blogbook -- Considering the Nature of Our Models of Good Writing
A big part of using any set of literacy standards or learning outcomes in a classroom are the models used to demonstrate such things to students. Sometimes the models are dictated by required curricula and sometimes they’re chosen by teachers. An antiracist orientation would help a teacher to consider the nature and histories of their models of “good writing” in ways that implicate the models and teachers in white supremacist and racist systems, even as many of us are required to use those models in our classrooms as teaching devices. The kind of antiracist orientation I’m speaking of in effect asks: Who does the model represent in society and our classroom? How is that representation, and the habits of language it assumes, connected to the history of racism and WLS in society? Who is that ideal embodied languageling that the model invokes or conjures and what are its effects when circulated in our classroom? How do we (teachers and students) make sure that we do not reproduce WLS through our uses of the model?
In this longer post, I want to explore the typical use of models of “good writing,” ones that often make or exemplify our standards of English languaging, the kind of languaging promoted in the CCSS 11-12.1 and the OS outcome of “Knowledge of Conventions.” This post is longer because I want to keep the discussion together in one place. I hope you’ll bear with me.
Kipling and the Writing Classroom’s Whitely Paternalism
Promoting one version of English, regardless of where in society that version comes from, says that you want everyone in the classroom to think about, see, hear, experience, and articulate the world in the same ways. This is another way of saying that our ways with words afford us particular kinds of experiences and world views. Our models of that languaging, ones that demonstrate our standards, are a primary way in which one group attempts to enforce their world view onto others. This is what the NCTE/CCCC statement, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (1974/2014), states directly. The statements’ authors state that promoting a single standard of English language “amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another” (note 220). Yet this is our condition today at all levels of education.
This classroom condition may come from an altruistic, even benevolent impulse, an impulse that says, “learning this version of English and mimicking these models will help my students succeed tomorrow. It’s good for them.” While there may be some truth to this, it ain’t the whole truth. Being successful in an unfair system, not only sets up students to be agents of unfairness tomorrow, but it also reproduces that unfair system. Furthermore, altruistic ideas and benevolence have been historically bad grounds for literacy pedagogy, educational goals, and learning outcomes.
The 1899 British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling termed this impulse positively as “The White Man’s Burden.” One illustration of this is seen in a 1899 political cartoon by Victor Gillam in Judge Magazine (see pic above). In his poem, Kipling was referencing the U.S.’s invasion and occupation of the Philippines and the U.S.’s growing imperial presence in various places like Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The opening lines of the poem state the white man’s burden as a benevolent and paternalistic one:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child
Take up the White Man’s burden
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain (note 221)
One might state a teacher’s purposes today in similar fashion, minus the references to only men and being in “exile” as teachers. Most of us likely would not describe our students as “half devil and half child,” but we might have a similar paternalistic orientation toward our students as needing correction, aid, help, strong guidance, etc. We might say teachers are some of “the best ye breed” who take on the burden of educating students, particularly those “underprepared” or “in need,” that is, in need according to our measures. And we might characterize our teaching as work that requires “patience” for our students’ “profit” and “gain,” not ours. It’s the white savior complex that is central to Kipling’s poem.
Such benevolent grounds for designing schools, curricula, and outcomes have tended to ignore the full range of racist and classist consequences that such one-sided, whitely benevolent projects cause. Consider the U.S.'s occupation in the Philippines that led to attempts at eradicating indigenous languages by demanding English be spoken and taught everywhere; or Indian boarding schools in Canada and the U.S. that attempted to “kill the Indian, [and] save the man”; or British schooling in India during and after their colonial period that used English language learning as an imperial tool of subjugation and rule, a language that still is central to all education in India today; or the xenophobic history in the U.S. around “foreigners,” which began with anti-German and anti-Irish Catholic xenophobia and moved to other racialized groups throughout history, and the language practices of so called “foreigners” were at the center of those concerns, marking not just foreign-ness but inherent badness in people, a badness whose solution often was literacy testing (note 222).
If we wish to find an historical lesson about literacy education in all these examples, we might say that literacy education has always been characterized by one group of language users in power controlling other groups of language users by controlling the means of language production and its circulation in society and schools. One tried and true way to accomplish this control over others in the language war is to subtly introduce models of “good writing” that come from your tribe or group of languagelings, then rationalize their uses as just good kinds of writing for everyone.
In classrooms, what happens is this. You grade your students on the English you learned and grew up with, the kind of English in your models and training, but like those Filipino or Native American students, your students aren’t you, nor are they like the authors of your models. They do not come from where you or those authors came from, not exactly. And they are not embodied in their language practices in the same ways as you are.
Further, your students will likely use their Englishes for different things in their lives than you do. It’s not that they don’t stand to learn something good from your English or your models, but we too often grade them on how closely they are like our models. This means you punish students for not being like you or like your models. This kind of educational and pedagogical grounding, like Kipling’s “white man’s burden” in the Philippines, participates in habits of white language (HOWL) and white supremacy culture that Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones have explained (see post 28 for more on both). The paternalistic benevolence of this kind of use of standards and models is rooted in a universal naturalized orientation (first habit in HOWL) to the world and language and a whitely sense that we teachers always know what’s best for our students (paternalism of white supremacy culture), perhaps because we know what has helped us and people like us succeed. But again, our students ain’t us.
