Out of WAC?: Rethinking the Role of English Class in Students’ Writing Lives

Jeffery, J.V., & Wilcox, K. (2014). ‘How do I do it if I don’t like writing?’: Adolescents’ stances toward writing across disciplines. Reading and Writing, 27(6), 1095-1117.

Stories matter. Stories are how make sense of the world and my place in it. I don’t much care if the story is fiction or nonfiction; I believe one can learn as much about human capacity, and about oneself, from a made-up story as from a story “ripped from the headlines.” I was in the 10th grade when I decided for certain that stories, even fictional stories, were sources of understanding about the very real world. Mrs. Rubin assigned The Great Gatsby. Dutifully, I read it. Somewhere in the middle I shifted from doing homework to admiring the naive hopefulness of a person’s insisting he could ignore the objective origins of his life and concoct a preferable one, and mourning the hopelessness of doing so, and ruing the sucking undertow of improvident provenance.

In addition to learning this lesson–which, I would guess, some unfortunate people learn the hard way–I also learned that there was some sad mystery I didn’t yet get underlying Daisy’s heartbreak at bearing a girl and hoping that she’d be a beautiful fool. I learned that assigned reading had the power not just to amuse but to astound me, and that the people who wrote the fictions had the most power of all. F. Scott Fitzgerald is buried in the graveyard directly across from my high school–probably a third of a mile from Mrs. Rubin’s classroom, as a crow flies. Even dead, supposedly having rolled under the major road because of soil erosion, he was making a 15-year-old girl feel wise and weepy. Like I said, power.

Oh, Scott. Could you know how many people would read you and name their cats after you?

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave  in Rockville, MD.

A source of mock-tension between me and my father, a scientist by both occupation and temperament, is this disagreement: I say stories matter; they may be all that matters. For him, “reading is done with the objective of acquiring needed information or to find the answer to a question or solve a problem” (C. Avery, personal communication, June 15, 2014). Despite this disagreement, we both love to read, and we both love to write. He does value stories (how else would I know that he dreams in black and white, except for a red barn?) and, as the author of E. Francis Baldwin, Architect: The B&O, Baltimore, and Beyond (available here), histories.

It is so sweetly fitting that I am now a 10th-grade teacher, and I have the opportunity to introduce my students to the books that will awaken them the way The Great Gatsby did me. When I entered this doctoral program (five long-seeming weeks ago), I thought (knew?) that I wanted to study writing instruction. My fuzzy idea, way back then, was that I wanted to better understand students’ attitudes toward writing, why they seemed to behave (and write!) so differently when they perceived a writing assignment as “creative” versus “academic” (air-quotes because I refuse to accept that any writing is any thing but creative).

What I didn’t know until two nights ago was that stories (the telling, writing, and studying of them) could be not only the subject matter of my research but also the (or a) method of my research as well. I’m talking about discourse analysis, or “the study of language in use” (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 203). A cross-disciplinary study braiding together linguistics, sociology, and anthropology (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 203), discourse analysis in its current state focuses on language as a means of exploring “socially created ideas and things in the world as well as their maintenance over time” (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 203). Discourse analysis isn’t a fancy word for sentence-diagramming (though it does entail some elegant ways of presenting conversational elements in graph form, and I love sentence-diagramming, as well). Discourse analysis is based on the idea that language, this ordinary thing we use every day, a tool so clumsy even babies use it, is all bound up in power. According to James Paul Gee (2011), “when we use language, social goods and their distributions are always at stake” (p. 7) Consider, for example, my insistence that my students address me as “Ms.,” not “Mrs.,” Decker. The absence of that little lowercase “r” indicates that I do not believe that a woman should have to announce her marital status to colleagues or associates, especially when her male coworkers are not expected to do so; I signal that my marital status is immaterial to my function as a professional. I reject previous decades’ traditions. I announce myself as a feminist. It is personal and it is political. But, according to Gee (2011), “language is always political in a deep sense” (p.7). Discourse analysis can be concerned with the content of people’s communications, the grammatical construct of their communications, or both (Gee, 2011, p. 8).

So yes. Stories matter. Language matters. The language we choose doesn’t just reflect our reality; it helps to construct our reality. For the last few days, I’ve been working to acquaint myself with empirical studies that use discourse analysis. The one I’m going to look at more closely here is very much like the kind of thing I entered this doctoral program thinking I’d like to do. I will walk through the design, data-collection, and discussion of the study and then discuss what it suggests for educators in general as well as what it suggests for me as a neophyte researcher.

Research Questions
The authors of this study wanted to know if and how students’ attitudes and feelings toward writing varied depending on what course or school subject they were writing for. Secondly, they wanted to know whether these feelings or attitudes varied according to the students’ proficiency and performance as writers (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100).

Context and Background
Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) make several observations that suggest that their research is both relevant and timely. First of all, the authors point out that the widely adopted but highly controversial Common Core standards emphasize student engagement in “a variety of advanced disciplinary writing tasks” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1095) while simultaneously acknowledging that “a majority of US students are not adequately developing their [writing] abilities prior to high school graduation” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1096).

They don’t need to say much to make a compelling case: we hear over and over how crucial writing skills will continue to be for our students’ futures, and yet we all see daily evidence of their profound struggle with writing. I’m sold.

Prior Research
First, the authors acknowledge that while much research has been performed to examine “college-level writing, less is known about variation in writing expectations in secondary school subjects, particularly in subjects other than English language arts (ELA)” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1098).

