The Case Against the Five-Paragraph Essay

Photo of An Tran

by An Tran

An Tran is a double major in finance and psychology from Boston, MA. An notes that she came from an “underfunded elementary school” where “the curriculum has been rooted in standardized tests, and preparing for them in order to bring in funding.” Given that, she argues that “our value, as students, has become less about the investment of an upcoming generation and more about how much money we could bring in from our test scores.” An notes that the five-paragraph essay “is a core component of this pattern, and it hinders students from truly learning the craft of writing.” She writes leaving behind the five-paragraph essay structure was freeing, and that she “wasn’t suffocated and forced into a mold or to write in a certain way.” An is passionate about people: she loves writing to create an experience for someone else and to bridge a connection with others. An also writes poems for others in Boston Common in her free time.

When forced into using the same writing strategy over and over again, could students learn how to become better writers? Shirley Rose, a professor of composition at Arizona State University, has developed a theory that writing is a continual learning process, in that each writing context has something to teach you. From Rose’s theory, the answer is a resounding no, students do not become better writers simply practicing the same strategy. As Rose states, “[the] same writing habits and strategies will not work in all writing situations. There is no such thing as “writing in general”; therefore, there is no one lesson about writing that can make writing good in all contexts” (60) With all writing situations being unique, it is impossible to have the same strategy be tailored for every possible scenario; a one size fits all solution won’t cut it. A single strategy will force students to think in a cookie-cutter format and limit their potential to wield writing as a tool that would benefit them. To become better writers, students must be introduced to new writing situations and adapt to using new writing strategies. Doing so will strengthen students’ ability to think critically and write effectively for each scenario.

Let me demonstrate with a common example. How many times have you heard a wedding speech start with some variation of “Merriam Webster defines love as…” along with some cheesy phrase at the end of it. A common strategy, isn’t it? Almost so common that a wedding wouldn’t be complete without the utterance of that phrase. Let’s say you had Great Aunt Tessie’s funeral to attend, and Cousin Dan is asking you to come up and deliver some loving words. Can you imagine if you came up and said, “Merriam Webster defines death as..” paired with some weird anecdote of Great Aunt Tessie? You can kiss that inheritance goodbye! I mean, hello, read the room. Now, think about this method for your college essays. You would apply the same opener, the same format, and the same tone for every piece, regardless of the prompt or the class it called for. Every essay would become redundant, and the effectiveness of the strategy is gone.

This all, however, is theoretical. To really find out if using the same strategy is feasible and productive for learning, let’s examine the Five-Paragraph Essay (FPE). The five-paragraph essay taught in elementary and high schools, is a distinctly marked essay writing technique with an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion that restates the thesis. Bruce Bowles, theorist and researcher on composition at Texas A&M, describes this method as a product of “assessment washback” (221). With assessment washback, instead of teaching what a normal curriculum should look like, teachers resort to teaching students how to take tests and more importantly, score well on them. The five-paragraph essay is a hallmark of standardized testing, as it makes grading easy for testing companies and provides an assurance that, if done properly, a student would receive a high score. Its popularity in curriculums has established the format to be the high school student’s go-to essay strategy. The virus of the five-paragraph essay has spread outside of the test room and has crept into the homework assignments and essays. Students have begun to use this format over and over again in response to every prompt and for every class.

While marketed as a strong default approach, the five-paragraph essay actually hurts a student’s quality of writing as it doesn’t allow students to think critically about their work. As Bowles puts it in his essay, the five-paragraph theme:

Imparts a hollow, formulaic notion of writing to students that emphasizes adherence to generic features rather than focusing on the quality of content, informed research practices, effective persuasive techniques, and attention to the specific contexts in which students will compose. (221)

Students rely on hitting all the structural criteria in the five-paragraph essay and neglect to think about the rhetoric of their work, their argument, or include skillful thinking. This formula has become a crutch that’s allowed students to become blind to their work, prioritizing quantity over quality. Rose demonstrates the theory of continual learning in writing, and Bowles executes these ideas as he explains how the five-paragraph essay prevents learning and growth as a whole.

Let’s take a look at an example student, Katie, who is working on an essay for school. Because modern-day school curriculums revolve around standardized test preparation, the essays assigned to students will often look the same way as tests would: with a hallmark oversaturated topic, such as abortion, death penalty, or dress code, and a strong emphasis on the FPE. So, in this case, Katie will be writing an essay arguing the death penalty. Katie, like many other students in high school, relies on the five-paragraph essay formula to pull her through this assignment. See her diagram below.

Katie will plug her ideas into this formula and apply the “generic features” she was taught to create this perfect amalgamation of public-school blandness. She might use strategies like a basic hook such as “Did you know?” or include some vague scenario, then neglect that same hook until the last paragraph where she might mention it once or twice, as an attempt to “tie it all together.” If you look closely at the diagram, you may notice that the body paragraphs only really have room for topic sentences, evidence, and analysis. The evidence most likely comes from the same source that was provided by the teacher, so naturally, everyone in the class is using the same evidence. After that, it’s not hard to even have some of the same arguments and analyses. In fact, Katie’s argument not only sounds like the many other students in the class, but you can almost mistake them for any argument pulled from a generic online search. With a formula like this, it would be incredibly difficult to add substance or depth to your argument. Look again at the five-paragraph essay diagram. There is no room for counterarguments, personal evaluations, connections to current events, or any nuances that give your writing power. The special thing about Katie is that she has an uncle that’s been incarcerated in the U.S prison system. Her perspective on criminal justice would be critical in an argument like this, but there is no space for her thoughts in the formula. So, for fear of losing points, she didn’t bother contributing her insight. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. This essay doesn’t include me,” Katie thinks. Instead, she focuses on hitting all the structural points: introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion. She turns the paper in. She gets an A in exchange for her ideas to remain unheard.

