Tag Archives: language

Women of the Writing Center: Black, Female, On the Periphery—Being Black in a White Writing Center

The following interview was conducted with Writing Center graduate consultants Janelle Edwards, Ronisha Browdy, and Shewonda Leger.

What is it like being a black female in the Writing Center? Do you find this Writing Center oppressive in any way (think broadly here: clients, consultants, the overall look of the center, etc)?

Janelle noted that  “the Writing Center is not, in itself, oppressive; however, she has to “challenge a lot of clients perceptions.” She remembers a paper in which she was consulting with a client and the client was “talking about what a ‘normal’ American looks like,” and the consulant was talkin’ bout certain people in this country “wearing a towel on their head. And how ‘normal’ Americans were from the West” and “the West was Old America with its traditional values.” Janelle, kept her cool and educated the “blonde and White” client asking her “her what’s a normal American?” I said to Janelle, let me guess, the client ain’t know some of the first Black Cowboys were Black?” Janelle responded> “You know what I’m saynl. Know your history.” She continues, “Needless to say. It made the client uncomfortable. I never saw her again.” I responded “I know why.” She continues, “but I do think the center is open. Usually it is just the clients.”

I wonder: how should consultants respond to racist rhetoric in student writing?

While Janelle provides a perspective on how a consultation with the client can be used as a way to provide knowledge while having to navigate racist rhetoric in client writing, Ronisha sheds light on how the writing center makes her feel.

Ronisha posited, “I have had a limited amount experience at this particular WC, but the environment is inviting, but that doesn’t mean that I am not aware that I am a Black woman with different experiences and what I want to talk about is different. It’s not different from my everyday life. I felt like I was being singled out because I was new. It was different for some reason. I think if I was a Black man I would not have been approached by clients and consultants in the same way.” Ronisha admits,  I feel alone in the WC, which could have been because of the time that I was working. I just felt alone because I had no one to talk to.”

How can a Writing Center defined as “open,” lead to feelings of loneliness and disillusionment? And how can we implement a space where a Black female consultant does not experience this loneliness? How can we bring emotion back into the writing center?

Although Ronisha feels alone in the writing center, Shewonda believes that change starts with the individual.

Shewonda kept it short, direct and to the point, saying, “Nothing is wrong with the WC. A change begins with who u are. For now I see myself as the change. I will be the agent of change. I do not complain. I hate when people complain without intending to change anything.” I understand what Shewonda is saying, but if she sees herself as a part of change in the Writing Center, isn’t something already wrong?

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From Screen to Page: Orange is the New Black and The Wire

from screen to page logoFor this installment, I’ll be talking about two shows, and how they use language, specifically to make the dialog of their characters feel realistic. More specifically, this comes in two forms: swearing and lingo.

First a little about the shows. The Wire ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, with five seasons totaling 60 episodes. The Wire is, at its core, a show about Baltimore, West Baltimore to be specific. While there are a number of police officers at the center of the show, it isn’t a cop show per se, and it’s certainly not a procedural (shows like Bones, or Dragnet). The cast is huge and sprawling, and includes the aforementioned cops, as well as drug dealers, addicts, lawyers, politicians, longshoremen, reporters, judges, teachers, parents, clergy, and children.

Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original series, the first season of which debuted in July 2013. The show follows Piper Chapman, an upper-middle class white woman who is sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security women’s prison. The show explores the kinds of relationships and problems that arise in such places, and while the bulk of the characters are prisoners, the prison staff and Chapman’s family play an important role, as do people connected to the other prisoners, often presented in flashbacks.

Both shows make liberal use of vulgarity, emboldened by their relative safety from the FCC. Part of the reason I haven’t shared clips of the shows is that it would be next to impossible to find any that were “safe for work,” so I didn’t bother. The kind of characters the shows deal with tend to use “colorful” language in their day-to-day life, the kind of language that can’t be heard on regular television, gets censored on the radio, and earns your move an “R” rating. The use of this language is important though, because when gangsters and prisoners and cops use watered down vulgarities, the characters sound unrealistic. This kind language, whether people like it or not, is a part of daily life everywhere in the world, and shows like The Wire and Orange is the New Black purport to present the real world as closely as possible (albeit as fiction).

I’ve had students in the past ask whether or not they should include vulgarities within quotations in their term papers, and I always tell them yes, if it’s relevant. Quoting historical figures swearing because you want to be “edgy” or try and freak out your professor or teaching assistant is ridiculous (and I swear constantly in real life, so it wouldn’t have bothered me anyway). But if a quote from a historical figure is particularly relevant to your argument, and it contains some vulgarity? Include it. Continue reading

Intercontinental Ink: Culture Portrayed through Writing

Many students come in to The Writing Center not confident in the work they’ve produced. It’s not that they’ve written it “wrong,” but that ideas are unclear due to wording or organization. And now that I’m graduating in a week, I’m getting rather sentimental; so please humor me as I reminisce on some of my fondest writing center appointments (it’s relevant, I swear).

