Thursday, March 26, 2015

Words Matter: The Female Question

In the comments section of our last Words Matter post, reader Mel C posed an interesting question: 
Should we let our students get away with calling women, females? (other than the fact it's grammatically incorrect). 
My answer to Mel was twofold. On the one hand, it's perfectly acceptable--and, in fact, preferable--to use "female" in writing about biological, social, or sexual difference, especially in the sciences. As Yateendra Joshi explains, the general rule is that writers should "use female only when the biological distinction is relevant or needs to be preserved, as in female secondary sexual characteristics, female preferences that govern the choice of a mate, or calories required by nursing females." In these examples, using the word female doesn't only work to make the writer's meaning clear; it also ensures that the scientific information relayed isn't too personal. But if you're writing outside of the sciences, that lack of personal sentiment can be off-putting. As Linguist Deborah Tannen explains, she avoids using "female" because "it feels more like describing an animal than a person." Maeve Maddox's reasoning behind avoiding "female" is similar: "as a noun, female has no place in ordinary conversation unless one is speaking of an animal species." So, if you're writing something where double-x lady parts (as opposed to the social connotations different cultures ascribe to said lady parts) matter, or in the fields, like biology, where writers observe and describe humans in much the same way they do animals, feel free to female it up.   

But there are times when using the word female to refer to women is more problematic. It's particularly problematic in one of the discourse communities that I'm a member of (and, I think, the one Mel C was referring to in her original question): speakers of African-American Vernacular English or AAVE. Just like any other dialect of English (like Cajun English, the "Brahmin" dialect of upper-class Bostonians, or the "Engfish" of academic circles), AAVE has its own grammatical and phonological systems as well as its own vocabulary and, though there's a lot of crossover between AAVE and Standard American English (what many people describe as the kind of English that doesn't have an accent, like what newscasters often speak or what many Midwesterners sound like--though in actuality, even the Midwestern accent-that's-not-an-accent has its own particularisms), there are some particular differences. One such difference is the use of the word "female."

In many varieties of AAVE, "female" isn't reserved for scientific or clinical communication. Instead, it's used in casual, everyday communication in quite a few different ways--and none of them are appropriate in academic writing. 

So, what are some of the different ways AAVE speakers use the word female? Because this blog is PG-13, I won't be providing examples here (though if you're interested, a quick search of "females" on Twitter should give you an idea of some of the different usages). Suffice it to say that, as it's used by many AAVE speakers, the word "female" comes with negative, often sexualized connotations. Miss Glamtastic breaks users of "female" in this particular way down into two categories: men who want to demean or denegrate women and use the word female "because it doesn't sound as nasty (but still carries the same sentiment and tone) as calling her something profane" and women who want to "[endear] themselves to men" or put down other women. The Root's Demetria Lucas D'Oyley and Jezebel's Kara Brown both go into more detail about it.

But, if you're an AAVE speaker, how can you check to be sure that your usage of female in academic writing is appropriate? And, if you're a tutor or an instructor who's not an AAVE speaker, how can you tell if an AAVE client or student's usage of "female" is a problematic one? Try Miss Glamtastic's replacement test:

If you can replace the word "female" with the word "b!$$%", or, actually, any other defamatory term used to refer to a woman that is displeasing in some way, and the feeling of the sentence is the same, then be offended [or, in the case of writing, revise to use another word]. If the tone of the sentence hasn't drastically changed, though a profane word is being used instead of "female," then you know what the person is REALLY trying to say.
Or you can do what I do: The Chris Brown Test. On one of my favorite radio stations from home, the radio edit for Chris Brown's 2014 song "Loyal"--with its oh-so-catchy but bothersomely misogynistic refrain--changed the lyric "these hoes ain't loyal" to a more user-friendly one: "females ain't loyal." If the use of "female" in question fits in the song, you've got a problem and need to revise.

So, what's the TL;DR answer to Mel's original question? "Female" can be okay to use in academic writing, but only when it's used thoughtfully and appropriately. Because words matter.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Words Matter: A Series on Thoughtful Language Use

More than four centuries have passed since Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was first published--and nearly 20 years since middle-school me harangued my mother to drive me across town so that I could watch the Baz Luhrmann film version 6. separate. times (#LoveYouLeo; #SorryMom)--and lots of people still believe Juliet's claim that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

But what if Juliet had it all wrong? As it turns out, a rose by any other name might not smell as sweet.

