Posts Tagged ‘Academic Writing’

In “Proficiency,” one of the essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Shannon Nichols chronicles her experience of failing the writing portion of the proficiency test that all Ohio high-school students must pass in order to receive their diplomas. Nichols’ literacy narrative offers a valuable example to students, demonstrating how even skillful writers fail. Her essay also speaks to different notions of what constitutes “good” writing, though perhaps in ways that neither Nichols nor the textbook writers intended.

Notably, the last sentence of Nichols’ introductory paragraph isn’t a sentence; it’s a fragment. While fragments can be used to great effect, the presence of one in Nichols’ introduction prompts readers to question whether Nichols was consciously taking a liberty or was instead unaware that her paragraph ended with an incomplete grammatical construction. If she was purposely defying convention, did it not occur to her that taking such a liberty on a standardized test could be the reason for her failure?

In addition to the sentence fragment in her introduction, Nichols presents a fragment of conversation that raises questions in readers’ minds. After she recounts failing the writing portion of the test for the second time, she recalls turning to her English teacher for an answer. She asks Mrs. Brown: “How can I get A’s in all my English classes but fail the writing part of the proficiency test twice?” (82). The next sentence that Nichols writes is simply this: “She couldn’t answer my question” (82). What does Nichols mean by that? It seems unlikely that Mrs. Brown literally had no answer for her. In the absence of Mrs. Brown’s answer, readers are left to wonder not only what the teacher said but also whether she missed a critical opportunity to talk with Nichols about purpose and audience.

Whether the scorers of the Ohio Proficiency Test are anonymous humans racing to meet a quota or robo-graders with an algorithm that identifies surface-level proficiency (including the absence of fragments), their aim differs radically from that of many writing teachers–perhaps Mrs. Brown among them–who strive to nurture their students’ ability to express themselves in meaningful ways.

Such teachers are philosophically opposed to “teaching to the test” for good reasons. But teaching the difference between what the test requires and the skills and habits of mind that truly make students college- and career-ready offers a lesson in compromise along with a study in contrasting rhetorical situations.

The textbook writers, themselves, note those contrasting rhetorical situations in the handbook section of The Norton Field Guide. In the chapter devoted to fragments, they write:

Fig. 1 HB-7 / W.W. Norton

“[S]ome readers consider fragments too informal, and in many academic writing situations, it’s better to avoid them altogether” (Fig. 1 HB-7). Later in the same chapter, however, the textbook writers note that “[w]riters sometimes use [them] intentionally” (Fig. 2 HB-9). The first example they offer of an intentional fragment is the one in Nichols’ introduction, which the textbook writers label as intentional for emphasis:

Fig. 2 HB-9 / W.W. Norton

Throughout my elementary and middle-school years, I was a strong student, always on the honor roll. I never had a GPA below 3.0. I was smart, and I knew it. That is, until I got the results of the proficiency test. (Fig. 2 HB-9)

The example of Nichols’ fragment as an intentional one appears in the textbook more than nine-hundred pages after her essay, itself, which increases the chances that students and instructors will not encounter both the fragment in context and the explanation for its use. If the textbook writers had opted not to include Nichols’ essay in Chapter 10 (“Writing a Literacy Narrative”) and instead placed it in Chapter 59 (“Literacy Narratives”), they could have addressed the fragment in one of the questions that follow each piece of writing in that section of the textbook. Seeing Nichols’ essay juxtaposed with the explanation for its fragment would invite classroom conversations about rhetorical situations, dialogues more nuanced than the fragments Nichols offers on the page.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. “Sentence Fragments.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, pp. HB-7 and HB-9-10.

Nichols, Shannon. “‘Proficiency.’” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 82-83.


Scrabble Game Changer

In October, after I read Jonathan Kay’s Wall Street Journal review “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” I meditated on his criticism of Scrabble as a word game that deemphasizes semantics. I asked myself, if I want my students to play a board game that cultivates word power and critical thinking skills, is Scrabble the game to choose? Thus, Kay’s review became the starting point for my research on the cognitive benefits of Scrabble play. As I scrolled through search results, I found only a couple of articles that specifically addressed Scrabble in the college classroom, but many that focused on the value of the game, itself, for sharpening the mind.