Secondly, and crucially, the authors point out that existing research into student writing has been largely limited to standards-based outcomes as opposed to students’ own stances toward the writing and their self-concept as writers (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1097). Jeffery & Wilcox (2014) argue that “how [students] feel about writing and how they perceive their knowledge of writing have been found to be related to performance on writing tasks” (p. 1096). Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) state emphatically that there is a “dearth of research regarding adolescents’ perceptions of writing across disciplinary contexts” (p. 1098). The authors of this study are very concerned with student agency as defined by Ahearn (as cited in Jeffery & Wilcox):  “the socioculturally mediated capacity to act” (p. 1096). That is, the authors wanted to know how students felt about themselves, their abilities, and their capacities as writers. Given the overwhelming reliance on “standards-based outcomes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1097), student agency has been overlooked in the research. These authors are less concerned with writing success as measured by standardized tests than with “the extent to which students perceive disciplinary writing tasks as opportunities to transform knowledge . . . and become invested participant[s] in the work of the discipline, as opposed to being constructed as the subject of such work” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1097). There it is again: power. In this case, who do students perceive to have the power to make them good writers? Themselves? What power do they have as writers–is their power limited to the power to report others’ ideas, or are they empowered, as writers, to make original ideas?

The authors convincingly establish that there is a hole in the research. It’s hard not to agree with their claim that while the nation wrings its hands over Common Core and high-stakes tests, no one’s asking kids themselves how they approach writing, how they feel about it, and what we could do to help them write better. I am always inclined to get on board with a pro-student stance like the one these authors take.

Theoretical Frameworks
Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) operate on trio of theoretical givens: first, they subscribe to “constructivist learning theories, which reject notions of literacy as a static collection of predetermined skills that can be acquired through rote and isolated practice or fully captured in a decontextualized writing event such as a large-scale standardized assessment” (Jonassen & Land, 2000, as cited in Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1096). Secondly, they predicate their study on prior writing research that “suggests students’ stances [toward writing] are not fixed but rather are highly susceptible to change over time and across settings (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1096). Thirdly, Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) rely on prior research that suggests that “writing competence is not a monolithic construct individuals  automatically transfer from one disciplinary setting to another, but rather is socially co-constructed by individual and disciplinary discourse communities within which they write” (p. 1098). In sum, then, the authors presume that students can be and are literate in ways that schools don’t always honor or value; students feel differently about writing depending on where, why, and for whom they’re doing it; and all people redefine their identity and capability as writers each time they engage in a new writing opportunity.

Given these premises, it makes sense to use discourse analysis for this study. What’s being sought is qualitative data about students’ attitudes toward writing, not empirical data reflecting their skill Analyzing the way they talk about writing is really the only way to get at this information.

The Larger Study
This particular study is embedded within the National Study of Writing Instruction, “which investigated the teaching and learning of writing in middle and high school settings across California, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, and Texas” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100).  The larger study relies on interviews, surveys, field observations, and samples of student work (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100). That larger study recruited both 43 English learners and 95 native speakers from 10 schools in the aforementioned states (one middle school and one high school from each state) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100). Schools were targeted for inclusion that “served larger-than-average populations of low-income students and had above-average literacy achievement outcomes compared with schools serving comparable demographics” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100). Furthermore, the researchers sought schools with “a demonstrated commitment to implementing school-wide literacy initiatives” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1100).

Some aspects of that recruitment criteria give me pause: For one, the authors themselves reject standardized tests as the measure of student proficiency in literacy, yet they use that very data to locate the schools with above-average literacy outcomes. Secondly, they performed their research at sites that, it could be argued, were already doing writing instruction (comparatively) well. My hunch is that student stances toward writing would be at least as telling at sites where writing instruction isn’t going so well. However, the authors are careful to acknowledge and explain their reasoning, stating that they were looking for “exemplary practice as opposed to status quo or weak practice” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p.1100). I maintain that a parallel discourse analysis of schools with weak practice would be hugely beneficial.

This Study
From that larger sample of students, Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) focused on the native speakers of English. Attempting to engage with approximately equal splits between higher-achieving and lower-achieving students, boys and girls, and grade levels, they culled a sample of 40 students–“19 lower-achieving and 21 higher-achieving” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1101). You may be wondering how they identified achievement level among the sample. The answer, again, is standardized tests (in part). They also relied on teacher identification. (I have to raise some reservations here again. The authors themselves dismissed standardized tests as the sole measure of writing skill; teacher identification can also be faulty, although for the inverse reason: standardized tests are cold and fail to reflect the whole student; teachers can bring irrelevant, emotional things to their assessment of students.)

The data collection method for this smaller, embedded study was interview. Interviews were conducted by National Writing Project staff near the end of the school year and were based on a 7-question interview protocol that invited participants to reference, wherever possible, a portfolio of the student’s work from that school year. Interviews lasted approximately 45 minutes (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p.1101).

The interview protocol, provided as an appendix to the article, was hugely helpful. The questions were open-ended but substantive, and the number and type of questions seemed appropriate for both high school and middle school students (that is, they left room for  students to be as abstract and self-reflective as their maturity would permit) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1113). Interviews were then reviewed, parsed, and graphed on a stance matrix to organize them. Organizing the students’ communications in the stance matrix meant rearranging their syntax and, at times, inverting word order so that student responses could be compared side by side (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1102). Data was triangulated among researchers to ensure validity.

I would have preferred more tables, as I am very visual. If there were phrases or words that came up time and again, I would have liked a list of those coded by their frequency of utterance.

Since the research questions revealed a concern with student stances toward writing against two other variables (a) subject or discipline and b) level of achievement), I will present the most crucial findings in bullet-list form here, arranged according to those two factors:

A. Stances Toward Writing Across Disciplines

  • Of all the positive stances toward writing, 74% were about writing in English language arts (ELA) settings (with 14% for social studies, 9% for science, and 3% for math) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1103).
  • Of all the negative stances toward writing, 44% were about writing in ELA settings (with 18% for social studies, 19% science, and 9% math) (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1103).
  • The authors argue that the fact that students generated more responses of both types, positive and negative, toward writing in ELA settings is attributable to their simply doing most of their writing there.
  • Students tended to characterize ELA writing as “allowing latitude for ‘voice’ and ‘opinion’; whereas they tended to characterize writing in other subjects as limited to ‘facts’ and ‘accuracy'” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1104). As for a revelation that wouldn’t come from a purely quantitative study, discourse analysis revealed that students frequently “used language suggestive of capacity (e.g., ‘room,’ ‘space’), signaling their sense of agency” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1104). Correspondingly, students associated negative writing experiences with rigidity, constraint, and rules (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1105).

