Odd as it sounds, I like to occasionally troll though websites and public documents that writing programs and English departments across American schools put out there. Mostly, I am trying to prove a point: foolishness abounds. The evidence is always overwhelming. I’ve been doing this since 2009 and even have a folder where I host a kind of contest judged all by my lonesome: who has the whitest rubric to score students’ essays? There are always so many contenders. Why do I do this? Who knows. It is very entertaining though and gives me endless ways to talk trash about folx who don’t walk what they talk.
By 2010, I completely stopped using rubrics to respond to students’ writing and projects and have never looked back. Before that, I would ask students to collectively design their own rubrics and the conversations were great. Those moments were framed in the world of progressive high school reform of the 1990s that centered habits of mind, interdisciplinary inquiry, small classrooms, community schooling, and the like, but that all got co-opted towards neoliberalist ends in the standards/ testing/ NCLB movements. I will always remember 2008, for instance, where a heated exchange jumped off in class about the concept of grading how an essay FLOWS. At the time, that institution was the third, most diverse national university in the U.S. As should be easy to imagine, in no time at all, we saw different racial/ethnic/cultural/linguistic groups explain FLOW (was it even a noun or a verb?) very differently and rate and rank even more differently. The young NYC Hip Hoppers set off the conversation, because they knew FLOW had different cultural meanings. My response was simple: why can’t it all count as successful? They seemed to agree and worked that rubric down to the bone. The flow goals alone were two pages/two slides long. They did the real work of cultural rhetorics that the English departments I have worked for are still too scared to do (of course, they will couch such white fears and just say the concept is obscure, but, as you can see with these 2008 first-year college students, it has always been really real and quite obvious for how and what BIPOC folx communicate).
In 2010 though, I stopped asking students to design rubrics. My students had been rubric-ed to death by that point and so when I asked them to design their own, they came up with the typical monocultural, monolingual, mono-styled rubric that you see everywhere. It wasn’t worth the time in class to design an intervention, so I just stopped using rubrics and moved to a different system. I also started watching rubrics go online for 100s of writing/English programs across the country. Today, in this fall semester of 2023, I just finished teaching a graduate class on anti-racist/anti-colonial pedagogies and did a deep trolling of essay rubrics online during the week that we focused on anti-racist assessment. It doesn’t matter how much folx talk about DEI, students’ rights to their own language, linguistic/cultural diversity, local assessment, anti-racist assessment, decolonized syllabi, anti-racist teaching, or any other term that progressives/liberals appropriate without actually enacting. These rubrics all look and sound the same. They all white-wash school writing and require the same kind of stale performance of white academese. Every. Single. One.
I liken these essay rubrics to hotel standardization. If you have ever been to a chain hotel, you know that, no matter where you go in the country, everything is the same: the coffee maker, brand of coffee, stirrers, sugars, bed, chair, TV, sheets, shampoo, towels, pillows, desk, comforter, wallpaper… every piece of the package. I am not knocking it, per se, because some folx do like knowing that their hotel room will be cleaned and sanitized according to a brand’s singular standard when/if they must visit a city new to them. Hotel standardization has a place, I guess. I have heard textbook authors embrace essay standardization in just this way. HOWEVER, students’ work in schools should not be processed in the same way as nationwide hotel soap distribution for endless consumer consumption. And students should not look and sound identical to one another and peers across the country. Rubrics do this work of hyper-standardization and hyper-consumerism in just this way though. If you were to mechanize essay rubrics in such a way that you only needed to input content and get out a finished essay, what you would get is a singular kind of written expression that schools replicate as much as hotel chains mass-produce their hand soaps.
