have to do is throw out certain terms, like guanciale, and then you throw in something like saba, a reduction of the unfermented must of the Trebbiano grape. If you mention things like that, people are just, like, ‘O.K.!’” (Teicholz, 1999)







The use of linguistic devices like obfuscating descriptions and “magic words” is not unusual — particularly for waiters in fine dining restaurants. In The World of the Waiters (1983), Mars and Nicod examined how English waiters use devices to “get the jump” and gain control of selecting items from the menu. Their position of authority is further substantiated in fine dining restaurants by the common practice of printing menus in foreign languages, such as French, because it shifts the responsibility of food ordering from the customer, who often will not understand the language, to the waiter.

While diner restaurants generally do not print their menus in incomprehensible terms, they do, as at Lou’s, tend to produce unusually long ones that can have a similar effect. But, diner menus like Lou’s which offer Italian-American cuisine do use some language that is potentially unfamiliar to the clientele (e.g., pesto). The combination of menu length and potentially confusing language creates frequent opportunities for waiters and waitresses to get a jump on the customer. Customers at Lou’s tend to ask questions about the meaning of almost every word and phrase in the menu. Not being able to provide at least a basic description of a menu item, as shown by Harvey’s unfamiliarity with pesto, usually results in that item not being ordered.

Knowing what a customer wants often goes beyond simply being able to describe the food. It also involves knowing which descriptions will more likely sell and requires being able to apply the menu to the specific situation. For instance, in the following transcription I approach a table to take a food order while one customer is still reading the menu (Customer 3b). She asks me to explain the difference between veal scaloppini and veal scaloppini sec.

TONY: (to Customer 3a and Customer 3b) hi CUSTOMER 3B: what’s the difference between scaloppini and scaloppini sec? TONY: veal scaloppini is a tomato based sauce with green onions and mushrooms/veal scaloppini sec is with marsala wine green onions and mushrooms CUSTOMER 3B: I’ll have the veal scaloppini sec. TONY: ok/would you like it with spaghetti/ravioli/french fries CUSTOMER 3B: ravioli CUSTOMER 3A: and/I’ll get the tomato one/the veal scaloppini with mushrooms TONY: with spaghetti/ravioli/french fries CUSTOMER 3A: can I get steamed vegetables TONY: you want vegetables and no starch?/it already comes with vegetables/(.) (Customer 3a nods yes) ok/great/thank you CUSTOMER 3A: thanks

The word sec functions not unlike one of Fehlinger’s “magic” words. Customers who are interested in ordering veal frequently ask questions about the distinctions between the two kinds of scaloppini. I discovered over time that my description of the veal scaloppini sec almost always resulted in the customer ordering the dish. It seemed that mentioning marsala wine piqued customer interest more than tomato sauce did. One customer once quipped that marsala is a sweet wine and wanted to know why the word sec — meaning dry — was used. I replied that since no fat was used in the cooking process, it was considered “dry” cooking. In situations like this the menu is situated more in a conversational mode than a printed one. The transition from print to spoken word occurs due to the customer’s inability to understand the menu, and/or satisfy his or her private appetite which results in a request for assistance. As a result the waiter or waitress can become the authority in relation to not only the printed text, but within the interaction as well. Eventually, I began to recommend this dish when customers asked for






one, and the customers more often than not purchased it. This particular food-ordering event also is interesting with regard to the customer’s

request for steamed vegetables. When I asked what kind of pasta she would like with her meal, she asked for steamed vegetables. The menu clearly states that vegetables are included with the meal along with the customer’s choice of spaghetti, ravioli, or french fries. When she requested steamed vegetables, I simply could have arranged for her to have them and persisted in asking her which pasta she would like, but instead I anticipated that she might not want any pasta at all. I knew that, while it was not printed on the menu, the kitchen could serve her a double portion of steamed vegetables with no pasta. Most importantly, this customer’s ability to order food that would satisfy her private appetite depended almost entirely upon my suggestions and understanding of the menu. Mars and Nicod (1984: 82), discussing a situation in a similar restaurant, noted a waiter who would say, “You don’t really need a menu … I’m a ‘walking menu’ and I’m much better than the ordinary kind … I can tell you things you won’t find on the menu.” Examples like this illustrate not only how waitresses and waiters gain control of their interactions with customers, but also how other modes of communication — such as conversations — are used to construct complex forms of meaning around printed texts like menus. Thus, the meaning of words in a menu are embedded in the situation, its participants, and the balance of power and authority, and this meaning manifests itself in more than one mode of communication.

Reading menus and reading customers also involves a myriad of cultural distinctions. Although there is not the space to discuss them here, age, gender, race, and class are all relevant to interactions between customers and waiter or waitress. The argument can be made that diner restaurants like Lou’s promote a friendly, family-like atmosphere. Historically diners in the U.S. have been recognized as being places where customers can find a familial environment. Popular media today support this characteristic — particularly via television — where restaurant chains explicitly advertise that their customers are treated like family, and a number of television situation comedies have long used restaurants, diners, bars, and cafés as settings where customers and employees interact in very personal and intimate ways. This cultural atmosphere can have a tremendous impact on interactions with the customers. There is sometimes miscommunication or resistance where a customer may or may not want to be treated like family, or the waitress or waiter may or may not want to treat a customer like family. At Lou’s, in addition to having an intimate understanding of food production and being able to describe it to a customer in an appealing fashion, reading a menu and taking a customer’s food order also requires the ability to perform these tasks in a friendly, familial manner.

The following example reveals the complexity of meanings involved in taking a customer’s food order and the expression of “family.” Al is a regular customer who almost always comes in by himself and sits at the counter in front of the cooks’ line. He also always has the same thing to eat, a side order of spaghetti marinara, and never looks at the menu. Perhaps more important to Al than the food he eats are the people he interacts with at Lou’s. He will sit at the counter and enjoy the badinage he shares with the other customers who sit down next to him at the counter, the waitresses and waiters as they pass by his seat, and the cooks working just across the counter. On this particular evening, however, he was joined by his son, daughter-in-law, and young adult granddaughter, and rather than sitting at the counter, he sat in a large booth. Although I immediately recognized Al, I had never waited on him and his family before, and I was not sure how informal he would like the interaction to be. So I began with a fairly formal greeting saying “hello” instead of “hi” and avoided opportunities to make small talk with Al and his family:




TONY: hello::= CUSTOMER 2D: =hello AL: hey(.) what they put in the water?/I don’t know/is it the ice or what is it? CUSTOMER 2S: (chuckles from Customer 2d, Customer 2s, and Customer 2c) TONY: does the water taste strange? CUSTOMER 2S: no TONY: do you want me to get you another water? AL: no/I don’t want any water TONY: ok AL: I had a couple of drinks before I came CUSTOMER 2S: (chuckles)= TONY: (in reference to the water tasting strange) =it could be/it could be/I don’t know CUSTOMER 2D: (to Customer 2s) are you having anything to drink? CUSTOMER 2S: I’ll have a beer/American beer/you have Miller draft? TONY: (while writing down the order) Miller Genuine CUSTOMER 2D: and I’ll have a tequila sunrise AL: (to Customer 2d) what are you having? CUSTOMER 2D: tequila sunrise AL: oh/you should fly/you should fly TONY: (to Customer 2a) Al/you want anything? CUSTOMER 2S: (to Customer 2a) a beer?/or anything? AL: no/I’ve had too much already CUSTOMER 2S: are you sure CUSTOMER 2D: we’ll get you a coffee later TONY: (nod of affirmation to daughter-in-law) AL: I’ve been home alone drinking TONY: ugh ogh::/(chuckles along with Customer 2s)

Al’s comment about the water tasting funny and his drinking at home alone both provided opportunities for me to interact more intimately with Al and his family, but instead I concerned myself solely with taking their drink orders. Al’s desire for me to interact in a more familial manner became more apparent when I returned to take their food order.