This leads to other punishments or withholdings of opportunities in school and society. And for some, it leads to feeling insecure, unsure, and anxious about their own languaging. They give up because they can’t win, or can’t see how. They lose the confidence they once had in their childhood languaging. These are often the outcomes. We often mess up the world and cause great harm by acting only on our good, benevolent intentions without taking responsibility for any of the racist consequences that occur from our actions or from the systems we work in that mostly benefit us white(ly) teachers. We blame what happens in our schools mostly on the victims. This allows us as white(ly) teachers to continue to believe that we are the saviors, the heroes, the good ones helping. The paradox is that we are these things, our models are these things, and our standards and models are also the problem.
In schools, we see and appreciate the good things about Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Orwell, and Hemingway and how they write (although I wouldn’t call Shakespeare a writer in the same way the others are, since he was not working primarily in a written medium, as the others were). Today, most of us would add writers of color: Morrison, Hurston, Hughes, Cisneros, Tan, Walker. We read these authors over and over, and marvel at their prose, and in the process believe -- I mean, really believe -- that we can see or hear a single standard of good, clear, clean English -- because we’ve spent so many years, decades even, reading and buying into the idea that such authors show us a standard of English grammar and usage worth emulating. And the paradox is that we’re not completely wrong on this point.
We get joy from reading such established language, then we make false leaps of logic. We think and act on our students’ words. We judge the languaging in our classrooms as deficient or substandard -- even though most of us would not call our students’ languaging this -- because that languaging doesn’t use words or grammars or syntax like our models, or like the standard we think we hear in our own words. What we hear is that our students’ languaging is confusing, or not precise, or sounds awkward in our ears, or is annoying, or doesn’t slide out of our mouths as we imagine all good writing should.
And the difficulty for us teachers in all this is that from one perspective -- that is our white(ly) HOWLing perspective -- much of our students’ languaging is confusing, not precise, awkward, annoying, etc., while simultaneously being quite the opposite. We always teach paradox when we teach language. Or maybe I should say, we always teach and assess in language paradoxes. When students labor toward learning in literacy classrooms, paradox opens up. The question we might ask is: If we language in ever-opening paradox, do we assess in ways that agree with those conditions?
The Racial Politics of Faulkner As A Model
But let’s think more carefully about those models of good writing that we hold tightly to our hearts, models that have been good to us. We could make an argument about real, everyday usage. Does anyone today speak or write like Shakespeare or even Steinbeck? Heck, who has ever spoken like Hemingway’s characters? Faulkner is noted for writing the longest sentence in English, 1,288 words long, which occurs in the 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! (note 223). Who writes or speaks like that? Is that standard usage? No, it’s only standard for Faulkner. Does it make Faulkner worth reading? Sure. Does it make him a good model for students to emulate? That’s a different question entirely.
If you haven’t, you should read Faulkner’s sentence, even if only as a cautionary tale or as a practice of linguistic tourism -- you know, walk down someone else’s language street. If judged by how long a writer can hold and add to a thought, it's a wonder to behold. But what can it offer a 15 or even a 19 year old student today, a multilingual student of Spanish and English from Fresno, California, or a Black student who uses Black English in the Bronx? That’s not a rhetorical question. I think it’s a paradox. There are lessons in Faulkner, as well as cautions and caveats. To tease out the lessons and caveats, it takes an antiracist orientation, one positioned against the standard that Faulkner represents, even as -- no, because -- we have held Faulkner close to our literary hearts.
To get an idea of an antiracist orientation to a typical standardized model, it may be more convenient to read the first sentence of that same Faulkner novel. It’s shorter than 1,288 words, a mere 122, but still a long one:
From a little after two oclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that -- a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them. (note 224)
This sentence is impressive, if you can appreciate the conventional complexity of it, if you can hear how the rhythms move the mind’s eye or ear deeper and deeper into the past, revealing the characters and little ideas about them, each detail tumbling to the floor from the pocket of a previously stated detail, from a room they sit in called “the office” to a father’s reference of the room as an office to the years of that room’s closed blinds to beliefs about cooler air to late-day slashes of yellow sunlight to dust motes to Quentin’s notion about paint coming off window blinds (I’ve bolded my sentence for easy reference below, which I’ll come back to).
What I’ve tried to do in this description of the movement of Faulkner’s sentence is mimic its movement with a cumulative sentence of my own, one that participates in the same languaging at the sentence level as Faulkner’s. But I ain’t no Faulkner. My sentence is only 98 words long. If Faulkner’s sentence length is the model, I’m just an 80%, a B-. Not bad for a kid from the rougher streets of North Las Vegas, a remedial reading student.
