College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals

Leave a comment

Davila and Dickinson. Place as Racist Ideology. Comp. Studies Fall 2016. Posted 12/4/2016.

Davila, Bethany, and Hannah Dickinson. “At a Distance: The Encoding of Place in the University.” Composition Studies 44.2 (2016): 94-115. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

Bethany Davila and Hannah Dickinson present a case study of the rhetorical effects of references to place in higher education, in particular capital-P Place, which they argue takes on the role of a totalizing marker that sustains racial inequalities.

Their study grows out of other research in which they interviewed students and instructors at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor about various aspects of college writing. Two interviews, one with an African American student and one with a white, male adjunct instructor, stood out for the researchers because of their visible use of place and Place to construct student identities (96). Davila and Dickinson analyze these two interviews to understand how the invocation of place can insert oppressive ideologies into discourse, often despite the intentions of the speaker (101).

They cite the relationship between the “prestigious” University of Michigan and the neighboring city of Detroit as an example of the way place functions as Place to influence the understanding of race at the university. Detroit, which is 83% African American, with a poverty rate of 39%, contrasts with UM, where only 4.65% of the students are African American; the poverty rate in Ann Arbor is 22% (95). Davila and Dickinson note that a ban on affirmative action has exacerbated this disparity (95).

Both low-come students and African Americans, they write, “perhaps especially those from Detroit, may see UM as unwelcoming” (95). A campus movement, Being Black at the University of Michigan (#BBUM), works “to increase awareness about racial inequality” on campus; the movement elicits many statements attesting to discomfort among UM African American students (96). The authors find references to Detroit particularly indicative of how place becomes Place and guides narratives of identity.

They cite the collection City Comp: Identities, Spaces, and Practices as an example of scholarship that explores how cities affect relationships, noting that whether the view of the city comes from inside or outside its boundaries affects the type of narrative that results (97). Their analysis draws on Michel de Certeau’s tropes of the “voyeur” and the “walker” as illustrating two types of interaction with urban contexts (97). The voyeur is “situated at a distance” (98); in de Certeau’s words, the view of the voyeur “makes the complexity of the city readable, and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text” (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 98). In contrast, the walker is immersed in “the everyday practices of the city” (98), a relationship evoked by a number of scholars in rhetoric and composition who have studied Detroit (98).

Davila and Dickinson argue that talk about Detroit in many public venues, rather than being an accurate representation of the city, in fact works “as coded language, disguising racist ideologies” (99). They find such discourse to be a form of “white talk,” which they define as language that allows Whites to present themselves as talking about something other than race when they are actually making racist claims. Such talk, the authors contend, allows Whites to avoid the consequences of overt racist speech and to ignore the history of racist oppression that acknowledgment of race as an issue would expose (99).

While Place participates in these erasures among Whites, they argue that it functions in the interview with the African American student as well to establish identity and “reinforce racial inequality” (100).

In Davila and Dickinson’s report of their interview with the white male instructor, they note that he makes “a potentially productive teacherly move” (102) in noting that not all African-American students are alike, but his comments characterize students from Detroit based largely on the fact that they are from Detroit. Asked to “describe the students you pictured in your mind while reading these papers” from Davila’s study, “Simon” attributes the work to “Detroit African American” (102). In his elaboration, he characterizes these students as having “puppy dog energy” but being “really far behind. . . . at the bottom of the pack” (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 103). The authors see such depictions as “racist ideologies disguised as commonsense understandings of Detroit” (104). In their view, Detroit becomes a code word for a particular set of assumptions about African Americans.

The authors’ analysis finds Simon attributing the deficiencies he detects in the students’ work to a poor educational system supposedly characteristic of Detroit and to the “culture” of the city, which Davila and Dickinson see as Simon’s attempts to elide the racist implications of his remarks with more acceptable “structural” explanations (103). Such elisions, they argue, provide the city with agency and deny such agency to the residents, who are damaged by what Simon calls “the unique tragedy happening in Detroit” (qtd. In Davila and Dickinson 105). This characterization of the city not only allows Simon to deny that his views have to do with race but also removes agency from residents of Detroit, who are at the mercy of the city (105).