CUSTOMER 2D: (as the drinks are delivered) ah/great/thank you TONY: (placing drinks in front of customers) there you go/you’re welcome AL: (to Customer 2s) so we’re flying to Vegas (mumbles) TONY: all right/you need a few minutes here? CUSTOMER 2S: no/(to Customer 2a) are you ready or do you want to wait? CUSTOMER 2D: you made up your mind yet? AL: (mumble) made up my mind yet CUSTOMER 2D: oh/ok TONY: al/what can I get for you? AL: I said I haven’t made up my mind yet TONY: oh/ok (everyone at the table chuckles except Al) AL: I always have pasta you know/I would walk out there (points to the counter) the guy says/I know what you want TONY: ok / I’ll be back in a few minutes CUSTOMER 2D: come back in a few minutes/thanks







While I misunderstood Al when I asked if he was ready to order, for him the greater transgression was simply asking if he was ready to order. Al expected me to know what he was going to eat because he’s a regular; he’s like family. He wanted a side order of spaghetti marinara and didn’t want to have to speak regarding his food order. To be successful in fulfilling Al’s private appetite required more than the ability to describe food according to individual customer preferences. A side order of spaghetti marinara represents not merely a food item on a menu, nor a satisfying mix of pasta and tomatoes, but also, depending on the way it is ordered and served, a gesture of friendliness: “I always have pasta you know/ I would walk out there (points to the counter) the guy says/I know what you want.” To be literate with a menu also means knowing when and how to express emotion (or not express emotion) to a customer through its use.

Being able to take a customer’s order without him or her reading the menu are important ways of expressing friendliness and family at Lou’s. John, the most experienced waiter on staff, often can be found running to get an order of homemade gnocchi from the back freezer and delivering them to the cooks when they are too busy to get back there themselves. Or, he might step in behind the bar to make his own cappuccino when the bartender is busy serving other customers. On one occasion, like many others, John had a customer request a special order called prawns romano, a pasta dish consisting of fettuccine with prawns in a white sauce with green onions, tomatoes, and garlic. This is not listed on any menu in the restaurant, but it is something that the cooks occasionally offer as an evening special. John politely asked whether or not the cooks could accommodate his customer’s request, and they complied. One can frequently hear John greeting many of his customers with some variation of, “Can I get you the usual?” Alternatively, in the case of special requests, some variant of, “That’s no problem” is an often used phrase. Just like a friend for whom it would be no problem, John attempts to satisfy his customer’s special requests in a similar fashion.

Yet, friendliness is often a feigned performance. Being friendly is an experiential phenomenon that is learned through participation. To be a good waitress or waiter generally requires being able to perform friendliness under any number of circumstances. To be successful at the practice of being friendly requires performing certain techniques over and over until they can be performed on an unconscious level. Referred to as emotional labor (Hochschild, 1983: 6–7), this kind of work “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Emotional labor also is an integral part to how a waitress constructs meaning in a menu. While emotional labor may not yield the same monetary results in restaurants like Lou’s, it is still essential to the work. For example, John is masterful in the way he utilizes emotional labor. On one particularly busy evening John was trapped in a line at the bar waiting to place his drink order. He was clearly anxious, and was looking at his food order tickets to see what he needed to do next. The crowd of customers waiting to be seated spilled out of the foyer and into the aisle near where the waitresses and waiters were waiting to place their drink orders. One customer, who recognized John, caught his attention:

JOHN: hi= CUSTOMER: =hi can I get a glass of wine JOHN: sure (.) what do you want CUSTOMER: are you busy JOHN: NO (.) I got it (.) what do you want

John’s friendly “hi” and overemphatic “no” were intended to suggest to the customer that






he was not busy, when he clearly was. As he later explained, he knew that the customer knew he was really busy, but he also knew that if he was friendly and accommodating, the customer probably would give him a nice tip for his trouble, which the customer did. His feigned amiability in agreeing to get the customer a drink was more or less a monetary performance. John had learned to use language for financial gain. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity in the preceding interaction. While it may be brief, being able to be friendly and accommodating under extreme circumstances like the “dinner rush” requires years of practice in a real work setting learning to be able to say, “hi — sure — NO, I got it.”

Although interactions with customers have been presented individually, the reality of how these events occur is quite different. Unlike fine-dining restaurants where the dinner experience can extend over a few hours, diners operate on high volume, serving to a great number of patrons in a short amount of time. George Orwell, reflecting on the difficulty involved in this work, wrote, “I calculated that [a waiter] had to walk and run about 15 miles during the day and yet the strain of the work was more mental than physical…. One has to leap to and fro between a multitude of jobs — it is like sorting a pack of cards against the clock” (Orwell, 1933). Because one person may be serving as many as ten tables or more at one time, the process of serving each individual table will overlap with the others. Food orders are taken numerous times in a half-hour period during busy dinner hours at Lou’s. The preceding transcriptions were taken from tape-recorded data collected on Friday evenings around 7 o’clock. My own interactions were recorded during a period when I had what is referred to as a full station, meaning that all of the tables under my supervision were filled with customers. By this point in the evening I had two customers at the counter, a party of four and six parties of two, for a total of eighteen customers — all of whom were in the process of ordering their meals within the same half-hour to forty-five minute period.

Literacy practices in this environment are nothing like those found in traditional classrooms, but they might be more comparable to those found in the emergency ward of a hospital or an air-traffic controller’s tower. Interaction with texts and participants takes place in a rapid succession of small chunks. During the dinner hours, there are no long drawn out monologues. Time is of the essence during the busiest dinner hours for all participants involved: from the waiters and waitresses to the cooks, bartenders, and busboys. In two hundred lines of transcribed dialogue during a busy dinner period, for example, I never paused longer than thirty-nine seconds, and no participant spoke more than forty-one words in one turn. Even these pauses were usually the result of other work being completed, such as preparing a salad or waiting to order a drink. During this period, virtually all the conversation, reading, and writing were related to the immediate situational context. As this research has shown, language use was far more complex than one might assume in situations and events that involve taking a customer’s food order. In addition to knowing how food is prepared, what will appeal to specific customers, and how to present this information in a friendly manner, the waiter or waitress must also remain conscious of the number of other tables waiting to have their orders taken and the amount of time that will take. Reading menus and reading customers requires the ability to think and react quickly to a multitude of almost simultaneously occurring literate events.

CONCLUSION Menus at Lou’s are texts that are catalysts for interaction between staff and customers, and their meaning is firmly embedded in this interaction. Meaning is constructed from the menu through more than one mode of communication and between a variety of participants. This






process involves knowledge of food preparation, use of specific linguistic devices like magic words and other ways of describing food, the ability to read individual customers’ tastes and preferences, the general expectation to perform in a friendly manner, and all during numerous virtually simultaneous and similar events. Yet, there is much left unconsidered in this chapter, particularly regarding the nature of power and control. While waitresses and waiters are frequently able to manipulate control over customer decisions while taking a food order, this control is often tenuous and insignificant beyond the immediate interaction.

Little also has been said in this chapter about the role of management. Extensive research has already been done in the area of management control, literacy, and worker skills (Braverman, 1974; Hochschild, 1983; Kress, 1993; Leidner, 1993; Hall, 1993; Hull et al., 1996; MacDonald and Sirianni, 1996; Gee, Hull, and Lankshear, 1996). These researchers consider how literacy practices are manipulated by management to maintain control over the worker. Whether it be scientific management where workers are deskilled and routinized, or Fast Capitalism where forms of control are more insidious and shrouded in the guise of “empowering” the worker, there is little research on interactive service work beyond the fast food industry that explores how this rhetoric plays itself out in a real world situation. This leaves open to debate questions regarding the effectiveness of Fast Capitalism as a form of control over the worker. While my research has shown that waiters and waitresses can exercise some level of authority, skill, and wit through their use of language with customers, they must also interact with management and other staff where authority and control play out in different ways.