Article and draft

The dearth of articles on Scrabble in the college classroom may be explained by the emphasis on classwork with assessable outcomes rather than activities that foster the habits of mind essential to lifelong learning. The bibliography that follows includes Kay’s review, the starting point for my research, along with three refereed research articles. Two offer windows into the classrooms of professors whose students play Scrabble: one an English professor at a two-year college in California, the other a professor of engineering at a polytechnic university in Russia. The third article addresses cognitive evaluations of competitive Scrabble players and what they reveal about how experience shapes word recognition.

How much does Scrabble play cultivate our word power? The answer to that question remains unclear, but the research of psychologists and educators points to the merits of team Scrabble for improving not only our language skills, but also our facility with critical thinking, team-building, and spatial skills.

As I review my research on Scrabble, I look forward to searching for additional studies and commentary on the game. Whether it will lead to a larger project of my own, I do not know. But the knowledge I have gained will inform my teaching as I continue to revise the curriculum and consider additional opportunities for wordplay in the classroom.

Annotated Bibliography

Fletcher, Jennifer. “Critical Habits of Mind: Exposing the Process of Development.” Liberal Education, Winter 2013, pp. 50-55. Association of American Colleges and Universities, Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Critical Habits of Mind” addresses the teaching practices of a group of college math and writing faculty who collaborated to develop lessons to foster intellectual capacities, such as motivation and self-efficacy. Developmental educational instructors from three California colleges, Cabrillo, California State University-Monterey Bay, and Hartnell College, partnered to pilot classroom activities, including clicker technology, peer writing review, improvisation, metacognitive writing activities (e.g. “Math Anxiety Essays”), and Scrabble Fridays. Reflecting on their collaboration, author Jennifer Fletcher, associate professor of English at CSUMB, observes that foregrounding procedural knowledge, as their pilot activities did, enabled them to couple their teaching of discipline-specific content with the set of behaviors essential to teaching and learning.

Fletcher’s account of Hartnell writing instructor Hetty Yelland’s Scrabble Fridays is of particular value to educators who are considering Scrabble play as a classroom activity. Fletcher notes that Yelland’s observes “the extra effort students have to make to overcome the boredom—and their passive word knowledge—that eventually leads to more active and internalized language practices” (54).

Hargreaves, Ian S., et al. “How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition: Visual Word Recognition in Competitive Scrabble Players.” Memory & Cognition, vol. 40, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-7. ProQuest,

“How a Hobby Can Shape Cognition” presents the findings of Canadian researchers in the Departments of Psychology and Medicine at Calgary University who investigated how the word recognition skills of competitive Scrabble players differed from those of age-matched nonexperts. The researchers’ cognitive evaluations revealed differences only in Scrabble-specific skills, such as anagramming. Also, the researchers observed that Scrabble expertise was associated with two specific effects: vertical fluency and semantic deemphasis. The study’s results indicate that experience shapes visual word recognition.

The research of Ian Hargreaves and his colleagues at the University of Calgary is pertinent to educators who seek to understand the cognitive benefits of frequent Scrabble play. Notably, the semantic deemphasis that the study identifies—and that Jonathan Kay addresses in his review—contrasts the gains in language skills that Hetty Yelland observes in her English students.

Kay, Jonathan. Review. “Scrabble is a Lousy Game.” The Wall Street Journal, 6-7 Oct. p. C. 5.

In “Scrabble is a Lousy Game,” writer and editor Jonathan Kay criticizes Scrabble for its lack of emphasis on semantics. In Kay’s words, the game “is like a math contest in which you are rewarded for reciting pi to the 1,000th decimal place but not knowing that it expresses the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter” (C5). Kay asserts that the best board games for casual players involve a mix of luck and skill and recommends two other board games, Codenames and Paperback, as better options for wordplay.

While Kay’s review focuses on the competitive player’s approach to Scrabble, the concerns he raises about the game’s deemphasis of word meaning and the frustration that novice players can experience warrant the attention of educators who are considering introducing Scrabble play into their classrooms. And his recommendations of Codenames and Paperback offer teachers two word-game options to pursue as alternatives Scrabble.

Kobzeva, Nadezda. “Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development.” Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences, no. 182, 2015, pp. 369-74. ScienceDirect, Accessed 26 Nov. 2018.