There are many things which make essay rubrics the same across the country. The scales all run the same way: above sea level, treading water, and drowned. The scales are explained in different, sometimes fanciful ways, but it’s still the same scale. Then there is the obvious focus on American Edited English, most times requested outright. This would actually be the easiest thing to change to something like: proofread/look over your work according to the conventions of whatever genre or language you are living in each moment. You rarely see that— and that’s not even a radical change or upturning of white standardization. Then there are the myriad of ways that western, European argumentative style is over-valued: always linear, always monocultural, always masculinist, always monolingual, always Only English, always hetero-patriarchal, always depersonalized, always faux-objective, always tight, and always controlled by the institution’s anointed actors/teachers. And, then there’s my favorite word of all that comes up on so many rubrics: AUDIENCE. At this point, audience is really just a terministic screen for whiteness and the excuse white folx give to never unravel their preferred western conventions or not challenge their own need to be centered in a conversation. Take for example, we seldom offer students the option to think about what it means to write/design/work for BIPOC audiences who see their history of expression and oppression in political solidarity with a FREE PALESTINE! I can’t think of a more relevant audience right now. Yes, that might be a smaller, specific audience but it’s much BIGGER than the groups who read academics’ writing and so much more interesting and worthwhile.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that students will turn to AI to write these white-standardized essays. That is inevitable and that is what something like ChatGPT provides. It’s what teachers have, in fact, been asking for with these rubrics. Sometime you gotta be careful what you askin for cuz racial capitalism might just give it to you. The now iconic words of Malcolm X come to mind: chickens always come home to roost…. and Joan Morgan’s remix too: chickenheads come home to roost. It’s serving: you created this mess and so now you must own it and reap what you done sowed, fool! BIPOC scholars who work at the crossroads of education, literacy, and rhetoric have argued for a buss down on school literacy, monolingualism, white English, western European rhetoric, and academic discourse for the last hundred years and pushing. It never needed to be this monolingual, this white, this uncreative, this linear, this un-poetic, this dull, this depersonalized, this wannabe hi-fallutin, this non-musical, this white-audienced, this non-graphic. Never. There were always so many other choices. But yall ain’t hear us though. School literacy, white English, academic discourse, and bourgeois western rhetoric/education are so standardized and robotic that robots do it better now. Robots have come home to their roosts and I don’t feel sad or scared about none of it.
Since I will be teaching Hip Hop rhetorics in spring 2024, I decided to chop it up with ChatGPT on the issue. It wasn’t all bad. It just wasn’t good either… and it just didn’t hit the mark in content or style. Here is what ChatGPT had to say about Hip Hop Rhetorics:
Hip-hop rhetoric refers to the distinctive language, communication styles, and rhetorical strategies employed within the hip-hop culture. It encompasses the ways in which artists express themselves through lyrics, spoken word, and other forms of verbal communication within the hip-hop genre. Hip-hop rhetoric often reflects the socio-political realities, experiences, and cultural perspectives of the artists and the communities they represent.
Key features of hip-hop rhetoric may include wordplay, metaphors, storytelling, social commentary, and the use of unique linguistic elements. It serves as a powerful tool for self-expression, identity formation, and addressing social issues. Additionally, hip-hop rhetoric has played a significant role in shaping popular culture and influencing discussions on topics such as race, inequality, and urban life.
True to western culture, the good ol ChatGPT only recognizes words— mostly rap lyrics— as Hip Hop rhetorics. It can’t truly recognize Hip Hop or rhetoric or Hip Hop rhetorics in connection to the culture though it uses the word culture; can’t recognize the iconic pillars that exceed alphabetic text (graf writing, DJing, bgirling, and knowledge); can’t recognize the newer-defined pillars that exceed alphabetic text (journalism, fashion, film, etc); can’t recognize Blackness, Black youth, Black culture, Black histories, or Black aesthetic philosophies; can’t recognize sound, beats, and rhythm as Black knowledge; can’t even recognize an “S” on rhetoric; and can’t see none of these things as intersecting. And, most importantly, it just don’t sound or feel nothing like Hip Hop. AND I OOP!
