Joan Didion defines self-respect as having “the ability to discriminate, to love, and remain indifferent.” I admire adults who possess this firmness. Not always crowd-pleasers, they have determined what is meaningful to them and what isn’t. Instead of time eroding away what they know, it has clarified what they believe. Instead of life’s hard choices sanding away their edges, it has sharpened them.
These adults, found in classrooms and boardrooms, street corners and athletic fields, appear when I find my sense of self going askance. (“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” sort of thing.) It isn’t only that they are role models, but that whatever they believe, I know they will convey it with such solidity, such reason, such calm and delight, that I will suspend my doubts and listen and will be reminded of the power, vulnerability, and freedom of measuredly asserting how things work, whether the topic be Shakespeare or tennis. Instead of spinning the truth to sneak one past me, they just tell their truth (their wisdom) as well as they can.
I tell my students to eliminate wishy-washy language like might or seems. I tell them–perhaps a bit wishfully–that readers can decide for themselves. Your job: make your point firmly. Adults with self-respect live, breathe, and speak that ethos.
One such figure is Mary Cecilia Bowman, an AP trainer I met in Everett last summer who provided training on teaching AP English Language and Composition, a class focused on rhetoric and in the public realm. Bowman, a retired educator who taught in California and Arizona, worked for years in one school where the students “had higher IQs than me” and, later, another school where most students “didn’t grow up in text-rich homes.” Given that spectrum, she told us what she had learned about what worked. While I always love thinking about what could be better about a system, her focus was on how she worked in the system to ensure all students learned the tough and important concepts within rhetoric. What impressed me most was even when we teachers in the workshop questioned an assertion of hers (as students do), rather than be defensive, she would do her best to explain why she think it worked, why it was better than competing ideas, and return to the mantra: You can decide for yourself.
One thing I learned from her were language registers.
Bowman suggested that in order to effectively analyze and write rhetorically, students need to understand that writers use different registers. Here they are:
|Register||Relationship between speaker and audience||How much background supply?||Examples of oral use / formats in written language||Purpose of Register||Realm|
|Frozen||There isn’t one.||None||Star-Spangled Banner
|Language used ritualistically to build group identity||Public|
|Formal||Speaker = Informed
Audience = Interested
|Depends on the shared knowledge of the two parties.||Editorials
|To inform and persuade||Public|
|Consultative||There’s an assumption of equality. The speaker and the audience can switch roles.||Usually you are using shared sources, so no background is needed except knowledge of the sources; audience can also ask questions to get background.||Discussion
|To inform and persuade||Public|
|Casual||Friendly||Not an issue, but to not share can ostracize||Group texts
(joke: you’ve shared a room or a womb)
While some might find such concrete analysis of language schematic, I have found this framework freeing. When discussing whether to write something formally or informally, we return to: What’s your purpose? When reading, we can identify the register and evaluate if it aligns with the writer’s purpose.
And it has provided fodder for other important conversations. Why might advertising use casual language to sell their products? (Because they want the illusion of social bonding.) How much background do you need to put in a paper? (Depends on how much you think the audience knows.) Can I use “I” in this essay? (Well, again, what’s your purpose?) What happens if a writer alludes to frozen language? (It often means they are trying to reconnect with a group’s principles). Furthermore, as the year has gone on, we have found pieces like Benjamin Banneker’s letter to Jefferson or Coates’ Between the World and Me that “break the rules” of this chart.
Reading and writing, wonderfully, has gray areas. (We tell students to show rather than tell–a correct philosophy–and then we read something that is all telling, and spellbinding.) Bowman reminded me that it’s effective to assert something firmly initially and examine outliers later rather than start try to explain nuances early on. To me, that combination of assuredness (this is how it is) and vulnerability (and I know there are exceptions) is what self-respect looks like in a classroom.
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