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More Unflattening

posted: 1.12.11 by Barclay Barrios

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.

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Categories: Critical Reading, Emerging
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2 Responses to “More Unflattening”

  1. Rachael, UWM Says:

    At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s writing program, the focus is entirely on close reading and critical interpretation. So, this post interests me. I’ve found that students who offer shallow interpretations generally struggle to do well in the program-wide portfolio assessment at the end of the semester. This passage from the post catches my interest: “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.” But isn’t analysis also a form of opinion? I don’t know that there’s a straight answer to that, but one thing I’ve struggled with as an instructor is encouraging students not to “flatten reading” or oversimplify, yet at the same time checking the common tendency to take a stance on the essay’s argument. It’s a difficult thing, but I think there may be some value in framing analysis AS opinion. It’s not a pro/con opinion on the issue in the text, but interpretation nonetheless does seem like an opinion–sometimes a strong opinion–on what the text means.

  2. Barclay Barrios Says:


    Yes and interesting point. I think the difference for me is that analysis is opinion supported with some sort of evidence. That is, the student can walk you through the text or a specific quotation and show you the steps of critical thinking that resulted in that opinion. Ultimately, I think that’s what we’re all after–no so much the end result but having students learn the process. It’s a bit like math. You may get the answer right or wrong but if you show your work you might get some credit for that. I find that what students show their work by talking about a specific quotation and how it led to their analysis I’m more likely to see the critical thinking I value most. I’m also more likely to see where they went wrong in their analysis, which gives me more chance to unflatten. I often make comments like “Are you sure that’s what Author X is talking about in this quotation? What about the part in the essay where she says blah blah.”