“Scrabble as a Tool for Engineering Students’ Critical Thinking Skills and Development” presents research involving second-year engineering students and teachers of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at Tomsk Polytechnic University in Tomsk, Russia. The students—all non-native speakers of English—played Scrabble as an in-class and out-of-class-activity for one academic year. At the end of the year, the best six student players competed in teams in a tournament against two teams of the six EFL teachers. Throughout the tournament—which was conducted outside of the classroom to relieve students of the pressure to obtain a high score—the researcher, Nadezda Kobzeva, observed the contrast in the students’ and teachers’ practices as players. While the EFL instructors possessed an advanced knowledge of English language, they were newcomers to Scrabble. On the other hand, the engineering students with limited knowledge of English relied on the skills they developed throughout their year-long Scrabble program. In the feedback the students provided after the tournament, which they won, the majority of students rated the skills they developed as Scrabble players as excellent in all five fields assessed, including team-building, thinking, spatial skills, vocabulary, and spelling.

Kobzeva, a professor of engineering at Tomsk, focused his research on engineering students, but his findings are valuable to researchers and teachers in other fields who seek answers to the questions of how Scrabble can be used effectively as a learning tool, and what specific skills students may develop through frequent play.

James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues” depicts the life of a young jazz musician and addict, as seen through the eyes of his older brother. The inciting incident—what prompts the older brother to tell Sonny’s story—is a police report in the newspaper, citing Sonny’s arrest the night before. Reading that brief story, one that reduces his brother to someone who “peddle[s] and us[es] heroin” (813), leads the older-brother-narrator to meditate on the events that led to Sonny’s incarceration. The news of his arrest—albeit a brief item in the paper—plays a critical role in the opening paragraph, providing not only the inciting incident but also a counterpoint for the improvisation that breathes life into Sonny’s character. Despite the narrator’s initial dislike of Sonny’s music, the structure of his own storytelling mimics the composition of jazz, underscoring the kinship of his nonlinear, polyphonic story and the piano playing of his brother.

In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator recounts how he thought about Sonny all day “while [he] taught [his] classes algebra” (813). Placing the narrator in the classroom gives Baldwin the opportunity both to show how the students remind the narrator of Sonny as a youth and how the narrator’s occupation further differentiates him from his younger brother. Unlike the algebra that the narrator teaches, Sonny’s music and his life are disjointed.

As the narrator continues to reflect on his brother’s disjointed life, his thoughts are punctuated with the sound of the school bell and a boy “whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple” (814). Those noises create the offbeat rhythms of syncopation, signature sounds of jazz. The story’s syncopation builds as it takes an unexpected turn when the narrator encounters an old neighborhood friend of Sonny’s, another heroin addict who engages him in a conversation about Sonny’s arrest. That dialogue between the narrator and the junkie leads the narrator’s story back to the newspaper report, while the juke box at a nearby bar “blast[s] away with something black and bouncy” (816).

Along with the story’s syncopation, its polyphony—another defining characteristic of jazz—builds, adding to the story’s voices the words of Sonny, himself, first in the pages of his letter and later in his face-to-face conversations with the narrator. Sonny’s return to New York after the war prompts the narrator to think back on the story of his father witnessing the death of his own brother, a young guitarist run over by a drunken carload of white men. That story, told to the narrator by his mother, introduces not only the voice of his mother but also his father’s voice, indirectly—as well as the scream of the dying brother, the narrator’s uncle, and the guitar strings “flying” (825) as the car rolls over him.

The sounds of the uncle’s gruesome death aren’t the only notes of tragedy sung as the story’s polyphony builds. The narrator’s two-year-old daughter, Grace—whose death makes Sonny’s trouble real—dies from polio: “[T]he reason she hadn’t screamed was that she couldn’t get her breath. And when she did scream, it was the worst sound, Isabel [the narrator’s wife] says, that she’d ever heard in all her life, and she still hears it sometimes in her dreams” (833).

Such tragedies leave little wonder why Sonny or anyone else might turn to music or drugs, or both, as a way, in Sonny’s words, “to keep from shaking to pieces” (837). The link between heroin and jazz is one that Baldwin first makes implicitly, when Sonny mentions Bird (Charlie Parker) to the narrator, who has no idea who Parker is (828). Though Sonny doesn’t refer to Parker’s heroin use, his addiction—as legendary as his musical genius and inextricably tied to it—is likely in the forefront of the minds of many readers who see the parallels between Parker and Sonny.

