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RWS280
ASSIGNMENT 4: entering the conversation about academic literacy
Written Arguments: “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan
“Memoirs of a Rebel Princess”
“Learning to Read and Write,” Frederick Douglass
“Superman and Me,” Sherman Alexie
“I Just Want to Be Average,” Mike Rose
“Achievement of Desire,” Richard Rodriguez
“Hidden Lessons,” Sadker and Sadker
“Learning to Read,” Malcolm X
“From Outside, In,” Barbara Mellix
“Literate Traditions,” Shirley Brice Heath
Your life as a text:
your experience with academic reading and writing
The above texts point out a variety of circumstances that impact literacy. They detail the practices of
education, the use of language, and the relationship of both to social power.
How do these texts correlate with your experience? In other words, where does your own experience
intersect with the circumstances and influences you have read about? What conclusions can you draw
about your literacy now that you have read the experiences of others?
For this paper, you will need to use specific claims from 3-4 of the assigned texts, explaining how each of
these claims relates to your own experience.
In writing this essay, your purpose is not to “prove” that one author or the other is correct. Like all
academic writers, you need to examine your material carefully and with an open mind, accepting the
possibility that you may not come to a simple conclusion in a matter this complex. It is better not to
simplify that complexity in a way that doesn’t represent your true experiences in literacy.
Successful papers will:
1. Introduce the project of examining academic literacy using 3-4 of the assigned texts and
your experience;
2. Manage quotations well, effectively commenting on the quoted material and what your
readers ought to notice;
3. Draw conclusions about the significance of the information in this paper for people
interested in understanding academic literacy;
4. Use an effective structure that carefully guides the reader from one idea to the next;
5. Be thoroughly edited for an academic audience.
Dec 12: Bring a draft of your paper to class to edit.
Dec 14: Final paper is due. It will be minimum of four pages and use three to four sources.
“I Just Wanna Be Average”
MIKE ROSE
Mike Rose is anything but average: he has published poetry, scholarly research, a textbook, and two
widely praised books on education in America. A professor in the School of Education at UCLA, Rose
has won awards from the National Academy of Education, the National Council of Teachers of English,
and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Below you’ll read the story of how this highly
successful teacher and writer started high school in the “vocational education” track, learning dead-end
skills from teachers who were often underprepared or incompetent. Rose shows that students whom the
system has written off can have tremendous unrealized potential, and his critique of the school system
specifies several reasons for the ‘failure” of students who go through high school belligerent, fearful,
stoned, frustrated, or just plain bored. This selection comes from Lives on the Boundary (1989), Rose’s
exploration of America’s educationally underprivileged.
Students will float to the mark you set. I and the others in the vocational classes were
bobbing in pretty shallow water. Vocational education has aimed at increasing the economic
opportunities of students who do not do well in our schools. Some serious programs succeed in
doing that, and through exceptional teachers…students learn to develop hypotheses and
troubleshoot, reason through a problem, and communicate effectively – the true job skills. The
vocational track, however, is most often a place for those who are just not making it, a dumping
ground for the disaffected. There were a few teachers who worked hard at education; young
Brother Slattery, for example, combined a stern voice with weekly quizzes to try to pass along to
us a skeletal outline of world history. But mostly the teachers had no idea of how to engage the
imaginations of us kids who were scuttling along at the bottom of the pond.
And the teachers would have needed some inventiveness, for none of us was groomed for the
classroom. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know things – didn’t know how to simplify algebraic
fractions, couldn’t identify different kinds of clauses, bungled Spanish translations – but that I
had developed various faulty and inadequate ways of doing algebra and making sense of
Spanish. Worse yet, the years of defensive tuning out in elementary school had given me a way
to escape quickly while seeming at least half alert. During my time in Voc. Ed., I developed
further into a mediocre student and a somnambulant problem solver, and that affected the
subjects I did have the wherewithal to handle: I detested Shakespeare; I got bored with history.
My attention flitted here and there. I fooled around in class and read my books indifferently – the
intellectual equivalent of playing with your food. I did what I had to do to get by, and I did it
with half a mind.
But I did learn things about people and eventually came into my own socially. I liked the
guys in Voc. Ed. Growing up where I did, I understood and admired physical prowess, and
there was an abundance of muscle here. There was Dave Snyder, a sprinter and halfback of
true quality. Dave’s ability and his quick wit gave him a natural appeal, and he was welcome
in any clique, though he always kept a little independent. He enjoyed acting the fool and
could care less about studies, but he possessed a certain maturity and never caused the faculty
much trouble. It was a testament to his independence that he included me among his friends I eventually went out for track, but I was no jock. Owing to the Latin alphabet and a dearth of
Rs and Ss, Snyder sat behind Rose, and we started exchanging one-liners and became friends.
