Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Letter on the Letter from Birmingham

Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail in Birmingham

Dear Students,

This morning as I reflected on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I sent you an email message, encouraging you to read the letter that he wrote from jail in 1963 after his arrest for leading nonviolent protests in Alabama.

Although you could have listened to a recording of King reading his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I recommended that you read it instead, or read along as you listened. As I noted in my email, King’s gift for oratory is well known, but for students of writing, closely examining his words on the page is a more pertinent exercise than listening to his voice.

What makes it an effective piece of writing? With that question in mind, consider these words in the eleventh paragraph: “Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’” Here King is addressing his initial audience, the eight white Birmingham-area clergymen who criticized his protest as “unwise and untimely.” He suggests to those men that waiting to act isn’t difficult when you yourself aren’t the victim of injustice, when you haven’t, in King’s words, “felt the stinging darts of segregation.” The sentence is notable not only for the contrast it illustrates between King’s reality and the lives of his readers but also for the words that King uses to show that contrast.

Consider King’s sentence and the paraphrase that follows:

  • Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.”
  • Maybe it is simple for people who have not experienced segregation to say, “Wait.”

King’s sentence is stronger than the paraphrase that follows it because of the “stinging darts.” Writing that someone has not “experienced segregation” is abstract. Readers do not feel the general experience in the second sentence, but they feel King’s “stinging darts.” Sensory details strengthen sentences by appealing to readers’ senses, and figurative language invigorates writing by making the unfamiliar familiar. King’s white readers have not been the victims of segregation, but his choice of words makes them feel the sting.

While King’s “stinging darts” sentence—a relatively short one—is laudable, the long, winding sentence that follows is nothing short of staggering.

It starts with these words: “But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim.” King presents those atrocities in an introductory dependent clause, one whose full meaning depends on an independent clause that follows. But rather than immediately turning to an independent clause to complete the thought, King expands the sentence with this series of dependent clauses:

  • when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;
  • when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;
  • when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;
  • when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;
  • when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;
  • when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;
  • when your first name becomes “n—,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;
  • when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;
  • when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–

The independent clause that readers have been waiting for, the statement that completes the thought is this: “then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.” Those words could have immediately followed the first dependent clause, but instead King offers nine more dependent clauses, ten darts that sting his readers.

Ten dependent clauses connected by semicolons followed by a dash and an independent clause, a total of 316 words: That is not a structure I recommend for the sentences you write in English 111, but it’s a valuable model, nevertheless.

Now in the wake of the violent insurrection at our nation’s Capitol, King’s message of civil disobedience may be more critical than ever. As a citizen, I hope you will read every word of his letter. As your writing teacher, I hope that you will return to the sentence that I have examined in detail here. Along with showing his readers why his nonviolent protests could not wait, that sentence of King’s demonstrates how to develop a piece of writing through the accumulation of detail—not just the when, but the when and when and when . . . .


King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Letter from Birminham Jail.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Instititute, Stanford University, https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/sites/mlk/files/letterfrombirmingham_wwcw_0.pdf.

Posted in Reading, Writing

Of Mice and Menace

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 74.

The first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus includes a large half-page panel featuring the artist’s father, Vladek, at home with his extended family after he sneaks across the border from the Protectorate to the Reich. A small close-up frame of the older retrospective Vladek riding his exercise bike appears in the upper left, an inset in the larger picture of the Spiegelmans and the Zylberbergs at their dining room table in Sosnowiec. Though only one of the hundreds of panels that constitute Spiegelman’s memoir, that panel alone deftly demonstrates the intricacy of his narrative; his deceptively simple words and drawings create a layered meta-memoir that simultaneously depicts the present and the past, intersections of mundane moments of ordinary life and the horrors of the Nazi regime.

Overlaying the larger panel of the family at home in 1940 with the smaller image of the aging Vladek underscores the presence of the past that pervades the panels of Spiegelman interviewing his father decades later. Spiegelman further emphasizes the presence of the past with Vladek’s speech balloon, which breaks the border of the smaller panel to enter the scene in Sosnowiec. The spilling, or bleeding, of his words into that long-ago night may evoke in readers thoughts of the memoir’s subtitle: My Father Bleeds History. More than thirty years after the Holocaust, the wounds remain.

