Sunday, December 27, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: bell hooks, Beyonce, and Audre Lorde

bell hooks.

Yes, she presents her pen name this way, without capitalization. Biographical information about this poet and thinker can be found at this link, and the main thing to know about her for our purpose is that she is a feminist, interested in the intersections between women's and African American identity.

Feminism, despite what you may have been told, is "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities" or is "organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests." Feminism is not one big belief system with static rules; actually, it is a huge collection of on-going, evolving conversations. Some newcomers to the conversations become confused because the discussions include lifting up or recovering of items/behaviors/ideas coded as feminine, like vulnerability and intuition, and the like, AND the discussions also include arguments that people should break down binaries like masculine/feminine, vulnerable/impermeable, and logic/intuition.

Generally, there are three or maybe four recognized "waves" of Western, particularly American, feminism: a first wave (19th and early 20th century) that promoted women's suffrage and legal legitimacy in the U.S.; a second wave (1960s-1990s) that sought to advance women's access to contraception, education, and equal pay; and a third wave (1990s-present?) that seeks to incorporate causes of women of color, LGBTQIA+ populations, incarcerated populations, indigenous women, immigrant women, non-Christian women, non-Western women, and more populations that white feminism has previously overlooked.

hooks states,
“As all advocates of feminist politics know most people do not understand sexism or if they do they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.”  
hooks made headlines in 2014, when she referred to Beyonce as anti-feminist and as a terrorist, in a critique of Bey's use of feminism in her art/product media. So, here's where Beyonce enters the conversation.

The image above shows up 10 minutes and 20 seconds into Beyonce's performance at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, which you can view below. At that point in the music, words from Chimamanda N'gozi Adichie are featured in the song "***Flawless" and highlighted on the screen behind Beyonce:

We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller
We say to girls, you can have ambition but not too much
You should aim to be successful but not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man
Feminist, a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes

Beyoncé 2014 MTV VMA Video Vanguard (Medley) | Show Performance from terry.harden.mercer on Vimeo.

No matter what they think of Beyonce or hooks, for that matter, listeners cannot ignore that pop culture is involved in the conversations about feminism and African American women. More of the lyrics to the song "***Flawless" include the following:

I know when you were little girls
You dreamt of being in my world
Don't forget it, don't forget it
Respect that, bow down bitches (Crown!)
I took some time to live my life
But don't think I'm just his little wife
Don't get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches
Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches (Crown)
Bow down bitches, bow bow down bitches (Crown)
H-Town vicious
H, H-Town vicious
I'm so crown crown, bow down bitches
You wake up, flawless
Post up, flawless
Ridin' round in it, flawless
Flossin' on that, flawless
This diamond, flawless
My diamond, flawless
This rock, flawless
My rock, flawless
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
I woke up like this
I woke up like this
We flawless, ladies tell 'em
Say I look so good tonight
God damn, God damn
Say I look so good tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn

Momma taught me good home training
My Daddy taught me how to love my haters
My sister told me I should speak my mind
My man made me feel so God damn fine, I'm flawless!

Whether or not readers agree that pop songs are poetry, they can still analyze them in the same way. Note the speaker (I), the significance of the diction, the allusions to her own life and to other cultural commenters (e.g. Adichie), the rhyme pattern, repetition, the fierce tone, and the encouragement to "ladies" who listen to accept themselves and not let others get them down. Notice also the layers of meaning in "I woke up like this"--remember, the theme of our poetry contest is "Get Woke." Here's an example of how others have analyzed the music and video of "Flawless."

To return to the world of poetry as it is more conventionally known, here is a work from writer Audre Lorde for you to read alongside Beyonce's lyrics:

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon's new fury
with all your wide futures
I am
and not white.

These three authors' words leave readers and listeners with lots to think about. Here are some brainstorming questions to consider as you digest their works and follow the embedded links down the rabbit hole...

1. What new words or terms did these poems or quoted lines introduce you to? What are the terms denotations (formal definitions) and connotations (informal cultural, social, or personal associations)?

2. What common themes do these women writers and performers address in their works--be more specific than "feminism," "womanhood," or "the African American experience." Think deeper, perhaps along the lines of body consciousness, sexuality, community and solidarity, exploring/exploding binary thinking, certain imagery, etc.