With the five-paragraph essay, writing has become gamified. Students like Katie use the formula to play “how many points can I get if I write an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion?” Internal questions spur such as, “How many more points will I get if I use big words I don’t really understand? What if I use a hook? What if I restate my thesis in the conclusion?” drive her thinking. You are no longer earning points for your work – you’re winning them for your obedience. Andrea Lunsford, editor, and English professor at Stanford University, discusses how writing is performative in many situations. “Writers interact with, address, invoke, become and create audiences,” and writing is used to declare events, create change, and to inspire knowledge (21). With this, the five-paragraph essay clearly demonstrates how students are performing for a grade. The formula has transformed the study of writing from a practice of a critical tool into a thoughtless vehicle for an A.

The effects of the five-paragraph essay damage not only the quality of the work but limits the scope of one’s learning. In fact, the five-paragraph essay has encouraged students to stop learning altogether. Students have stopped differentiating new writing situations they are put in, and in turn, have stopped using new strategies. Rose illustrates the same concept when she states that “writers must struggle to write in new contexts and genres, a matter of transferring what they know but also learning new things about what works in the present situation” (60). It is critical for a student to struggle in a new writing situation to learn and benefit from using new strategies. Every writing situation has its nuances and quirks. So, a student’s strategy may apply well to one situation, but cannot be recycled for another. For example, a student that applies the five-paragraph essay for an English class about Shakespeare would be making a poor decision to apply the same format to their scientific paper for Biology. The introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion will not be appropriate for your lab report, and more than that, would lose your credibility. Therefore, when students use the same format for each essay and constantly recycle, they do themselves a disservice. They don’t practice new writing. It is merely a rehearsal of old strategies. This expression of bland uniformity is where the beauty of writing gets lost.

Students need to know that this “beauty of writing” is that learning is never ending. Rose eloquently states, “one of the first lessons writers learn, one that may be either frustrating or inspiring, is that they will never have learned all that can be known about writing and will never be able to demonstrate all they do know about writing” (59). While writers will not be able to know everything about writing, the best they can do is to understand the situation they’re writing for and learn more about it. The most skillful writers are the ones who are the most willing to learn. Realizing that writing is a lifelong learning experience has given me room to breathe and opportunities to grow. It is okay to be imperfect in my writing because imperfection is a requirement; imperfection is what leads us to learn. Chasing perfection would simply be foolish.

As a college student that has recognized the beauty of such writing, I am heartbroken to see the effects of the five-paragraph essay on students today. It must be impossible to try to embrace a practice that’s only been regarded as a way to achieve test scores. It must be impossible to love something that feels so mechanical and formulaic. More than that, however, it must be hard to not truly be able to express your most unique ideas.

With the five-paragraph essay formula, students have internalized that schools don’t actually care about what you have to say. What they’re prioritizing is the structure of your essay and if you’ve met all the points. There is no room for creativity in a formula. What’s more tragic is that we’ve accepted this after tireless usage of the format. We have had new ideas but have been told not to chase them.

We’ve strayed from writing. Real-ass writing. Writing that someone gives a fuck about. We must unlearn traditional and non-helpful practices that have come from “assessment washback” (Bowles 221). When we are able to truly think and internalize our arguments, using all of our resources and potential, it is then that we may use writing as a tool to change minds. It is then that writing has power. Understanding the origins of these writing constraints will help students break free from them and produce more organic writing.

On a larger scope, we, as college students, must take action and change the school systems that have failed us. Bowles suggests that to eradicate the reliance on standardized testing and “assessment washback,” schools should use local school assessments and GPA for funding (224). Rose advocates for the practice of continually putting students into new writing situations to learn and grow (61). By merging Bowles’ ideals of a new format for the school system and Rose’s approach to writing, students can think more deeply about their own writing practices, reflect on them, and improve. If we don’t fix our school systems, let us mourn the death of critical thinking, free-flowing ideas, and quality and sound arguments in the essays our students write.

Works Cited

Rose, Shirley. “All Writers Have More to Learn.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, an imprint of University Press of Colorado, 2015. 

Bowles, Bruce. “The Five Paragraph Theme Teaches Beyond the Test.” Bad Ideas About Writing, edited by Cheryl E. Ball and Drew M. Loewe, West Virginia University Libraries Digital Publishing Institute, 2017, 231-235. 

Lunsford, Andrea. “Writing Is Performative.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, an imprint of University Press of Colorado, 2015. 

Schooling and its Effects on Neurodiverse Authority

by Gavin Pereira ScocciaPhoto of Gavin Pereira Scoccia

Gavin Pereira Scoccia is a biology major and anthropology minor from Brookline, MA. While writing this essay Gavin says, “I was so upset at the education system for not giving me, or my neurodivergent peers, a chance.” Gavin shares that he was diagnosed with ADHD at a young age but “never got accommodations despite needing them, leading me to fail in school.” Gavin often believed that he was lazy, did not try hard, and was simply not good enough, and he believes that schools often let students down because they have preconceived notions about what makes a “good student.” He was lucky enough to find teachers who took the time to “work with me and taught me skills that came naturally to other students. I thrived under those teachers’ care.” Gavin says that this essay “is a manifestation of my rage as a neurodivergent person.” Gavin has also been advocating for animal rights since elementary school. He works in the veterinary field and sees the joys that animals bring to everyone in their lives. He strives to make those animals’ lives just as joyful and healthy as possible.