That implicit connection between music and heroin becomes explicit later in the story when Sonny reflects on the singing voice of the tambourine player at the street revival: “‘When she was singing before,’ said Sonny, abruptly, ‘her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant—and sure’” (836).

In the last pages of the story, the narrator accompanies Sonny to a jazz club downtown, where he listens to him perform. Finally, with that performance, Sonny’s piano and his bandmates’ bass, trumpet, and drums join the polyphonic voices of the narrative. For the narrator, the quartet’s jazz remains a foreign language. In the narrator’s words, “I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard” (843). Yet despite the alien quality of what he hears, the narrator experiences an epiphany in the night club—not about the particular notes he hears, but rather about their aim:

He [Creole] and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell. (843)

With those words, the narrator begins to make meaning—not of Sonny’s particular jazz stylings but of his striving to tell old stories in new ways. The climax of Sonny’s set is also the epiphany of the narrator’s own polyphonic, syncopated, narrative. As the narrator observes of Creole, Sonny’s bandleader, he “seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues” (843). And as Baldwin’s readers listen, they may say: These are his brother’s blues, too.

Work Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 813-44.

In “Just One More Game . . . ,” journalist and critic Sam Anderson examines the appeal of hand-held video games—Tetris and its offspring—observing the concurrence of the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and Japanese game-maker Nintendo’s introduction of the Game Boy, the hand-held device that freed gamers to play wherever they chose. No longer were they confined to play within the walls of rec rooms and arcades.

The theme of walls that Anderson introduces in his opening paragraph is one he returns to with considerable effect. So effective is his thematic approach that readers who first encountered his essay in The New York Times Magazine were unlikely to notice the apparent absence of a thesis. However, for students and teachers who are introduced to Anderson’s essay in the pages of The Norton Field Guide to Writing, the choice to present it as a model textual analysis is a puzzling one. In the commentary that follows Anderson’s essay, the textbook’s authors note that “[h]e interprets the ‘gamification’ of American culture positively and provides evidence from experts as well as the games themselves” (110), but what the authors cite as textual evidence from experts are in fact alternate takes on an obsession for which Anderson is clearly ambivalent.

Early in his essay, when Anderson first applies the term “stupid games” to Tetris and its progeny, he notes that he uses that moniker “half descriptively, half out of revenge for all the hours I’ve lost to them” (106). Evidence of Anderson’s love-hate relationship with so-called stupid games recurs in the paragraphs that follow, where he deftly places hand-held games in cultural and historical context, turning to Monopoly, Risk, and Twister as the products of the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Sexual Revolution, respectively. From those popular, pre-digital games, Anderson shifts his attention back to Tetris, observing that “[i]t was invented exactly when and where you would expect—in a Soviet computer lab in 1984—and its game play reflects this origin” (106). Thus, Anderson illustrates how Tetris, too, is a product of its time and place. But his close examination of Tetris that follows does not function solely to provide more cultural and historical context, it also serves as an opportunity for Anderson to return to his theme of wall-building and to vent the frustration that serves as his refrain:

The enemy in Tetris is not some identifiable villain [. . .] but a faceless, ceaseless, reasonless force that threatens constantly to overwhelm you, a churning production of blocks against which your only defense is a repetitive, meaningless sorting. It is a bureaucracy in pure form, busywork with no aim or end, impossible to avoid or escape. And the game’s final insult is that it annihilates free will. Despite its obvious futility, somehow we can’t make ourselves stop rotating blocks. Tetris, like all the stupid games it spawned, forces us to choose to punish ourselves. (106)

In the second part of his essay, Anderson turns away from the cultural and historical context of games to the perspectives of game designers, not to provide textual evidence for his thesis—which still isn’t clear—but instead to offer points of contrast. In response to game designer Jane McGonigal’s claim that games are “a gateway to our ideal psychological state” (108), Anderson writes that “[a]lthough there is a certain utopian appeal to McGonigal’s ‘games for change’ model, I worry about the dystopic potential of gamification” (109). Anderson contrasts his concerns with the observations of a second game designer, Frank Lantz, noting that he “seem[s] undisturbed by the dark side of stupid games” (109), and pronounces them “far too fragile and complex to be engineered by corporations” (109).