B. Stances Toward Writing Across Student Achievement Level

  • Students of both achievement levels, at all grade levels, “were united in their preference for writing involving subjective engagement, which they were more likely to associate with their ELA classes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1106).
  • However, students of lower achievement levels “expressed stances only toward extended writing in ELA, implying that they were asked to produce little if any such writing in other classes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). I must point out that this sentence makes me crazy. The “only” appears to be misplaced, obscuring meaning. To be consistent with what I believe their intended meaning to be, the sentence should read as follows: “[Students] expressed stances toward extended writing only in ELA”–that is, they did not express these stances toward extended writing in science class. As written, a possible meaning is that the students in question expressed stances toward extended writing exclusively and not toward other kinds of writing (in ELA classes).
  • Higher-achieving students were more likely to point out that classes other than ELA offered opportunities for subjective, knowledge-making writing as opposed to rote repetition of facts and figures. Students at lower levels of achievement did not really broach the idea that ELA offered room for opinions, and other classes did not (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1109). The authors attribute this finding to the fact that at lower levels of achievement, students are not required or invited to do much writing in classes other than English. Therefore, for these students, writing in ELA means essays and personal narratives, whereas writing in math and social studies means worksheets (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). This is an alarming finding (more on that later).

Discussion and Potential Application and Extension
These data are somewhat heartening (and affirming of my default belief), as they suggest that students sincerely want to write. Students prefer writing tasks that give them a chance to have and refine ideas to tasks that ask them to ploddingly report others’ ideas. Who can blame them? So do I. Furthermore, most of the teachers I know want authentic, original, personal writing from their students. Some people may infer from the data that students prefer tasks they perceive to be subjective and open because those tasks are easier. The most cynical among us might scoff and say, “Well sure! Writing your own opinion or ‘what I did this summer’ is easier than researching facts! These students are afraid of rigor.” I don’t think these data suggest that students want the easy way out. Here again discourse analysis gives us more to work with than a raw score or metric would. Here are some of the things the student writers said they wanted out of writing opportunities:

  • Leon, a sophomore, said his favorite writing assignment was a “uniform position paper” written for ELA because he got to take a stand and argue for it. Leon also declared, “I love school” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1107). Incidentally, Leon was coded as one of the lower-achieving students.
  • Joe, one of the higher-achieving sophomores, named an essay on A Doll’s House as his favorite assignment because he “got to analyze” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1106).
  • Katy, an eighth-grader, was most proud of a story she wrote after reading The Diary of Anne Frank,saying that she was “proud because of that piece because I felt it was the closest I could get to the character. I did a lot of research and understood a lot more” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). Katy’s comment suggests that the kinds of writing students prefer can also lead to the kinds of writing generally thought to be rigorous and demanding.  Interestingly, Katy named her least favorite assignment as a creative-sounding math assignment in which she had to design a comic book to explain a math concept to a second-grader. At first, this seems surprising, and I feel empathy for that poor math teacher who probably thought she was giving the kids just what they wanted (comic books! In math! Creative!). My interpretation is that Katy didn’t enjoy it because it had the trappings of creativity without affording her the chance to discover something new, by way of either self-reflection or research.

This study also suggests that students and (some) teachers are aligned on another belief, even if they don’t declare it outright: Writing is supposed to happen in English class. Anywhere else is a stretch at best, an outrage at worst. One of the lower-achieving student participants was quoted as saying, “I’m pretty sure good writing is the same for all classes. They don’t talk about writing in history or science” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1108). This quarantine is most pronounced at lower levels of achievement. A higher-achieving student said that “In science, good writing deals with relating things, relating and describing processes” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1109). This gets back to agency: By giving higher-achieving students more opportunities to do substantial, academic writing outside of the English classroom, teachers give these students more opportunities to see themselves as crucial and original constructors of knowledge. When we give lower-achieving kids no opportunities to do real writing in subjects other than English, we contribute to a diminishing of their agency (when they’re probably feeling less agentive to begin with!): We tell them they ought to be mostly passive vessels through which facts should pass without getting messed up.

Furthermore, when we don’t include real and meaningful writing across the curriculum (WAC) for students at all achievement levels, we fail to prepare students for college. Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) point out that “studies conducted in college settings have shown how students struggle to navigate variation in disciplinary expectations regarding source-based writing tasks” (p. 1111). As it stands, the onus of teaching students general rhetorical techniques tends to rest on the ELA teachers’ shoulders, and yet “research on college writers suggests it is students’ limited knowledge of how to argue and to support claims with evidence in a particular discipline–rather than their facility with general argumentative writing technique–that accounts for much of their struggle transitioning to college writing” (Jeffery & Wilcox, 2014, p. 1111). Recall that one of the premises of this research was that writing proficiency isn’t a fixed thing that is transferable across all occasions, disciplines, and tasks. We can’t simply teach kids how to write (in English class) and then expect them to write well in their demanding college science courses. Well, we can, and do, but it’s not working.

But let’s also think past college. We need to acknowledge, and impart to our students, that “subject-area learning is not just about the reproduction of knowledge and information within the boundaries of the subject. . . . It is also about the production of knowledge and the making of personal meanings”  (Green, 1988, p. 163). Our job is not to teach them literacy (as a body of skills) but to teach them to be literate (as a mechanism of interacting with a culture). They may not leave high school literate in all disciplines, but they should have some idea of how to go about becoming literate in whatever fields or communities they join. We need to emphasize that literacy is context-dependent, and that “it is never simply a case of being literate in and of itself but of being literate with regard to something, some aspect of knowledge or experience” (Green, 1988, p. 160).