In the end, however, the customer has ultimate authority over the waiter or waitress. Diner waitressing has a long history of prejudice dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution and involves issues of gender regarding our general perceptions and ways of interacting (Cobble, 1991; Hall, 1993). Waitressing is integrally tied to domesticated housework and likewise has historically been treated as requiring little skill or ability. In fact, the stigma of servitude that plagues waitressing and other similar kinds of work are not only the result of less than respectable treatment from management, but from customers as well. In her sociological study of diner waitresses in New Jersey, Greta Paules sums it up best:

That customers embrace the service-as-servitude metaphor is evidenced by the way they speak to and about service workers. Virtually every rule of etiquette is violated by customers in their interactions with the waitress: the waitress can be interrupted; she can be addressed with the mouth full; she can be ignored and stared at; and she can be subjected to unrestrained anger. Lacking status as a person, she, like the servant, is refused the most basic considerations of polite interaction. She is, in addition, the subject of chronic criticism. Just as in the nineteenth century servants were perceived as ignorant, slow, lazy, indifferent, and immoral (Sutherland 1981), so in the twentieth century service workers are condemned for their stupidity, apathy, slowness, incompetence, and questionable moral character. (1991:138–39)

The low status of waitressing and waitering belies the complex nature of this kind of work and the innovative and creative ways in which such workers use language.

Notes 1. Some of the more than 20 websites I have found so far like are award

winning. They include sites for taxi drivers, hotel workers, and the like.



2. How to appropriately refer to waitresses and waiters is not a simple decision. Terms like server and food server are alternatives, but all are problematic. I personally do not like server or food server because they are too closely related to the word servitude. The waiter/waitress distinction is problematic not simply because it differentiates genders, but also because it is associated with a kind/class of service. Often in fine-dining restaurants today both men and women are referred to as waiters, but it is more commonly the practice in the “diner” style restaurant to maintain the distinctive terms. This is historically connected to the diner waitressing being regarded as inferior to fine-dining waitering because it was merely an extension of the domesticated duties of the household.

3. Pseudonyms have been used throughout this chapter.

Works Cited Better homes and gardens new cook book. (1996). New York: Better Homes and Gardens. Braverman, H. (1974). Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century.

New York: Monthly Review Press. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (1996). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor.

Cobble, S. (1991). Dishing it out: Waitresses and their unions in the 20th century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Drucker, P. (1993). Innovation and entrepreneurship: Practice and principles. New York: Harper- business.

Gee, J. (1991). Sociolinguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. New York: Falmer. Gee, J., Hull, G., and Lankshear, C. (1996). The new work order: Behind the language of the new

capitalism. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. Gowen, S. (1992). The politics of workplace literacy. New York: Teachers College Press. Hall, E. (1993). Smiling, deferring, and good service. Work and occupations, 20 (4), 452–471. Hochschild, A. (1983). The managed heart. Berkeley: University of California Press. Hull, G. (Ed.). (1997). Changing work, changing workers: Critical perspectives on language, literacy,

and skills. New York: State University of New York Press. Hull, G. et al. (1996). Changing work, changing literacy? A study of skills requirements and

development in a traditional and restructured workplace. Final Report. Unpublished manuscript. University of California at Berkeley.

Kress, G. (1993). Genre as social process. In B. Cope and M. Kalantzis (Eds.), The powers of literacy: A genre approach to teaching writing (pp. 22–37). London: Falmer.

Kress, G. (1995). Writing the future: English and the making of a cultural innovation. London: NATE. Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York:

Cambridge University Press. Leidner, R. (1993). Fast food, fast talk: Service work and the routinization of everyday life. Berkeley:

University of California Press. MacDonald, C. and, Sirianni, C. (Eds.). (1996). Working in the service society. Philadelphia: Temple

University. Mahiri, J. and Sablo, S. (1996). Writing for their lives: The non-school literacy of California’s urban

African American youth. Journal of Negro Education, 65 (2), 164–180. Mars, G. and Nicod, M. (1984). The world of waiters. London: Unwin Hyman. New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard

Educational Review, 66 (1), 60–92.



NSSB (National Skills Standards Board). (1995). Server skill standards: National performance criteria in the foodservice industry. Washington, DC: U.S. Council on Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Education.

Orwell, G. (1933). Down and out in Paris and London. New York: Harcourt Brace. Paules, G. (1991). Dishing it out: Power and resistance among waitresses in a New Jersey restaurant.

Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Reich, R. (1992). The work of nations. New York: Vintage. Star, L. and Griesmer, J. (1989). Institutional ecology, translations and boundary objects: Amateurs and

professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907–1939. Social Studies of Science, 19.

Street, B. (1984 April 5). Literacy in theory and practice. London: Cambridge University Press.


Questions for Discussion and Journaling

1. How does Mirabelli begin his article? What can you infer from it about his intended audience(s) and purpose(s) from the way he begins? What are the effects for his audience of the way he begins?

2. Mirabelli chooses to focus on participation in a restaurant Discourse. Why? What is he contributing to the conversation on Discourses by doing so?

3. What is the “traditional” view of literacy, according to Mirabelli, and what is the view of literacy that New Literacy Studies takes? What are multiliteracies?

4. What seems to be Mirabelli’s research question and where does he state it? What kind of data did Mirabelli collect to analyze the diner discourse community? What seem to be his primary findings in answer to his research question?

5. Mirabelli spends a good deal of his analysis focusing on the genre of the menu, and in doing so, he also discusses the diner’s lexis and methods of intercommunication. Why does Mirabelli focus on the genre of the menu? Is this an effective focus for him as he attempts to answer the research question you identified above? Why or why not?

6. Mirabelli argues that literacy in the diner includes not only reading the menu but also reading the customers. Do you agree that reading customers is a form of literacy? Why or why not?

7. Do you now or have you ever participated in a discourse community that is strongly stereotyped in the ways that restaurant work is stereotyped (for example, a football team or a sorority)? What are the stereotypes? Using Mirabelli, consider the various “multiliteracies” of this discourse community.

Applying and Exploring Ideas

1. Consider a non-school Discourse that you are a member of, and answer the following questions about it:

a. What are the shared goals of the community; why does this group exist, what does it do?



b. What mechanisms do members use to communicate with each other (for example, meetings, phone calls, email, text messages, newsletters, reports, evaluation forms)?

c. What are the purposes of each of these mechanisms of communication (for example, to improve performance, make money, grow better roses, share research)?

d. Which of the above mechanisms of communication can be considered genres (textual responses to recurring situations that all group members recognize and understand)?

e. What kinds of lexis (specialized language) do group members use? Provide some examples.

LEXIS Lexis is a term used for the specific vocabulary used by a group or field of study.

f. Who are the “old-timers” with expertise? Who are the newcomers with less expertise? How do newcomers learn the appropriate language, genres, and knowledge of the group?

2. Select a Discourse you’re interested in and develop a research question about it. What would you want to know, for example, about how the Discourse works, what it takes to enculturate or gain membership in it, and how it differs from other Discourses?

META MOMENT What did you learn from Mirabelli that can help you make sense of situations in your own life, both seemingly mundane situations like your part-time job, as well as more complex situations like learning to write in your major? How has Mirabelli helped you better understand the threshold concepts of this chapter: that people use texts and discourse in order to do something, to make meaning, and that the texts and language they create mediate meaningful activities?