There was Ted Richard, a much-touted Little League pitcher. He was chunky and had a baby
face and came to Our Lady of Mercy as a seasoned street fighter. Ted was quick to laugh and he
had a loud, jolly laugh, but when he got angry he’d smile a little smile, the kind that simply raises
the corner of the mouth a quarter of an inch. For those who knew, it was an eerie signal. Those
who didn’t found themselves in big trouble, for Ted was very quick. He loved to carry on what
we would come to call philosophical discussions: What is courage? Does God exist? He also
loved words, enjoyed picking up big ones like salubrious and equivocal and using them in our
conversations -laughing at himself as the word hit a chuckhole rolling off his tongue. Ted didn’t
do all that well in school- baseball and parties and testing the courage he’d speculated about took
up his time. His textbooks were Argosy and Field and Stream, whatever newspapers he’d find on
the bus stop – from the Daily Worker to pornography – conversations with uncles or hobos or
businessmen he’d meet in a coffee shop, The Old Man and the Sea. With hindsight, I can see that
Ted was developing into one of those rough-hewn intellectuals whose sources are a mix of the
learned and the apocryphal, whose discussions are both assured and sad.
And then there was Ken Harvey. Ken was good-looking in a puffy way and had a full and
oily ducktail and was a car enthusiast. . . a hodad. One day in religion class, he said the sentence
that turned out to be one of the most memorable of the hundreds of thousands I heard in those
Voc. Ed. years. We were talking about the parable of the talents, about achievement, working
hard, doing the best you can do, blah-blah-blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken
Harvey for an opinion. Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied,
minimal affect), “I just wanna be average.” That woke me up. Average? Who wants to be
average? Then the athletes chimed in with the cliches that make you want to laryngectomize
them, and the exchange became a platitudinous melee. At the time, I thought Ken’s assertion was
stupid, and I wrote him off. But his sentence has stayed with me all these years, and I think I am
finally coming to understand it.
Ken Harvey was gasping for air. School can be a tremendously disorienting place. No matter
how bad the school, you’re going to encounter notions that don’t fit with the assumptions and
beliefs that you grew up with – maybe you’ll hear these dissonant notions from teachers, maybe
from the other students, and maybe you’ll read them. You’ll also be thrown in with all kinds of
kids from all kinds of backgrounds, and that can be unsettling – this is especially true in places of
rich ethnic and linguistic mix, like the L.A. basin. You’ll see a handful of students far excel you
in courses that sound exotic and that are only in the curriculum of the elite: French, physics,
trigonometry. And all this is happening while you’re trying to shape an identity, your body is
changing, and your emotions are running wild. If you’re a working-class kid in the vocational
track, the options you’ll have to deal with this will be constrained in certain ways: you’re defined
by your school as “slow”; you’re placed in a curriculum that isn’t designed to liberate you but to
occupy you, or, if you’re lucky, train you, though the training is for work the society does not
esteem; other students are picking up the cues from your school and your curriculum and
interacting with you in particular ways. If you’re a kid like Ted Richard, you turn your back on
all this and let your mind roam where it may. But youngsters like Ted are rare. What Ken and so
many others do is protect themselves from such suffocating madness by taking on with a
vengeance the identity implied in the vocational track. Reject the confusion and frustration by
openly defining yourself as the Common Joe. Champion the average. Rely on your own good
sense. Fuck this bullshit. Bullshit, of course, is everything you – and the others – fear is beyond
you: books, essays, tests, academic scrambling, complexity, scientific reasoning, philosophical
inquiry.
The tragedy is that you have to twist the knife in your own gray matter to make this defense
work. You’ll have to shut down, have to reject intellectual stimuli or diffuse them with sarcasm,
have to cultivate stupidity, have to convert boredom from a malady into a way of confronting the
world. Keep your vocabulary simple, act stoned when you’re not or act more stoned than you are,
flaunt ignorance, materialize your dreams. It is a powerful and effective defense – it neutralizes
the insult and the frustration of being a vocational kid and, when perfected, it drives teachers up
the wall, a delightful secondary effect. But like all strong magic, it exacts a price.

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