Big Mac, the Heart of Whiteness, and Composition Studies


I recently spent a good deal of time reading the last year’s issues of one of the prominent journals in my field, rhetoric-composition studies, and found myself unpleasantly surprised.  There was, of course, the usual error in representation of a black student, in this case an adult returning student whose vocabulary of her writing process was described as simplistic (the researcher did not culturally interrogate the student’s vocabulary) while a white male adult student was described as sophisticated.  I wasn’t surprised by that, however.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a white researcher called us simple and it won’t be the last time either.  I was a bit taken back, however, to see two articles in the same year about ONE writing program.

Since we are talking about 16 articles for the whole year of the journal, two articles, not just about the same college or from researchers at the same college, BUT two articles about the SAME PROGRAM accounts for more than 10% of the year’s content.  I am not an editor and never want to be since it is excruciatingly arduous work.  My problem here is with the school in focus and with how the editors of my field understand, in contrast, colleges that serve working class students of color.  And since these editors were selected “democratically” by peers in the field and articles are peer-reviewed, these editorial choices cannot be regarded as merely individual phenomenon.

hithereI have always worked at schools that serve large or ONLY serve working class, first-generation, working, and/or racially marginalized students. And for as long as I have worked there, I have gotten editorial and peer responses across the board that question how THAT student population, or how the university where I work, is relevant to the kind of classrooms most compositionists see— white middle class kids.  The problem is that this is a lie.  White, middle-classness is not what MOST colleges and universities today look like and it is not going in that direction either.  This is merely a white myth that the field maintains as part of its possessive investment in whiteness, to riff off of George Lipsitz.  Given the activism, widespread outrage, and speak-out against our current student debt crisis, it is unfathomable to me that we are so ahistorical and still choose to see colleges and universities as the sole bastion of the elite.   Casting today’s college student population as white and middle class serves political and ideological needs, not statistical needs, and does the work of maintaining existing white social networks (see Robert Jensen here).

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This university writing program that saw two articles in one year simply isn’t relatable to the kinds of universities where most of us work so why the need to keep casting such spaces as the model?  Let me break it down.  I won’t name this university, I’ll just call it MidWest Big Mac, so as not to retract from my larger focus.  Midwest Big Mac is a selective public university, a very large research-extensive university.  Only them 1 or 2 flagship state universities across the country can relate to THAT!  So, off the bat, we are talking about 60-80 colleges and universities.  That’s just NOT where the majority of us teach.  In the past ten years, 4.7% of the undergrad student population at Midwest Big Mac has been black, 4.4% Latin@, and 0.2% Native American.   If you are at a school that is trying to keep its demographics in keeping with the national demographic or a school whose population reflects a local or historical population, you cannot relate to this school.  25% of admitted students had a 4.0 high school GPA and most of the students scored above 1700 on their SAT.  97% attend full time with their first year retention rates at 96%. Given the conferences and consultants who are all focused on the singular experience of the first-year experience and general retention, these statistics put you in the elite ranks, not the common ranks.

At 26K tuition per year with room and board, Midwest Big Mac will cost a family/student at least 100K by the time of graduation.  Even if that is relatable to many universities in the country, here is something that won’t be. With an endowment of $8.4 BILLION at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, MidWest Big Mac does not seem to feel the effects of the recession.  It is the second-largest endowment in the nation among public universities and the seventh-largest among all U.S. universities.  Only 6 other colleges can relate to you, MidWest Big Mac!  And yet the premier journal in my field constructs this location as the predominant college composition experience.  If you were ever wondering how a discipline maintains its whiteness or how educators maintain a system that is completely non-responsive to non-white, non-middle class, non-elite peoples, I encourage you to  think of this example.


Runnin with the Rabbits but Huntin with the Dogs

bill-withers-grandmas-hands-1973I have always liked Bill Withers’s song, “Grandma’s Hands.”  He takes what is seemingly part of mundane, everyday utility and reads an entire history and philosophy of life there.  I could do the same thing with my grandmother’s words, though I am ashamed to admit that it is really only at this late stage in my life that I am truly understanding them.  She gives me an explanatory model for things.  I actually named my dissertation based on one of her expressions: running with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  That became the title of the introduction for my book but it really frames all of my thinking.