3. Why is personal, subjective experience so important in these works?

As always, remember to point to specific words or phrases in the works to support claims you want to make.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: James Baldwin and Countee Cullen

I'd like to introduce readers to James Baldwin, if they are unfamiliar with him. First, here is a trailer to his biography so you can become briefly acquainted with him:

My first encounter with him was as an undergraduate when I read Go Tell It on the Mountain in a Religion and Literature independent study. His essays, novels, and poetry provide perspective from the intersections of African American identity, masculine, homosexual identity, and secular identity. 

In "James Baldwin Reappeared Just When We Needed Him Most," Saeed Jones describes Baldwin's posthumously released 2014 collection of poems:
Though Baldwin is perhaps best known as an essayist and novelist, he wrote poetry as well. Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems was published last month by Beacon Press. It has an introduction by Nikky Finney. 
"Staggerlee Wonders," the first poem in the book, which is written in the voice of a blunt, African-American character, is especially striking in light of this week's news cycle: "My days are not their days. / My ways are not their ways. / I would not think of them, / one way or the other, / did not they so grotesquely / block the view / between me and my brother."
One might choose to the excerpted lines above from the perspective of the current news cycle and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to their "About" page,
#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder. Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.
#BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.  We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.
Using BLM's description of their organization as a lens, read Baldwin's lines again.

My days are not their days.
My ways are not their ways.
I would not think of them,
one way or the other,
did not they so grotesquely
block the view
between me and my brother.

Consider how the speaker, an individual (my, I, me), contrasts with the other people (their, them, they) who "so grotesquely / block the view / between me and my brother." A third person is present, too: "my brother," or the family member of the speaker. With the Black Lives Matter movement and recent events in mind, brainstorm answers to these questions:

1. What does the speaker mean by "days" and "ways"?

2.. According to, "grotesque" is defined as the following:
1. odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre.
2. fantastic in the shaping and combination of forms, as in decorative work combining incongruous human and animal figures with scrolls, foliage, etc.
Why does the speaker use this adverb to describe the way that "they" exist between the speaker and his sibling?

3. Examine the diction (choice of words) and syntax (arrangement of words, sentence/phrase structure) of the lines. Is the diction more or less formal? Is the syntax more or less complex? How do they contrast with the sort of diction and syntax used by Baldwin's mentor Countee Cullen in these lines from his poem "Karenge Ya Marenge":

Wherein are words sublime or noble? What
Invests one speech with haloed eminence,
Makes it the sesame for all doors shut,
Yet in its like sees but impertinence?
Is it the hue? Is it the cast of eye,
The curve of lip or Asiatic breath,
Which mark a lesser place for Gandhi’s cry
Than “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Is Indian speech so quaint, so weak, so rude,
So like its land enslaved, denied, and crude,
That men who claim they fight for liberty
Can hear this battle-shout impassively,
Yet to their arms with high resolve have sprung
At those same words cried in the English tongue? 
TIPS: What historical events does this poem refer to? Choose 3-6 of the lines in the poem, translate them into simpler and more concise wording, and then contrast the diction and syntax with Baldwin's lines.  

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: "The Danger of a Single Story" Paired with "When You See Water"

First, I'd like to return to Angelou's "Still I Rise" for just a moment and examine the diction (choice of words) in the first four lines a bit deeper:

You may write me down in history  (first word is "you," addresses someone overseeing speaker)
With your bitter, twisted lies,   (the authority figure's lying voice/writing has speaker captured)
You may trod me in the very dirt   (even though dominator may step on speaker in the bare ground)
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.  (notice shift word "but" and change in verb tense--may write, may trod--> will rise; also, notice the rhyme at the end of lines 2 and 4)

There's a lot more we could say about "Still I Rise," but I wanted to start by showing you how paraphrasing poems line-by-line can help you notice subtle shifts in pronouns, verb tense, and sounds. These are the small details that make a poem work.

Week 2's workshop features another pairing: writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Alice Walker.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

First, learn who Adichie is at the link in her name and then watch her TED Talk (or read the transcript) "The Danger of a Single Story" at this link.

