When ‘Good Writing’ Means ‘White Writing’
We do students of color a disservice by imposing the style of an overwhelmingly white canon
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Teaching a writing course every semester dedicated to first-generation, low-income students at CUNY, students who were once upon a time me, I always hear these words, “We have never had a professor like you before.” This makes me feel adequate, makes me feel some kind of good amidst my ever-increasing doubts over the choice I made of pursuing a Ph.D. instead of an MFA, choosing the fully-funded option so I didn’t have to hassle my underpaid, overworked, and undocumented farm-working father for money again. I know what they mean by this, though. I know what they mean when they say “they appreciate all the diverse readings on the syllabus.” I know, from my own experiences traversing these inhospitable walls we call Higher Education, that what is said openly and honestly is at the mercy of some all-knowing Doctor of Philosophy or Master of Fine Arts, both the same shade of pale. Our resistance in these spaces must be coded.
My being in the classroom and my overwhelming exclusion of those “canonical” writers like Melville, Shakespeare, Woolf, Orwell, and many others is fine and dandy. Pat on the back for representation. But is representation the end of my responsibility? Is getting there and shaking up the syllabus enough? Is my presence progress in and of itself?
At a faculty meeting geared specifically for these courses, the diversity of the faculty ranges from a Joanne with blonde hair to a Joanne with pink highlights, all of the Joannes flaunting their MFA credentials and their radical visions for pedagogical change. As the only Latinx member of the faculty, I automatically become the Debbie Downer. I tell them about a student who, after taking my class, came to me the following semester to tell me how a professor of literature told them they “needed to write their essays more intellectually.” “The student,” I tell the Joannes, “was disappointed because I had told them their style, their way of writing and thinking and speaking, was analytical, intelligent, and intellectual.” For my student, this was the story of yet another betrayal. Another moment of unexplained and inexplicable disciplining so prevalent behind our fortresses of education. I feel like I let my student down.
The immediate response from the faculty: “Did you teach them about code-switching?” They speak as if I have never once encountered the words “code-switching,” as if I have never been told I should speak and behave in certain ways while in school, as if I do not include code-switching in my classes. Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera wonderfully demonstrates to my students how two languages can come together to create a genre-bending masterpiece. How one speaks to different kinds of people in different kinds of settings takes center stage for my students in Walter Dean Myer’s young adult classic Monster. Tupac and Kendrick Lamar teach my students about address, audience, and the many ways language can be put to use to do things in the world. I don’t know how to tell them any of this in the faculty meeting room. I don’t know how else to explain myself besides giving a level-headed, “I did.” My relative newness to teaching, and the fact I am still a Ph.D. student, makes me hesitate to provide a counter-argument. In this moment I feel like my students, as if I have no say in what happens to me behind these walls of white.
In their radically liberal and progressive and student-centered pedagogies, the students are the ones who have to adapt, to change according to a professor’s shifting standards. The underlying assumption beneath my colleague’s question is that my student’s use of language, with their specific ways of speaking, writing, knowing, and experiencing the world, is not of the university and the writing classroom. This implies to students that their everyday speech and their everyday forms of composing the written word is not intellectual, is not appropriate for sharing with others on the page. The words in Spanglish, the humorous inversions of logic at the end of a thought, the hard accent and emphases of a student born and raised in the South Bronx, the means of interpreting the world unique to their kind of body and their bodily history, is deemed not good enough. In that case, whose language is universal? Against whose language are we judging the quality of prose? Who are we asking them to try and become? What is this limit my student reached?
The student concludes their testimony of betrayal with these words, “This whole thing made me even madder because she was like us.” There go the pronouns. The intimacy of a “like us,” the familiarity in the collective “we,” of being people of color in a space marked all white. Maybe that is why I omit this last portion to my colleagues — afraid this will validate some theory in the minds of these many white folks who are freedom-fighters for the downtrodden and excluded, worried this might betray any of my theories about white folks being the sole perpetrators and perpetrators of the many –isms structuring the educational system from pre-K to graduate school. I am even more terrified I have done the same thing as a professor who is “like us” to my students: judging and evaluating their writing according to what is “intellectual,” what is “good writing,” without questioning the foundations of those assumptions. In other words, failing them.
