More Unflattening

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As I've mentioned in previous posts, our students have a tendency to flatten readings by reducing them to one or two simplified concepts. One way we try to discourage this tendency is to focus on parts of the readings that feel tangential or less important, thereby encouraging students to develop depth. For example, the Leslie Savan essay “What’s Black, Then White, and Said All Over?” is primarily concerned with the appropriation of black slang by pop culture and media. That’s an easy concept for students to comprehend—all they need to do is turn on the television (or check out some popular video memes) to see it happening. But at the end of her essay Savan talks about the controversies surrounding Black English in the classroom. Students tend to disregard that part of the essay, so in our last assignment we tried to make it center stage:
While the readings we have analyzed this semester have focused on communication and change within and across cultures, in her essay “What’s Black, Then White, and Said All Over?,” Leslie Savan explores consumer media’s appropriation and exploitation of a particular kind of cultural communication—black language. Savan finds that while “black talk” is acceptable in commercials and ads, when it comes to education, that same language is unacceptable because it is not considered proper English. In a paper using Savan and at least one other essay we have read this semester, evaluate the argument that the United States needs a common (or “official”) language.
There are risks here, of course. The issue we’re asking them to address can be very charged, particularly in a region as diverse as South Florida. However, we’ve designed the prompt to try and move students beyond absolute positions on this issue. For one thing, we’re not asking students to take sides; instead, we want them to evaluate the argument for a common language. More importantly, by directing them back to the texts, we’re asking them to make that evaluation using the ideas of the essay. Opinion has limited weight in the kind of writing we ask our students to do; reasoned analysis supported with close textual engagement is what counts. It’s the kind of work done by all of the authors they’ve read this semester, whether it’s Alvarez considering quinces or even Savan looking at the complicated ways in which slang circulates in culture. What remains to be seen is how well these assignments work. Ryan is teaching them now, and once we have student papers we’ll have a better sense of what is effective and what needs tweaking. As with the writing we ask of our students, revision is the name of the game.
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.