The ability to have confidence in our own ideas is a skill that becomes increasingly important as we progress through our lives. It allows us to communicate our thoughts effectively and gain confidence, which is valued in academia and the workforce. Generally, this skill is called authority. We start cultivating it at a young age, and it grows with us. Yet some are encouraged more than others to express their thoughts, causing a societal discrepancy. This is a never-ending cycle where the favored group remains the most vocal while the minorities have their thoughts dismissed. This phenomenon occurs at nearly every intersection of power in our lives. It is well documented how the effects of racism and sexism can affect the authority. But the exploration of this topic for several minority groups still remains underexplored. One such example is the effects of ableism on authority in the case of neurodivergent students.

If you were to present an idea to a class of students and ask them what they thought, you would find that each of their answers would be unique. That is, only if all the students had a well-developed sense of authority. In reality, it is much more likely that the students would remain quiet, or let a few people speak for the class. The confidence to interpret an idea and speak is something that is “related to factors such as age and gender. Confidence in one’s own authority is assumed to increase generally with age, but gender may also influence this development” (Penrose and Geisler 506-507). But in situations where a group has been systematically oppressed for their identity, it becomes harder to gain authority. This is, in part, due to systematic oppression which continues to tell the group that their lack of authority is their own fault.

We can see a clear difference between how a lack of authority due to inexperience and a lack of authority due to oppression present themselves. Sexism can also affect how women express their thoughts and their confidence in their ideas and interpretations. For example, in “Reading and Writing Without Authority” Ann M. Penrose and Cheryl Geisler explore the differences in authority between a man with a Ph.D. named Roger and an undergraduate woman named Janet. Their findings showed that Janet’s “process differences could not be explained simply by pointing to differences in topic knowledge” but were, in part, attributed to her gender (Penrose and Geisler 507). But a lack of authority caused by oppression is not just present in the case of sexism; it is a universal experience among other minorities.

If the oppression has ties to the way the minority speaks or writes, we can also see that group’s authority, in an educational setting, is increasingly shunned. For example, Black Language is deeply tied to African Americans due to the history of the African diaspora in the United States. Despite deserving the respect that is afforded to many other languages, it is often discriminated against. In the academic setting, this is extremely detrimental to authority.

When Black students’ language practices are suppressed in classrooms or they begin to absorb messages that imply that BL [Black Language] is deficient, wrong, and unintelligent, this could cause them to internalize anti-blackness and develop negative attitudes about their linguistic, racial, cultural, and intellectual identities and about themselves. (qtd. in Baker-Bell 10)

Students who speak a second language experience a similar type of discrimination often in the form of the ESL classroom. If a student is an immigrant or comes from a household where more than one language is spoken, they will most likely be evaluated or automatically placed in an ESL classroom where they are expected to improve their English. This label often sticks with them for their entire school career, impacting the classes they take and the connections they make with non-ESL students.

Despite sounding like a good opportunity for those who aren’t native in English, “Chiang and Schmida found that the label ‘linguistic minority’ often hindered these students because they ‘are expected to stumble over the English language for it is not their native tongue’ and that students then internalized these expectations and were led by them to ‘see themselves as incapable of owning the language’” (qtd. in Ortmeier-Hooper 393). In both cases, we see clear academic discrimination based on language in which “students who absorb negative ideologies about their native language… develop a sense of linguistic inferiority and ‘lose confidence in the learning process, their own abilities, their educators, and school in general’ (Charity Hudley & Mallinson, 2014, p. 33)” (Baker-Bell 10). Knowing that authority is deeply tied to language discrimination allows us to look further into the authority of neurodivergent students, whose disabilities often directly affect their ability to speak and write in an “appropriate” way.

Neurodivergence (ND) refers to a group of disorders that affects neurological development, most existing on a spectrum of severity. The most common diagnostic categories of neurodivergence include:

(a) intellectual disabilities; (b) communication disorders; (c) autism spectrum disorders; (d) attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder; (e) specific learning disorders (e.g., dyslexia and dyscalculia); and (f) motor disorders (including developmental coordination and movements disorders, Tourette’s, and tic disorders). (Filipe 160)

Despite the label including a large array of unique disorders, most have overlapping symptoms that make an academic setting difficult. Symptoms that affect executive function, social interactions, and reading make writing specifically one of the most challenging subjects for these students. One of the most well-studied ND disorders in the realm of academics is ADHD. In these students, we are able to see a clear linguistic difference from their neurotypical (NT) peers. Students with ADHD tend to use less “complex sentences, clause per sentence, morpheme per sentence, and numeral pronouns, whereas they showed a higher frequency of using sentences and adjectives in their writing” (Kim et al. 691). This pattern of speech is not specific to ADHD and is often seen in certain other ND disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome (Jackson et al.). It should be noted that these linguistic differences are not due to a lack of understanding of writing conventions, but rather a stylistic trend due to a difference in processing.

These differences don’t just affect word use and sentence structure, but they also affect the process of writing itself. The very nature of neurodivergence creates a thought process different from the majority; these differences are rarely accepted despite often being surface level. ND students may struggle with planning, understanding directions, and choosing an assignment topic. Walters states that “it is possible that [ND] students…may not experience the same stages of writing that structure neurotypical process approaches to writing (Walters 349). Walters shares that ND and NT students experience a number of the same difficulties with the writing process. All students can struggle with “time management, starting an essay, choosing a topic, understanding directions, and completing revisions” but the ND student faces challenges that are different “not in kind, but in degree” from NT students (Walters 349). Students do not necessarily struggle because they are ND but because of the ways they are supported, or not, in their writing approaches.