An answer, a means to more questions: the limit is the limit of sensibility. The standards and tastes which judge writing are not on the table for discussion today, nor ever. We seem to have no language available in which to discuss this matter of sensibility, style, aesthetic judgments, and their relationship to how words are formed on the page. This standardization of writing, expression, and sensibility is not found in the communities my students and I belong to. This standardization, in fact, is used against our communities, used strategically to alienate and control and to include our communities in certain kinds of ways according to certain logics. This is a standardization my colleagues do not question when they talk about diversity. Faculty and administration understand this whole thing of representation and diversity as mere presence in a classroom, in the faculty lounges, in the admissions committee, the scholarship application. Representation is happening, they will remind you, progress is on the rise, don’t worry, all a matter of time until full equality is achieved. They want more and more diverse bodies to fit into their standards of being, thinking, and writing. Progress has a limit and the example of my student is case in point. True diversity, and its nuances, its many complexities, exceed the bounds of what is understood to be appropriate and standard and quality. The diversity of my students challenges these logics of style and sensibility we take for granted.
The first day of my classes, and many subsequent classes during the semester, I preface with these cautionary words: “In this class I will be asking you to try and find your style. I want you to use your slang, your sentence structures, your poetry, your many languages, your very self in your writing. In order to be better writers, we first have to know how we relate to our writing, how our writing develops from our very bodies and lives. But know not all professors are like me. They will ask you to write a certain way, judge your work according to certain rules, and demand you speak in intellectually sophisticated ways — whatever these things even mean. Your success, the grade or the job, depends on molding yourself to the criteria and standards they give to you, unfortunately. Going forward, please be aware of this when you are in these other classroom spaces. As much as I hate to say it: it is what is — for now.”
In my final semester of coursework for my Ph.D. in English and Literature, I take a class on the notebooks, diaries, and other miscellaneous forms of writing from well-known writers. The doubts over my writing abilities because I don’t have an MFA are at a peak high. Depression and psychosis inform every writing encounter. Most days I get angry because I never even gave myself the chance to pursue an MFA, to workshop again like I enjoyed to do in those undergraduate courses, to learn the insider secrets to being a writer, to feel included in a writing community. Not to mention I feel I am a flop of a scholar, each essay idea I suggest to professors met with an oh so-courteous “mmmm, I see,” knowing this response is brought on because my ideas are too personal, too creative for a traditional academic setting. I take the notebooks and diaries class with only the most minor of interest.
One of my mentors teaches the class. As is his style, each week a text is given, no lesson plan involved, the classroom discussion goes in whatever direction it so heads in. Improvisational teaching, let’s call it. The class is not a workshop style class but each week we are to bring in a one-page nonfiction fragment in the style of a notebook entry. I submit several drafts of the same one- to two-page piece throughout the semester, each time reworked, each draft closer to that final specimen of perfection we like to call a “final draft.” This approach gives me the impression of workshopping, a continued dialogue on a piece of work, a feeling of community. The effect gives me some kind of satisfaction.
How does one come into a writing style? My professor does not tell me what to do with my writing, how to write into certain kinds of structures according to certain publishable guidelines, or how to make a more marketable style to make my writing “good.” He, instead, nudges an idea, notes thematics in use, analyzes a technique I am using that I am not even aware I am using, a sentence which moved him to feel something. He does not teach me to write but lets my writing, my re-writing, my writing practices teach me. Detection of style, not the imposition of style, is his style.
I think of myself as both student and teacher in this class. This approach to writing helps me think about how I can respond to my students’ writing, how I can forge a sensibility attentive to the nuance in letters, words, sentences, paragraphs. Without an MFA, this approach teaches me writing is a process of the body; the body in writing is its own best workshop, writing what it does and does not like and able to explain why. No one told me practicing what I preach would feel so good.
Junot Díaz published “MFA vs POC” in The New Yorker in 2014 detailing his experience in an MFA program, and the systemic issues of diversity within MFA programs. I have seen this article retweeted and cited and mentioned and alluded to many times. I have read through many of the responses to Díaz’s thoughts but I can never bring myself to read the article fully. I scroll through and read random paragraphs, re-read them time and time again, reading them when I need to read them. Something about belonging and not belonging — and the fear of where I fall on that spectrum, or the fear of not belonging anywhere on this spectrum — holds me back from reading it from beginning to end. Something about knowing I might not even belong in an MFA program, might not even be welcomed in one because I am a poor writer of color, holds me back. On one run of my mad-dash scrolling, I get to this line near the end, near that point in a text you are not supposed to traverse unless you have followed the argument completely, earned the reward of conclusions, “To create in the present a fix to a past that can never be altered.” Cherry-picked brilliance, an entire essay condensed to a fifteen-word sentence that won’t leave my mind.