Interviewing “Sean,” the African American UM undergraduate, Davila and Dickinson see him as the “walker” as opposed to Simon, the “voyeur” (107). In Sean’s discourse, the authors find indications that Sean also imparts agency to the city, but considers himself “unique” because he can cite Detroit experiences that set him apart from other African American students (107-08). According to Davila and Dickinson, Sean refuses to surrender his own agency to the city; he describes actions he took to “get out of Detroit” (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 108).

The authors read Sean’s responses as evidence that, in Sean’s mind, relationships with Detroit “can be negotiated” (109; emphasis original); in their view, Sean feels that “to use one’s common sense and to keep one’s cool” are ways to manage the city’s power (109). They note that Sean associates passivity with Ann Arbor, where, they write, students may “adopt the kind of complacency that is possible in a location of privilege” (109). In contrast, Sean describes himself as “open or calm” and imbued with an agentive “aggressiveness” that allows him to function in his unique place (qtd. in Davila and Dickinson 109). Unlike Simon, Sean positions Detroit as the “inside” space, and UM and the suburbs as outside, overturning the commonsense definition of Detroiters as “marginal” (110).

Davila and Dickinson argue that like Simon, Sean uses Place as a means of talking about particular kinds of African Americans, potentially shutting down more nuanced discussions of race and oppression (110-11). They further posit that despite Sean’s alternative representations of Detroit, Simon’s are “more powerful . . . in shaping Detroit-as-Place” because of Simon’s location within the “university power structure” (111) and its kinship with “common outsider understandings of Detroit” (111).

The authors urge more awareness of the ways in which knowledge about where students are from drives assumptions about identity in classrooms. They advocate deliberate effort to generate “alternative perspectives” by listening to students rather than to commonsense assertions about place and to be alert to the ideological underpinnings engendered when place becomes Place (112).


Lancaster, Zak. Discourse Templates in They Say/I Say. CCC, Feb. 2016. Posted 03/13/2106.


Lancaster, Zak. “Do Academics Really Write This Way? A Corpus Investigation of Moves and Templates in They Say/I Say.College Composition and Communication 67.3 (2016): 437-64. Print.

Zak Lancaster analyzes three corpora of academic writing to assess the usefulness of “templates” provided for student use in the textbook They Say/I Say (TSIS), by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Lancaster ultimately concludes that the most cogent critique of TSIS is not that it encourages students to use “formulaic” constructions but rather that the book does not supply students with the templates that academics actually use and hence, in fact, is not “formulaic” in ways that would most effectively shape students’ understanding of academic discourse (450).

Lancaster focuses on the book’s provision of specific sets of word strings to help students structure their arguments, in particular, first, phrases that acknowledge counter-arguments and second, those that concede to alternative points of view while, in Graff and Birkenstein’s words, “still standing your ground” (qtd. in Lancaster 440). Lancaster recounts that the use of formulas to guide students in incorporating others’ viewpoints has provoked debate, with some analysts endorsing the effort to supply students with explicit language for “moves” in the academic conversations they are expected to enter, and others characterizing the provision of such specific language as a “decontextualized” approach guilty of “reducing argumentation down to a two-part dialogue” (438).

For Lancaster, this debate, though meaningful, begs the basic question of whether the templates provided by TSIS actually “capture the tacitly valued discursive strategies used in academic discourses” (439). Lancaster finds this question important because linguistic analysis indicates that variations in wording shape “different roles for the reader . . . and different authorial personae, or stances,” conveying different values and encouraging different approaches to argumentation (440).

Lancaster cites research showing that what some linguists call “lexical bundles” are indeed common in academic writing across disciplines. “[H]ighly functional” phrases such as “it should be noted that,” or “the extent to which” are used more often by expert writers than by students (441). Lancaster’s example of “hedging formulas” such as “in some cases” or “appears to be” introduces his claim that such formulas have an “interpersonal function” in concert with their “ideational meanings” (442), supplying the same information but creating different valences in the reader/writer relationship.

Research on student texts, Lancaster reports, shows that students often succumb to what some scholars call “myside bias,” struggling to include counterarguments (443). In Lancaster’s view, evidence that students who are able to overcome this bias produce more complex, “mature” arguments (444) justifies strategies like those in TSIS to open students to a more dialogic approach to argument, which they may tend to see as a matter of “winning” rather than negotiating meaning (444). Lancaster claims, however, that TSIS could provide “more systematic attention to the details of language” to offer more substantive guidance in the ways these details affect interpersonal meanings (444).