Next, free write for ten minutes about a story you bought into about a group of people different than you. What exactly made that group different than people you identify with? What did you believe about that group? How were those assumptions challenged later when you learned more?

Alice Walker

Third, read Alice Walker's short poem, "When You See Water":

When you see water in a stream
you say: oh, this is stream
When you see water in the river
you say: oh, this is water
of the river;
When you see ocean
you say: This is the ocean's
But actually water is always
only itself
and does not belong
to any of these containers
though it creates them.
And so it is with you.

Click here to learn who Alice Walker is. Here are three questions to consider about Walker's poem:

1. What are its formal features? Buy this, I mean how many lines does the poem have, does it rhyme, if so what is the rhyming pattern, are there any related words, and how many stressed syllables are there per line? (There are more formal features to list, but those are some good basics to begin with.)

To identify stressed syllables, you can look up each multisyllabic word in the dictionary and see which syllable is marked as stressed, you can read the poem aloud holding your hand a half-inch under your chin and marking syllables you say as your chin drops to your hand, OR you can pay attention to the vowel sounds in the words (stressed syllables usually have fully pronounced vowel sounds, not just the schwa or "uh" sound). For example, my first name is Sara. The stressed syllable is the first syllable "Sa." The second syllable is unstressed. You can confirm this yourself by trying the three tests above.

2. What parallels do you see evident between Adichie's ideas and the speaker's in the poem? Use evidence (quotes) from the speech and poem to support your claim.

3. In Walker's poem, why did she compare the listener's identity to liquid rather than, say, solid or gas?

Happy Reading and Writing!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Lessons from Our Writing Center Work: Tessa on Integrating Evidence into an Essay

My experience working as a writing consultant this semester has reminded me that I’m still a developing writer. While I might secretly think I can create a list of works cited in MLA format blindfolded, the truth is – I still have a lot to learn. Before my first appointment as a writing consultant, my biggest fear was that a student would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to. But, it happened. It still happens – a lot. Realizing that I don’t have all the answers has helped me become a better writer and a better student. Each time I’m confronted with a writing question that I don’t have the answer to I try to look at it as an opportunity to further develop my own writing skills. 

Recently, I have met with students asking for help with introducing a quote with a colon. I knew it could be done, but it’s not something I do every day. I knew right away that if I wanted to use a colon (for something other than a list) I needed to have a complete sentence on each side. For example, when trying to introduce a quote with a colon, I couldn’t do this:

   For children in The Giver: “The front-buttoned jacket was the first sign of 
   independence, the first very visible symbol of growing up” (Lowry 40). 

The problem here is that I only have one complete sentence. If I take the quote away, I have:

   For children in The Giver. <– This is not a complete sentence. 

To make correct this example, I need to turn this fragment into a complete sentence. For example, I could do something like this:

   For the children in The Giver, clothing is not a fashion statement, but a part of their   
   identity: “The front-buttoned jacket was the first sign of independence, the first very visible
   symbol of growing up” (Lowry 40).

It is also important to remember that when using a colon to introduce a quote, both sentences must be related. It wouldn’t make sense for me to write the following:

   Lois Lowry’s The Giver is set in a dystopian society: “The front-buttoned jacket was the
   first sign of independence, the first very visible symbol of growing up” (40). 

I do have complete sentences on both sides of the comma, and my initial sentence is a true statement about the novel. However, the quote following the colon does not really relate to the information in front of the colon. 

Helping other students understand how to introduce a quote with a colon has helped me, too. Now, I find myself using this method to introduce quotes in my papers more often than I did before. Being a writing consultant has reminded me that I still have a lot to learn, but it has also provided me with opportunities to grow as a writer.

For more tips on how to introduce a quote with a colon, check out Integrating Quotations into Sentences from Illinois Valley Community College. 


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: Still I Rise, Unbought and Unbossed

Welcome to this online workshop! We are here to read, think deeply, respond, and listen.

Our topic: African American poetry, art, history, and culture.

Our goal: learn about the lived experiences of People of Color, particularly those who identify as Black in the United States. Perhaps some of you will go on to create work of poetry or art to enter in the Poetry and Art Contest or to share at the Poetry Slam during MLK Week at RSU this January!