It is through writing that we accomplish the above, as “writing is not simply the transcription of meaning but very often works actively, in various ways and in varying degrees, as the discovery and production of meaning” (Green, 1988, p. 159). It’s especially important that we ask lower-achieving students to write substantially and meaningfully in all subjects. They more than anyone need practice and support in critical and abstract thinking, and “what is significant in the use of written language is that it enables the user to take up a more abstract, reflexive stance towards texts and so one’s own thinking and processing of meaning” (Green, 1988, p. 164)

This is all very pie-in-the-sky, I know. We oughta, we oughta, we oughta. It’s also the same-old writing across the curriculum (WAC) debate. I believe that students should be writing across the curriculum, and I acknowledge that the “optics” of an English teacher demanding of the algebra teacher why she’s not teaching writing are not great. As Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) point out, “teachers will need far more support around writing instruction than they are currently receiving” (p. 1112). We can, and should, start slow. We can’t expect our first attempts to have students write in geometry, for example, to yield great results. We’ve spent years training students that to engage with math and science, for example, is to stay outside of it, keep their opinions to themselves, and not get their hands dirty. But the more we invite them to write in and about all courses, the better their writing, and thinking, will get. Teachers are likely to experience some discomfort as well. Jeffery and Wilcox (2014) recommend that “content-area teachers who have not received substantive training in literacy instruction may begin with the gradual introduction of ‘writing to learn’ approaches that are less formal and perhaps less daunting than extended, multiple draft assignments” (p. 1112).

But I’d like to go one step further, and maybe this will assuage some of those math and science teachers who balk at an English teacher pushing writing in “their” courses. I’d like to expand the role of the teachers who are comfortable and masterful in teaching writing. Even as we push for writing across the curriculum (WAC) as described above, I’d like to see (and teach!) a required class that I envision as CAW: Content Area Writing. Other names are possible, but let’s play with CAW for a moment. In this dream class, a master teacher of writing would support students as they worked on individual writing assignments conceived or assigned in other classes. It would work almost like a thesis committee, in that students would come to CAW class working on an extensive piece of writing for some other class (biology for example). The biology teacher would serve as the content committee member while the CAW teacher, meeting frequently with the student writer as well as the subject area teacher in conference, guides the student through research, drafting, mechanics, revision, and presentation. Students in the class could have choice in terms of what course they want to use to develop their CAW project or, over the course of a year, students could work on a writing for each of their courses (English would remain a class separate from CAW). Although my initial design for this class entailed its being a senior course, the study I read encouraged me to rethink it as a freshman course, to start giving students subject-specific literacy in their most developmental years.

What students from this study enjoyed most about writing was feeling like they mattered in it–they were implicated, involved. People who don’t teach teenagers every day love to tell me how apathetic kids are these days, how lazy and unoriginal they are. My own experience contradicts that opinion, as does this study. In short, if we don’t ask students to write–really write–about the subjects we’re teaching them, we’re not allowing them to truly engage in the material. in fact, we’re keeping them from learning.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


Gee, J.P. (2011). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (3rd edition). New York, NY: Routledge.

Green, B. (1988). Subject-specific literacy and school learning: A focus on writing. Australian Journal of Education, 32(2), 156-179.

Jeffery, J.V., & Wilcox, K. (2014). ‘How do I do it if I don’t like writing?’: Adolescents’ stances toward writing across disciplines. Reading and Writing, 27(6), 1095-1117.

Souto-Manning, M. (2014). Critical for whom? Theoretical and methodological dilemmas in critical approaches to language research. In D. Paris and M. Winn (Eds.), Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (pp. 201-220). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.



Capital Campaign: Valuing the Linguistic Wealth of My Students

This week, I did some more reading about an idea that has my full attention: community cultural wealth, or “the array of cultural knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed by socially marginalized groups that often go unrecognized and unacknowledged” (Yosso, 2005, p. 69). (This is the same set of assets I discussed in an earlier post, “Motivational Marginalization: Diversity in Private Schools.”) I spent some more time considering the six types of cultural capital proposed by Tara Yosso “that are historically undervalued and unacknowledged in White, middle-class institutions like schools” (Liou, Antrop-Gonzalez, & Cooper, 2009, p. 538). Here are Yosso’s categories, with her brief explanations of each:

  • aspirational capital: “the ability to maintain hopes and dreams for the future, even in the face of real and perceived barriers” (2005, p. 77);
  • navigational capital: “skills of maneuvering through social institutions” (2005, p. 80);
  • social capital: “networks of people and community resources” (2005, p.79);
  • familial capital: “cultural knowledges nurtured among familia that carry a sense of community history, memory, and cultural intuition” (2005, p. 79);
  • resistant capital: “knowledges and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality” (2005, p. 80); and
  • linguistic capital: “the intellectual and social skills attained through communication experiences in more than one language and/or style” (2005, p.78).

It’s the last of these, linguistic capital, that I’d really like to focus on today, for a couple of reasons: First of all, I think it would be beneficial to my own practice as a teacher to take some real, dedicated time to consider the ways in which I am–and, more importantly, perhaps, the ways I’m not–valuing and fostering each of these kinds of capital in my students of color. Secondly, I’m an English teacher, a writer, and a lover of language. I already believe, deeply, that the best vocabulary is one rich in the inflections, hues, loanwords, code-switching, hybrids, and mash-ups pulled from all of one’s languages and experiences.

One of the reasons I love teaching 10th-graders is that, on the whole, I think they strike an ideal balance between a child’s wonder and a young adult’s eagerness to engage in complex, intellectually sophisticated ideas. Because of that, I’m able to throw things at them that I didn’t really encounter until college: the idea of cultural marginalization, the literary and social concept of the Other, and the theory of multiple intelligences are all thematic touchstones to which we return, over and over, throughout the year as we study literature. Early on in the year, I try to establish that intelligence is not synonymous with years of formal education, and that education is not synonymous with schooling (this will serve us well when we get to our discussion of Colonialism with Things Fall Apart and I ask them if, for example, the people of Umuofia are “educated” before the white missionaries show up).

My students are already discovering and critiquing the ways in which language is all bound up in power. For example, all year long we talk about what makes something a “real word” (and I struggle to disabuse them of that question, encouraging them instead to ask if a word is “standard usage”–which allows us to parse whose standard is the standard and whether it will, or should, remain the standard). In tandem with the Richard Rodriguez essay “Aria,” which I discussed in that earlier post, we also read a first-person essay titled “Blue Collar Brilliance,” in which Mike Rose’s reflections on his mother’s experience as a waitress serve as a jumping-off point for him to consider and discuss “how much [blue-collar, service-industry, low-wage occupations] demand of both body and brain” (Rose, 2009).