As silly as it sounds, I am just starting to realize that academics/professors/scholars RARELY actually mean what they say and write/talk about.  Unfortunately, it’s taken me a long, long time to get this simple fact.  Like I have already said, my grandmother always used words and language intentionally.  I just wasn’t raised in a world where you would write a book or deliver a speech on a topic because it was a hot-topic item but not something you actually believed in.  That would be runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Now, of course, many of these issues are related to power.  For instance, in my field, you can publish articles about teaching students of color but never actually teach any of them (or, really SUCK at it).  That is to be expected in a knowledge-production system where a select white privileged group decides who and what gets published even when they know nothing at all about communities of color.  You can also go home and beat the hell outta your wife but if you have the right mentor, the right university pedigree, and the right connections, your career will be catapulted forward as someone with solutions to violence.  That’s just patriarchy working there.  And like I have discussed here on the blog, George-Zimmerman-styled racists can get published and hyped in my field as radical agents of social justice.  These examples are things I have just come to expect.

I mean something a little more than these everyday scenarios that I just described. Here’s what I have finally figured out: folks be FLAT-OUT LYIN…runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Imagine a radical gender studies scholar who then goes home and makes his children and wife wait on him hand-and-foot like they are serfs in his kingdom.  Go on and get that image in your head because you might just have his book on your shelf and be quoting him regularly as someone who is disrupting gender norms.  He doesn’t mean any of that.  Let’s take another example.  Imagine a department full of folk who teach and talk about critical theory forever and a day but when a black male student in the department is called a N**** and when a Latina student is called a wetback, all you get is D.E.A.D. S.I.L.E.N.C.E.  Is this critical theory in action?  Or are these people just faker-traitor-perpetrators?   Now imagine a scholar who people (well, let me be honest— not all people, just white men) herald as a champion of sustainability and yet, on the ground, every policy and utterance he makes is so corporate, standardized, and neoliberal that you may as well be working for the Conservative Right.  Yeah, get that image in your head nice and good too because folk in my field will call THAT the NEW LEFT if you let them… runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.

Princess-Ariel-disney-princess-7095223-841-1014Like I said, I have learned these lessons very slowly and today is no different.  I decided to look for videos from someone in my field who marks himself as a radical Marxist of color; I thought maybe I would add his work to one of the modules my students get to choose this semester.  I found some self-aggrandizing performances of really bad poetry (and that’s bad meaning bad) and more than 100 videos of his daughter with more than 50,000 views on youtube alone, posted by him and the mother of the child (also a self-proclaimed Marxist).  Now, really, I should have known to expect this foolishness from them but I felt a certain kinda way to to see this biracial family raising a little brown girl to publicly dance and sing in outfits like a pink, Mickey Mouse tutu with two kittens who she has named after Disney princesses. I won’t even replay my general feelings about the dangers of raising brown and black girls to see themselves as white disney princesses since I have already done that TO DEATH here at this website.  I really do get how hard it is as parents to displace Disney but you also gotta get how hard it is for anybody to see you as a radical third world Marxist with 100s of such videos.  In the least, if you consider yourself anti-capitalist, non-hegemonic, and non-standard, you need to admit just how slippery that slope is when you don’t even counter your small child’s total embrace of Disney, white ballerinas, white princesses, and all things pink.  That’s about as standard, capitalistic, and hegemonic as it gets.  All of these folks calling themselves Marxists and theorists of political economies but then go and use technology solely as a neoliberalist shrine to children’s conspicuous consumption (i.e., Pokemon, Disney, iPads, bourgeois outings, et al on full display).  If only Marx could see them now!!  If you truly know Marxism and political economy, then you might not want to be listening to a damn thing of what these folks have to say.

My grandmother wouldn’t have left this as simply a contradiction amongst life’s political difficulties under capitalism though.  When you understand a construct like runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs, you have to follow through and ask the tougher questions like: How is the total embrace and worshipping of white femininity part and parcel of how gender works in this version of Marxism?  You have to question how and why academics circulate their theories of political economies such that white women/whiteness stay at top.  As a black woman, you can’t afford to NOT ask such questions because you will be hunted by these folk who are only pretending to be a rabbit beside you.  It is hardly a coincidence that my grandmother offered such a violent image about people who are not politically on your side but pretend to be.  The complexity and sophistication of my grandmother’s expression and her determination to live a life according to its meanings are at the core of how I define black working class consciousness.*