Lancaster examines three corpora: one of expert academic writing drawing from “almost 100 peer-reviewed journals across disciplines”; one of “829 high-graded papers” by advanced undergraduates and “early graduate students across sixteen fields”; and one of “19,456 directed self-placement (DSP) essays” from the University of Michigan and Wake Forest University (444-45). Lancaster examined each body of writing using “concordancing software” to search for the exact phrases proposed by TSIS, to find other phrases serving the same functions, and to examine the precise contexts for each formula to make sure that it functioned like those featured in TSIS (445). The tables presenting the findings are based on “the normalized frequency” of occurrences rather than the raw numbers (446).

Analysis of the ways in which the writers in the corpora “entertain objections” revealed “six recurring options” that Lancaster ranks as moving from “direct” moves such as “Naming the reader” and “Naming your naysayers” (a characterization quoted from TSIS) through less direct moves that he denotes as “Unattributed” like “One might argue” or a passive-voice construction, to indirect phrases like nominalizations (“Another explanation”) or what linguist Geoff Thompson calls the “Hypothetical-Real” formula: phrases like “At first glance” or “It may appear that” that suggest that the writer will delve beneath the surface to present unrecognized truths (447-48).

Analysis indicates that first-year writers did consider alternative views at frequencies comparable to those in the more advanced work. In general, indirect phrases were much more commonly used than direct ones in all corpora; Graff and Birkenstein’s “Naming your naysayers” was the least frequently used option (448-49). Though they did “name the readers” more than the first-year writers, advanced writers preferred indirect approaches at higher levels than less advanced writers (450).

Lancaster posits that the use of more indirect choices by more advanced writers, counter to the guidance in TSIS, suggests that writers resist claiming to know what readers think, a form of “interpersonal tact” (448). Importantly for Lancaster, the specific phrasings offered in TSIS “do not appear in any of the corpora” (450). Similar but subtly different phrasings perform these functions (450-51).

Lancaster’s discussion of concession notes that while TSIS describes this move in terms of “‘overcoming’ objections” (qtd. in Lancaster 452), for linguists, such interactions create “solidarity with interlocutors by affirming and validating their views” (452). Lancaster draws on the work of James R. Martin and Peter R. White to base his analysis on the concept of “concede + counter,” in which a concession move is signaled with “high-certainty adverbials” like “undoubtedly” or “to be sure,” while the counter follows through the use of words like “yet,” or “at the same time.” Lancaster notes that in advanced samples, the opening concession phrase may not even appear (452), with the result that the move may be inconsistently tagged by the software (453).

Findings indicate more explicit use of concession by the less experienced writers (452). Lancaster proposes that this difference may result from the placement-essay writers’ sense that they were expected to “strike an adversarial stance” requiring more “direct language”; conversely, the software may not have picked up more subtle moves by more advanced writers (453). First-year samples were much more likely to include the kinds of wordings TSIS recommends, such as “It is true that. . . .” (454). However, none of the writers at any level used “personalized and overt signals” like “I concede that” or “Proponents of X are right” (454).

In investigating the “counter,” Lancaster discovered that the direct phrases encouraged by TSIS, such as “I still VERB that,” were not favored by any group; shorter, less direct wordings predominated. In fact, “On the other hand,” recommended by TSIS, tended to indicate a contrast between two positions rather than a “counter” following a concession (454).

Lancaster extracts three conclusions: all groups opted most often for indirect means of considering objections; writers consistently chose to “eagerly” endorse shared viewpoints when conceding; and less experienced writers used more direct concessions like those suggested by TSIS (455).

Differences in genre and context, Lancaster notes, may affect the validity of his findings. However, he sees “interpersonal tact” as “an implicit guiding principle” that is “pervasive” in academic writing (456-57). He notes that TSIS formulas do use hedges, but posits that the authors may not “see” these interpersonal markers because the hedging phrases have become naturalized (457).

In Lancaster’s view, TSIS often echoes a common perception of argument as a form of combat; he argues that the best academic writing more fully resembles a conversational exchange, and suggests that attention to the specific details of academic language provided by “systematic analysis” (459) such as corpora research can refocus instruction on how academics do incorporate interpersonal meanings into their discourse and how students can best use these moves when they wish to enter academic conversations (458-59).