As I’ve mentioned before, most of my students come from pretty financially comfortable homes. Several, however, do not. And so I offer this article to the class with the hope that it will, for the kids from wealthy homes, broaden their definition of what it means to be competent, skilled, and valuable as a worker and therefore broaden their respect for the people who perform these jobs. For the students who come from homes where their parents hold jobs like the ones Rose describes, or for students who themselves have experience working as waitstaff, house cleaners, landscapers or other jobs that their wealthy peers benefit from but sometimes fail to even see, I hope that this essay–and our careful, respectful consideration of it–communicates to them that I respect that work and that I want to create a space in my classroom where that work is valued, honored, respected, seen. I talk about this article in terms of multiple intelligences, but I realize now that I’m really talking about different kinds of cultural capital.

In fact, now that I reread Rose’s essay through the lens of cultural wealth, I realize that he’s celebrating the kinds of capital in which his mother and other blue-collar workers are wealthy–among them linguistic capital (“Lingo conferred authority and signaled know-how”) (Rose, 2009), navigational capital (“Joe learned more and more about the auto industry, the technological and social dynamics of the shop floor [and] the machinery and production processes”) (Rose, 2009), social capital (“She became adept at reading social cues and managing feelings, both the customers’ and her own … The restaurant became the place where she studied human behavior, puzzling over the problems of her regular customers and refining her ability to deal with people in a difficult world”) (Rose, 2009). If I were in a position to nominate another kind of capital to add to Yosso’s six, I might add something like sequencing or task flow capital: Certainly there’s a particular valuable knowledge and skill at work when a one does what Rose’s mother did when “she’d sequence and group tasks: What could she do first, then second, then third as she circled through her station? What tasks could be clustered?” (Rose, 2009).

Yosso asks: “Are there forms of cultural capital that marginalized groups bring to the tale that traditional cultural capital theory does not recognize or value?” (2009, p. 77). Her answer is an unequivocal “yes.” To try to address that systematic undervaluing, she works from a framework of Critical Race Theory (CRT) , which “shifts the center of focus from notions of White, middle class culture to the cultures of Communities of Color” (Yosso, 2009, p. 77). According to Yosso, “community cultural wealth is an array of knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed and utilized by Communities of Color to survive and resist macro and micro-forms of oppression” (2009, p. 77).

For that reason, I think it’s risky–if not downright inappropriate–to simply borrow the idea of cultural wealth from its home within CRT and simply apply it to poor or working-class people of all colors. (Although I know this is not a universally accepted opinion, I believe that a poor or working class white person retains white privilege. I’m not saying a poor white person has an easy life, only that his or her road is smoothed in ways that a similarly impoverished non-white person’s is not. Let’s park that idea to the side for the time being!) I want to be explicit in saying that I don’t think I can appropriate the concept of community cultural wealth and divorce it from its roots in CRT without doing so carefully and with limitation.

That said, poor and working-class people, like people of color, suffer a reductive and dismissive fate in the hands of our popular culture and our educational institutions. As Rose (2009) says,  “Although writers and scholars have often looked at the working class, they have generally focused on the values such workers exhibit rather than on the thought their work requires — a subtle but pervasive omission. Our cultural iconography promotes the muscled arm, sleeve rolled tight against biceps, but no brightness behind the eye, no image that links hand and brain.” Students who come from poor or working-class families, I would argue, might also be victims of deficit thinking, which “takes the position that minority students and families are at fault for poor academic performance because: (a) students enter school without the normative cultural knowledge and skills; and (b) parents neither value nor support their child’s education” (Yosso, 2009, p. 75). The suspected deficits are all the more magnified if a student is a poor or working class student of color.

Just as the educational system fails to value the forms of cultural capital that students of color bring, the educational system largely “defin[es] intelligence solely on grades in school and numbers on IQ tests. And we employ social biases pertaining to a person’s place on the occupational ladder. The distinctions among blue, pink, and white collars carry with them attributions of character, motivation, and intelligence. Although we rightly acknowledge and amply compensate the play of mind in white-collar and professional work, we diminish or erase it in considerations about other endeavors — physical and service work particularly” (Rose, 2009).

All of this is to say that in analyzing these two essays–“Aria” and “Blue-Collar Brilliance”–with my sophomores, we are already in a space where we are discussing cultural capital, though we have never used that term before. When I head back to school in August, I will bring this term, and this concept, to my students as a framework for discussing these two articles. So that answers how I can talk about cultural capital with my students, but it doesn’t really resolve how I can better value and honor the cultural capital–and today I’m focusing on linguistic capital–that they bring with them to school.

I want my classroom to be a place where these students get practice as both analyzers of literature and creators of literature. This dual goal was really crystallized for me when a friend, a middle-school teacher at an independent school, commented that “[He and his middle school co-faculty] had taken for granted that students should study literature in order to write about it. Yet [his elementary level faculty counterparts] emphasized that their students study literature in order to actually write it” (M. Fishback, personal communication, April 9, 2014). Similarly, I don’t want to just talk about educational equity with my students, I want to work toward educational equity with them. I don’t want to pay lip service to linguistic capital, I want to create a space where they can cash in on their linguistic capital.

One activity that I created last semester comes to mind as an example of a way that I could do just that. Although I conceived of this activity and implemented it before I’d learned about cultural capital, I’ll share it here as an activity that operates on the premise of valuing the language my students come to me knowing, as opposed to the language I teach them.

Last spring, we were reading Things Fall Apart, a novel by the great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Our discussions tended to revolve around plot (what happened?), reader response (how do I feel about what happened?), and historical context (Colonization and the importance of the book as a reclamation of a narrative of Africa). What was lacking–perhaps because the language in the book is deceptively simple–was discussion of the book qua book and what my students as budding writers could learn from it.