In an unstructured learning environment, these problems become exacerbated, making what could have been an easy assignment very difficult. While Walters never says that the struggles that students with neurodivergence face are not related to the symptomatology, I believe she underplays the fact that the students’ struggles can be direct symptoms of neurodivergence, which are worsened by unsupportive classroom environments. To add to this, ND students often have significant syntactic differences which, while grammatically correct, are considered lower quality writing (Kim et al.691). Some of these significant differences in ND’s language style may be a potential cause for lower grades on writing and writing assignments. The expectation for classrooms and writing conventions are built around NT people. ND people naturally do not fit these conventions, putting them at a disadvantage in the classroom.

The combination of being in an unsupportive learning environment and having their language overly critiqued is exactly the same situation that other minority students face. As previously mentioned, this combination of factors leads to a lack of authority. Neurodivergent students overwhelmingly feel a lack of support which leads them to dismiss their ideas. Co-existing disorders are extremely common in the ND population, specifically depression and anxiety, but “above all, people with ADHD conditions have very poor self-esteem” (Kim et al. 687). These are trends seen in all ND conditions. Having poor self-esteem is undoubtedly tied to poor authority. It is therefore no surprise that ND students have lower GPAs and are often in worse academic standing than their NT peers (Kim et al. 691). If classrooms were better equipped to handle “neurodiverse approaches to writing” and schools more effective at providing support, an improvement in the performance, authority, and mental health of ND students would be expected (Walters 349).

As social awareness increases and stigma decreases, we are beginning to see a rise in the number of children and adults diagnosed with neurodivergent disorders (Zablotsky et al.). The current education system has already been failing the previous number of ND students it had. A change has to happen in order to properly support the growth and education of neurodiverse students. Authority is so fundamental to life outside of school; it allows for self-advocacy, job opportunities, and continued education. These skills are especially important for students with disabilities who will no doubt face discrimination in other aspects of their lives. Creating an environment that actively dismisses the authority of these students is a perpetuation of ableism. In almost all cases, it is not the neurodivergence of the student that contributes to their academic failure, but rather the academy itself.

Creating a classroom that is accommodating to neurodivergence won’t just help ND students. NT students often face similar challenges in classrooms, and allowing differences in writing helps everyone because no human is the same. Writing classrooms should focus less on word choice and sentence structure and more on effective communication. The complexity of sentences has no impact on the ability to get a point across. This change would also accommodate those who speak Black Language or those who aren’t native in English. Idiolectic diversity should be cultivated instead of being seen as “unacademic”.

Courses should also be designed for flexibility in assignments, with opportunities for different genres, topics, and project lengths (Tomlinson and Newman 106). Current schooling and grading revolve around satisfying the teacher’s expectations; this can be socially complicated and difficult for ND students to navigate. Teacher-focused assignments don’t promote authority or growth and are often boring for all students. Giving students freedom over their assignments allows them to get excited and invested in their work. Rules and expectations are still important but should be applied in other areas.

Communication about grading criteria and assignment expectations should be specific and clear to allow students to understand what a teacher actually wants to see. There should be little room for interpretation so that students don’t get confused but should still allow for assignment freedom. Instructors can break down long assignments into smaller steps to keep students on track, and mandatory check-ins can be a useful tool in this process. ND students may feel uncomfortable coming to office hours or seeking help; building these check-ins into the course sets clear social expectations that help the student. Alternatives to assignments and expectations should always be welcome as they often mean the student is able to learn better. For example, instead of writing an outline for an essay, allowing for a graphic organizer fulfills the same role and may work better for the student. The goal in education should always be to do what is best for the student.

The current state of education is one where flexibility isn’t given, and accommodations are often fought against. Unfortunately, this means that ND students are left behind and consequently made to feel like their opinions are worthless. Allowing ND students to express their divergence through their writing fosters authority by giving them confidence in their intellect. The classroom should be a space to flex authoritative muscles, giving students the skills they’ll need later in life. In order to allow ND students to thrive we must dismantle the view that accommodations are only for the disabled. Widespread flexibility in writing promotes the authority of all students, regardless of their neurological status.

Works Cited
Baker-Bell, April. “Dismantling Anti-Black Linguistic Racism in English Language Arts Classrooms: Toward an Anti-Racist Black Language Pedagogy.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 59, no. 1, 14 Nov. 2019, pp. 8–21.

Filipe, Marisa. “How Do Executive Functions Issues Affect Writing in Students with Neurodevelopmental Disorders?Executive Functions and Writing, Oxford University Press, 2021, pp. 160–180.

Jackson, Lynn G., et al. “Effects of Learning Strategy Training on the Writing Performance of College Students with Asperger’s Syndrome.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 48, no. 3, 30 Mar. 2017, pp. 708–721.

Kim, Kyungil, et al. “College Students with ADHD Traits and Their Language Styles.” Journal of Attention Disorders, vol. 19, no. 8, 2015, pp. 687–693.

Ortmeier-Hooper, Christina. ““English May Be My Second Language, but I’m Not ‘ESL.’”.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 59, no. 3, 2008, pp. 389–419. JSTOR.

Penrose, Ann M., and Cheryl Geisler. “Reading and Writing without Authority.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 45, no. 4, 1994, pp. 505-20.

Tomlinson, Elizabeth, and Sara Newman. “Valuing Writers from a Neurodiversity Perspective: Integrating New Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder into Composition Pedagogy.” Composition Studies, vol. 45, no. 2,2017, pp. 91-112.

Walters, Shannon. “Toward a Critical ASD Pedagogy of Insight: Teaching, Researching, and Valuing the Social Literacies of Neurodiverse Students.” Research in the Teaching of English, vol. 49, no. 4, 2015, pp. 340–60.

Zablotsky, Benjamin, et al. “Prevalence and Trends of Developmental Disabilities among Children in the United States: 2009–2017.” Pediatrics (Evanston), vol. 144, no. 4, 2019.

Life’s a Fashion Show (If You’re a Teenage Girl)

Photo of Madeline Murphy

by Madeline Murphy

Madeline Murphy is a double major in physics and art from Dorchester, MA. Fashion is a hobby of Madeline’s, she felt it was important to look back and “explore the role of fashion in the world of middle and high school, to help myself and others better understand our outfit choices: a task we complete every day, yet maybe don’t analyze enough.” Madeline considers fashion to be an art form and often compares fashion trends to art movements. She enjoys sewing and has been working on enhancing her garment-making skills. Madeline enjoys painting portraits and reading books, particularly those related to physics theories. Despite the apparent differences between art and science, to Madeline, they “both operate as explanations of the world, and they make a lot of sense as a pair to me.”

Everything began at the mall. In the universe of adolescent female friendship, the mall is the Big Bang. It’s the beginning of everything for us. It’s at the mall where our first friendships are born, it’s at the mall where our consumerist habits are nurtured, it’s at the mall where we begin to understand ourselves.

I’ve loved clothes ever since I was little. I love concocting new pairings of pants and shirts. I love layering my necklaces and having a ring on each finger. I love seeing where the clothes take me, I love treating my outfits as an art form. I’ve lived most of my autonomous life as a teenage girl: an identity that has no doubt shaped the way I dress. From dress codes to fashion blogs, the way teenage girls dress has always been under a cultural microscope. We’re scrutinized and judged and condemned for the clothes we wear; therefore, our wardrobe choices often mean more than a simple “I like the color of this top.” We use fashion to talk to each other and to speak to the world around us, but how? How does fashion function as a form of communication for teenage girls?

The mall is not a respected place. Shopping is not a respected hobby. Treating life like a fashion show is a frivolous phase, a trivial usage of time. These cultural conceptions about the mall always ignore the crucial role that these massive shopping centers play in the development of teenage girls. In the article “Talking Fashion in Female Friendship Groups: Negotiating the Necessary Marketplace Skills and Knowledge,” Sheehy notes that often young girls “engage in long, intense talks” to build and sustain friendships but “girls often need the pretext of an activity” in order for these talks to occur (qtd. in Yalkin and Rosenbaum-Elliott 304). According to Haytoko and Baker, shopping therefore becomes the origin story of female friendship, “as demonstrated by the importance of the mall for female adolescents’ friendship groups” (qtd. in Yalkin and Rosenbaum-Elliott 304 ). As a young girl, the mall was the most magical place I could imagine. It represented infinite possibilities: every teenage girl in every PG-13 movie practically lived at the mall; shopping bags always dangled from their arms and their credit cards (mysteriously) never maxed out. To my understanding, the mall embodied the essence of teenage girlhood: a fact that has not changed since my middle school days. The mall is the creation story of adolescent female friendship, it is our collective Garden of Eden. Fashion is in our bones. Because the patriarchy demands that our bodies be left on eternal display (for a never-blinking, never-ending audience of men), our clothes take center stage in the performance of teenage girlhood.

The way teenage girls dress is under such a bright societal spotlight that deviating from the de facto dress code is an act of rebellion, therefore positing conformity as the most natural state to exist in. Teenage girls are an eclectic, kaleidoscopic group. There seems to be an endless gamut of “teenage girl”: cool girl, clean girl, it girl, fashion girl, artsy girl, sporty girl, smart girl, musical girl, and so on. In this way, girls are separated and defined by their hobbies. We cannot exist without the hard edges of our interests to give us form and space and weight – without these defining hobbies, we are lost in a sea of flickering, ill-defined girls, blinking in and out of existence. We blur into the monolith. Ultimately, it is our choice whether we want to blend into this collective or differentiate ourselves. Through clothes, teenage girls decide where they want to fall on the spectrum of visibility. In order to better understand the teenage girls that I’m writing about, I conducted a survey for anyone between 13 to 19 years old who identifies as a female, and I distributed it to both high school and college students. In my survey, 76.2% of my 42 participants described their style as “basic.” This is a style that’s characterized by leggings and jeans, Brandy Melville tops, simple jewelry, and casual shoes. “Basic” is the status quo and conforming to the status quo is a tool of survival. Teenage girls who dress “basic” are choosing to remain stylistically indistinguishable from their peers, because their hobbies and interests are not immediately evident from their fashion. By forfeiting their individuality, they are gaining a protective veil of anonymity. Furthermore, 34 participants (or 81%) agreed with the statement “I care about the way my outfits look,” revealing that most teenage girls are not only aware of the special attention placed on them, but aim to appease these powers that govern them. Whether for concern about male validation or female acceptance, on the whole, teenage girls aim to fit in. This desire to conform translates to a total absence of risk when it comes to presenting themselves. Beyond an instinctually human anxiety concerning other people’s perceptions of you, teenage girls deal with heightened stakes regarding their wardrobe.

Moving through the world as a teenage girl means being judged for any and all decisions you make. The list of possible judges is endless; however, most often, judgements are handed down by our own. Teenage girls judge other teenage girls. In their paper, “Reading Fashion as Age: Teenage Girls’ and Grown Women’s Accounts of Clothing as Body and Social Status,” Ingun Grimstad Klepp and Ardis Storm-Mathisen, researchers of consumerism at Oslo Metropolitan University, conducted interviews to study the social politics of teen girl fashion. Since the bodies of teenage girls are imprisoned under a societal spotlight – they are analyzed, sexualized, and ostracized without abandon nor care for the hearts and minds encased inside – a surplus of opinions exists surrounding a girl’s decision to either reveal or cover her body. Klepp and Storm-Mathisen explain that: “Baggy clothes have little value for teenage girls precisely because such clothes hide the body’s feminine shapes. Girls who opt to wear baggier pants, such as sweatpants, are described as unpopular by other teenage girls” (Klepp 328). Thus, the bodies of teenage girls are deemed to be the most essential part of them, so popularity is preserved by wearing tight clothes. As a teenage girl, you are condemned to exist on a spectrum ranging from slut to prude. There is no escape from this fate. Therefore, the way you dress – and the degree to which your body is revealed – communicates where you fall on this spectrum. Tight clothes make you a slut, and baggy clothes make you a prude. In my survey, 81% of the participants revealed that they shop where they do because the clothes fit their personal style, while 76.2% of the participants answered that they shop where they do because the clothes are comfortable. These percentages suggest a correlation between personal style and comfortability for teenage girls. “Comfortable clothes” is a genre of fashion that centers the experience of wearing clothes, rather than aesthetics: it includes anything from leggings to sweatpants, and form-fitting Lululemon zip-ups to baggy sweatshirts. However, is comfortability an elusive desire for teenage girls, since our every wardrobe decision is judged so brutally? Is it not impossible to be comfortable with the eyes of our peers studying our every outfit, understanding that our popularity is at risk with our every choice? Sexuality shouldn’t be something that is irreversibly tethered to your fashion choices; however, knowing that the world perceives your outfit in black and white – as either a solicitation or a refusal – means that your clothing choices escalate into an unspoken communication with the world.

This silent communication reinforces the social hierarchy of teenage girls, which is built upon the divisions between them. Acquiescing to the status quo or resisting the predetermined mold either lifts you up or drags you down on the pyramid of teenage girl popularity. This hierarchy is often explored in popular media. For instance, Euphoria is an Emmy award-winning HBO show that attracts a substantial audience of American teenage girls. During a therapy session, Jules Vaungh, a main character on the show, explains the social hierarchies she observes other girls participating in:

“JULES: Well…Like… Most girls, when you first talk to them, they, like, automatically analyze and compare themselves to you. And then, you know, they, they, search for where you fit in their hierarchy, and then they treat you accordingly.

THERAPIST: What hierarchy?

JULES: Like, how close you are to what they all collectively want to be. Like, in their heads.


JULES: And, you know , even if they’ve, like, mastered the art of hiding it with, like, smiles and nods, and small talk, it’s, like, you’d still catch them doing it. Like, like their eyes wandering over your face, or… or, you know, the quick takes up and down your body. Or like, they watch how your clothes hang off your torso, or, like, they look for what tags are on your clothes to see where you shop, or they’ll watch your hands to find, like, fucked up cuticles or chipped nail polish. Honestly, it would, it would be a kind of sensual experience if it wasn’t so fucking terrifying” (Euphoria).

We can’t take Jules’s monologue as fact – since it’s from a fictional TV show. However, we can analyze it as a piece of media that’s popular with teenage girls for a reason. Her words can serve as a magnification of the feelings shared by all teenage girls, whether they participate in the organization of their peers on an invisible pyramid or not. This same hierarchy is examined by Klepp and Storm-Mathisen in their study, from which a participant reveals her opinions about a classmate who fails to conform. In one girl’s account she shares: “We had a girl in our class who was very boyish. And sometimes we wondered why she never wears fashion clothes. If you really think about it, they wouldn’t have suited her much better. She doesn’t have the right shape for them. So it doesn’t matter for her” (Klepp 328). This 13-year-old girl’s testimonial and Jules’s monologue reveal how the body and clothes of a teenage girl fuse together to create the power which she wields over her peers. Popularity is achieved by harvesting that power. Shirts and pants and shoes make the unspoken, unseen world of teen girl pecking orders observable to all. Adapting to the desired mold – wearing tight, basic clothes – increases your value to the system, because you’re harmonizing your identity to the collective’s idea of what a teenage girl should be. Considering that, dressing alternatively either demotes (if you’re unsuccessful in your attempt to diverge) or upgrades (if you’re successful in your attempt to diverge) your spot on the pyramid. However, the quantity of alternative teenage girls differs vastly between online and reality.

Social media causes people to adapt themselves to whatever app they tap open. If we conceptualize social media apps as different rooms in a house, then we’re modifying our personas to match whatever digital room we walk into. This transformation is something we instinctively know to do. Michelle Ruiz, a contributing editor for Vogue and a freelance journalist who specializes in writing about social trends, writes that we all want to look “professional on work Zooms, polished on Instagram, flirty on dating profiles and fuzzily relatable on TikTok, while occasionally appeasing your mom on Facebook” (Ruiz). This shapeshifting is most extreme on TikTok, which 43.9% of my survey participants reported as the social media app that provides them with the most inspiration for outfits. The digital landscape is a flat expanse, and the only way to separate ourselves from our cyber contemporaries is to build ourselves up. Using our identity as the bricks and mortar, we construct our digital presence. Niche and more niche interests are piled on top of each other until our online persona – a mountain of arcane hobbies and obscure books and underground movies – reaches towards the infinite cosmos of originality. This is an endeavor that proves particularly challenging for teenage girls. Abiding by the simple laws of the patriarchy, our identities are devalued from the get-go. So, in order to prove to the world that we are interesting and deep and worth listening to, we have to struggle to erect an online persona that is distinctly different from all other teenage girls. Hence, “not like other girls” syndrome.

“Not like other girls”-syndrome (an informal name) is a social phenomenon: in an attempt to avoid the suffocation of the patriarchy, teenage girls separate themselves from the “other girls” (the monolith: the girls who dress basically). Girls who believe that they’re “not like other girls” are reacting to misogyny by distancing themselves from anything traditionally feminine. In its most simplistic form, this syndrome manifests itself as hatred for the color pink, contempt for skirts, and hostility towards feminine girls. On TikTok, “not like other girls”-syndrome is pushed to its extreme, mutating into something new: “not like anyone who has ever lived before because I am completely original”-syndrome, a name I’ve given to this advanced form of “not like other girls”-syndrome. The excessively fast-paced trend cycle of TikTok means that teenage girls are snatching at anything that’ll give them the upper hand in the battle for originality. The rarer your clothes, the cooler you are. And coolness is everything. When it comes to fashion, TikTok is a breeding ground for competition. Likes, comments, and followers are overt proof that your digital persona is a success – you’ve attained power within the digital hierarchy of teenage girls.

Beyond external hierarchies, we can examine internal hierarchies that impact the way teenage girls use clothes to communicate. In the field of psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory that is often illustrated as a pyramid with 5 levels (listed from bottom to top): physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Needs that are low on the hierarchy must be met before one can advance to the higher levels (Mcleod). Therefore, teenage girls who cannot afford to participate in mall culture are abandoned at the bottom of this psychological pyramid, fighting to attain the bare minimum to survive. For girls living in poverty, there’s an overt absence of literature that explains how their socioeconomic standing impacts their relationship to fashion. Their experience of girlhood is wholly unrepresented in both the spaces that teenage girls occupy, and in the academic publications that analyze these spaces. These girls are rendered invisible because they don’t even have the opportunity to conform, much less to reject the status quo. Furthermore, the highest level of Maslow’s pyramid – self-actualization – is one that most people never reach, regardless of wealth. Joe Yaeger, a marketing professional who teaches at Thomas Jefferson University, writes on his blog that “[self-actualization] comes only when a person realizes their own personal abilities and traits, both good and bad […] They no longer need a high number of friends and followers to feel satisfied with themselves” (Yaeger). For teenage girls, attaining self-actualization can feel the same as shirking self-actualization. Teenage girls are defined wholly by their outfits and hobbies – an unstable foundation for any identity – and they conceptualize themselves in terms of these two elements. Therefore, it’s easy to conflate validation from their peers with genuine self-security: both are products of teenage girls’ attempt to outline their own existence. Dressing to be as unique as possible is therefore either the ultimate form of rebellion against the patriarchy, or the absolute abandonment of power.

From the very beginning, fashion has been an essential tool of communication for teenage girls. The mall is our collective Big Bang; it’s where we first began to understand our girlhood and curate our identities. From the mall, we’ve spread out to the far-reaching corners of the teenage girl universe. The hierarchies we build determine the laws of this universe, and clothes function as the superluminal signals communicating our home amongst the stars. So, the next time you’re getting dressed, think about why you’re dressed the way you are. What is your outfit communicating to the world?

Works Cited
Euphoria. Created by Sam Levinson, HBO Entertainment, 2021.

Klepp, Ingun Grimstad, and Ardis Storm-Mathisen. “Reading Fashion as Age: Teenage Girls’ and Grown Women’s Accounts of Clothing as Body and Social Status.” Fashion Theory, vol. 9, no. 3, 2005, pp. 323–42.

Kim, Eun Young, and Youn-Kyung Kim. “The Effects of Ethnicity and Gender on Teens’ Mall Shopping Motivations.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, vol. 23, no.2, pp. 65–77.

Mcleod, Sean. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology, 2007.McLeod, S. A. (2007). 

Murphy, Madeline. “Research Project.” Survey, 2022.

Ruiz, Michelle. “Style & Fashion: The Digital Dress Code.” The Wall Street Journal Eastern Edition, 2022.

Yalkin, Cagri, and Richard Rosenbaum-Elliott. “Talking Fashion in Female Friendship Groups: Negotiating the Necessary Marketplace Skills and Knowledge.” Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 37, no. 2, 2014, pp. 301–31. 

Yeager, Joe. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Explains Teens’ Obsession with Social Media.Josephmyeager, 2016. 

The Practicalities of Code-Switching

Photo of Armani Dure

by Armani Dure

Armani Dure is a labor studies major from Malden, MA. After reading previously published Undercurrents essays, specifically Aneika Robinson’s essay on marginalization through race and language, Armani was inspired to reflect on his own interactions with academic spaces. He says that “This semester was one of the first times I really experimented using ‘I’ in my academic writing.” He adds that using “I” in his writing “allowed me to not only connect more to my writing but also get more personal. I think that ability gave this essay its flair.” Armani’s major indicates his passion for social and economic justice, along with an interest in the role and history of labor unions. He says, “Both the idea, and the implementation, of collective action are fascinating to me. I’ve followed the various strikes throughout the summer and it has been encouraging seeing all these people come together in solidarity.”

One of the most important aspects of living in America as a black person is adapting. I feel like, in some ways, you have to tiptoe around life to make sure you don’t hit a landmine. This affects how we live our day to day lives and makes us internalize certain actions like keeping your hoodie down at night, driving slowly on the road, acting overly sweet in some social interactions, etc. This “tiptoeing” does not only exist in the daily lives of black people, it also extends to how we interact in academic settings. For example, I feel like I often have to present a hyper-curated version of myself in academic settings in order to feel accepted. I also feel the need to overcompensate for any perceived prejudice. While I have to change my mannerisms for academic discussion, it also affects how I write. Many of the mannerisms, phrases, and slang I would use outside of an academic setting feel inappropriate to use in both writing and discussion.

The racist aspects of our society, but specifically academia, are what makes what should be considered normal speech wrongfully shunned. There is an apparent stigma around the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). It is often seen as unprofessional and inappropriate in everyday life, but particularly in academic spaces. This stigma makes many people of color elect to not use AAVE in academic space and choose to code-switch instead. This is a large societal issue, but if the social stigma around the use of AAVE exists, then code-switching provides a valuable utility.

In the journal Undercurrents: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Composition, Aneika Robinson writes about the feeling that one needs to code-switch extensively. Undercurrents is student-written and published by UMass Boston. In Undercurrents, Aneika Robinson writes specifically about the use of code-switching and African American Vernacular English (or AAVE) in formal academic writing. Robinson defines code-switching as “…language conversion” (Robinson). She identifies the feeling black individuals have to change language as code-switching. In this essay, Robinson is able to identify the process black people passively go through when interacting with their writing. She also correctly describes the inherent racism in the need to code switch when she writes, “…I believe after you start changing how you speak, you lose part of yourself, even if you just limit your dialect in only certain settings” (Robinson). For me personally, code-switching can feel inauthentic because I have to cut out many of the phrases and sayings I use. Code-switching is like showing only part of me rather than the whole picture. Robinson also finds in her paper that “many African Americans, including myself, do not always speak in what one may call your ‘Standard English’ and often engage in ‘code-switching,’” which oppresses black people (Robinson). Establishing that there is one correct way to speak and all other ways are improper establishes a sort of hierarchy in speech. When applied to AAVE, it implicitly means the way that black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) speak is somehow worse. This assumed inferiority creates negative attitudes about the use of AAVE in predominantly non-black spaces. This, combined with the heavy use of slang, also causes AAVE to be considered “ghetto” or “fake,” reinforcing the feeling that people of color can’t use AAVE in professional and academic settings.

The association of AAVE with negative traits connects to the argument Robinson presents that it has an overall negative effect on marginalized people. Robinson says that these characteristics jump from being about the dialect to about the people. This migration from language to people is obvious, despite the fact there is no intrinsic quality to different dialects that would display different levels of intelligence. We know this, too. While there is a stereotype that southern or valley accents are “dumb,” people aren’t surprised when a Texas-born southerner is intelligent. We like when people match stereotypes, but we know our place of origin cannot determine whether we are smart or dumb. I think it is interesting how an intelligent person who uses AAVE would be surprising to some people who think AAVE is exclusive to the uneducated. My theory is that instead of regional origin being attached to the dialect, race is attached to AAVE. The presumption of intelligence from someone who uses AAVE is not attached to a large group of people from several states with few unifying similarities like a regional dialect. It is instead attached to a racial group with physical similarity and preexisting prejudice.

I agree with Robinson that society’s negative attitude towards AAVE causes harm to people of color. However, Robinson goes on to say that there is essentially no benefit to the use of code-switching. She writes, “they are still vulnerable to prejudice, as the discrimination that African American students receive goes deeper than just language” (Robinson). While there is a point to all BIPOC being vulnerable to prejudice, it is my opinion that they have to mitigate the prejudice they face. I think code-switching, like when black people feel necessary to do so in professional or academic settings, reduces the prejudice we face. In my opinion, enforcing the idea that black people should code-switch because AAVE is less intelligent than standard English is racist. It establishes that a cultural element of black people makes them less intelligent than the majority culture, which is white. There is a level of nuance to this conversation. Stanley Fish, an author Robinson cites, writes about composition education at a college level. Fish says many things in his New York Times opinion piece that I disagree with, such as, “students are too infected with the simplistic egalitarianism of soft multiculturalism to declare that they have a right to their own language” (qtd. in Robinson). I still believe that there is some value in his words that Robinson discounts, “students…are being prepared for entry into the world as it is now rather than the world as it might be in some utopian imagination – all dialects equal, all habits of speech and writing equally rewarded.” (qtd. in Robinson). While I think the ideas Fish presents in his article are generally close-minded, there is truth in the idea that we are not equally rewarded for the way we speak. The rewards for BIPOC are essentially diminished because of the way we speak. In a society where people of color are given fewer rewards, further diminishing those rewards feels foolish. Even though we, as people of color, acknowledge that code-switching being a necessity is overall racist, I believe we code-switch anyway because we understand that it gives us an advantage.

The reason I feel that code-switching can be personally useful, while also being institutionally harmful, is because what matters the most is having your audience hear your argument. If people discount your writing because of your dialect, you lose the ability to convince them or influence their opinion. It’s a harsh reality that we have to alter our language to be more palatable, but if it gives BIPOC an advantage, I say take it. I believe that an Undercurrents essay by Quinn Cantor exemplifies the necessity of writing in a way the reader will not immediately discount. Cantor wrote a rhetorical analysis of Linda Villarosa’s report about the history of medical racism. Cantor notes how, in this essay, Villarosa takes many steps in understanding her audience and appealing to them. Cantor identifies that the audience of The 1619 Project is conservatives that are not going to like the ideas presented. Villarosa is forced to essentially put on “kiddy gloves” to address them. In Villarosa’s essay, she takes an approach that makes her point very clear but in a way that tries to not antagonize the audience. Cantor says that you “must consider that one critical connection with the audience is the rhetor’s purpose [and]… ‘has to be someone who is capable of helping you accomplish your purpose’” (Cantor). I feel what Villarosa does, and Cantor notes here, pertains heavily to the use of code-switching. As Cantor points out, Villarosa shifts her language to fit her audience because otherwise, her audience will not read her essay. I feel that BIPOC do the same thing, for similar reasons. We understand that our audience may have some sort of prejudice, so by default we “sanitize” our way of speaking. I would much rather have a world where we didn’t need to, but I feel that code-switching to apply to the audience makes people of color more visible and allows what they have to say to be heard.

My opinion is that people are prejudiced, and sometimes you have to acknowledge that prejudice will affect many aspects of your life including academics. You have to take this into account when you are writing and understand how your audience will receive it. