Tag Archives: injustice

Delpit’s Question

In Fall 2006, I took a course that was co-listed with Georgetown’s English department and the Georgetown Law School. I admit I can’t remember what the course was called, but it had to do with understanding the legal angles of the failure of U.S. primary and secondary schools. As part of the course, we volunteered with reading and homework help at a nearby community center, and as prep for considering the politics of reading, we read a lot of children’s books and wrote one ourselves.

Mine was a sci-fi story about a boy raised on the moon going to Hogwarts school on an elite space station. The story is called Delpit’s Question, and I figure this blog is as good a place as any to post it–partly because I’m excited to see the kinds of things Scribd can do in a blog setting. We also wrote an explanatory essay about what we were trying to do in the story; here’s a blurb:

The central question of the book, however, revolves around Delpit’s interactions with his teachers.  This conflict of understanding is designed specifically to demonstrate the structural, legal barriers to students trying to learn the curriculum and social codes of power in an unfamiliar setting.  Delpit’s question (“What do I know?”) is a tool for me to bring these underlying legal issues to the surface in his first two days at School in the Stars (SIS).  After all, I don’t want readers to walk away from this story only annoyed at the teachers’ close-minded attitudes; the corporate and government sponsors of SIS structured the school as elite setting designed to train elite children, and such goals (though unspoken) result in teachers being hired with certain blinders.  For a teacher to survive at SIS, he or she needs to be either White (American or European) or non-White but steeped so thoroughly in academic discourse that he retains no sense of identification with the discourse of his home culture (as with Mr. Amalendu).  It’s only natural that the things Delpit knows (the science of colors, music, predictive logic, ways of interacting) aren’t in line with the knowledge his teachers expect him to have.  In her article (pdf), Lisa Delpit quotes a Black principal taking doctoral classes who expresses her frustration with teachers who, when hearing her descriptions of racial and cultural bias, will only “look and nod.  The more I try to explain, they just look and nod, just keep looking and nodding.  They don’t really hear me” (124).  Ms. Merino is the prime example of this “silenced dialogue” in Delpit’s Question: when Delpit first approaches her she answers glibly and “smile[s] as if she had solved all of his problems” (26).  After Delpit goes beyond his comfort zone to push for a better answer, she still does nothing but dismiss his problems.  “That just can’t be helped,” she says towards the end of their exchange, exclaiming, “They all started talking just like the rest of us in no time!  I’m sure you’ll be no different!” (28)  Not only is Delpit’s knowledge not accepted as worthwhile at SIS, his ability to question that fact is squelched by a discourse that doesn’t allow room for his participation.

Enjoy! (Maybe. I wrote this a while ago, so I’m not completely positive of its quality. But it’s worth sharing.)

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Some Plain English and Clotted Cream, Please

There’s a great article in yesterday morning’s Wall Street Journal about Chrissie Maher, founder of the Plain English Campaign.

She sees incomprehensible legalese mumbo-jumbo from what we might call a social justice perspective:

“Families are losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements,” says Ms. Maher, an energetic presence in a crocheted sweater and eyeglasses. “Language has been misused and has contributed to the economic disaster.”

It’s a good point. It reminds me of the time a few months ago when my wife visited a neighbor in the hospital. The neighbor couldn’t read, and while the nurses had read various brochures to her, my wife discovered that she didn’t really understand them at all; it turns out (surprise!) that simply reading a complex collection of sentences at someone’s face doesn’t mean that you’ve taught them that information.

It also makes me think of our experience buying our first house, a bit more than a year ago. I was regularly e-mailing and calling our mortgage and realty people, saying things like, “I know that you’ve explained this before, but I really need to make sure I understand it perfectly. What exactly do you mean by [fill in the blank with any of the 37 terms I could never quite get my head around]?” And let’s remember: my wife and I both have masters degrees from prestigious universities, and I’m working on a PhD in a distinctly language-oriented field. It’s not incorrect to say that my job is deciphering meanings in texts.

Add to that the layers of power that are at work here. A poor, black, uneducated woman is made aware of these identities every time she wades through worlds where rich, white, educated men predominate (like hospitals). That would be enough to keep anyone from wanting to ask for clarification after clarification in the way that I had the societal power to do when I bought my house, as a comparatively rich, white, educated man. This helps me understand, too, the reason why so many of my mostly poor, mostly minority neighbors don’t use banks. The answer I’ve always gotten was, “I just don’t trust them.” Well, why would you trust an organization with such an ability to do incomprehensible things and then “explain” them with incomprehensible language?

Two parting thoughts:

  1. I notice that a lot of the writing genres described in the WSJ article are the kind that don’t have an author’s name tagged on to them–things like policy explanations, bank websites, etc. (Foucault–and I hate to go here–would say that these kinds of text aren’t awarded the “author function” by society.) I half wonder if the collaborative writing process mixed with company power relations lead to unclear language; I can imagine a lower-down, newer employee being told to revise an older draft of a statement in legalese, and him thinking, “Well, I ought to try to imitate this ultra-formal, high-vocab type of language.” And then the next person who gets it thinks the same thing, and so on. But I’m hesitant to say that, because there’s so much I like about collaborative writing.
  2. I think there are some implications here for how we teach professional and technical writing. Like, in the past I would say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style so that your readers can skim your text and understand it easily; this keeps them in your good graces.” But this article reminds me that I can also say, “It’s important to write in a clear, direct style because this is a way to include the marginalized; this empowers them to enter places they’ve historically been kept away from.” Interesting stuff.

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