I selected a passage from the novel that had a lot of italicized Ibo words and ask my students to walk me through Achebe’s way of using the word to cumulatively depict its meaning as opposed to defining it with an appositive. Sentence by sentence, we read the clues provided by the text: Ah, yes, the egwugwu are feared; we can tell because the women of the village run from them when they emerge. Oh, but the egwugwu are also objects of fascination and admiration; we can tell because the women run only far enough away to remain safe but near enough that they can still see. Oh, look, here we see there are nine egwugwu. In this manner, we packed on understanding of the term that the author did not ever explicitly define for us, and we came to a full understanding of the function, appearance, and reception of these nine awe-inspiring ancestral spirits depicted by male village elders in costume at important community gatherings. We also realized that as readers we were quite tolerant and patient about having an unknown term take shape for us. In fact, we found it rewarding as readers not to be simply told what the word meant. So if we were patient as readers, we could probably, as writers, count on that patience from our readers.

Next, I asked students to choose a word they knew but that they guessed their peers would not know. It could be a word from a non-English language they knew, a technical term or piece of jargon from an activity or industry they knew well, or a nonsense word. I gave them 20 minutes to write a passage in which the word gets used at least five times but was never explicitly defined. Just like Achebe did, I wanted them to depict meaning as opposed to dictating meaning. I framed it like a challenge to them: By the end we should know what the word means and as much as possible about it.

Most students did not choose nonsense words. Students chose words from Mexican slang, Hindi words, and family inside-joke words. As it turned out, my students knew all kinds of words their peers didn’t know, and they were eager to share their writing (more eager than usual, I’d say). In terms of the writing itself, the results were clever, imagery-rich, and syntactically freewheeling and unbounded. After sharing, we talked about how else a writer could use this technique–with technical language, fantasy writing, or in boundary-blurring fiction and nonfiction like Amy Tan’s, where she tries to capture the experience of being the American daughter of a Chinese mother. They also independently connected the technique to what they saw in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

Furthermore, and importantly, the exercise served to heighten the attention they paid to the literary elements of Achebe’s book, which I think is crucial given the fact that “some works are called literature whereas other works are termed folklore. … the literature of people of color is more likely to fall into the folklore category” (Dunbar, 2008, p.85). Keith Booker argues that “anthropological readings … have sometimes prevented African novels from receiving serious critical attention as literature rather than simply as documentation of cultural practices” (as cited in Snyder, 2008, p. 156). Snyder (2008) adds that “the naive ethnographic or anthropological reading treats a novel like [Things Fall Apart] as though it transparently represents the world of another culture, ignoring the aesthetic dimensions of the representation” (p. 156). Although I do think the book opens students’ eyes to practices, rites, and traditions of a culture most of them know nothing about, I do not want to contribute to that very Eurocentric and Colonialist approach to studying Achebe’s work as a cute little artifact as opposed to a powerfully important anti-Colonial event and an aesthetically and structurally intricate piece of literature.

In addition to those benefits, I see now, this activity also invited students to leverage their linguistic capital. In this activity, bilingual students had the edge. By asking them to choose a word they knew that their peers did not, I communicated to them that I was explicitly looking for words outside of our shared classroom experience. Furthermore, in the sharing portion of the activity, students asked one another about the words they’d share–what did it mean, exactly, how was it used, what were the shades of connotation, was it “standard usage” or slang? To stand in front of the room and be the teacher, even for a few minutes, transferred the power to these students and their outside-of-school language. (Notably, the students who used a family-created “inside joke” word were also leveraging their familial capital to fulfill their teacher’s expectations of a piece of school writing.)

This is only one small opportunity that I have found in my current pedagogical practice and curriculum to increasingly emphasize, foster, and value linguistic capital. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I believe that each facet of Yosso’s discussion of cultural wealth is worthy of reflection and examination in terms of my classroom. How am I welcoming, rewarding, and fostering the development of navigational capital? Resistance capital? There’s lots to think about here.

Finally, to talk about these “knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts” (Yosso, 2005, p. 69) in terms of capital or wealth invites me to consider how that metaphor can be extended: can a person become bankrupt of cultural capital? I doubt it. Can a person invest her cultural capital and enjoy compounding interest? Probably. Does a person pay any kind of cultural tax when he acquires cultural wealth? Perhaps. Can cultural wealth can be shared, spread around, redistributed? Yes. All of my students left linguistically richer after that activity, as did I.


Dunbar, C. (2008). Critical race theory and indigenous methodologies. In Denzin, N., Lincoln, Y., & Smith, L.T. (Eds.) Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies. 85-99.

Liou, D., Antrop-Gonzalez, R., & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining latino/a students’ college-going information networks. Educational Studies, 45, 534-555

Rose, M. (2009). Blue collar brilliance. The American Scholar. Retrieved from http://theamericanscholar.org/blue-collar-brilliance/#.U5YvU3BgNbU

Snyder, C. (2008). The possibilities and pitfalls of ethnographic readings: Narrative complexity in Things Fall Apart. College Literature, 35(2),154-174

Yosso, T. (2005). Whose culture has capital?: A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race, Ethnicity and Education, (8)1, 69-91.

Freaks and BWRKs: Divulging Disability on College Entrance Essays

Vidali, A. (2007). Texts of our institutional lives: Performing the rhetorical freak show : Disability, student writing, and college admissions. College English, 69(6), 615–641.

This is how I picked a college: My junior year of high school, a big alphabetical book of Colleges in the USA mysteriously appeared in my bedroom, the bedroom in the house I’d lived in since I was three months old. I thumbed through the big book of colleges and, I like to joke now, I got through the A’s. I attended Arizona State University.

Of course, I applied to a few other schools (six, which was in line with national averages but nowhere near the 10, 12, or 15 that some of my students submit nowadays), and I got in to all of them. It’s fun to ponder who or what I would be now, 20 years later, if I’d attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. Would I own Birkenstocks? What if I’d gone to the University of Central Florida, where I was offered a scholarship? Would I be tan? The University of Arizona, the University of South Florida ,the University of Utah, University of Maryland (though I had no intention of staying so close to home or going to the school one of my brothers had attended)? Would I be any different now, or would I just have a different collection of T-shirts and beer coozies?