If the instructors in writing programs ranging from the MFA to the required freshman composition course to the primary school classroom are all Franzens and Didions and their disciples, syllabi and pedagogies and methods reflecting back writers similar to Franzen/Didion, students aspiring to produce works Franzen/Didion-like, then, inevitably, we are judging work according to a Franzen/Didion-esque sensibility. All is Franzen/Didion: from how we outline to how we draft to how we get A+ grades to how we pitch to how we publish to how we market ourselves to how we measure ourselves to how we take pleasure in writing. The measure of style, and whether a piece of writing is good or bad, sellable or not, is this sensibility.
Those qualifiers students like mine need for a grade — “intellectual,” “articulate,” “A+ worthy” — operate according to the logic of this mass-produced sensibility. Those of us unwilling, or downright unable, to acquire an MFA due to stifling student debt or undocumented parents to care for, or denied because some diversity quota was filled or they already had their token person in the program, are still judged according to an MFA sensibility. The MFA is not just a degree that trains you in how to write but, like all degrees, trains us to write and to evaluate writing according to the rubrics of those in charge of the discipline. Good writing feels like a universal standard. We just know it when we see it. The individual in a position of power who says no and ascribes this “no” to subjective tastes — just not their style — assumes their judgment and sensibilities are cultivated in vacuums of nothingness, without cultures and beliefs and biases shaping what they deem good, their judgment endowed from some beyond of white (cishet/able bodied) universality. Subjective tastes, the reasoning behind a low grade or a rejection letter, is, for certain kinds of people, a well-disguised and acceptable form of executing one’s biases. Our idea of what is “literary” or “intellectual” derives from somewhere, has a history.
We forget that the writing of the Franzens and the Didions, like those of “diverse” writers, are created by the cultures, communities, and experiences they live. They are not products of some universal void in white. The privilege to form, experimentation, and sensibility is rarely given to those writers living and writing in the margins. A debate about content versus form versus sensibility is not a debate at all — the three happen all at once. Our sensibilities must be allied against the MFA/Academic marketization in order to meet the needs of students trying to write from the margin, those students like my students trying to challenge the margins, those students like myself trying to write the margin itself. The revolution of our writing classrooms, as well as its radical diversification, must attend to sensibility. Inclusion is no longer enough.
Each semester there are several exercises I have my students do. For each text I ask, “What did you not like about this text?” New York City undergraduates do not play — they will give you an impassioned and elaborate and intellectually rigorous breakdown of why they did not like something. The authorial voice was too pompous, the language was unnecessarily complicated to say something they could sum up in a paragraph, the use of literary devices was too much, the organization of the essay could have been done differently to make them feel a bit more. They cite the sources to back up their arguments of dislike. To dislike is to pass judgment, to dislike is to analyze nuance, to dislike is to create a sensibility of antithesis. As a writer on the margins, a writer living in marginalization, a writer who rarely sees himself in the literature he reads, a writer who still feels sometimes he is not worthy of being a writer because he does not have an MFA, my sensibility has always been determined on what I don’t like, on where I don’t see myself, on where I don’t belong.
One of my favorite exercises I do in class is for my students to underline three sentences in an essay they wrote: a sentence they really loved, a sentence they liked, and a sentence they did not like at all. They then must explain in one paragraph for each underline why they feel this way. (I participate in the exercise with my students. I want them to know I’m learning too, that I’m not an infallible arbiter of judgment.) The best part of this exercise is to read the explanations of why my students didn’t like a sentence of theirs. I find it compelling how they can still identify beauty — the beauty of attempts made, the beauty of trying at perfection, the beauty of awareness to one’s use of language — in what they don’t like. Their evaluations instruct me on how writing is always a means of doing better, of testing and experimenting with the possibilities of what was, what is, and what can be, the exposing oneself to the unexpected that is the experiencing your own words. MFA or no MFA, they teach me that to be a writer is to be a student, to be open and willing to keep learning about what it means to write.