2-dogs-hunting-rabbitThese have all been hard lessons for me to learn.  As strange as it may seem, I would prefer my students to come at me, in full force, as the next kingpin of the G.O.P. rather than think/act like the G.O.P. but then turn around and call themselves Howard Zinn.  My GOP example is extreme because I have never actually had such students, but the point remains.  Today when I have to explain to my students the kind of writer that I want them to be, I think of my grandmother’s life as an example: Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Know who you are and what you are really about.  The last thing I want is for my students to be the kind of academic writers and thinkers that I can find in my field.  From where I stand, academic writing/speaking in this field is all about FLAT OUT lying about everything that is important and that should be REAL.  My students deserve a writing curriculum that asks them to tell and know their Truths.


*My grandmother (and my youth) would have been “officially” categorized as the “black poor”, but my grandmother did not call HERSELF that.  She saw herself as a worker so when I say black working class, I am not excluding the “black poor,” I am just excluding the whiteness of THAT label.

It Ends How It Starts…

isley_brothers-choosey_lover-choosey_lover_instrumental-1It ended the same way it started… that’s another one of those expressions that I grew up hearing.  There was no way that my mother, aunties, and older cousins would ever let any woman get away with saying, for instance, that a relationship ended because a man changed from the first moment you met.  There is no True Side or Dark Side that emerges in the later stages of a relationship.   Just so that it’s clear that I don’t associate doggishness with men only, I’ll offer advice based on a personal observation instigated by a woman.  If you are the aggressively-pursued mister/mistress to a married woman, maintain “contact” while she is married, and then get back with her years later when she is still legally married but newly separated (but still creepin with her not-yet-ex-spouse and many others while her school-age son is in full tow), you can’t get mad when she brings all kinda lovers into your home and hearth.  When the Isley Brothers crooned “Choosey Lover,” they didn’t have your lil honey EVER in mind and that evidence was always right there.  I ain’t knocking the woman (no, this story ain’t about a sista— we wouldn’t get away with this and still keep our job/title/status as college professors) since men don’t lose dignity or respect for such lifestyles, I am just saying that you can’t ever expect monogamy in such an open system.  The problems at the end were the same problems at the very beginning.

41z0dk6KxjL._AA160_For my own part, I have been in the early stages of a relationship where Partner-Potentials (PPs) hurry me off the phone in order to go for breakfast, drinks, coffee, or conversation with “friends,” without nary a worry about whether or not I was receiving the support, attention, or nurture that I needed.  That PP is, plain and simple, a playa, so I treat them accordingly.  If a PP like that cheats on you later, you most certainly cannot be surprised.  That’s just what playas do so you can’t expect otherwise.  Let’s not make it so extreme and let’s say this isn’t really a playa, just a smooth operator, so there is nothing “sexual” or flirtatious between your PP and all of these “friends,” present and past, who are obviously more valuable than you since you got hurried off.  If you actually believe in such “innocence,” it still ain’t gon work.  When hanging at lounges, bars, coffee shops, etc— all these bourgeois-chic performances— is the priority then financial stability, actual completion of a goal, and the ability to be dedicated to something real or to a relationship will not be soon forthcoming.  I’m not saying that I don’t like to go out, because I really do, but, as a grown woman, I just do not know exes, shops, or new “friends” that are so interesting that I would compromise my priorities for them. None of that happens overnight or all-of-a-sudden… evidence is always there. And once you witness one dumb decision, you can rest assured that many more will follow: dumb decisions never act alone.  You don’t need to stick around to wait and see how this will end; your answers are already there.

There ain’t never no surprises.  Every lie, trifling-ness, infidelity, dumb decision, and unethical act left its trace very early on. As my mother and othermothers always insisted: my job is to keep my eyes wide open and read everything that happens in the very beginning.  Professionally, I just can’t think of better advice.

wpa-logo-gray2In professional settings, I may not be able to necessarily get up and leave right away like I have with PPs, but I benefit from the clear reading of my environment early on.  It’s one thing to understand institutional racism while reading it in a book; it is quite another to be able to read it in your everyday environment. That’s a whole other kind of reading. In a previous administrative experience, I started preparing and planning for workshops, the semester calendar, orientation, and a host of other things as soon as July 1 dropped.  My first paycheck, however, did not drop until September 15.  I knew right away that my job was largely bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, apolitical tedium, and I saw that months before my name was even registered on payroll.  It was also clear in that instance that no one would protect me or care about my time and research requirements as someone without tenure.  In retrospect, I would tell all other black faculty to refuse such summer work.  So many of our people need us in various community centers and initiatives so if you want to do some charity work, do it with people that look like you rather than for institutions that exploit you.  Like I said, it ends how it starts: I was alone and on my own from day one and that never changed.  I walked out without needing to say good-bye, but fully embracing the GOOD in good-bye.