Who can participate: anyone and everyone! Open to RSU students and to the public.

How long do I have to finish this exercise: A new entry will be posted each week, but you are welcome to join in and add your responses to any entry any time before March 1, 2016.

We begin with a well-known figure, Maya Angelou, and her poem 1978 "Still I Rise."

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

To complement this poem are this video of Angelou reading the work...

...this photograph of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1972), linked to information about how she was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom...

...and this poster from Chisholm's campaign for President:

So, with those items in mind, we invite you to please consider these questions and share your thoughts in the comments below:

1. What wording does Angelou repeat in "Still I Rise"? What is the effect of the repetition on you as a reader?

2. What questions does Angelou ask in "Still I Rise"? How would you answer her questions? Who does she seem to be responding to?

3. Why does she compare herself to dust, air, to the owner of oil wells and gold mines and diamonds, to an ocean and to daybreak?

4. What connections might we make between Angelou's poem (its content and style) and Chisholm's poster's content and style?

Let us know what you think!


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

11 days of class left. Need writing help? Contact the Writing Center NOW!

Hi, RSU students,

The RSU Writing Center is a free resource and a place where you can find engaged readers who are ready to support you as a writer.

Remember, to make an appointment! You can have 2 appointments per paper assignment, and we don't offer appointments on the assignment due date (though we will answer a few specific questions if we have time)--so plan ahead.

Here are 3 optimal times to ask for feedback on an assignment:

1. When you receive the assignment sheet: we can help you make a plan for writing and help you make sure you're on the right track from the start.

2. When you have an outline or partial draft: we can help you make sure you are on-track to meet assignment requirements and help you make sure your outline/draft is shaping up to be focused and unified.

3. 2-3 days BEFORE the due date, when you have a full or mostly-complete draft: we can help you check to make sure your citations are correct and help you check to make sure the writing is clear and concise.

Our schedule is filling up, so call, drop by, or visit to reserve an on-ground, over the phone, or online appointment in advance.

Happy writing,

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Advice from McKinze: Know Your Format!

In my recent appointments, I have noticed that many students are unaware of the writing format required by their professors for certain assignments. This is important because the format determines how the entire paper is set up and how the in-text citations and works cited/bibliography is structured.  Most English, Writing, and Humanities courses use MLA format, and most Communication, History, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, and Nursing courses use APA format. There are a few courses at RSU that use Chicago or Turabian style writing, but those are not as common as the MLA and APA utilizes courses. Many students also do not know that the Writing Center offers templates for MLA, APA, and Chicago papers. Those links can be found in the Writing Center section on the RSU page under the Online Resources tab. Here’s a link: Along with the templates, the Writing Center offers other resources that can be beneficial to a specific format or the writing process in general. There are links to websites that students can use to figure out how to cite sources in specific formats and there are also links that help with proofreading strategies.

While these resources are very helpful, it is most important to understand how a particular professor wants a paper formatted. This is important because knowing the format of the paper determines the structure, citation format, and type of in-text citations, which can greatly affect your grade if not done correctly. If you do not know for sure, ask them! You should always keep an open line of communication with your professors and know that they are there to help you. In the Writing Center, sometimes we do not know what type of formatting a professor so it is difficult for us to help you if we do not know the format. So always ask questions and know that there are many resources that can help you figure out a specific format, and the Writing Center is always here to help. 


Monday, October 12, 2015

Advice from Hayden: The Start of the Process

 Every writer—and yes, I do mean every writer ever—has trouble with starting the writing process. Whether it’s due to a lack of information, understanding, or willingness, beginning to write those essays for class can be exhausting. In many of my consultations this semester and even last year, students will schedule appointments and say something like, “I’m not sure where to start,” or “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Pre-writing can be difficult, but there are several ways to minimize the pain and agony associated with starting an essay.

The first thing you should do as you approach an essay is examine the assignment sheet. It’s important that you not only answer the prompt but that you answer it in its entirety. Oftentimes, professors will not simply ask you to answer one basic question in an essay; it will be a much larger, broader topic that you will have to come to some sort of conclusion about. Reading over the assignment sheet can help you figure out what it is that you want to write about. What comes to mind when you think about the assigned topic? It’s important to believe in what you’re writing. The first thing that comes to your mind is often something that you feel strongly about or have considerable feelings towards. It’s always easier to write about things we feel strongly about, so go do it!