In the final paragraph of his essay, Anderson cites a third game designer, not to support his thesis but, instead, finally, to introduce it. He follows Sid Meier’s definition of a game—“‘a series of interesting choices’” (110)—with his response: “Maybe that’s the secret genius of stupid games: they force us to make a series of interesting choices about what matters most, moment to moment, in our lives” (110). And so he ends his essay with his thesis. Game over.

Fig. 1: Graphic representation of textual analyses (W.W. Norton)

Presenting an additional perspective on games, responding to it, and returning to the theme of wall-building are all effective moves to make in a conclusion and are ones that frequently appear in lists of rhetorical strategies for closure. For that reason, Anderson’s conclusion stands as a valuable model. Yet the essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing as a model for textual analysis remains troublesome, especially considering the graphic representation for organization that follows. In the graphic for a thematically organized textual analysis (fig. 1, row 1), the thesis appears in the first part of the three-part structure, not in the third part—and certainly not in the last lines of the essay, as Anderson’s does.

His essay is better suited for one of the textbook chapters devoted to mixed-genre writing. There, in Chapter Twenty-one or Sixty-nine, “Just One More Game . . .” could serve an example of an essay that blends the textual analysis essential to many arguments, with the questioning, speculative tone that’s a key feature of reflection. Anderson reflects on stupid games, in his conclusion, realizing that they “are also about a more subtle and mysterious form of wall-building: the internal walls we build to compartmentalize our time, our attention, our lives” (110). Relegating writing to a category, as textbooks do, is another form of wall-building. Pointing out the misplacement of Anderson’s “Just One More Game . . . ” isn’t a call to tear them down but rather an argument for launching Anderson over the wall, angry bird that he is.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sam. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 105-110.

Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Commentary. “Just One More Game . . . : Angry Birds, Farmville, and Other Hyperaddictive Stupid Games” by Sam Anderson. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, p. 110.

—. Ways of Organizing a Textual Analysis: A Graphic Representation. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, p. 123.

In “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual,” one of the sample student essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Hannah Berry analyzes two magazine advertisements for shoes—one for Clarks and one for Sorel—which she claims “encourage us to break free from the standard beauty mold and be ourselves” (95). While Berry’s examination of the ads often demonstrates an impressive eye for detail, at times her descriptions fall short, and what she cites as “confident individuality” (95) departs from the clichés of advertising only in superficial ways.

Fig. 1 Clarks Ad (Clarks)

The ad for Clarks (fig. 1) features a young woman in profile playing what Berry refers to as “some kind of trumpet” (95). The vagueness of her description seems inexplicable considering the ease with which anyone with internet access can now conduct a quick image search for brass instruments, or anything else, to find a name in question. In addition to forgoing a quick search for the identity of the instrument, Berry does not explore why the ad’s designers may have chosen a marching euphonium rather than a smaller B-flat trumpet or cornet for the model to hold.

Posing the model with a larger horn—one longer than her torso—makes her look diminutive, as if she is a child playing a grown-up’s trumpet. The fringed ankle socks she wears, typically worn by little girls rather than women, further accentuate her childlike quality. Though her adult French twist hairstyle and suede high-heels might counter the girlish elements in the ad, instead the incongruity creates a curious mix that evokes band nerd less than latter-day Lolita—not a “unique personality [raised] onto a pedestal” (95), as Berry observes, but rather an unsettling male fantasy à la Humbert Humbert.

Fig. 2 Sorel Ad (Sorel)

In contrast to the childlike woman atop a pedestal, the model in the Sorel ad (fig. 2) appears to have no tolerance for the romantic notions of chivalric code. If she were asked to stand on a pedestal, she might shoot it instead. Rifle in hand, she sits in a gilt chair, with one foot propped on a crystal chandelier—one that she presumably shot down from the ceiling only moments earlier. (Witness the plaster dust in the air above the wreckage.) Ostensibly, the focal point of the ad is her footwear, a devil-red, fur-trimmed variation on the classic L. L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoe. But in fact those boots lead the viewers’ eyes to her bare legs, untouched by the plaster dust that powders the floor directly beneath them. Conveniently, she is not sullied by the destruction but appears instead clean and carefully posed, the skirt of her dress raised and pushed aside to reveal her upper thighs. Along with her thighs, the feathers on the shoulder of her dress indicate—whether intentionally or not—that she is prey as well as predator. The centrality of her legs in the ad serves not to highlight her individuality but rather to objectify her.