Now, Strunk and White say that such cumulative sentences, or “loose sentences” as they call them, should be used sparingly. Their suggestion for good style is to “avoid a succession of loose sentences” (note 225). Why? Well, it sounds “unstudied” and “monotonous.” Their suggestion is, in effect, to vary your sentence length, or rather vary your kind of sentences, erring on the side of the periodic. That’s a sentence that ends its kernel idea with the period, and they tend to be shorter sentences than cumulative ones.
The examples Strunk and White give feel like a strawman set up against Hercules. The first is an anonymously authored paragraph of loose sentences that report on a concert, likely from a newspaper. It tells what, where, who attended, and the date and time of the next concert. The second preferred example, the one that varies its use of loose and periodic sentences, is from E. M. Forester’s Two Cheers for Democracy. I think, while we may compare the use of loose sentences in each example, the comparison is ultimately a comparison of how orange-like apples taste. Yeah, it’s a rigged comparison. The two examples are written for two very different purposes and two different audiences, and from two slightly different language histories. But ultimately, for me, the comparison feels too much like judging how good the news clipping is by how close it sounds like E. M. Forester.
Why do I bring up Strunk and White? Well, beyond arguing already that they embody a white set of habits of language (see post 25; see also “A Response to Paul Beehler -- Part 1 of 3”), Faulkner doesn’t follow their rules of style, and one would think he would. Strunk and White use Faulkner as an example of style several times in their book, which I also discuss in Above the Well (note 226). In fact, they only use white, almost exclusively male, authors to illustrate good style (one white female author in total). They reference Faulker when discussing the use of “definite, specific, concrete language” (note 227). He is their model. But their rules don’t seem to match their model all the time, or even most of the time in this novel’s case.
One would think that one's use of details and “concrete language” would be in line with one’s good style and the frequency of loose sentences, an important aspect of one’s style. And just to drive the point home, if you haven’t, read the rest of Faulkner’s novel, or just dip into it anywhere. It’s filled with sentences like the one above and that mammoth one that holds the record for the longest sentence in English. In fact, the second sentence in the above opening paragraph is longer than the one above, clocking in at 156 words. It’s also a cumulative sentence.
But don’t be fooled here. As rare of a languageling as he is, Faulkner is an elite white model of English we often hold up as ideal. We teachers all cut our teeth on authors like Faulkner, or ones who learned their languaging from Faulkner and the elite white places Faulkner got his languaging. Yet, Faulkner doesn't punctuate his cumulative sentences in the ways we would expect given the rules printed in grammar books today or during his time, books like Strunk and White’s.
Maybe if Faulkner had finished that English degree in college, he’d have used more commas. That’s a cheap shot. No one needs to go to college to language well. Yet it is in places like colleges that we find Faulkner-like, elite, white versions of English promoted as “the standard” of communication.
Each clause in Faulkner’s sentence is supposed to be separated by a comma, or so say all the textbooks and teachers. Faulkner rarely does this, yet his prose are compelling. Meanwhile, I’ve had plenty of students over the years who also didn’t use many commas, but as they’ve told me, their previous teachers did not read them in the same ways as they read Faulkner. My students, like me, were no Faulkners, not because they didn’t produce meaningful prose, not because their sentences didn’t have language structures like Faulkner’s, but because they were not from the same places and people that Faulkner was, much of the time these places and people were clearly racialized as non-white.
In short, my students’ languaging was judged by others with racist assumptions about how they are to read such language in places like schools. I’m not saying those teachers were racist. I’m saying our use of standards and models make such judging possible and invisibly racist in their consequences. The difference between Faulkner and most of our poor and students of color who use Englishes other than the standardized ones is simply how they are read and judged. Compounding this problem is our implicit biases and responses that our students’ languaging invokes in us when that languaging is associated with bodies of color. It isn’t the lack of commas or the improper use of cumulative sentences that keeps the Nobel prizes away. It didn’t keep any away from Faulkner. He was awarded a Nobel and a Pulitzer.
Back to Faulkner’s sentence. There’s more to consider. Did you notice that there was only one comma and one em-dash punctuating that long sentence? If your student gave you a sentence like this, how would you mark it? Would you ask for an apostrophe after the “o” in “oclock”? That contraction comes from Irish English speakers. I’m guessing they felt that saying “two of the clock” was too slow or long. Or maybe, you might ask for a comma here and there, say, between “summers because”? Or maybe you’d just say, “can you break this up, make it into more than one sentence?”
In my reading of Faulkner’s sentence above, I hear loudest the words because and which. In this case, because is a conjunction that starts subordinate clauses, while which is a relative pronoun that starts relative clauses. The two clauses function similarly. Now, I only hear these words loudest when I’m reading with my grammar glasses on, which I don’t normally do (they are really uncomfortable). Because of his use of these clauses that add details to his kernel clause, I can imagine writers like Faulkner being used as models of good sentence movement and grammatical conventions in classrooms. This is part of what Strunk and White called “style.” Remember, we’re still talking about the CCSS 11-12.1 (started in post 30), and the OS’s “knowledge of conventions” outcome (started in post 31).