Discourse Communities and Communities of Practice Membership, Conflict, and Diversity


Framing the Reading

Ann M. Johns, like Gee, is a well-known linguist. While she was at San Diego State University, Johns directed the American Language Institute, the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, the Freshman Success Program, and the Center for Teaching and Learning, and she still found time to research and write twenty-three articles, twenty-two book chapters, and four books (including Genre in the Classroom [2001] and Text, Role, and Context, from which the following reading is taken). Since retiring from San Diego State, Johns continues to write articles and consult around the world. Discourse community is the second of three frames for analysis that this chapter

provides in order to help you consider how people use texts and language to accomplish work together. Johns gives you some things to look for and consider when trying to figure out what is happening in any situation where language and texts play a part: What are people doing here? Do they have shared goals? How do they communicate with one another? How do newcomers learn what to do here?



Johns doesn’t simply explain discourse communities, but focuses on how and why conflicts occur in them. In doing so, she focuses primarily on academic discourse communities. She talks about some of the “expected” conventions of discourse in the academy (what she calls “uniting forces”), and then describes sources of contention. Johns brings up issues of rebellion against discourse community conventions, change within conventions of communities, the relationship of identity to discourse community membership, and the problems of authority and control over acceptable community discourse. Johns’s exploration of conflicts within discourse communities should remind you that such communities are always changing and are not static. Thus, even though newcomers may be expected to enculturate, they can also make change within communities — and change the way that people get work done and make meaning together. As always, this reading will be easier for you if you can try to relate what Johns describes to your own experiences or to things you have witnessed or read about elsewhere.

CONVENTIONS In Writing Studies, writing is understood to be governed by conventions — that is, agreements among people about the best ways to accomplish particular tasks (such as starting new paragraphs, or citing sources, or deciding how to punctuate sentences). That people have to come to agreements about such questions means that there is no “natural” or pre-existing way to accomplish the tasks; rather, people



simply agreed to do A rather than B. Tabbing the first line of a paragraph one-half inch is a convention; ending sentences with periods is a convention; citing sources in parentheses is a convention, as are parentheses themselves. Conventions are a kind of construct, and like constructs, they can be questioned,

challenged, and changed, if key decision makers agree to alter them or to establish another convention in their place.

IDENTITY Identity comprises your characteristics or personality, consisting of those factors that create a sense of “who you are.” Recent theory suggests that individuals may have multiple and/or changing identities, not one “true,” stable identity.

AUTHORITY An authority is an accepted source, an expert, or a person with power or credibility. Authority (as an abstract noun) connotes confidence and self-assurance. In this book, the term is generally used to refer to people who understand the

conventions or accepted practices of a discourse community and thus are able to speak, write, or act with credibility and confidence. A writer’s ethos is based in part on his or her authority.

ENCULTURATE A newcomer enculturates when he or she learns to become a part of a group or “culture” (including an activity system, discourse community, or community of practice). Becoming successfully enculturated usually requires gaining some level of competence in the activities and language practices of the group. See apprenticeship for a definition of a similar term.

Getting Ready to Read

Before you read, do at least one of the following activities:

If you’ve read other articles in this chapter already, make a list of the difficulties or problems you’ve had with concepts related to discourses so far. What have you not understood? What has not made sense? What questions have you been left with?

Write a quick note to yourself about membership: What does the idea of membership mean to you? When you hear that word, what do you associate it with? What memories of it do you have? Do you often use it or hear it?

As you read, consider the following questions:

What does it mean to have authority in relation to texts and discourse communities?

How does trying to become a member of a discourse community impact your sense of self? Do you feel your “self” being compressed or pressured, or expanding?

How are discourse communities related to identity?






If there is one thing that most of [the discourse community definitions] have in common, it is an idea of language [and genres] as a basis for sharing and holding in common: shared expectations, shared participation, commonly (or communicably) held ways of expressing. Like audience, discourse community entails assumptions about conformity and convention (Rafoth, 1990, p. 140).

What is needed for descriptive adequacy may not be so much a search for the conventions of language use in a particular group, but a search for the varieties of language use that work both with and against conformity, and accurately reflect the interplay of identity and power relationships (Rafoth, 1990, p. 144).

A SECOND IMPORTANT CONCEPT in the discussion of socioliteracies is discourse community. Because this term is abstract, complex, and contested,1 I will approach it by attempting to answer a few of the questions that are raised in the literature, those that seem most appropriate to teaching and learning in academic contexts.

1. Why do individuals join social and professional communities? What appear to be the relationships between communities and their genres?

2. Are there levels of community? In particular, can we hypothesize a general academic community or language?

3. What are some of the forces that make communities complex and varied? What forces work against “shared participation and shared ways of expressing?” (Rafoth, 1990, p. 140).

I have used the term discourse communities because this appears to be the most common term in the literature. However, communities of practice, a related concept, is becoming increasingly popular, particularly for academic contexts (see Brown & Duguid, 1995; Lave & Wenger, 1991). In the term discourse communities, the focus is on texts and language, the genres and lexis that enable members throughout the world to maintain their goals, regulate their membership, and communicate efficiently with one another. Swales (1990, pp. 24–27) lists six defining characteristics of a discourse community:

1. [It has] a broadly agreed set of common public goals.

2. [It has] mechanisms of intercommunication among its members (such as newsletters or journals).

3. [It] utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

4. [It] uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

5. In addition to owning genres, [it] has acquired some specific lexis.

6. [It has] a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

The term communities of practice refers to genres and lexis, but especially to many practices and values that hold communities together or separate them from one another. Lave and Wenger, in discussing students’ enculturation into academic communities, have this to say about communities of practice:

As students begin to engage with the discipline, as they move from exposure to experience, they begin to understand that the different communities on campus are quite




distinct, that apparently common terms have different meanings, apparently shared tools have different uses, apparently related objects have different interpretations…. As they work in a particular community, they start to understand both its particularities and what joining takes, how these involve language, practice, culture and a conceptual universe, not just mountains of facts (1991, p. 13).

Thus, communities of practice are seen as complex collections of individuals who share genres, language, values, concepts, and “ways of being” (Geertz, 1983), often distinct from those held by other communities.

In order to introduce students to these visions of community, it is useful to take them outside the academic realm to something more familiar, the recreational and avocational communities to which they, or their families, belong. Thus I begin with a discussion of nonacademic communities before proceeding to issues of academic communities and membership.


Social, Political, and Recreational Communities People are born, or taken involuntarily by their families and cultures, into some communities of practice. These first culture communities may be religious, tribal, social, or economic, and they may be central to an individual’s daily life experiences. Academic communities, on the other hand, are selected and voluntary, at least after compulsory education. Therefore, this chapter will concentrate on communities that are chosen, the groups with which people maintain ties because of their interests, their politics, or their professions. Individuals are often members of a variety of communities outside academic life: social and interest groups with which they have chosen to affiliate. These community affiliations vary in terms of individual depth of interest, belief, and commitment. Individual involvement may become stronger or weaker over time as circumstances and interests change.

Why do individuals join social and professional communities? Are there levels of community? What are some of the forces that make communities complex and varied?

Nonacademic communities of interest, like “homely” genres, can provide a useful starting point for student discussion. In presenting communities of this type, Swales uses the example of the Hong Kong Study Circle (HKSC),2 of which he is a paying member, whose purposes are to “foster interest in and knowledge of the stamps of Hong Kong” (1990, p. 27). He was once quite active in this community, dialoging frequently with other members through HKSC publications.3 However, at this point in his life, he has other interests (birds and butterflies), and so he is now an inactive member of HKSC. His commitments of time and energy have been diverted elsewhere.