The legs of the woman in the Clarks ad figure prominently as well. Though she is modestly attired, her little black dress elongates and emphasizes her model-thin legs, and its A-line skirt echoes the bell shape of the horn—as if, perhaps, she is something else to be played.

Along with the impressive eye for detail that Berry’s analysis demonstrates, her essay is admirable for its structure; it gracefully moves from introduction, to thesis, to description and analysis of each ad. Those aspects alone warrant her essay’s inclusion in The Norton Field Guide to Writing. But it’s a valuable model for another reason as well. As Berry writes that the “purity” signified by the model’s white dress is “completely contradicted by the way she wears it” (97), she reveals the contradiction inherent in her own assessment. Rather than depicting the woman as an individual, the ad objectifies her in typical Madison Avenue fashion. And that discrepancy in Berry’s analysis offers students a possible starting point for their own textual analyses.

Works Cited

Berry, Hannah. “The Fashion Industry: Free to Be an Individual.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg, 2016, pp. 94-99.

Clarks. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 55.

Sorel. Advertisement. Lucky. Sept. 2011, p. 65.

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the narrator recalls how she and her childhood friend Tracey watched snippets of Top Hat over and over to study Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance routine for “Cheek to Cheek.” Recounting Tracey’s knack for forward-winding the video tape to the exact moment she sought, the narrator observes that “she [Tracey] began to read the dance, as I never could, she saw everything” (56). As I read those words, I realized that Tracey’s attention to detail and her ability to see “the lesson within the performance” (56), was the same practice of close study that I require of myself and my students.

Just as Tracey learned the steps of Astaire and Rogers’ dance by watching Top Hat, my students and I drew lessons from Swing Time this semester: learning how a writer can use a nonlinear narrative to underscore the role of music and emphasize the narrator’s “weird state of timelessness” (149), and how leaving a narrator unnamed reinforces her shadow identity.

Along with Swing Time, my students and I studied Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak, as part of my commitment to teaching texts that dovetail with campus cultural events and requiring myself to read different books each semester, as my students are required to do. Yet while the lessons that my students and I could learn from Swing Time were clear to me, I was uncertain initially of what we would glean from Beatty’s novel and how I would approach it in the classroom.

One of the challenges of teaching Serafina and the Black Cloak was that it would directly follow Swing Time, a sprawling literary novel that places considerable demands on readers, due in no small part to its nonlinear structure. After the experience of studying that novel, how would we approach one written primarily for middle schoolers? I pondered that question as I planned the course and decided that we would explore it in the context of YA fiction, examine Serafina as an archetypal heroine, and consider the various genres that it draws upon, including fairy tale, fantasy, gothic mystery, and historical fiction.

Though I anticipated discussions of the familiar themes and devices that Beatty employs, —in particular the tropes addressed in our supplemental readings on YA fiction and fairy tales—I did not foresee that the pairing alone of his novel and Smith’s would prove highly instructive, serving as a primer for narrative variety. Our back-to-back reading of Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak threw into sharp relief the differences between character- and plot-driven novels.

In addition to illustrating variations in the novel as a form, studying Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak back to back offered me and my students the opportunity to consider what our responses to those disparate novels revealed about our own inclinations as readers. For me, the act of reading Swing Time and other literary novels is an act of immersion. I do not feel as if I am reading a novel the way I do when I read a work of genre fiction, such as Serafina and the Black Cloak, so conscious am I of its formula. But for many other readers, familiar devices do not detract from a narrative and may in fact be part of its appeal. Reflecting now on the disparate novels that my students and I studied this semester, I recall Serafina’s own thoughts about reading as she and Braeden explored the Vanderbilt’s library: “She marveled at how this one room contained the thoughts and voices of thousands of writers, people who had lived in different countries and different times, people who had told stories of the heart and the mind . . .” (187-88).

Stories of the heart and the mind: that’s another way of thinking of our work over the course of the semester, both the texts that we have studied and the ones that we have written—all of which have offered lessons through their words.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Annotated Bibliography

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Introduction: “The Struggle for Meaning.” The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Random, 1976. pp. 13-19.