Faulkner’s use of because as a way to connect or extend ideas makes the sentence long while providing more information. And yet, the kernel clause is fairly short, only ten words long: “they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office.” That’s just 8% of the entire sentence’s word count. My own kernel sentence (the bolded one above) that summarizes the movement of Faulkner’s sentence is equally as short, just four words long: “This sentence is impressive.” My main clause is just 4% of its sentence’s total word count. By this metric, I’m 4% better than Faulkner, if the ratio between kernel clause word length and total word length were a gauge of style. But it ain’t. I bring it up only to show how foolish such things are, yet many things in language can be measured with seeming accuracy, evaluated along a linear progression, a percentage attached or calculated, all of which fools us into thinking that a number can equate to something tangible in language, as if we’ve just measured something important about the sentence or the writer. I hope it’s clear. We haven’t. Or have we?Free/Style: A Direct Approach to Writing (1991) (note 228). In the present case, Faulkner’s sentence moves to details about the “office,” the word that ends the kernel clause, then to the closed “blinds” of the office.
because her father had called it that --
a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened forty-three summers
because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler,
These because-clauses offer a history of the room from the perspective of Miss Coldfield, or her perspective of her family, the details that are most salient about the office and its naming to her.
One thing we might note about because-clauses is that the conjunction’s etymology comes from Middle English. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the word being used in similar ways as Faulkner does here at least as far back as the early 1300s CE. Before that it was originally two words, by cause (note 229). I don’t wish to argue that because-clauses are unique to English or Middle English. There are lots of other languages that have a similar kind of conjunction that creates a reason or explanation that lengthens expressions.
Instead, I want to point out that Faulkner’s use of because-clauses participates in a unique history that the English language affords, a language that has its own orientation to the world aided by language habits like because-clauses, a language that Faulkner’s family took with them from England to America. It’s pretty clear that the Faulkner family (previously Falkner) has roots in England, and the surname “Falkner” may be a reference to someone’s medieval profession, that is, a person who took care of falcons, usually for nobility. So perhaps Faulkner’s family were of a yeoman class, not quite gentry but not really laborers, a kind of medieval middle class. Faulkner writes his English from this history. With this history comes habits of language that in many ways are deeply embedded in his linguistic bones, nurtured by family and friends over generations, watered perhaps by upper class aspirations, from England to America.
The rest of Faulkner’s sentence reveals a similar kind of word-history. The clauses that extend this part of the sentence are relative clauses headed by which. Like because-clauses, relative clauses add information to kernel clauses. I’ll continue the outline-indention format below. In this half of the sentence, the relative clauses add information about “blinds,” then move to “dust motes.”
and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes
which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead old dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling window blinds as wind might have blown them
The history of which-clauses is even older than because-clauses, starting in Old English with similar uses in Old Saxon and Middle Low German and Middle Dutch. The word as a pronoun and adjective is found as far back as 725 CE. At that time, it took several forms: hwelc, huelc, hwælc, huælc, huoelc. When it migrates to Middle English, the word begins to look like today’s word: wheche, weche, qheche, quelk (note 230).
My point about this word-history is similar as before: We do not get to escape the history of the language we use. Our language uses us and makes us as much as we use and make it. Faulkner's sentence, while easygoing and meandering, is still top-down and hierarchically arranged. Its logic starts with the kernel sentence and hierarchically adds ideas underneath it, like an outline. Faulkner’s English languaging, like mine and yours, participates in a rich history of word-world-making that comes from a particular part of the world, where particular groups of people lived on one or two land masses situated between the North Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Norwegian Sea. The elite subgroups of these people happened to also colonize much of the known world. This language with its speakers and their tacit top-down languaging logics, eventually sailed across the Atlantic and landed in North America, where it took root in new places, and continued to change. But old habits, even language habits die hard.
Yet, even this is too simple of a story of English and its influence on Faulkner’s sentence. As the knighted linguist David Crystal has explained in detail, the English language as we know it is really a story of numerous languages, of politics (that is, power relations among people), most of which have been purposefully sidelined or ignored by those with the power to do so (note 231). This means that the habits of the English language that Faulkner uses, or the ones teachers and other readers today hear, see, and appreciate in his languaging, come from the version of English that has been promoted as the Standard English, but again, it’s just one English among many that have always competed for dominance. It’s not a standard English, but a standardized English, an English made standard by a dominant group.
In terms of the grammar of this entire sentence, Faulkner’s use of because and which function similarly each time. They build his cumulative sentence, a sentence that acquires more meaning with each clause stacked after the previous one, building nuance and rhythm as the sentence moves along, exploring ideas and details seemingly in a free-flowing associative manner, a manner that comes out of elite white groups of English language users who are storytellers. One might say Faulkner’s style is perhaps a kind of genteel “Southern style” of writing. In my ear, it’s a style that sounds relaxed and easy, yet deeply attached to the details that make the history that also makes each character. It's a sentence that is also a story with lots of embedded details that at first glance seem tangential. But details are always important to stories, even when they seem cast about freely and copiously, or casually offered. And perhaps it’s the journey and not the end of the story that this kind of style most characterizes. Is that an elite Southern storytelling habit? I’m not sure, but it sounds like it to me.