That's because of the way our minds make meaning--the way we attach symbolic attributes to random sounds to make language. And it's a pretty big deal. As Benjamin K. Bergen explains, we are "constantly, automatically, tirelessly" making meaning. It's just what humans do. And we're so good at it, we don't even realize we're doing it.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about it is that we hardly notice we’re doing anything at all. There are deep, rapid, complex operations afoot under the surface of the skull, and yet all we experience is seamless understanding.
 It's rare that we stop and think part of the reason I like this cheese is because I'm calling it cheese. It'd be a lot less appealing if I called it congealed bovine mammary secretion.

Dan Piraro's take on cheese's etymology

But there is one context in which thinking about the words we use is especially important: when we're labeling groups of people. Just like the word "cheese" can erase problematic associations between a food product and coagulated udder-ooze, the words we choose to refer to particular human groups can erase--or highlight--problematic associations, assumptions, and connotations that have become imbedded in our language. Many of those imbedded connotations are holdovers from our not-so-pretty (and, sometimes, not-so-distant) past: legacies from colonial thinking; lingering sexism; leftovers of deep-seated racism and xenophobia.

And, of course, we don't *want* to use language in ways that reinforce historic injustices--we're not jerks--but it's often the case that we aren't even aware of the baggage that comes along with words we use.

So, how can we keep it PC and avoid problematic language when there's a pretty good chance we're blind to so many of the problems?

For the rest of the semester, we'll be bringing tips that can help us overcome our blindness. So be sure to stop back by for discussions of writing race (Should we write black or African American? Why?), gender (Transgender or Transgendered?), and ability (Is it okay to write about "autistic people"?). And if you've got a specific question on PC language, leave it in the comments--we'll do our best to address it.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Four Reasons to Join (or Form) a Writing Group

Few settings can inspire writers more—or make them even more bitter and resentful—than a writing group. So, what do they have to offer that makes me say that writing groups are worth the risk?

1. Audience

Never mind the practical help you could receive—sometimes it’s nice just to have access to a second pair of eyes and ears. And knowing that you will have to face your audience can be a big motivator.

2. Affirmation

My first writing group experience was when I wrote bad knockoffs of bad fantasy in third grade. We shared in class every week, and I received glowing reviews . . . from my best friend, my teacher, and a girl with a crush on me.

All these people had plenty of reasons to lie to me or patronize me, but that little trinity really did help my writing. They motivated me and supported me when I wanted to call it quits. And, even more importantly, they made me believe I was a writer because that’s how they saw me.

3. Advice

You may not want advice at first, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the Writing Center, it’s that we all sometimes find ourselves stumped. When that bell tolls for you, remember that other writers can help you see opportunities for improvement. Let your readers know exactly what type of help you need, and you will walk away energized to write.

4. Deadline

The biggest benefit, to me, is just the fact that you have to turn something in. Deadlines help me focus on what desperately needs attention to make my document readable.


Of course, a Writing Center consulting session appointment can also provide you with an audience, affirmation, advice, and a deadline. Give us a call (581.5929) or drop by Coleman Hall 3110 and let us know what you would like to focus on.

Monday, March 2, 2015

In Conclusion

Writers have such a complicated relationship with that tricky last paragraph, and conclusions probably tie with introductions for the most closely read sections of papers. Yet they’re so often unrevised. I’ve left many a conclusion stranded at a dead end, hit “Submit,” and then hidden behind a moat of Snickers wrappers.

But I gave up too soon, mostly because I felt like I didn't have anything more to say, so anything I added would be pure B.S. Turns out that's not true.

Here are some generally accepted forms of conclusions to help you squeeze an ending out of a topic that you think you have already bled dry:

  • Ask some questions. It’s a classic technique to conclude a paper, particularly if the information and ideas in your body paragraphs don’t add up to a conclusive conclusion. Provide readers with a reasonable tentative conclusion, then talk about the next-step questions that your paper raises.
  • Provide a call to action. Rally the troops! If your paper isn’t political and your argument doesn't suggest a clear battle plan, you can call for more research on this important topic.
  • Use the Austin Powers Method. Describe some of the most interesting or important implications of the information and ideas you have provided. This is what a conclusion really is, not a restatement of your “three main points.” You’ve proven your thesis with all those killer quotes and examples, so what’s the larger point? Channel your inner Austin Powers.

Or just don’t write one. In some genres, you can let readers draw their own conclusions. Especially if you have nothing to add...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Welcome to the Writing Center

Every time a student checks in at the front desk of the Writing Center, we ask them the same questions. But that is the only thing that is the same for every session.

Where do we begin? I ask: "What are we working on today?"
Simple enough. Not everyone knows what they need, what exactly to expect from the Writing Center, or what the most pressing issue is. But everyone knows what they brought in to work on, and we can use that as a starting point. A one-page response, a three-to-five-page analysis, and a ten-page mid-term paper each carry their own built-in set of possibilities.