When you find something you feel strongly about, the best thing you can do is to just start writing. Forget all the rules (just for now) and write down everything you know and feel about the topic. This is a great way to formulate your thesis. Kansas University’s Writing Center provides great techniques that writers can use when faced with pre-writing: A thesis is a statement that is your opinion and how you can prove that opinion to an audience. When you just sit down and write, you’ll find that the evidence to prove your point is already in your head, just not on paper.

The great thing about writing is that, although it’s never easy, we all have the ability to do it and do it well. All it takes is a bit of willingness to start.


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Advice from Michael: Tips on Starting an Essay


Lately, I have had several students come in with no idea where to start on an assignment. Sometimes this is a result of never writing a proper academic essay in high school, and at other times they simply have always had trouble starting an essay. To help them, I always start off with the same basic advice: remember the five paragraph essay structure.

The five paragraph essay structure will not always be helpful in college writing since you will sometimes need significantly larger or shorter essays, but it is an easy way to begin developing organized thoughts. For the intro, consider what the overarching issue that is being addressed and then try narrowing that issue down into the specific thesis statement you will be arguing. Then figure out three arguments that can be made for what you want to say, and treat that as the body paragraphs. Be sure to include these arguments in the thesis statement. Finally, conclude everything, and be sure to restate the thesis without adding new information in the conclusion.

Once you get at least part of this information down, then start writing. You don’t even have to start at the intro. You can begin with one of the body paragraphs if you prefer, but getting the words and ideas down on paper tends to help the students I’ve worked with gain a stronger grasp of what they are trying to argue, and how they can argue it. As you continue along this path, the essay structure can change to include more or less paragraphs or arguments as it becomes apparent to the writer. More advice on paragraph structure and how to structure an essay can be found on the Writing Center’s online resources under “Composition and Writing in the Disciplines” at this link. However, the key to all of this is to simply trust yourself enough to start writing. Once the words start falling on the page then everything will start to get easier.

Hang in there. You’ll get it done eventually.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Tessa on Thesis Statements

During my time at The Writing Center I’ve noticed that students often struggle with creating, understanding, and identifying thesis statements. In fact, this was once a challenge for me early in my academic career. Your thesis statement is the most important part of your paper, and identifying your thesis makes the writing process much easier. First, let’s answer the question: What is a thesis statement? Basically, the thesis states your claim or your reason for writing the paper. For example, if I was writing a paper on the benefits of a university writing center my thesis might look like this:

University writing centers offer many benefits to the student body, faculty, and the university as a whole. 

What I’ve done here is prepare my audience (the reader) for my paper. I’ve told my reader what my paper will be about and what to expect. But I’ve also obligated myself to fulfill this promise. By making this promise to the reader, I hold myself accountable to write my paper in a way that fulfills the reader’s expectations. 

Keeping my thesis in mind helps me stay focused when I write my paper. In my thesis statement, I claim that a university writing center is beneficial for students, faculty, and the whole university, so I need to make sure I address all three of my claims in the paper. One way I could to do this is by developing a paragraph for each topic: how the university writing center benefits students, how it benefits faculty, and how it benefits the entire university. By doing this, my thesis is supported by the body of my essay, and I fulfill my promise to the reader. 

Once you understand what a thesis statement is, you can better understand its mini-me, the topic sentence. The topic sentence does for the paragraph what the thesis statement does for the essay. So, for my paper on the benefits of a university writing center my topic sentence for the first body paragraph might be:

Students in all majors and disciplines and at any level of writing confidence can benefit by visiting the university’s writing center. 

This topic sentence tells my reader that this paragraph is about the ways in which students benefit from university writing centers. As writers, what we are trying to say might make sense in our head, or even when we read our paper, but it’s important to remember that our readers might need a little direction. By developing a clear thesis statement and topic sentences, we help readers understand where the paper is going, much like road signs help us navigate the road. 

For more tips on writing a thesis statement, check out the Purdue Online Writing Lab.