College Essay, Your Voice?
College essays are supposed to represent the applicant’s personality; as their paper doppelgänger, if anything should “center” the student voice, that’s it. Personal essay teachers are tasked with “preserving” student voice. As your guide, my style should be invisible behind yours. No ventriloquism here. But sometimes, easier said than done. And the issue is not just aesthetic, but moral.
826NYC & Voice Justice
This week I attended the interactive workshop “Justice & Equity Dialogues: Centering Student Voice” 826NYC, an organization I’ve had a crush on for some time. They host their writing magic in a “secret library” behind a superhero supply storefront (I mean, you checked their site, right?). So, enough said. Their workspace has warm wood tables, exposed brick, and two clocks, for “Brooklyn Time” and “Manhattan Time.” The latter is an hour ahead of the former because, well, you people in Manhattan rush a tad too much. Their library, airy and light, is filled with self-published student work side by side with destined to be classics like, ahem, that new ballsy Bunny Book by John Oliver.
The facilitator, Rebecca Darugar, 826NYC’s Director of Education, began the workshop by asking us to draw a unicorn together in our small groups on chart paper with markers, no further instructions. There was no model unicorn for us to study. And yet, when we compared the four drawings, they all had…what? You guessed it: a prominent horn, a more-or-less horse’s physique, a mane (but a rainbow mane, m’kay?).
Darugar pointed out: See? A unicorn doesn’t exist. But still, we all follow these rules, which we’ve created and agreed upon at some point, that the unicorn looks a certain way. And only that way. No one’s unicorn had a giraffe’s body, none a lizard’s. An imaginary beast, it nonetheless cohered to a relatively limited set of features. And (the main point of the workshop) language is just like that: language is an agreed upon set of rules for something we constructed ourselves. Except we value and center certain kinds of language use over others, and insist they are correct. Worse, we tend to devalue or even punish whatever falls outside of that. Welcome to Mainstream English!
Mines? What Are You Talking About?
My students come from all backgrounds and I love it that way, but it’s not without ethical complications when I play “editor.” Many of my students come to me, for example, accustomed to saying “mines” in casual conversation. In African-American Vernacular English, “mines” is grammatically acceptable– it’s fine.
If you say, “That ice tea is mines!,” no one (in any environment, be honest) will retort, “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT!!! WHAT ARE YOU SAYING ABOUT THE DRINK?”
Of course not. One function of language is simply to ensure others know what we are talking about– clarity. Most uses of “mines” are transparent in their meaning.
Additionally, ‘Mines” is logically consistent with the pattern of other possessive pronouns– “__, yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs”– so why IS it “mine,” not “mines”? You tell me.
“Mines” actually appears to be “more” correct, following the “rules” more faithfully. But it’s “not.” And if you use it in your speech or essay? Mainstream English may– really– laugh at you. May judge your intelligence as less.
Unless you have the know-how to whip out this Mainstream English pronoun paradigm and show them you’re “just trying to be consistent in attribution.” If you can’t defend your use– well, that’s beside the point: in a college essay, you won’t have the chance.
So go ahead and use it in dialogue, if it’s true to life, but not in the body paragraph. GRRRRRRRRRR….
But– but– but! Why?
Language, Status, and Access
There isn’t really a great answer. It’s the final railroad stop: Just Because.
Your college essay could be brilliant, but “mines” marks, in the bespectacled eyes of Mainstream English, a status issue, a signal of (lower, or fill in your pejorative comparative adjective of choice) race or class, poor education. It could create access issues for you, the applicant, no matter other evidence of your obvious intelligence and merit. It shows, perhaps, fluency issues; or an oppositional insistence on sticking to a devalued language code.
And yet…you’re perfectly understandable when you use it!
And yet…it’s the “way you speak” and the way whole communities speak and…WHY NOT USE IT?
Because. The Gatekeepers want you to “ask” for access in the language they speak, not necessarily to ax in yours.
This is not just an issue in English, but in languages of power all over the world. Just so happens I work and fret and lose sleep over sorrows like this– in English.
What do you think? Should all usages be equally valid, if they are clear, communicable, showing what the college essay is for– i.e. personal traits of personal value, conveyed through story and example, that give the admissions committee an impression of who you are– on your own terms?
Impact & Inquiry
At 826, we watched Franchesca Ramsey take down the language-altering history of Imperial Conquest via the verb AX/ASK; watch her school us all.
My students earlier got pissed and empathetic watching Dena Simmons give a TEDTalk on Imposter Syndrome. Coming from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, her most painful flare-up occurred in (a primarily white, wealthy) boarding school as she was corrected dramatically– humiliated– in public by a teacher (DAMN US ALL) for pronouncing ASK as “Ax.”
What is our problem?
Or is it OK to insist that a certain code be prioritized in certain places?
Is that just further crappy policing layered on a history of policing certain bodies, certain ways of expressing?
Or maybe it’s just a grammatical error that can lovingly be corrected?
It’s really hard to answer any of these questions in a way that doesn’t stem from privilege, elite education, and prudish coherence to Rules, isn’t it?
Yes. I think.
My Questions about guiding voice
Truth is, I left this workshop with more questions than answers, more self-reflection than road-map.
I’ll be glad to confront these issues, these issue of justice not just grammar, the next time I am faced with the dilemma of otherwise excellent, vivid student writing (or speaking) that does not cohere to the Mainstream English rules.
Usually I say something like what follows to my students (each of whom is brilliant in their own way): “In your/certain communities, this is a completely correct way of speaking. The norm. In others, in communities you may be trying to access, it’s not. And as your teacher, I have to let you know that unfortunately in those communities using ‘mines’ or ‘ax’ may be held against you. It is not fair, but it’s true. So, knowing that, you can make your own choice about usage.” I would prefer to put a spork in my eye, and yet.
But that’s a big mouthful, no? When I could just say, “Wow, what a brilliant sentence about jealousy you spun out there, the reader’s really going to feel you!” Or, “Wow, I really understand what matters to you most from this essay!” Which is the point of why we are writing, isn’t it? So we can watch the “you ain’t never gonna see one like it again nowhere” unicorn run across the park, rather than making sure it runs like a horse?
You can be sure I’m left thinking about how I can support authentic student expression no matter their language or culture of origin–without devaluing the precious way anyone uses words.
After all, I want my students to keep talking to me, and to us, in their college essays and beyond. And if we look around at the world in which we find ourselves, pretty devoid of unicorns at this point in time, NONE of us can afford for them not to.