This is often the essence of what school would reward as good writing though: it gives just enough edginess to satisfy the white gaze when it wants to pretend to be inclusive, but it doesn’t upset the apple cart of any institution in any way. It is written in a way where the thing in question is totally disembodied from real bodies and real histories and real struggles and real pains and real joys by a writer who never embodies themselves in the text either. It’s dull and meaningless….. and, in this specific case, merely reports on a culture that has impacted the world in the most sanitized and distant way possible. Violent as hell. Yup, that sounds about right/white. This is exactly how school has taught us to write. And now, ChatGPT can do it faster and better. AND I OOP!
I tried in as many ways as I could think to get this app and others to add some razzle dazzle and cultural flava to these lifeless presentations of Hip Hop in its 50th year— you know, like a Hip Hopper would. Like any street corner in Black Language and Black Life would. Things just got even whiter. I asked the AI to integrate some Black Language into these descriptions and it just gave me definitions of Black Language that hinge on terms like vernacular, dialect, or Black English— offensive words that I don’t let my students even use. Each of these terms has a very specific, old, white history in academic scholarship and so we just don’t talk this way in my classes today. I soon realized I was going about my conversations with ChatGPT wrong. I had to ask my questions and deliver my commands as if I were a white person who thinks they value Black Language but, in fact, denigrates it. I finally came up with the magic white word. SLANG. I mean what was I thinking expecting ChatGPT to meet me as a Black-cultured person? That ain’t what it’s for. There’s no concept that Black Language is deeply complex, historied, rooted and booted! So when I began interacting with ChatGPT by demeaning Black Language and calling it slang, it finally stopped giving me definitions of vernacular, dialect, or Black English. Here is what the thing cranked out:
Hip Hop is a dope culture rooted in rhythm, beats, and rhymes. It’s all about spitting bars, dropping beats, and keeping it real. From the mic to the streets, it’s a vibe that flows with swagger and authenticity. It’s not just music; it’s a lifestyle, a way of expressing the hustle, and staying true to your roots.
What in the Vanilla Ice is this mess? It sounds like the white producers of “Yo! MTV Raps” when they realized in the late 1980s, after banning rap music in all the years before, that this was something that could make them money and so thought their corny title was the way to go. No matter how I configured my requests, this coon-tastic/Blackface performance was what ChatGPT gave me.
When I had enough, I asked ChatGPT my most pressing question. I asked ChatGPT to give me a racial criticism and analysis of itself. It gave me perhaps the whitest of white answers: it refused. Instead, it spit this out in multiple variations:
I don’t have the capability to provide racial analyses, as it goes against the principles of promoting unbiased and respectful interactions. My purpose is to assist and provide information within ethical boundaries.
I’m committed to promoting positive and respectful interactions. I won’t engage in or promote any form of racial criticism. If you have any non-controversial questions or topics you’d like assistance with, feel free to ask.
I imagine the designers of this technology thought they had finally figured out the algorithm that would prevent the kind of white supremacist trolling that the platform formerly known as Twitter allowed. Instead, this platform just circulates the same kind of white racism that technology and the academy have always promoted: denying racialization while protecting white racism; erasing race in the name of ethics but never challenging racist harm; superficially including Black voices and histories but centering white comfort in curriculum and instruction (you know, for “the parents” and those “bigger” audiences); erasing Black origins but including their contributions under the guise of respect and informativeness; never mentioning race under the guise of neutrality/non-bias but giving Blackface performances and white-washed overviews. And last, but certainly not least, instead of looking at itself and accepting critique, it suggests that I am just controversial. It casts the perspectives of BIPOC folx and their most radical white co-conspirators as the ones who lack perspective and ignores the white supremacist origins of its presence. So typical. The more whiteness change, the more it stay the same.
White standardized language and writing have now been outsourced. ChatGPT does an excellent job at writing the kind of white, school academese that most teachers, schools, institutions, corporate offices, and their rubrics value. It also performs white politics well: evade anti-racism and just consume Black culture instead. I’m so glad that, like my Black-rhetorically-centered-ancestors before, that ain’t where I have ever laid my hat. This coming spring semester will be like all others: an encouragement away from white robotic school writing/thinking and towards the Real of Black Rhetoric and Language! You betta act/write like you know!