Members of my family are also affiliated with several types of communities. We are members of cultural organizations, such as the local art museum and the theater companies. We receive these communities’ publications, and we attend some of their functions, but we do not consider ourselves to be active. We also belong to a variety of communities with political aims. My mother, for example, is a member of the powerful lobbying group, the American





Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The several million members pay their dues because of their interests in maintaining government-sponsored retirement (Social Security) and health benefits (Medicare), both of which are promoted by AARP lobbyists in the U.S. Congress. The AARP magazine, Modern Maturity, is a powerful organ of the association, carefully crafted to forward the group’s aims. Through this publication, members are urged to write to their elected representatives about legislation, and they are also informed about which members of Congress are “friends of the retired.” However, members are offered more than politics: Articles in the magazine discuss keeping healthy while aging, remaining beautiful, traveling cheaply, and using the Internet. AARP members also receive discounts on prescription drugs, tours, and other benefits.4

Recently, my husband has become very active in a recreational discourse community, the international community of cyclists.5 He reads publications such as Bicycling (“World’s No. 1 Road and Mountain Bike Magazine”) each month for advice about better cyclist health (“Instead of Pasta, Eat This!”),6 equipment to buy, and international cycling tours. Like most other communities, cycling has experts, some of whom write articles for the magazines to which he subscribes, using a register that is mysterious to the uninitiated: “unified gear triangle”; “metal matrix composite.” Cyclists share values (good health, travel interests), special knowledge, vocabulary, and genres, but they do not necessarily share political or social views, as my husband discovered when conversing with other cyclists on a group trip. In publications for cyclists, we can find genres that we recognize by name but with community- related content: editorials, letters to the editor, short articles on new products, articles of interest to readers (on health and safety, for example), advertisements appealing to readers, and essay/commentaries. If we examine magazines published for other interest groups, we can find texts from many of the same genres.

As this discussion indicates, individuals often affiliate with several communities at the same time, with varying levels of involvement and interest. People may join a group because they agree politically, because they want to socialize, or because they are interested in a particular sport or pastime. The depth of an individual’s commitment can, and often does, change over time. As members come and go, the genres and practices continue to evolve, reflecting and promoting the active members’ aims, interests, and controversies.

Studying the genres of nonacademic communities, particularly those with which students are familiar, helps them to grasp the complexity of text production and processing and the importance of understanding the group practices, lexis, values, and controversies that influence the construction of texts.

Professional Communities Discourse communities can also be professional; every major profession has its organizations, its practices, its textual conventions, and its genres. Active community members also carry on informal exchanges: at conferences, through e-mail interest groups, in memos, in hallway discussions at the office, in laboratories and elsewhere, the results of which may be woven intertextually into public, published texts. However, it is the written genres of communities that are accessible to outsiders for analysis. We need only to ask professionals about their texts in order to collect an array of interesting examples. One of the most thoroughly studied professional communities is the law. In his Analysing Genre: Language Use in Professional Settings (1993), Bhatia discusses at some length his continuing research into legal communities that use English and other languages (pp. 101–143). He identifies the various genres of the legal profession: their purposes, contexts, and the form and content that appear to be





conventional. He also contrasts these genres as they are realized in texts from various cultures. However, there are many other professional discourse communities whose genres can be

investigated, particularly when students are interested in enculturation. For example, students might study musicians who devote their lives to pursuing their art but who also use written texts to dialogue with others in their profession. To learn more about these communities, I interviewed a bassoonist in our city orchestra.7 Along with those who play oboe, English horn, and contrabassoon, this musician subscribes to the major publication of the double-reed community, The International Double Reed Society Journal. Though he has specialized, double-reed interests, he reports that he and many other musicians also have general professional aims and values that link them to musicians in a much broader community. He argues that all practicing musicians within the Western tradition8 share knowledge; there is a common core of language and values within this larger community. Whether they are guitarists, pianists, rock musicians, or bassoonists, musicians in the West seem to agree, for example, that the strongest and most basic musical intervals are 5–1 and 4–1, and that other chord intervals are weaker. They share a basic linguistic register and an understanding of chords and notation. Without this sharing, considerable negotiation would have to take place before they could play music together. As in other professions, these musicians have a base of expertise, values, and expectations that they use to facilitate communication. Thus, though a musician’s first allegiance may be to his or her own musical tradition (jazz) or instrument (the bassoon), he or she will still share a great deal with other expert musicians — and much of this sharing is accomplished through specialized texts.

What can we conclude from this section about individual affiliations with discourse communities? First, many people have chosen to be members of one or a variety of communities, groups with whom they share social, political, professional, or recreational interests. These communities use written discourses that enable members to keep in touch with each other, carry on discussions, explore controversies, and advance their aims; the genres are their vehicles for communication. These genres are not, in all cases, sophisticated or intellectual, literary or high-browed. They are, instead, representative of the values, needs, and practices of the community that produces them. Community membership may be concentrated or diluted; it may be central to a person’s life or peripheral. Important for the discussion that follows is the juxtaposition of generalized and specialized languages and practices among these groups. Musicians, lawyers, athletes, and physicians, for example, may share certain values, language, and texts with others within their larger community, though their first allegiance is to their specializations. Figure 1 illustrates this general/specific relationship in communities.







Figure 1 Levels of Community

In the case of physicians, for example, there is a general community and a set of values and concepts with which most may identify because they have all had a shared basic education before beginning their specializations. There are publications, documents, concepts, language, and values that all physicians can, and often do, share. The same can be said of academics, as is shown in the figure. There may be some general academic discourses,9 language, values, and concepts that most academics share. Thus faculty often identify themselves with a college or university and its language and values, as well as with the more specialized areas of interest for which they have been prepared.

This broad academic identification presents major problems for scholars and literacy practitioners, for although it is argued that disciplines are different (see Bartholomae, 1985; Belcher & Braine, 1995; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Carson et al., 1992; Lave & Wenger, 1991, among others), many faculty believe that there is a general academic English as well as a general set of critical thinking skills and strategies for approaching texts.

Because this belief in a general, shared academic language is strong and universal, the next section of this chapter is devoted to this topic.

Academic Communities What motivates this section more than anything else is its usefulness as a starting point in the









exploration of academic literacies and its accessibility to students at various levels of instruction who need to become more aware of the interaction of roles, texts, and contexts in academic communities. Many literacy faculty have mixed classes of students from a number of disciplines or students just beginning to consider what it means to be an academic reader and writer. For these students, and even for some of the more advanced, a discussion of what are considered to be general academic languages and textual practices is a good place to start their analyses — although not a good place to finish.

In the previous section it was noted that professionals may affiliate at various levels of specificity within their discourse communities. They often share language, knowledge, and values with a large, fairly heterogeneous group, though their first allegiances may be with a specialized group within this broader “club.” This comment can apply to individuals in academic communities as well. Faculty have their own discipline-specific allegiances (to biology, chemistry, sociology, engineering); nonetheless, many believe that there are basic, generalizable linguistic, textual, and rhetorical rules for the entire academic community that can apply.

Discipline-specific faculty who teach novices at the undergraduate level, and some who teach graduate students as well, sometimes complain that their students “do not write like academics” or “cannot comprehend” academic prose, arguing that these are general abilities that we should be teaching. The discussion that follows acknowledges their complaints and sets the stage for discussions of more specific academic issues and pedagogies in later chapters.

Language, Texts, and Values This section on academic textual practices draws principally from three sources: “Reflections on Academic Discourse” (Elbow, 1991); Words and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Geertz, 1988); and The Scribal Society: An Essay on Literacy and Schooling in the Information Age (Purves, 1990) (see also Dudley-Evans, 1995). Elbow and Purves are well- known composition theorists from different theoretical camps who were cited in Chapter I. Geertz, an anthropologist, has studied academic communities and their genres for many years. All three of these experts live in the United States, and this may affect their views; however, in many universities in the world in which English is employed, these beliefs about general text features are also shared, except perhaps in literature and some of the humanities disciplines. Following is a composite of the arguments made by the three academics about the nature, values, and practices in general expository academic prose, including some commentary on each topic.