In his introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, which examines fairy tales through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, Bruno Bettelheim explores the importance of fairy tales in children’s’ moral development, focusing on how the form and structure of the unambiguous narratives of fairy tales provide images with which young children can structure the daydreams that help them make sense of their lives.

Collins, Billy. “Snow Day.” The Poetry Foundation,, Accessed, 17 Jan. 2018.

The speaker in Billy Collins’ poem “Snow Day” meditates on the “revolution of snow” (1) as he listens to the radio announcements of school closings, steeping himself in the pleasure of the sounds of the whimsical names of the preschools and the sights of the little girls playing outside in the “grandiose silence of snow” (37).

Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. pp. 18.

One of the poems in his debut collection, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant’s “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright” responds to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s 1963 folk song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” featured on his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The speaker in Makant’s poem observes that “Dylan was lying” but that his lie was “the measure of true love”(18).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times,, 20 Jan. 2012, Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days—in New York and West Africa—the novel swings in time as the narrator recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possess a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic,, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Jean M. Twenge’s article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” focuses on her research into the behaviors and emotional states of young people born between 1995 and 2012—a generation she calls “iGen”—who differ markedly from their predecessors who came of age before the advent of smartphones and Instagram accounts. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.


The title of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time evokes not only the Fred Astaire film of the same name, but also the structure of the narrative, itself. Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days, in New York and West Africa, the novel swings in space and time as she recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possesses a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. Long before readers know how the friendship and the job end, they learn that both ended badly. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Along with the dual storylines of the narrator’s shadow identity, she chronicles changes in how we communicate, rendering the novel not just the story of the “I,” but also a meta-narrative: a story of the construction of stories, themselves. Swinging in time from her pre-digital childhood to the dawn of the now-ubiquitous smartphone, the narrator recounts the fundamental shifts in our interactions. When her mother remarks that she, the narrator, is addicted to her phone, the narrator says, “‘This is how people work now,’” to which her mother replies, “‘You mean: like slaves?’” (154). The mother’s notion of technology’s power to own us echoes Smith’s observations of social media in her essay “Generation Why?

In Swing Time—published six years after “Generation Why?”—email messages, texts, and social media posts shape the events that precipitate the novel’s conclusion. After the narrator loses her job as Aimee’s personal assistant, she receives a .pdf file of the non-disclosure contract that she had signed ten years earlier. Seeing in hindsight that she had given Aimee ownership of that decade of her life, the narrator states: “I wanted to burn her house down. But everything you need to burn somebody’s house down these days is already in your hand. It was all in my hand—I didn’t even have to get out of bed” (434).

Though exposing Aimee’s wrongdoing online might be perceived—and eventually is—as an act of moral conscience, the narrator is motivated not by integrity but rather by a desire to inflict harm. Similarly, ten years earlier, the handwritten letter that ended her friendship with Tracey could be construed as one that Tracey sent out of a sense of duty, as Tracey herself claimed. But in fact her aim was to hurt the narrator. The juxtaposition of Tracey’s letter and the narrator’s email illustrate the potentially far-reaching effects of acting on impulse in the digital age. Reflecting on Tracey’s handwritten letter, the narrator “think[s] of it as the last truly personal written letter I ever received, for even though Tracey had no computer, not yet, the revolution was happening all around us” (349).

After the narrator reads Tracey’s letter, she burns it. But ten years later she cannot burn the incriminating images of their childhood dance after Tracey’s video goes viral. Her video does burn in a sense, whenever it’s pulled from the internet, but it rises again and again like a phoenix from its ashes. For Tracey, posting their provocative, albeit innocent, mimicry of Aimee’s own video is an act of editing the narrator’s life, the way that Tracey had edited the ballerina stories they penned as children:

‘No: that part here.’ ‘It’d go better if she died on page two.’ Moving and rearranging things to create the greatest impact. Now she had achieved the same effect with my life, placing the beginning of the story at an earlier point so that all that came after read as the twisted consequence of a lifelong obsession. It was more convincing than my version. (438)

As an antidote to Tracey’s viral video, the narrator writes her memoir (the novel), a sweeping narrative rife with the complexities and nuances absent from the abbreviated stories of our news feeds. Reading Swing Time in the wake of the revelations of Facebook’s most recent data breach—and its political consequences—calls attention to the novel’s prescience. Narratives that rival the truth have the menacing power to convince.

Work Cited

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.