Faulkner is an upper-middle class, southern, white, male languageling, one who grew up with a Black nanny in a family that valued reading, painting, and photography. He is a college dropout, attending the University of Mississippi for a few semesters, then moving to New Orleans to live the life of an artist, writing and discovering his voice as a novelist. That’s some privilege, right? His languaging comes out of such conditions and white privilege. The above sentence is a product of that history too.
Faulkner’s novel is laudable for a number of reasons, making it worth reading on several fronts. It’s a fascinating critique of the dying Southern plantation slave culture. It’s a postmodern illustration of the ephemeral and illusory chasing of Truth (capital “T”) and use of multiple incomplete or differing memories and perspectives. But the CCSS 11-12.1 and OS speak to conventions of language that are to be mastered or practiced, and if something like this sentence, or Faulkner more generally, is read in classrooms as a model of good English language use, then we might consider exactly where Faulkner’s use of English conventions comes from and what they mean when we ask students today to appreciate or mimic them.
We could ask: What is promoted in our assessments of students’ responses to our lessons and assignments concerning this model of English, particularly when practicing language conventions is the goal? I’ve offered two examples of language habits that Faulkner uses that characterized my reading of the sentence above, his use of because and which clauses as subordinate and relative clauses that drive a dense yet easy storytelling style, a style that is cumulative. Do we promote these habits as conventions, putting aside the issue of commas?
These habits are one way to build details and explanation at the sentence level, and so I can see a teacher using this as a model for such lessons, asking students to try to mimic Faulkner’s structures. Fair enough. But is that where the lesson ends? What do students ultimately take from that kind of lesson or practice when they are graded on their practices, even if those practices are graded only as complete or incomplete? That is, what’s the lesson taken by a student when the purpose for the student is to imitate Faulkner and turn in their version of a Faulkner sentence? The labors, the mimicking practices, tacitly reproduce many habits, perhaps erasing others.
I could show you lots of examples of other literature that uses because and which to do the same kinds of things, and it would make for a strong case that these are good models for students to emulate, good lessons about subordinate and relative clauses, clauses that can help a writer say things in a more detailed and powerful way -- maybe like I’ve done in many places in this discussion. I could also show you lots of examples of other cumulative sentences to the same effect. We have much to learn about English language conventions in Faulkner.
Write for 10 minutes.
Look back at your models of good writing that you’ve used in your classroom over the last 1-2 years. If you can, go back 3-4 years. Make a list of them all, author, title, date of publication, and the racial and gender designations of the author.
Then look more closely at the examples you used and discussed with students, that is, the sentences or paragraphs, the actual language. What was the language lesson to learn in each case? Was it to master or mimic a dominant elite White English language? What rule or idea or convention was meant to be mastered? Make a list of these lessons. Compare it to your list of authors and their subject positions. What are the racial politics of your lessons?
Conventioning as a Critical Practice
But what makes the use of a good model we might call our students’ attention to is not that we ask them to mimic it, to replicate its English, its conventionality, instead it is what judgements about that model we circulate in the assessment ecology -- that is, what is the nature of our judgements of Faulkner’s sentence that we share with our students? What do they produce and achieve in our lessons and classrooms? The antiracist use of any model of English languaging should open up our eyes, ears, and hearts to our own and others’ languaging behaviors. Our models should be explored historically and politically. As I’ve tried to do above, probably not very well, we might find ways to open up the conventionality and unconventionality of both our models and our own languaging, asking what has made such conventioning “standard” or non-standard.
But this ain’t really the right binary that explains what I’m getting at, that is, a binary of “conventionality” versus “unconventionality,” standard versus non-standard. Maybe, a good use of models is to use them to open up our own multiple acts of English-ing already existing, to explore our many acts of convention-ing in our own language-lives, mapping those language behaviors to the places we’ve been and the people who have given us such conventionings like priceless gifts just discovered in a seldomly opened drawer in a room we have tended to walk past. What we explore, the mapping, may be other texts, those in our lives, our churches, or other language-places and people, then we place such conventioning next to the models set in front of us, understanding that some group in history has made that model standard.
And what’s the goal? To pay attention to all these things in order to love our languaging deeply enough to share it with others proudly, to open our languaging to others for their sakes, to convention just as we are, and to see ways we might develop our conventioning in ethical and sustainable ways in order to make our world a better and more compassionate place.
Doing something like this with the models in front of us may help us better understand the politics and consequences of our uses of the conventionings in our models. And like my discussion of Faulkner above, this mapping can lead us to read and language in antiracist ways, with an antiracist orientation, not to poo-poo Faulkner -- I hope it’s clear that I admire his languaging -- but to notice that in our sole appreciation of him we neglect the beautiful and complex languaging around us already. We lose more learning about conventioning than we gain.
Our language world is far bigger than Faulkner. This means, we can only truly appreciate Faulkner if we place him, and those like him, not at the top of some literary pyramid, but in a densely filled cosmos of other languagelings, all doing their conventioning in their ways, ways equally worth appreciating, ways that help us resist the racist hierarchies that judging with singular standards of language always ask us to reinforce.