At first glance, the image of the Spiegelmans and the Zylberbergs around the dining room table is one of domestic bliss. When Vladek first speaks of the memory, he notes the lack of change—or what appears to be the lack of change. In his words, “When first I came home it looked exactly so as before I went away” (74). The unconventional syntax of his speech denotes that English is not his first language, but perhaps the most striking element of the sentence is the central placement of the word “looked.” The panel offers a look into a seemingly ordinary evening at home. The men’s suits and the women’s dresses and pearls typify their pre-war affluence, which Vladek mentions in the narration that concludes the panel. There Vladek says, “It was still very luxurious” (74).

Along with the family’s clothing, the dining room illustrates the luxury: the spacious hall that comfortably seats four generations, the upholstered chairs, and the wainscoting. But the words that conclude the panel undercut those creature comforts. The sentence that ends with “luxurious” is followed by these words: “The Germans couldn’t destroy everything at one time” (74). That line reminds readers that the destruction they don’t see in the panel is just around the corner, perhaps just outside the window that offers a view into the dining room.

Readers see the family through the panes of the window, which Spiegelman draws at an oblique angle, indicating that something is askew. The shift in Vladek’s final line—from “luxury” to “destruction”—shifts readers’ perspective on the scene as well. With Vladek’s final words, the dark, heavy window grilles become the bars of a cage. Readers see the family as the storyteller-survivor does, both as the happy family they were and the prey they would become.

Writing of Maus, Hillary Chute, author of Why Comics?, has observed that “the ways in which the past invades the present recollection, or vice versa, gradually grows more ominous” (346). That intersection of the present and the past, which Spiegelman so skillfully draws, may be particularly menacing to readers now. In 2020, we are as far removed from the publication of Maus as Vladek was from the Holocaust when he recounted his story to his son. Yet Spiegelman’s panels remind us that the distance of the past is scant. On the eve of an election in a democracy strained and polarized, that is ominous indeed.

Works Cited

Chute, Hillary. “History and Graphic Representation in Maus.A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, UP of Mississippi, 2009, pp. 340-62.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Beginning Your Analysis

As you draft your essay, focus first on creating a clear picture with words. Let the reader see what’s on the page in front of you, then move from your objective description to your thesis: your particular claim, which you will support with textual evidence (words and pictures).

Although you will cite an authoritative secondary source in your revision, you don’t need to integrate that source into your draft. When you begin drafting an analysis, your aim is to examine the primary source (Maus) closely and develop your own interpretation of it. After you’ve done that, you’ll have a better sense of what secondary sources are relevant to your analysis.

For more on secondary sources, see the October 14 blog post, “Citing Secondary Sources.”

Sample Analyses of Visual Texts

  • A Writer’s Reference includes a sample student analysis of a coffee advertisement: “Sometimes a Cup of Coffee is Just a Cup of Coffee” (76-78).
  • Wreaths of Reclamation,” by my former student Jacob Palmer, is shorter than your analysis will be. I offer it here as a well-written example of a comparative study of the forces of nature depicted in J.M.W. Turner’s painting Interior of Tintern Abbey and Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
  • Through a Glass Darkly: Girl at the Mirror and Grover’s Corners,” an essay that I wrote as a model for my students at Lenoir-Rhyne University, is a comparative analysis of Norman Rockwell’s painting Girl at the Mirror and Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town.
  • The Well-Heeled Clichés of Madison Avenue,” an essay that I wrote as a model for my students at CVCC, is a meta-analysis: a study of a sample student analysis included in CVCC’s English 111 textbook, The Norton Field Guide to Writing.

Posted in Teaching, Writing

Fragments of “Proficiency”

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.

 

Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

And the Point is . . . Game Over: Pecking away at Sam Anderson’s “Just One More Game . . .”

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.

Posted in Teaching

The Well-Heeled Clichés of Madison Avenue

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.

Despite its shortcomings, Berry’s 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.