Unlike so many of my students at the expensive, prestigious private school where I now teach, I didn’t really care where I went to college. I knew I wanted to go to a big school far away from home. I wanted to meet a thousand new people and have teachers none of my three older siblings had had before me. I wanted to major in music. I wanted to flee. I used the compass that had gotten me through geometry to draw a circle on a map of the USA, with Washington, D.C. at its center and a radius of 1,500 miles. Anything within the circle was a no; anything outside the circle was fine with me, especially if they had low admissions standards (I was suffering from burnout, low self-esteem, and simmering anxiety at the time).

I sent in my applications, I recorded my auditions for the music schools, and I awaited the fabled big envelope. I did not write any essays, personal statements, or statements of purpose. If I had been asked to write these things, I would have been confronted with a big decision: do I reveal to the people reading the essay, the people with my fate in their hands, that I have a physical disability–namely, severe rheumatoid arthritis? There would be advantages, of course: a narrative angle that distinguished me from the masses of similar-seeming applicants, for one. But there would be a big risk, too. Would my disability, which wasn’t reflected or revealed in any other element of my application, work against me? Would the admissions people doubt my suitability for sustained academic work? Would they peg me as a dropout risk?

In “Texts of our institutional lives: Performing the rhetorical freak show : Disability, student writing, and college admissions,” Amy Vidali (2007) argues that “institutional writing”–of which these college entrance essays are a type–pose risk for all students, but particular risk for students with disabilities. According to Vidali, students who choose to write about their experiences with disability for their college entrance essays are, in effect, participating in the same push-pull of power that participants in freak shows did. Students are are acting out of necessity, Vidali argues, as they “would  not write these admissions essays if they didn’t have to, and freak-show performers would likely have worked other jobs had gainful employment been available to them” (2007, p. 625). Furthermore, students find themselves in an “unequal rhetorical negotiation … where one person performs while others judge … similar to the relationship between freak-show performers and the objectifying gaze of spectators” (2007, p. 625). In short, students who write about their disabilities on these kinds of essays must be willing to “risk discrimination and create a ‘rhetorical spectacle’ of disability if it increases the chances of ‘getting in'” (Vidali, 2007, p. 623).

For her study, Vidali examined undergraduate students’ application files (after they’d been admitted to and begun attending college). She examined the rhetorical devices, structures, and tropes these students used in writing their experience of disability, and then she interviewed them to better understand their intentions, strategy, and reservations about doing so (if any).  In the case study presented here, Vidali examines the essays and interviews with three subjects, all of them white, English-speaking women of “typical college age” (2007, p. 617). Though the larger pool of subjects included students with “vision impairments, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, and repetitive stress injuries, as well as students who are hard of hearing” (Vidali, 2007, p. 617), the three women who constitute this case study all have learning disabilities.

It is crucial to point out that Vidali comes at her study operating on the sociological model of disability, as opposed to the medical model, and therefore “conceive[s] of disability as a social and political identity rather than as a pathological condition, individual burden, or personal tragedy” (Linton qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p.  617).

Some really interesting commonalities emerge from Vidali’s examination of these women’s essays, commonalities that the author argues derive from the limited ways disability is framed and talked about in the larger culture. For example, two of the three employed a “three-part structure, moving from humiliation to a moment of change to overcoming disability-related obstacles” (Vidali, 2007, p. 672). Anyone who’s seen any movie featuring a disabled character will recognize this arc: disabled people are often depicted as being shamed, humiliated, or depressed until the magical moment when, after persevering nobly, they have their wishes granted (often by an able-bodied physician acting as fairy godmother) and overcome the obstacle presented by their disability. Likewise, these two students emphasized having overcome their disabilities. Their essays have “happy endings” (Vidali, 2007, p. 627). Furthermore, they write in terms of old selves and new selves, echoing another classic aspect of the rhetoric of disability, as expressed by Kristin Lindgren: “illness represents not only a crisis in the body but also a crisis in identity” (qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 626).

The third woman in the case study did not rely on the three-part structure, nor did she provide a happy ending. She did not write about old selves and new selves or transcending or overcoming her disability. In fact, this third writer eschewed personal details of her disability narrative altogether, opting instead for a discussion of “equal opportunity for people with learning disabilities” and “the politics of disability disclosure” (Vidali, 2007, p. 627). This student-author writes in an assertive voice, even slipping into second person to challenge the reader (a college admissions professional, the holder of power, the person who paid admission to this freak show) in a series of questions. Vidali calls this decision daring and even suggests that it’s somewhat subversive: she is bucking “the traditional representation of disability as personal and the strict confines of the admissions essay–which compel that all successes be solely the result of individual effort” (Vidali, 2007, p. 626).

One thing that all three student-authors had in common was the desire to stand out. This isn’t surprising; the students I teach have been hearing since fifth grade how important it is that their college applications make them seem unusual, unique, well-rounded, multi-faceted, different from the others. Nowadays, it seems, “standing out” isn’t even enough! Vidali quotes from Rachel Toor’s Admissions Confidential: “Many schools are looking for what they call ‘angular’ kids, those with a much more focused interest or talent,” (qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 630), kids she calls “BWRKs,” which is “admissionese for bright well-rounded kids” (Toor qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 631). The necessity of “standing out” is particularly interesting in the context of young adolescents with disabilities who, if my own experience is a reliable indication, spend a great deal of time expressly trying not to stand out. Particularly for students with intellectual or learning disabilities, for whom their difference has most likely been treated as a deficit in the context of school, it must be something of a relief, if not a trip to bizarro-world, to encounter this writing assignment where, suddenly, they have an “angle” other students lack. They stand to gain from the exhibition of their disability just as a bearded lady or a pair of conjoined twins did by joining one of P.T. Barnum’s traveling troupes of freaks and oddities. When you’ve been marginalized, and an opportunity comes to get paid for your marginalization, it’s hard not to jump–or limp–at it.