1. Texts must be explicit. Writers should select their vocabulary carefully and use it wisely. In some cases, such as with certain noun compounds, paraphrase is impossible because specialized academic vocabulary must be used. Citation must be constructed carefully. Data analysis should be described and discussed explicitly. The methodology should be stated so clearly that it is replicable. Ambiguity in argumentation should be avoided.

Comment. Faculty often complain that students are “careless” in their use of vocabulary, in their citation practices, and in their argumentation and use of data. Because many literacy classes value the personal essay and because many readings in literacy classes are in story form or are adapted or specially written for these classes, students are not exposed to the exactness of some academic prose. One of our responsibilities in developing socioliterate practices is to expose students to authentic academic texts and to analyze these texts for their specificity.

2. Topic and argument should be prerevealed in the introduction. Purves says that experienced academics, particularly when writing certain kinds of texts, should “select a single









aspect of [a] subject and announce [their] theses and purposes as soon as possible” (1990, p. 12).

Comment. Finding the argument in a reading and noticing how data, examples, or narration are used to support this argument are essential academic abilities that are praised by faculty from many disciplines. In like manner, understanding and presenting a clear argument that is appropriate to a genre are writing skills that appear high on faculty wish lists for students, particularly for those who come from diverse rhetorical traditions (see Connor, 1987). Most faculty require that arguments and purposes appear early, generally in an introduction. One of the discipline-specific faculty with whom I work tells her students not to “spend much time clearing their throats.” She wants them to “get right down to the argument.”

We must be aware, however, that the pressure to reveal topic, purposes, and argumentation early in a written text may be a culture-specific value and apply only to certain kinds of texts within specific communities. There is considerable discussion in the contrastive rhetoric and World Englishes literature about the motivations for text organization and content and the necessity (or lack thereof) for prerevealing information. Local cultures and first languages, as well as academic disciplines, can influence how and where arguments appear.

3. Writers should provide “maps” or “signposts” for the readers throughout the texts, telling the readers where they have been in the text and where they are going. By using a variety of tactics, writers can assist readers in predicting and summarizing texts and in understanding the relationships among topics and arguments. Most of these tactics fall under the metadiscourse rubric.

Comment. Metadiscourse is defined in the following way:

It is writing about reading and writing. When we communicate, we use metadiscourse to name rhetorical actions: explain, show, argue, claim, deny, suggest, add, expand, summarize; to name the part of our discourse, first, second … in conclusion; to reveal logical connections, therefore … if so … to guide our readers, Consider the matter of (Williams, 1989, p. 28).

Literacy textbooks for both reading and writing often emphasize the understanding and use of metadiscourse in texts. However, it is important to note that language and culture can have considerable influence on the ways in which metadiscourse is used. For example, in countries with homogeneous cultures, academic written English may have fewer metadiscoursal features (Mauranen, 1993) than in heterogeneous, “writer-responsible” cultures (see Hinds, 1987) such as the United States, Great Britain, or Australia. As in the case of all texts, academic discourses are influenced by the cultures and communities in which they are found, often in very complicated ways.

4. The language of texts should create a distance between the writer and the text to give the appearance of objectivity. Geertz (1988) speaks of academic, expository prose as “author- evacuated”; the author’s personal voice is not clearly in evidence, because the first person pronoun is absent and arguments are muted. He compares author-evacuated prose with the “author-saturated” prose of many literary works, in which individual voice pervades. As mentioned earlier, this “author-evacuation” is particularly evident in pedagogical genres, such as the textbook. One way to create the evacuated style is to use the passive, a common rhetorical choice for the sciences, but there are other ways as well.

Comment. Discipline-specific faculty sometimes tell us that students are unable to write “objectively” or to comprehend “objective” prose.10 These students have not mastered the ability to clothe their argumentation in a particular register, to give it the kind of objective









overlay that is valued in academic circles. When I asked one of my first-year university students to tell the class what he had learned about academic English, he said: “We can’t use ‘I’ anymore. We have to pretend that we’re not there in the text.” In many cases, he is right. Literacy teachers need to help students to analyze texts for their author-evacuated style, and to discuss the particular grammatical and lexical choices that are made to achieve the appearance of objectivity and distance.

5. Texts should maintain a “rubber-gloved” quality of voice and register. They must show a kind of reluctance to touch one’s meanings with one’s naked fingers (Elbow, 1991, p. 145).

Comment. For some academic contexts, writers appear to remove themselves emotionally and personally from the texts, to hold their texts at arms’ length (metaphorically). The examination of texts in which this “rubber-gloved quality” is evident will provide for students some of the language to achieve these ends. What can students discover? Many academic writers abjure the use of emotional words, such as wonderful and disgusting; they hide behind syntax and “objective” academic vocabulary.

6. Writers should take a guarded stance, especially when presenting argumentation and results. Hedging through the use of modals (may, might) and other forms (It is possible that …) is perhaps the most common way to be guarded.

Comment. Hedging appears to be central to some academic discourses, particularly those that report research. In a study of two science articles on the same topic published for two different audiences, Fahenstock (1986) found that the article written for experts in the field was replete with hedges (“appear to hydrolyze,” “suggesting that animal food”), as scientists carefully reported their findings to their peers. However, the article written for laypersons was filled with “facts,” much like those in the textbooks described in Chapter 3. For these and other reasons, we need to introduce students to expert and nonexpert texts; we need to expose them at every level to the ways in which genre, context, readers, writers, and communities affect linguistic choices.

7. Texts should display a vision of reality shared by members of the particular discourse community to which the text is addressed (or the particular faculty member who made the assignment).

Comment. This may be the most difficult of the general academic requirements, for views of reality are often implicit, unacknowledged by the faculty themselves and are not revealed to students. Perhaps I can show how this “reality vision” is so difficult to uncover by discussing my research on course syllabi. I have been interviewing faculty for several years about the goals for their classes, goals that are generally stated in what is called a syllabus in the United States, but might be called a class framework or schedule of assignments in other countries. These studies indicated that most faculty tend to list as goals for the course the various topics that will be studied. The focus is exclusively on content. They do not list the particular views of the world that they want students to embrace, or the understandings that they want to encourage. In a class on “Women in the Humanities,” for example, the instructor listed topics to be covered in her syllabus, but she did not tell the students that she wanted them to analyze images of women in cultures in order to see how these images shape various cultural contexts. In a geography class, the instructor listed topics to be covered, but he did not tell his students about his goals for analysis and synthesis of texts. Why are the critical-thinking goals and disciplinary values hidden by most faculty? I don’t know. Perhaps instructors believe that students should intuit the values, practices, and genres required in the course; or the faculty have difficulty explicitly stating goals that are not related to content. Certainly content is the most commonly discussed issue at discipline-specific (DS) curriculum meetings, and this may








influence faculty choices. In a later chapter I will discuss one of the questionnaires that I use to elicit from faculty the “views of reality” or “ways of being” that my students and I would like to see stated explicitly in the syllabi.

In contrast to DS faculty, we literacy faculty are often most interested in processes and understandings, in developing students metacognition and metalanguages — and these interests are often reflected in our syllabi. [Following,] for example, are the student goals for a first-year University writing class developed by a committee from my university’s Department of Rhetoric and Writing Studies:11

a. To use writing to clarify and improve your understanding of issues and texts b. To respond in writing to the thinking of others and to explore and account for your own

responses c. To read analytically and critically, making active use of what you read in your writing d. To understand the relationships between discourse structure and the question at issue in a

piece of writing, and to select appropriate structures at the sentence and discourse levels e. To monitor your writing for the grammar and usage conventions appropriate to each

writing situation f. To use textual material as a framework for understanding and writing about other texts,

data or experiences

No matter what kind of class is being taught, faculty need to discuss critical-thinking and reading and writing goals frequently with students. They need to review why students are given assignments, showing how these tasks relate to course concepts and student literacy growth.