How can we narrow these possibilities? I ask: "When is it due?"
Before we even consider the possibility of spending our time brainstorming or looking at organization and cohesion, we need to know how much time we have to work with. For example, if this ten-page paper is due in an hour, brainstorming is out of the question, and we're probably not going to have enough time to consider reorganization. Instead, we're probably going to be looking at formatting issues, clearing up any citation confusion, or looking for any distracting grammar or punctuation problems.

However, I don't want to rule with an iron fist, so I ask: "What did you want to look at today?"
At this point, we should have a pretty good idea of what is possible. If a ten-page paper is due in an hour, and you are questioning their choice of topic, I'd suggest working on what you have and coming in earlier next time: we help writers at any stage in the writing process. If you bring in a three-page paper that's not due for a week, and you are worried about grammar, I can explain the importance of addressing early-order concerns first. We want to avoid sanding an edge if we're going to chop off that chunk with a chainsaw. I can only make suggestions, though.

I want to make sure you are comfortable with the agenda we set for the session, so when our time is up, I ask: "Do you feel better now?"
I want to make sure you have gotten something out of the session. If we didn't get to look through everything, I want to make sure you feel good about what we did accomplish. I want to know that you understand what we went through, that you are prepared to go through the rest of the paper looking for any similar issues--and that you are walking away with a better understanding of your choices as a writer.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Looking Back at Lions in Winter Again: Edward Kelsey Moore & Character

A couple weeks ago, Nathan took us back to Lions in Winter, filling us in on Stephen Graham Jones’s lecture on “info dumping” and hook lines. A second fiction writer, Edward Kelsey Moore, gave a lecture as wellAfter discussing some of his work in class and even hearing him read one of his stories online, I was eager to sit down, shut up, and soak in what he had to say about creating characters.

Moore began by talking about how well you should know your characters. But how do you do that? Practice. Moore had us write, starting with a simple scene of a single character doing the mundane. As usual, I wrote about myself, using another name.

He must have known I’d do this, because his next prompt suggested that we get out of ourselves by giving the character some quality, possession, or characteristic that would make this character different. This makes enough sense. To get into one head, we need to get out of another.

What’s next? Remove yourself even further. His next prompt asked us to think about what would naturally come next--and just ignore it. If your character is putting away groceries, and the next step would be to start cooking dinner, don’t let her cook dinner. This boring step could lead to more unimportant events, leaving you and readers with filler that’s not worth reading.

Make the character forget something at the store. Imagine that the cooking appliances won't turn on. Your character might see a dolphin jumping out of the backyard swimming pool and forget about dinner. Whatever it is, change the pace.

Moore’s lecture helped me understand some things. One is that I love the unexpected. Unfortunately, another realization is that I don’t get to read a lot of creative writing in the Writing Center. Yes, I love reading academic papers, personal statements, and resumes. But I’d also love to read some Moore-inspired, unexpected creativity too.  

So if you are taking a creative writing class, surprise us by bringing that work to the Writing Center!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Interview with Dr. Charlotte Pence

Dr. Charlotte Pence is an Assistant Professor in the English Department here at EIU. Last week, Dr. Pence agreed to sit down with me to talk about her upcoming book, Many Small Fires. We had a wonderful conversation, much of which is transcribed below.

On Thursday, Feb. 19 at 6:00 pm at the Doudna Lecture Hall, Dr. Pence will give a reading from her new book. The reading is open to the public, and everyone interested in the arts, culture, and supporting the wonderful faculty at EIU is encouraged to attend. 

Is this your first book?
It’s the first full-length poetry collection. There are two chapbooks that came before, but I also have a composition text and an anthology I edited. 

What’s the theme of the collection?
The book talks about how my father is a paranoid schizophrenic, and how he’s been homeless since I’ve been eighteen, through the larger evolutionary story of the human species. Questions about how we came to create communities and homes play out against more intimate questions of my roving home. As the book moves from my childhood in Georgia to my travels in Flores, Indonesia, we begin to understand a complex relationship between two people locked together by family, who sometimes understand, sometimes ignore, sometimes commit cruelty upon one another in competition, not just for resources, but survival.

What are you dying to say about this book?
I’m playing around a lot with form. There are a lot of disguised received forms as well as lines that use the full expanse of the page.

Why the focus on form?
You’re always going to choose a form. So, at least make a choice that helps you write the better poem. The more you have to say about a subject, try to limit yourself by finding a form that requires compression.
Your work is influenced by Darwinism and science. Why is science a place you go for inspiration?
For me, science serves as a good counterpoint to the material in the book, which tends to be emotionally charged, subjective, sensual. And I wanted something that pressed against that--to give it a more objective lens, make me look at it a little bit outside of myself. 