Before classes began, on the day when I met all of the faculty who I would be working with, one newly-minted white male Ph.D. (and stunningly sub mediocre teacher and researcher) asked me to meet with him after the meeting.  In our meeting, he proceeded to tell me all of the things that I needed to do.  It should go without saying that my credentials— then, now, and forever— trumped his many times over but that surely didn’t stop the higher-ranking white male administrator from telling him that he should request this meeting with me and direct me.  Like I said, classes hadn’t even started. I didn’t even have the chance to unpack a single box and get settled in my office yet.   The singular authority of white males, the host of surveillance and messenger tactics, and the decoupling of rigor and research with teaching, were right there in the beginning.  It never got worse from that… it didn’t need to.  The vulgarity was consistent and there from jump.

I am thinking a lot about my mother and the women in my family and their constant warnings to always read the very beginnings. When incompetent white men below your pay grade have been explicitly authorized by other white men to have authority over you, you need to be real clear about the kind of place you are in and you need to get real clear about that real fast. I am thankful that my mother and othermothers always highlighted the importance of such clarity.

Semester Begins to End…

Ida B. Wells "The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press."

Ida B. Wells
“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

Tired, Tired, Tired…It’s the end of the semester and I am just wiped out.  The tank was inching towards empty a long time ago but now, it’s just fumes.  Part of my fatigue, I believe, comes from the amount of work and time it took to try and make my rhetoric class a richer multimedia experience.  I was doing that at the same time that I was reading an extensive amount of my students’ writing.  I assign writing for each reading, which means I assign writing for every class.  I don’t give quizzes and exams because I am collecting the equivalent of 4-5 pages, at minimum, a week per student (a combination of blogs, vlogs, and print).  I do not grade these weekly writings as finished, polished essays; it’s just for ideas and articulation (there are final writing projects where I do that more traditional thing).  In weekly writing, I am not looking at format, organization, coherence, or even logic… just ideas.  With 30 students, that’s at least 150 pages of student writing per week for one class.  And, yes, I still read and comment to each page, and not with that bland, white liberalist discourse that constitutes most of what gets called response theory in the still-white-dominant composition studies.

Rosa Parks "I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear."

Rosa Parks
“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”

I don’t believe students will actually do the writing unless I comment to it and I don’t think peer critique is enough.  Peer dialogue is a vital part of my class but for the most part, the content here is all new for students so the person who DESIGNED that content has to be present in a student’s progression of ideas and feelings (I can always rest assured that students have not learned much about or read much of anything by black women at my college).  If you don’t have time to read what your students write, I say stop assigning so much of it or, in the least, we have to stop being disappointed when students don’t give us what we are looking for because we haven’t built in enough of a feedback system to articulate our curriculum.  I get that students need to write a lot and do it on their own, but, really, that jus ain’t gonna happen.  I had graduate teachers who followed this liberalist philosophy and assigned us writing that they didn’t collect. Guess how much of that writing I did?  NONE OF IT.  Had NO time for that.  That kind of thing only works for avid journalers; I am not one of them.  The only substantive writing that I do now (I am not talking about texting, etc… I said SUBSTANTIVE) is for public: this blog or print publications.

Judith Jamison "Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity.  There's a light inside of you."

Judith Jamison
“Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity. There’s a light inside of you.”

For those students who are like me when it comes to journaling, I KNOW that if I don’t collect their writing, they will not do it; and if I don’t respond to their writing, they will not do it earnestly and they certainly will not fully learn the content.  Most importantly, it is really in the responding to students’ individual writing that an individual and consistent relationship with each of my students forms.  Those kinds of individual relationships don’t happen deep enough in class lectures and office hours alone.  This is all pretty simple.  After all, I’m a compositionist and writing teacher and this is how most of us teach;  however, even those that write and present about pedagogy seem clueless—most folk in the field who I see and hear are some of the worst and most boring teachers around.

Assata Shakur "Freedom in the right to grow, it's the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself."

