Breaking with Conventions -- A Blog in 3 Vignettes: American Sports History, Grammar Conventions, James Baldwin

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Vignette 1: American Sports History

Perhaps, dear reader, you have just read the title of this week’s post and you are thinking:

“Because the writers in my classrooms do not know the conventions, they do not know when they have broken conventions.” Or “My department/program/institution requires students to produce a writing sample for assessment that shows adherence to conventions. I don’t have any choice but to teach the conventions.”

Yet I invite you to consider recent US sports history. On September 24, 2017, according to the New York TImes, “N.F.L. players across the country demonstrated during the national anthem on Sunday in a show of solidarity against President Trump, who scolded the league and players on Twitter this weekend.” In doing so, these football players were following the lead of of Colin Kaepernick who, in 2016 in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, would not stand for the national anthem.

The convention appears to be, “Everyone stands for the national anthem before a football game.” However, with Kaepernick’s protest and with the protests of other NFL players on September 24th, a rule that seemed written in stone has been broken again and again. Historically relevant to these protests are the direct actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in the months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, as well as the more recent example of Knox College women’s basketball player Arianya Smith in St. Louis County in the wake of civil unrest after the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, who was African American, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

When considered from a rhetorical standpoint, the action of breaking with convention is not only a matter of how, but also a matter of why. Kairos, the rhetorical context of deciding to break convention also is significant. Shannon Carter and her colleagues from the Remixing Rural Texas project offer an especially moving example of the importance of paying attention to Kairos in their video John Carlos: Before Mexico City.

294996_Sep 18_photo.JPGShannon Carter, John Carlos, and Susan Naomi Bernstein at 4C13 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Vignette 2: Grammar Conventions

Dear reader, forgive me for taking the long way around in responding to your initial concerns about conventions. In order to respond, however, I need to trouble the idea that students have no knowledge of conventions. Perhaps, as Mina Shaughnessy and others have offered, our students know the rules all too well. When they are internalized with inflexibility, rules can become serious roadblocks to successful writing. In Errors and Expectations, Shaughnessy offered that students interrogate the reasons for conventions, and then work on revising and reapplying their approach to conventions. Shaughnessy’s suggestion was adapted as a class activity in early editions of Teaching Developmental Writing.


This year, on the third day of class, I offered another adaptation that included a close reading of James Baldwin’s “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity.” Here are the questions I wrote on the board:

In small groups:

  1. Make a short list of rules for writing that you have learned over the years
  2. Find examples of places in Baldwin’s text where the rules are broken
  3. Discuss why Baldwin may have decided to break these rules
  4. Discuss the questions: Are these rules appropriate for you to break in Writing Project 1? Why or why not?
  5. We will discuss this activity as a larger group.

This activity provided us with opportunities to read Baldwin’s work more deeply. Students’ examples of Baldwin’s writing breaking with convention were clear and direct: Baldwin writes run-on sentences, they said. Baldwin writes with comma splices. Baldwin writes fragments. A conversation about form and content followed:

SUSAN: Perfect. Let’s take on the fragment rule. Where did you find a fragment?

STUDENTS: On page 51, there are a series of fragments. The first is: “Soldiers don’t.”

SUSAN: Okay, let’s try breaking down that fragment. Note that don’t is a contraction.

All of sentences in the series begin with “don’t.”

SUSAN (writes a grammatical convention on the board):

Soldiers + don’t. = Soldiers + do not.

Subject + Verb = Complete Sentence

SUSAN: Why might Baldwin use this series of contractions on page 51?

STUDENTS: For repetition. Repetition emphasizes Baldwin’s point about poets and artists

understanding the truth about people.

SUSAN: Yes. Baldwin is showing us the relationship between form and content.

Can you try something like this in your own writing?

STUDENTS: We don’t know. Can we?

SUSAN: Yes, you can. You can do it strategically based on audience and purpose.

For some academic audiences and purpose, contractions may be too informal. The verb disappears in a contraction, and some reader may mistake your sentence for a fragment. We know from the example, however, that the verb is still there and that the sentence is complete. In this way, language is like music.

The writer can practice shaping form to fit content.

Later, as I read journal entries, I discovered that students were intrigued by this activity. A seemingly unbreakable rule turned out to be a rhetorical convention that writers could adapt as needed to fit their message and their rhetorical context.

Anarchy did not ensue.

Vignette 3: James Baldwin

Reader, I ask your patience once more while I offer you personal context for the Kairos of reading James Baldwin, a circumstance I could not have anticipated a month ago when I wrote my initial post for the semester.


On the Wednesday after Labor Day, I learned that my beloved had been taken to the hospital emergency room after collapsing from heatstroke on a public sidewalk. The high had been 109 degrees that day. I spent that Wednesday night on a loveseat in a hospital corridor near the ICU, not knowing the damage my beloved’s body had sustained, and whether his condition would worsen or improve.


Over the next twelve days, through hospital care and rehab, we learned that my beloved, with time, was expected to recover. Only later did we realize that we had broken with healthcare conventions, especially when my beloved spent eighteen hours in rehab with no medical attention for severe stomach pains. My beloved could not digest the food in rehab, and staff perceived our request for healthier food as a demand for special treatment. Even so, we found one dish, a vegetable medley, particularly concerning. Neither of us could recognize the vegetables, and we worried about the efficacy of any patient’s recovery in such circumstances.

Indeed, our worry was reinforced when the discharge nurse reminded us to make sure to eat a healthy diet. In rehab, this had not been possible.

What pulled us through this experience was reading Baldwin together. One especially difficult evening, I read to my beloved the words the students and I had discussed in class over and over again:

Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what torments you is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive.

Then in a whisper, I breathed out the next sentence: “This is all you have to do with it.”

Both of us held back tears. We grasped the significance of the events that had brought us to this space, of all that we had shared together as teachers, as writers, and as human beings.

In Baldwin we found meaning enough to move toward the future.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.