But benefiting from one’s marginalized status is not an uncomplicated decision, especially given a culture that is suspicious of disabled people and all too eager to accuse disabled people of inflating, exaggerating, or even making up their disabilities. In fact, one of the student-authors here begged Vidali not to include a comment she’d made in the interview about manipulating her application. Vidali writes that the author “sensed that she was not supposed to admit that her discussion of her disability in her admissions essay was anything other than a pure distillation of her disability experience … admitting her disclosure is a managed performance pulls the curtain back too far” (2007, p. 632).

Another potential pitfall of attempting to write about disability on an application essay is the mismatch between the conventions of the genre and the nature of disability. These are short, pithy writings, and chronic disability is by definition not short and is rarely pithy. “This isn’t the winning touchdown, the cultural awareness gained on a trip to Mexico, or even the insight from experiencing a moment of racial discrimination”–all popular topics for student essays–and the writer “cannot place her disability in the past or check off a box labeled ‘lesson learned,’ because the extraordinary scholastic needs that result from her disability are past, present, and future” (Vidali, 2007, p. 616).

Vidali argues that “reconsidering the ambiguous agency of the freak in a circus setting provides an important opportunity to rethink the idea of students (with and without disabilities) as mere rhetorical dupes of an impressive admissions system” (2007, p. 616). This is no small thing, given that, according to Vidali, “9 percent of all students in postsecondary education have disabilities and because the consideration of disability urges attention to the diversity of all students” (2007, p. 617).

The purpose of Vidali’s study wasn’t to examine the effect of divulging disability on an applicants’ acceptance, though that would be a fascinating onion to peel: As schools develop public statements of diversity, is the climate changing such that it becomes increasingly advantageous to reveal a disability? While according to the rules admissions committees may not be able to factor in a student’s disability, admissions committees are made up of people with intricate identities, biases, and values just waiting to be plucked by the right story from the right student at the right moment.  I’d also like to know more about the rhetorical styles and features student-writers with non-intellectual disabilities employ: is a student who suffered a paralyzing accident also likely to use the three-part structure? How do students write about depression and anxiety, which rarely are conquered but rather accommodated? What about eating disorders? How far does the category of disability extend: Could/should a student write about recovery from drugs or alcohol and expect to “stand out” in the right ways?  When does the risk outweigh the reward? Which kinds of freaks are going to be most successful?

Vidali argues first that the field of disability studies–and its associated lexicons, rhetorics, and models–needs to be brought to the forefront of discussions of composition and language. She argues that teachers tend to discuss disability with their students, if they do so at all, from medical and psychoanalytic models as opposed to the postmodern identity-making models they use to discuss race or class (Vidali, 2007, p. 618). The secondary English classroom, which in my world is a training ground for the rhetoric and composition classroom these students will graduate to, already examines “‘how language both reflects and supports notions of the Other'” (Brueggemann qtd. in Vidali, 2007, p. 618), “challenges false binaries, and connects issues of practice and theory” (Vidali, 2007, p. 618) and so a significant and purposeful discussion of disability in these contexts would be natural and appropriate. Vidali is not in the business of critiquing these student essays; rather, she is preoccupied with “analyzing and locating the power dynamics and inequities that admissions essays both produce and reproduce” (2007, p. 622).

I am interested in these things, too. I’m also interested in helping students more successfully navigate the demands of these personal statements as part of their college application processes. To me, these essays are problematic partly because they ask students to write personally, revealingly, and profoundly about themselves when many of them have spent 12 years being trained to believe that first-person writing is unacademic, unimportant, unprofessional, and unwelcome. I think we need to do a better job in general teaching students how to write about themselves without navel-gazing or resorting to derivative, trite cliches.

After reading this article, I think the mandate to do so is especially necessary for our students with disabilities. We need to teach them how to write about their disabilities in ways that aren’t limited to these Hollywood-sanctioned story arcs. If we want them to be empowered by and unapologetic about their manipulation of rhetorical tropes, if we want to give them narrative control of their stories, we need to help them discover what those tropes are. We need to clue them in to the power dynamic that is the context of ability/disability in the world they live in. To do so, we need to include disability studies in our curriculum the way we do studies of race, gender, and class. Though the benefit of this inclusive curriculum would be strong for students with disabilities, it would also be good for students who don’t identify as disabled, just in the way that exposing and analyzing racism benefits both minority and majority students.

As a working professional, I know the treacherous legal complications of divulging disability at a job interview. The freak show push-pull dynamic is present in that context, too–but, I would argue, the potential gains are smaller than in the college admissions process. Hirers are considering the drain you’ll pose on their health plan, how many days of work you’ll miss, and whether you’re a liability for a discrimination lawsuit. Of course, all of that could change if we increase the visibility of disability as an axis of social identity.

If I’d been asked to write an essay to get into college 20 years ago, I don’t know if I would have written about my arthritis. But perhaps it’s very telling that when, less than a year ago, I was asked to write a personal statement for admission to this very doctoral program, I consciously redacted my writing for any direct mention or allusion to my disability. I split the difference, though–the writing sample I submitted along with my personal statement scrubbed clean of arthritis was a published essay in which I made explicit reference to my chronic illness. I’m 37 and confused and ambivalent about how much to say, how much to protect. I can only imagine what my 18-year-old students feel.

Teenagers know well what it is to feel like freaks, especially students with any kind of difference. Perhaps we need to educate them better about the complexities–the risks and the rewards, the empowerment and the objectification–of the freak show and then let them decide what kind of performance they want to put on.


Brueggemann, B. J., White, L. F., Dunn, P.A., Heifferon, B.A., & Johnson, C. (2001). Becoming visible: Lessons in disability. College Composition and Communication52(3), 368–398. doi:10.2307/358624

Lindgren, K. “Bodies in trouble: Identity, embodiment, and disability.” Gendering Disability. Ed. Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchinson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. 145-65.

Linton, S. Claiming disability: knowledge and identity. New York: New York UP, 1998.

Toor, R. Admissions confidential: An insider’s account of the elite college selection process. New York: St. Martin’s, 2004.