I’m trying to find as many as I can because I want to have more conversations between poets that are doing this. I think this could be an anthology down the line. Robert Haas has talked about it. Brenda Hillman brings in some science as does Sarah Lindsey, for example.

Based on the genre, I use different techniques. Poetry allows one to communicate through juxtaposition, for instance, by presenting different ideas and images. Within the confines of the page, the reader tends to make sense of it and fill in the associative gaps. Other genres, for example, might ask for those connections to be made explicit. So, I will change my approach based on the audience’s expectations for the genre.  

People criticize pop songs for using clich├ęs. But you could argue that is what that forms calls for. You have three and a half minutes to try to make a case to tons of different listeners who are in their cars, eating a Big Mac, and stressed about getting to work on time. It’s what works in that genre.

Which one is easier?
I find writing poetry to be easier because that’s what I practice every day. I also bring in science as a way to challenge myself. How do I communicate knowledge and translate it into a lyrical line, a compressed line, within a matter of a couple pages?

You’re the poetry editor at Bluestem. When you’re reading poetry submissions, what’s the most common mistake?
There’s the cover letter mistake and the poetry mistake. In the cover letter, a telltale sign is when they’re worried you’re going to steal their poems or ideas. To suggest thievery is not the best way to begin a relationship. The other cover letter mistake is explaining your poetry. 

The poem should do the work.
Yes. Sending notes or definitions about the terms. That sort of thing. Within the poems themselves, mixing around with fonts is a telltale sign. And then tons of abstractions usually separates the beginner from the more experienced writer. 

What are poets doing to gain more readers in the digital age?
Of course, there’s slam poetry, and that appeals to a larger audience. Also, more poets are writing creative nonfiction, especially the lyrical essay, because there’s a wider audience for creative nonfiction. I’m doing more creative nonfiction, and I’m seeing how the lyrical essay is wildly fun for the poet.

I’ve also noticed how poets are doing more collaborations with people in the visual arts.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Creative (Pre)Writing for Non-Creative Writers

I am not a creative writer.

I mean, I'm creative. I went to a youth conservatory for visual arts in high school. I can play "Colors of the Wind" on the piano. I'm crafty-as-all-get-out.

And since having children, I've gotten pretty good at making terrifying sea monsters with Play-Doh:

But I am not a creative writer. Poetry. Fiction. Novels. It's all magic and wonder to me. It is something I simply can. not. do.

Well, that's not entirely true. I do it a lot, but not for an outside audience. Instead, I dabble in creative writing to get my mind ready to tackle other tasks. Playing with creative writing prompts for 15 or 20 minutes helps me transition from the chaos that is my real life (have you ever tried to write a conference proposal with a 4 year old in the room? Don't) so that I can actually think. I can also use silly prompts as a way to motivate myself when I face a writing task I'm not looking forward to; I'll avoid things I dislike like the plague, but I can usually convince myself to write about silly things for a few minutes. Once I've started writing (even though it's not serious), transitioning to the writing I really need to do isn't as difficult.

Here are a few of my favorite creative writing prompts

  • Making Mythology: Explain why some aspect of everyday life is the way it is in the style of a myth, fable or creation story. How did the rock get to look like an elephant? Why do strawberries have seeds? What mystical Armenian immortals birthed the forefathers of the Kardashian clan?
  • Man Up!: Most of the time, manifestos are serious documents that declare a person's (or people's) views or intentions. There's Mina Loy's feminist manifestos (and Valerie Solanis' even more radical S.C.U.M. Manifesto). There's the Communist Manifesto of Engels and Marx. One of the great things about manifestos is how much they push and play with language and hyperbole; if Solanis' manifesto is an indicator, the more over the top the manifesto, the better. I give myself 15 minutes to write passionate, exaggerated treatises on tiny things that don't matter: turn signals, how to sit on a couch, what color highlighter to choose.
  • Rewriting History (with Zombies): self explanatory.
  • Limited Letters: Decide how do limit your letters (no Ws? Only words that start with consonants?), then describe a person, place or moment following the limit.
  • Writing Wikipedia:  Choose a random article on Wikipedia. Read the title (nothing else!) and write an encyclopedia entry for it. (caveat: with this prompt, there's the risk of falling into a wikipedia hole and spending 2 hours reading about obscure animals--oh hai, Jamaican Coney).
So, what about you? Do you incorporate creative writing in your writing routine? Got any prompts I can add to my arsenal?