8. Academic texts should display a set of social and authority relations; they should show the writer’s understanding of the roles they play within the text or context.12

Comment. Most students have had very little practice in recognizing the language of social roles within academic contexts, although their experience with language and social roles outside the classroom is often quite rich. Some students cannot recognize when they are being talked down to in textbooks, and they cannot write in a language that shows their roles vis-à-vis the topics studied or the faculty they are addressing. These difficulties are particularly evident among ESL/EFL students; however, they are also found among many other students whose exposure to academic language has been minimal. One reason for discussing social roles as they relate to texts from a genre, whether they be “homely” discourses or professional texts, is to heighten students’ awareness of the interaction of language, roles, and contexts so that they can read and write with more sophistication.

9. Academic texts should acknowledge the complex and important nature of intertextuality, the exploitation of other texts without resorting to plagiarism. Students need to practice reformulation and reconstruction of information so that they do not just repeat other texts by “knowledge telling” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989) but rather use these texts inventively for their purposes (called “knowledge transforming”; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989).

Comment. Carson (1993), in a large study of the intellectual demands on undergraduate students, found that drawing from and integrating textual sources were two of the major challenges students face in attaining academic literacy. And no wonder. Widdowson (1993, p. 27) notes that

When people make excessive and unacknowledged use of [another’s text], and are found out, we call it plagiarism. When people are astute in their stitching of textual patchwork, we call it creativity. It is not easy to tell the difference…. If a text is always in some degree










a conglomerate of others, how independent can its meaning be?

Drawing from sources and citing them appropriately is the most obvious and most commonly discussed aspect of intertextuality. As a result, Swales and Feak (1994) claim that citation may be the defining feature of academic discourses. However, there are other, more subtle and varied borrowings from past discourses, for, as Widdowson notes, “Any particular text is produced or interpreted in reference to a previous knowledge of other texts” (1993, p. 27).

10. Texts should comply with the genre requirements of the community or classroom. Comment. This, of course, is another difficult challenge for students. As mentioned

earlier, pedagogical genres are often loosely named and casually described by DS faculty. It is difficult to identify the conventions of a student research paper, an essay examination response, or other pedagogical genres because, in fact, these vary considerably from class to class. Yet DS faculty expect students to understand these distinctions and to read and write appropriately for their own classes. My students and I often ask faculty: “What is a good critique for your class?” or “What is a good term paper?” We request several student-written models and, if possible, interview the faculty member about their assigned texts and tasks.

This section has outlined what may be some general rules for academic literacy, most of which are refined within each discipline and classroom. Although it would be difficult to defend several of these beliefs because of the wide range of academic discourses and practices, listing and discussing these factors can prepare students for an examination of how texts are socially constructed and whether some of the points made here are applicable to specific texts.

Of course, we also need to expose students to texts that contradict these rules for academic discourse. We should examine literary genres, which break most of the rules listed. We should look at specialized texts that have alternative requirements for register. In any of our pedagogical conversations, the objective should not be to discover truths but to explore how social and cultural forces may influence texts in various contexts.

COMMUNITY CONFLICTS AND DIVERSITY So far, the discussion of communities and their genres has focused on the uniting forces, particularly the language, practices, values, and genres that groups may share. It has been suggested that people can join communities at will and remain affiliated at levels of their own choosing. For a number of reasons, this is not entirely accurate. In some cases people are excluded from communities because they lack social standing, talent, or money, or because they live in the wrong part of town. In other cases, community membership requires a long initiatory process, and even then there is no guarantee of success. Many students work for years toward their doctoral degrees, for example, only to find that there are no faculty positions available to them or that their approach to research will not lead to advancement.

Even after individuals are fully initiated, many factors can separate them. Members of communities rebel, opposing community leaders or attempting to change the rules of the game and, by extension, the content and argumentation in the texts from shared genres. If the rebellion is successful, the rules may be changed or a new group may be formed with a different set of values and aims. There may even be a theoretical paradigm shift in the discipline. In academic communities, rebellion may result in the creation of a new unit or department, separate from the old community, as has been the case recently in my own university.13 Even without open rebellion, there is constant dialogue and argument within communities as members thrash out their differences and juggle for power and identity,







promoting their own content, argumentation, and approaches to research. Although much could be said about factors that affect communities outside the academic

realm, the following discussion will focus on a few of the rich and complex factors that give academic communities their character.

The Cost of Affiliation If students want to become affiliated with academic discourse communities, or even if they want to succeed in school, they may have to make considerable sacrifices. To become active academic participants, they sometimes must make major trade-offs that can create personal and social distance between them and their families and communities. Students are asked to modify their language to fit that of the academic classroom or discipline. They often must drop, or at least diminish in importance, their affiliations to their home cultures in order to take on the values, language, and genres of their disciplinary culture. The literature is full of stories of the students who must make choices between their communities and academic lives (see, for example, Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, 1989). In an account of his experiences, Richard Rodriguez (1982, p. 56), a child of Mexican immigrant parents, wrote the following:

What I am about to say to you has taken me more than twenty years to admit: a primary reason for my success in the classroom was that I couldn’t forget that schooling was changing me and separating me from the life I had enjoyed before becoming a student…. If because of my schooling, I had grown culturally separated from my parents, my education has finally given me ways of speaking and caring about that fact.

Here Rodriguez is discussing his entire schooling experience; however, as students advance in schools and universities, they may be confronted with even more wrenching conflicts between their home and academic cultures and languages. In her story of a Hispanic graduate student in a Ph.D. sociology program in the United States, Casanave (1992) tells how the tension between this student’s personal values and language and her chosen department’s insistence on its own scientific language and genres finally drove her from her new academic community. When she could no longer explain her work in sociology in everyday language to the people of her primary communities (her family and her clients), the student decided to leave the graduate program. The faculty viewed her stance as rebellious, an open refusal to take on academic community values. By the time she left, it had become obvious to all concerned that the faculty were unable, or unwilling, to bend or to adapt some of their disciplinary rules to accommodate this student’s interests, vocation, and language.

A graduate student from Japan faced other kinds of affiliation conflicts when attempting to become a successful student in a North American linguistics program (Benson, 1996). This student brought from her home university certain social expectations: about faculty roles, about her role as a student, and about what is involved in the production of texts. She believed, for example, that the faculty should provide her with models of what was expected in her papers; she felt that they should determine her research topics and hypotheses. This had been the case in her university in Japan, and she had considerable difficulty understanding why the American faculty did not conform to the practices of her home country. She tried to follow her professors’ instructions with great care, but they chastised her for “lacking ideas.” In her view, the faculty were being irresponsible; however, some faculty viewed her as passive, unimaginative, and dependent. What she and many other students have found is that gaining affiliation in graduate education means much more than understanding the registers of academic language.

These examples are intended to show that full involvement or affiliation in academic









discourse communities requires major cultural and linguistic tradeoffs from many students. Faculty expect them to accept the texts, roles, and contexts of the discipline, but acceptance requires much more sacrifice and change than the faculty may imagine. In our literacy classes, we can assist academic students in discussing the kinds of problems they encounter when attempting to resolve these conflicts. However, we can also assist our faculty colleagues, who often are unaware of their students’ plight, through workshops, student presentations, and suggestions for reading.

Issues of Authority What happens after a person has become an academic initiate, after he or she has completed the degree, published, and been advanced? There are still community issues to contend with, one of which relates to authority (Bakhtin, 1986 p. 88) noted that “in each epoch, in each social circle, in each small world of family, friends, acquaintances and comrades in which a human being grows and lives, there are always authoritative utterances that set the tone.”