Not Modeling But Arranging
Is opening up our acts of conventioning a matter of asking a good question about a sentence like Faulkner’s instead of asking students to write one? Not necessarily. Another way is through non-hierarchical comparison. Think of this as a kind of arranging, a setting next to each other, as many conventioning acts as possible. That is, just like Faulkner’s own novel, one of competing and contradictory memories of the past, of competing stories in a family, our models around learning conventions should be plural and compete, even contradict each other, without demonizing any, or setting one up as preferred or as a yardstick. Our purposes for such arranging work with students, however, should be explicitly centered, I think, on versions of the questions I started this blog entry with. We can ask such questions of each model we arrange. Let me repeat the original question in bullet form for ease.
- Who does the model represent in society and our classroom?
- How is that representation, and the habits of language it assumes, connected to the history of racism and WLS in society?
- Who is that ideal embodied languageling that the model invokes or conjures and what are its effects when circulated in our classroom?
- How do we (teachers and students) make sure that we do not reproduce WLS through our uses of the model?
One important thing to remember about Faulkner’s sentence is that it is voiced in the same embodied voice as the other characters that form the center of the novel, white, propertied southerners, like Faulkner to a degree. Race and racism are at the center of tensions in the novel, and in the languaging in which it offers its stories. This makes it difficult -- even impossible -- to escape visualizing (not really the right word) the voice(s) of the novel’s words as anything other than elite white embodied voices.
This is even more true when we widen our lens to see the context of reading that our students exist in, a context that is over-crowded with mostly white author-models who likely sound a lot like Faulkner to them. The standardized conventioning of most of our models of good writing are made standard by an embodied white writer writing, or invoked, even when they are authors of color. Don’t I sound white? I mean, just a bit? What have you been visualizing about me, my voice on this screen? Making such things present is part of an antiracist orientation to our teaching and learning of conventioning.
Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning Black writer who is often read in classrooms as a model, also cannot escape the HOWLing of white standardized conventioning. Consider her famous short story, “Everyday Use” (first published in Harper’s Magazine, 1973). While Walker does not write in long cumulative sentences, her accumulation of details that help provide depth to characters is similar to Faulkner’s easy Southern storytelling style. Walker too is a product of the South, born and raised in Eatonton, Georgia, where she was valedictorian of her high school. She attended Spelman College then Sarah Lawrence College, where she graduated.
Here’s her short story’s opening paragraph, which could be analogous to Faulkner’s opening sentence, if length and paragraphing are ways to determine a similar comparable unit of meaning. Her paragraph is 88 words long.
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house. (note 232)
While there are no because or which clauses in this paragraph, there are new sentences that work from a key idea or word initiated by the previous sentence. This kind of associative movement of this paragraph is similar to Faulkner’s cumulative sentence. Walker’s sentences are all period though.
Walker’s paragraph style and movement looks like this. Her paragraph starts with a clause or idea that the rest of the paragraph uses to develop details: “I will wait for her in the yard.” Some might call this a “topic sentence” since it seems to act like one. The structure seems similar to Faulkner’s. But is it top-down, hierarchical in the way Faulkner’s sentence’s logic is? I think there’s an argument for no, and this reading of it rests on the differences in Walker’s conventioning.
Walker’s paragraph feels to me to be more associative, or perhaps generative and explorative by introducing new subjects and sentences (main clauses). I’m searching for the right descriptors here, ones that explain the logic of the movement of subjects in clauses: the yard, a yard, it (an extended living room), anyone (who can sit and look up and wait for the wind). These are the subjects of the clauses, the sentences. They don’t really make the same kind of hierarchical outline that Faulkner’s does, yet we could say that both Faulkner and Walker use their opening clauses to move their storytelling forward by developing ideas that start from the previous clause. It’s just in Faulkner there’s only one kernel clause, so maybe I feel that makes his more hierarchical, more top-down.
Why do I think this? I don’t hear a strong topic sentence in Walker, but that’s all I hear in Faulkner’s opening kernel clause. The conventioning of using topic sentences comes from Western and white traditions that go back to Aristotle. This doesn’t make such conventioning bad languaging, only languaging associated with a white history of literature and the language conventions that go with it. Walker’s own educational success in southern and eastern schools suggests she’d be fluent in such languaging. If she was going to succeed as a student, a writer, and a novelist, she’d have to be able to mimic such conventionings, yet doesn’t she resist it here?
Despite her not using cumulative sentences, Walker’s style moves back and forth between the details of the yard and ideas that frame the details she offers in a meandering style, all of which help make that yard something more than a yard in the story. At first she’s talking about the yard, then she’s talking about living rooms, then someone is lying down and looking up at the tree, waiting for breezes. This non-hierarchical movement of ideas or images can happen because Walker doesn’t convention with because- and which-clauses.
Like Faulkner’s style, Walker’s has an easy, relaxed pace to it, perhaps because of the seemingly random details and their framing. We are just talking about a yard, a yard one can stretch out on and wait for breezes. Feels Southern in temperament to me, doesn’t it? The difference is that somehow Walker meanders around in her paragraph without using cumulative sentences, ones that tend to sound meandering. And yet, there is a white standardized conventioning that Walker too uses, arguably more strictly than Faulkner.
Walker, a Black woman languageling in the early part of her career -- 1973 -- may have felt for good reason that she cannot language like Faulkner, without commas for instance, because she’d be read as illiterate. So Walker ends up being a model of white habits of language in English conventioning because that’s the only way an author like her can become an author, yet in her use of period sentences here, I think she may be resisting that standard. Whether we read Walker as reproducing a HOWLing standard or not doesn’t diminish her accomplishment, nor does it diminish Faulkner’s. It merely offers some racial context and politics for their different conventionings.
One way to test my arranging of Walker’s paragraph next to Faulkner’s sentence is to convert Walker’s into a cumulative sentence in the vein of Faulkner. This may also tell us what we lose and gain. We could do the same for Faulkner’s, changing his sentence to many periodic ones. Here’s my humble impression of Walker imitating Faulkner:
I will wait for her in the yard, the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon, a yard like this being more comfortable than most people know because it is not just a yard since it is more like an extended living room, because when the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.
My translation to a cumulative sentence made Walker’s paragraph longer by six words (94 words long), but it also sounds to me more like a discourse on the yard. The original version didn’t do that for me. Perhaps Faulkner’s style of cumulative sentences lends itself to longer sentences, which then are longer discourses on a single grammatical subject. But the rhythm and pace of Walker’s original paragraph also changes in my cumulative sentence version. To me, the above version sounds and feels a half beat slower and more aristocratic, which is not in line with her character, a poor Black mother from the south.
Perhaps we need to be even more in our arranging to bring out an antiracist orientation and lessons. Let me arrange Faulkner’s and Walker’s conventionings next to a critically celebrated Black musician, the late rapper, MF DOOM (Daniel Dumile). MF DOOM is the alter ego of Daniel Dumile, who was born in London, UK to a Trinidadian mother and Zimbabwean father. The family quickly moved to New York early in his life and he grew up on Long Island. MF DOOM’s characteristic face mask hid the rapper’s face and signified a number of things: the Marvel comic villain, Dr. Doom; his disinterest in fame and recognition; and his focus on the substance of his music over superficial features like what he looks like.
Perhaps his most influential album is Madvillainy with Madlib (released in 2004). In the song, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” MF DOOM opens in his typical stream of consciousness style that mimics the way rap battles and freestyling happen. Like all his songs, MF DOOM’s densely referenced lyrics and complex rhyme schemes are meant to be heard, not simply read on a page, so you might listen to the song as you read along with the lyrics (note 233).
Because of the nature of rap music, it is often hard to say where sentences begin and end in the printed lyrics. Some clues are offered in the song through pauses and punctuation-like repeated musical phrases or melodies, what music aficionados call an “ostinato.” I’ve referenced those repeated melodic phrases below with a set of bracketed asterisks [***] as a way to note where perhaps new conventionings occur, which in some cases could be similar to the subordinate and relative clauses used by Faulkner, or the short and longer periodic sentences of Walker. What should be clear though is that it much harder to figure these conventionings out in MF DOOM’s song. Again, I use my outline-format for visualizing the units of meaning in MF DOOM’s song as I hear it, but there are other translations, of course.
[***] Hold the cold one like he hold a old gun
Like he hold the microphone and stole the show for fun [***]
Or a foe for ransom, flows is handsome
O's in tandem, anthem, random tantrum [***]
Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry, ask the dumb hottie
Masked, pump-shotty—somebody stop me [***]
Hardly come sloppy on a retarded hard copy
After rockin' parties, he departed in a jalopy [***]
Watch the droptop papi
Known as the grimy limey, slimy— try me
Simply smashing in a fashion that's timely
Madvillain dashing in a beat-rhyme crime spree [***]
We rock the house like rock 'n roll
Got more soul than a sock with a hole [***]
Set the stage with a goal
To have the game locked in a cage getting shocked with a pole [***] (note 234)
Like Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey and Faulkner’s own novel, MF DOOM starts in the middle of things (en medias res). He speaks in third person about the persona who is speaking. Who holds “the cold one” like an “old gun”? MF DOOM does, the villain character that Dumile created for this rap album. This is similar to Faulkner’s creation of characters and voices that change perspectives in his novel.
And the gun is “like” the “microphone” of the rapper, stealing shows “for fun.” Or it’s like taking another rapper “for ransom” by spitting “handsome” flows or rhymes. And to auralize the flow that takes others for ransome, MF DOOM illustrates with a series of “O’s” in “tandem.” And not to forget that the song is a play off of an old country song by the same name, sung by Glen Campbell, MF DOOM makes several references in quick succession that are associated with that original song, while also incorporating others. He is like the “Phantom of the Grand Ole Opry,” a condensed reference to both the Grand Ole Opry and the Phantom of the Opera, in which the main character, the phantom, is a similarly masked character.
According to my hearing of the two kernel clauses in this opening of the song, the progression of subjects is simple. Most of the lyrics’ clauses center on two: I and you. That’s MF DOOM and the song’s listener or audience. The final few clauses’ subjects are Madvillian (or MF DOOM) and we. The song feels less like a story and more like a conversation, a dialogue, which makes sense given the history of rap music.
We could look more carefully at Dumile’s languaging history, his Trinidadian mother and Zimbabwean father. Surely their languaging influenced his, as did his growing up in New York and his Muslim upbringing. The point I wish to make by placing MF DOOM’s song next to Faulkner and Walker is that our models can open up languaging, not restrict it. And even when our goals are about English language conventioning, what students learn can be much bigger than one person’s language history. One important lesson I see when placing Faulkner, Walker, and MF DOOM next to each is just how diverse and wide English conventioning already is. This makes me wonder about my students in class. What beautiful conventionings might they share with us?
Often our models of good writing are not really the standard for how we expect our students to write. They are models for what we want our students to read and appreciate because, well, we have read and appreciated them ourselves. But in reality, we all always contest the standard, play with it, bend its rules until right before they break for us. And somehow this bending without breaking the language tells us that our own notions of language are clear and right. The standard is right there in front of us. Our models show us our own version of the standard, even when they really don’t, or when they show us more than that. Can you hear the ironic contradiction in this? Models that show us the standard in their breaking of the rules. That’s Faulkner, Walker, and MF DOOM, but in different ways, from different histories of conventioning.
Or maybe, we have come to understand that our models of good language are to be read because they are what one reads when one learns English. The “masters” are what we read, how we teachers were programmed. You read Hemingway and Faulkner and Vonnegut and Shakespeare not to try to language like them but to appreciate them and learn from them, whatever that means. It's good practice. And yet, paradoxically, they, the white Hemingway and Faulkner and Vonnegut, have slid into our habits of language as tacit models in our curricula and outcomes at this time of the clock in our history. Why? Because they are the models most reachable, most available, to those who made our curricula, outcomes, and standards, even to most of us.
This is how the white hegemonic language works. We experience it, then it becomes a part of us. We make it our own. And in the process of our histories, it paradoxically changes as we do. We turn around twenty or thirty years later, and it ain’t the same English anymore, not really. Others have gotten their hands on it. Faulkner has fucked around with your languaging, flicked away some commas. Hemingway has hemmed it tight, shortened things. Walker has dug into you language drawers and moved things around and stacked up things in places you didn’t think would fit. And MF DOOM, well, he’s kicked in the closet, renovated the place, made it more roomy.
But wait, what have you done to the English languages that have been present in your life?
The problem and paradox with all this is that our canon of literature, like our standards for English languaging, is very, very white and stable. Even the most read authors of color cannot help but write in the dominant white English language because how else will you get published, get read? Who else have you been able to read in your own education? It happened to me. I write from dominant white English languaging too. Even Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ibram X. Kendi write from dominant white Englishes, though they code mesh, as we all do to some degree, something Vershawn A. Young continues to tell us.
Even Gloria Anzaldúa writes from a dominant white English, although arguably less so than most, code meshing before any of us were talkin about it. That’s how we all get trained, or rather, that is how we all have had to be trained up to this point, just like Walker and even MF DOOM. You ain’t gettin’ no PhD with no trailer park languaging. Ain’t no professor professin’ when she only be languaging from her Black roots. The educational systems do not give us many other choices right now. Be colonized or stay silent and irrelevant. That’s the rule.
Don’t blame us BIPOC for the system’s white language supremacist biases though, or our whitened languaging that mimics the dominant white forms of English. These biases have hurt and harmed way more BIPOC and poor white students than they ever helped. They have also robbed us all of the contested ways with words that could have contributed to our schools and classrooms. Instead, we are punished, called “remedial,” which by the way is a medical term that has roots in both Latin and French that are shared with the word, “remedy.” The Latin term is “remedialis,” and the Oxford English Dictionary offers the first definition as: “A means of counteracting a source of misery or difficulty, in early use especially sin, evil, or a vice; a means of relieving a bad situation or avoiding a problem” (note 235). We BIPOC and other nonstandardized English language users are apparently a “problem.” We are “a source of misery,” but to whom do we miserize? My words ain’t never given me no misery. For whom are we a problem? Apparently we are sick with viral words, or worse, sick with linguistic sin, evil, and vice. It’s a bit of languaging that participates in a racist discourse that has white supremacist roots (see posts 11 and 14).
In the language race war, the first item of business is always to frame the battle in ways that make your enemy into one of two things. They are either inhuman and animalistic, as the Nazis did with Jews and the U.S. did with Japanese during WWII; or they are sick and infantile, as the U.S. did during the Philippine-American war, framing their colonizing as a “white man’s burden,” which was similar during the Bush administration’s handling of the War in Iraq. Regardless, in schools and literacy classrooms, those not white(ly), those who do not HOWL, those who don’t or won’t convention in the ways our models seem to show us, are in need of a remedy, and the medicine is always an elite white languaging.
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