Assata Shakur
“Freedom in the right to grow, it’s the right to blossom, Freedom is the right to be yourself.”

Here’s the caveat with all this responding to student writing: by the time the semester ends, you will be wiiiiiiped out.  This particular rhetoric class that I have right now really just OD’ed on this writing stuff.  In the last reflective assignment, what I called Neo-Soul Ruminations, I asked students to stop and pause and piece together the second half of the semester’s learning.  Knowing THESE students, I gave them a five page MAXIMUM!  Yes, no more than five pages!  I just can’t read more than that right now.  But don’t you know some of them hustled that?  Figured, well, she didn’t say double-spaced or size 12 font so they went and gave me tiny-print, single-spaced writing that, yes, met the five page maximum.  Again, that’s one day of class.  Imagine that for 30 students, for one class.  They killllllllin me!  K.I.L.L.I.N. me! Sometimes I wonder about these college teachers who say things like: my students will just agree with what I say or say what they think I want to hear; my students won’t write much or won’t veer from traditional formats, 5-paragraph essays, or standardized Englishes.  Could somebody send some of them squares my way, please?  Cuz I don’t see nuthin like that in front of me this semester and I could really use a break!

Audre Lorde "It is not our difference that divide us.  It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."

Audre Lorde
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

The other issue that I am reluctantly admitting is that I live in a severely delusional state by nature of spending so much of my time around 18-22 years old.  It makes me forget that I am old and can’t do the things they do.  All that staying up late at night to write and read and work on problem sets?  Puhlease!  Ain’t no way I can do that anymore. The other week I was in our main student building where my classroom is housed and at 9am, I saw two, little, itty-bitty skinny ol’ things, all of 19 years old, eating an extra-large pizza all to themselves with supersized Mountain Dews, talkin about schoolwork.  At 9am!  I didn’t even know you could buy pizza at 9am in the morning.  By the time I passed them on my way after class, that whole box of pizza was gone and they were talking about potato chips, M&Ms, and French Fries.  I think I gained five pounds, increased my blood pressure, and raised my bad cholesterol levels just listening to their conversation.  You can easily get caught up in a delusional reality in these settings because this is just NOT what you can do when you are my age.  Just because your 20 year old students have energy at the end of a semester, do NOT assume you can hang with that!  Last night I was part of a panel for the sociology honor society.  The students were of course, amazing, and I suddenly realized I was the “deadbeat” that I had always called my aunts, uncles, and parents.  Here we’d be at the family reunion dining hall (it’s a large family so we need a hall when we come together) and all they ever did was sit around and talk, just sittin there, and talkin.  That’s it.  Buncha deadbeats.  Well, last night, after the event, the students were running around, cleaning up, making plans.  Nope, not me. By the time 8:30pm came around (my commute to work starts at 8am), guess what I was doin?  Sittin… and talkin… and THAT’S IT.  Now it’s official: I am a deadbeat.

Eunique Jones All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at:

Eunique Jones
All photos here are by Eunique Jones and part of her project at:

On a more serious note, no one cares about my fatigue, nothing in my life is about to slow down, none of this stuff ever really lets up— not the bills, not the work that still has to be done, and not the dealings with the “unsafe”/self-proclaimed-radical white racists at the job.  The best thing about being a teacher though is the energy of undergraduate students.  On Wednesday, Christina sent me the link to Eunique Jones’s photography project that E.M. Monroe introduced to me during Black History Month. Christina’s email to me featured a collage of these children’s photos who represented all of the women we have talked about in my course (the photos on this post are some of the photos in the email Christina sent me).  Christina’s email gave me a new realization about Eunique Jones’s project: only a black woman could capture the beauty and deep aesthetic diversity of black children, guide black children in positioning themselves—both literally (i.e., the photo shoot) and figuratively (i.e. the racial memory)— as inheritors/heir of black traditions, and give that back to black people with texts that reach the masses. Yup, I said it: ONLY A BLACK WOMAN.  Now essentialize THAT! The next morning, Christina brought a spoken word poet, Parlay, to class who attends a neighboring university to introduce the day.  Afterwards, by the time the late afternoon rolled around, Karina came to my office with the best damn, homemade empanadas I have ever had.  To riff off of Eunique Johnson’s campaign: because of my students, I can… tired and all… with an avalanche of students’ writing to respond to.