In academic circles, these “authoritative utterances” are made by journal or e-mail interest-group editors, by conference program planners, and by others. At the local level, this authority can be held by department chairs or by chairs of important committees. Prior (1994, p. 522) speaks of these academically powerful people as “an elite group that imposes its language, beliefs and values on others through control of journals, academic appointments, curricula, student examinations, research findings and so on.” It is important to note that Prior extends his discussion beyond authority over colleagues to broad authority over students through curricula and examinations. This type of pedagogical authority is very important, as all students know, so it will be discussed further.

In many countries, provincial and national examinations drive the curricula, and theoretical and practical control over these examinations means authority over what students are taught. In the People’s Republic of China, for example, important general English language examinations have been based for years on word frequency counts developed in several language centers throughout the country. Each “band,” or proficiency level on the examination, is determined by “the most common 1,000 words,” “the most common 2,000 words,” and so on.14 Although features of language such as grammar are tested in these examinations, it is a theory about vocabulary, based on word frequency, that is central. It is not surprising, then, that most Chinese students believe that vocabulary is the key to literacy, particularly the understanding of “exact” meanings of words. When I have worked with teachers in China, I have frequently been asked questions such as “What is the exact meaning of the term ‘discourse’? What does ‘theory’ mean?” These teachers requested a single definition, something I was often unable to provide.

The centralized power over important examinations in China, over the TOEFL and graduate entrance examinations in the United States, and over the British Council Examinations in other parts of the world gives considerable authority within communities to certain test developers and examiners. This authority permits little pedagogical latitude to teachers preparing students for these “gate-keeping” examinations. As practitioners, we can use test preparation pedagogies, or we can critique these examinations (Raimes, 1990), as we should; but we cannot institute large-scale change until we gain control and authority over the examination system.

With students at all academic levels, we practitioners should raise the issues of authority, status, and control over community utterances in literacy classes. About their own social groups, we can ask: “Who has status in your clubs and why? Who has status in your ethnic or







geographical communities and why? How do they exert control over people, over utterances, and over publications?” When referring to academic situations and authority, we can ask: “Who wrote this textbook? What are the authors’ affiliations? Are they prestigious? How does the language of the textbook demonstrate the author’s authority over the material and over the students who read the volume?” We can also ask: “Who writes your important examinations? What are their values?” Or we can ask: “Who has status in your academic classrooms? Which students have authority and why?” And finally, we might ask: “How can you gain authority in the classroom or over texts?”

Throughout a discussion of authority relationships, we need to talk about communities, language, and genres: how texts and spoken discourses are used to gain and perpetuate authority. We can assist students to analyze authoritative texts, including those of other students, and to critique authority relationships. Our students need to become more aware of these factors affecting their academic lives before they can hope to produce and comprehend texts that command authority within academic contexts.

Conventions and Anticonventionalism There are many other push and pull factors in academic communities, factors that create dialogue, conflict, and change. Communities evolve constantly, though established community members may attempt to maintain their power and keep the new initiates in line through control over language and genres. A student or a young faculty member can be punished for major transgressions from the norm, for attempting to move away from what the more established, initiated members expect. In order to receive a good grade (or be published), writers often must work within the rules. Understanding these rules, even if they are to be broken, appears to be essential.

As individuals within an academic community become more established and famous, they can become more anticonventional, in both their texts and their lives. Three famous rule breakers come to mind, though there are others. Stephen J. Gould, a biologist, has written a series of literate essays for the general public, principally about evolution, that look considerably different from the scientific journal article. Gould has broken his generic traditions to “go public” because he already has tenure at Harvard, he likes to write essays, and he enjoys addressing a public audience (see Gould, 1985). Deborah Tannen, an applied linguist, has also “gone public,” publishing “pop books” about communication between men and women that are best-sellers in the United States (see Tannen, 1986, 1994). She continues to write relatively conventional articles in journals, but she also writes often for the layperson. Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, refuses to be pigeon-holed in terms of topic, argumentation, or genre. Using his own disciplinary approaches, he writes texts on academic cultures as well as the “exotic” ones that are typical to anthropologists (see Geertz, 1988). Gould, Tannen, and Geertz have established themselves within their disciplines. Now famous, they can afford to defy community conventions as they write in their individual ways.

Rule breaking is a minefield for many students, however. They first need to understand some of the basic conventions, concepts, and values of a community’s genres. Learning and using academic conventions is not easy, for many students receive little or no instruction. To compound the problems, students need constantly to revise their theories of genres and genre conventions (see Bartholomae, 1985). Some graduate students, for example, often express confusion about conventions, anticonventions, and the breaking of rules, for faculty advice appears to be idiosyncratic, based not on community conventions but on personal taste. Some faculty thesis advisers, particularly in the humanities, require a careful review of the literature








and accept nothing else; others may insist on “original”15 work without a literature review. For some advisers there is a “cookie cutter” macrostructure that all papers must follow; others may prefer a more free-flowing, experimental text. Graduate students complain that discovering or breaking these implicit rules requires much research and many visits to faculty offices, as well as many drafts of their thesis chapters (see Schneider & Fujishima, 1995).

It should be clear from this discussion that we cannot tell students “truths” about texts or community practices. However, we can heighten student awareness of generic conventions, and we can assist students in formulating questions that can be addressed to faculty. In our literacy classes, we are developing researchers, not dogmatists, students who explore ideas and literacies rather than seek simple answers.

Dialogue and Critique In any thriving academic community, there is constant dialogue: disagreements among members about approaches to research, about argumentation, about topics for study, and about theory. The journal Science acknowledges this and accepts two types of letters to the editor to enable writers to carry out informal dialogues. In other journals, sections are set aside for short interchanges between two writers who hold opposing views (see the Journal of Second Language Writing, for example). Most journals carry critiques of new volumes in book review sections, and many published articles are in dialogue with other texts. Academic communities encourage variety and critique (within limits), because that is how they evolve and grow.

Most professional academics know the rules for dialogue: what topics are currently “hot,” how to discuss these topics in ways appropriate for the readers of their genres, how far they can go from the current norms, and what they can use (data, narratives, nonlinear texts) to support their arguments. Some professionals who understand the rules can also break them with impunity. They can push the boundaries because they know where the discipline has been and where it may be going, and how to use their authority, and the authority of others, to make their arguments. In a volume on academic expertise, Geisler (1994) comments that there are three “worlds” with which expert academics must be familiar before they can join, or contravene, a disciplinary dialogue: the “domain content world” of logically related concepts and content; the “narrated world” of everyday experience; and the “abstract world” of authorial conversation. Academic experts must manipulate these worlds in order to produce texts that can be in dialogue or conflict with, yet appropriate to, the communities they are addressing.

This discussion has suggested that communities and their genres are useful to study not only because they can share conventions, values, and histories but because they are evolving: through affiliation of new, different members; through changes in authority; through anticonventionalism, dialogue, and critique. Students know these things about their own communities; we need to draw from this knowledge to begin to explore unfamiliar academic communities and their genres.

This chapter has addressed some of the social and cultural factors that influence texts, factors that are closely related to community membership. Although there is much debate in the literature about the nature of discourse communities and communities of practice, it can be said with some certainty that community affiliations are very real to individual academic faculty. Faculty refer to themselves as “chemists,” “engineers,” “historians,” or “applied linguists”; they read texts from community genres with great interest or join in heated debates with their peers over the Internet. They sometimes recognize that the language, values, and genres of their communities (or specializations) may differ from those of another academic community, though this is not always the case. At a promotions committee made up of faculty from sixteen





departments in which I took part, a member of the quantitative group in the Geography Department said of a humanities text, “We shouldn’t accept an article for promotion without statistics.” And we all laughed, nervously.

Academics, and others, may belong to