When I began learning Arabic and Saudi students would coincidentally schedule appointments with me, I would, without fail, get overly excited. But I wanted to be discrete about how I went about telling these students that I was studying Arabic. I’d grumble an occasional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in Arabic under my breath, hoping the students would catch on. Or I’d leave my laptop open, revealing my Arabic/English keyboard, hoping the students’ eyes would catch my conspicuous cry for approval. But once we’d start the consultation, I’d let it drift to the corner of my mind as I redirected my attention to their writing.

Which, as it turns out, is fascinating.

Arabic is written poetically, deliberately, and to evoke emotion. It’s descriptive and heavily sprinkled with metaphors; Arabic poetry is the most beautiful, passionate prose. Often, this style transfers into Arabic-speaking students’ English writing. This sort of contrastive rhetoric has provided me with some of my most cherished appointments. I am able to see exactly how someone is thinking and how it translates from one language to another.

English is direct and oftentimes dry. Although “fluff” in moderation or having craftily worded sentences can make English writing more interesting, it is still a precise, formulated approach. Non-native English speakers use their inherent understanding of language (which can create some strangely formulated grammatical phrases), but it also generates ideas and comparisons that aren’t readily available to me given my personal understanding of language.

Literacy isn’t just writing. It’s understanding. It’s being able to communicate well. It’s knowing how to accomplish something through some means. Just because you write differently than someone, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It shows the awesome complexity of societal and cultural understanding through language. And regularly witnessing this fascinating phenomenon will be one of my most missed experiences as I finish out my time here at The Writing Center at MSU.

Intercontinental Ink: Latin and the Pope

The pope’s decision to retire has brought on a flurry of buzz and speculation. The announcement of his decision to terminate his seven-year run arrived to the ears of the world this February; however, this was only after it was translated from the language in which he delivered it—Latin.

Latin is dead. Okay, maybe not totally dead. I know that Masses are sometimes conducted in Latin, but that’s still related to the pope. Latin’s cool if you are studying other Romance languages. Science-y people also love Latin, like in naming organisms. Other Homo sapiens that continue to clutch onto Latin: Classical Studies majors. But I’m pretty sure that program is now on moratorium at MSU so that’s kind of awkward.

Why Latin? Pope Benedict was an especially ardent Latin lover and made this dead language live. Although it seems silly to use a language nobody speaks, it’s also refreshing to know that it breathes in some capacity. Given that Latin is seldom used in contexts that aren’t pope-certified, this language has a strong association with Catholic culture.

Language use serves as a monument to culture. Slang, for instance, can represent your generation’s values. My mother would ask me if I was ‘going’ with anyone. Yeah, mom, to the beach with Laura. To my friends, I was ‘going out’ with, well, no one. But Laura was going out with Adam who was going to the beach with us. I mean, YOLO, right?

In addition to generational signifiers, language can also indicate regional values. Northern Californians will tell you their garlic fries are hella dope; but in Southern California, you’ll get hella nasty looks from the locals when using the word ‘hella’. If you go more SoCal, you can encounter a heavy Hispanic population that integrates a significant amount of Spanish into their regular conversation. Speaking Spanish in San Diego, Chinese in San Francisco’s Chinatown, or Arabic in Dearborn helps to preserve heritage for those who have moved to live in these areas from other cultures.

Culture is perpetuated through language, and although the pope is resigning and his successor may not endorse Latin as strongly as he did, the language still serves as a tribute to Catholicism simply through its existence.

 

Side note: I’d just like to bring up the word ‘papacy’. Pope. Pap. What.

Intercontinental Ink: Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English

Audience. It is arguably the most important factor to keep in mind when constructing a document. In a university setting, this could include classmates, friends, professors, future employers, academic communities, or review boards. Although it’s necessary to think of your readers as a whole, do you also remember the audience’s culture? More specifically, their language?

It may not be immediately apparent when considering your audience, but chances are high that someone who doesn’t speak your native language will be reading your writing. Do you write pieces that are posted online? Anyone in the world can access these documents—don’t exclude them because you forgot about them! So if you’re a native English speaker and your readers are Korean or Saudi Arabian or Chinese, you need to be aware that not only is English not their native language, but they also carry along different cultural values associated with his or her ability to understand and process your writing.

Here are some items to consider when writing to international audiences:

  • Be concise. Know what you’re saying; say it clearly.
  • You might get a kick out of idioms, but it’s possible your audience can’t make heads or tails of it. Avoid when possible.
  • Don’t not end your sentence in a preposition if re-arranging it is going to make is sound awkward. If it sounds strange to a native English speaker, it’s going to sound strange to a non-native English speaker.
  • Although the word that can sometimes make English sentences seem wordy, many other languages mandate their equivalent of that to be used in writing in order to make grammatical sense. Just because you can omit it in English and the sentence will still make sense, doesn’t necessarily mean a non-native English speaker will understand the sentence without using that.
  • Literal is safe. Not to discourage humorous or innovative writing styles, but if there’s a possibility your reader doesn’t have as strong of a command of the English language as you, then be precise.

Writing is a part of culture. When taken into consideration, it allows for a more expansive, comprehensible, and accessible document.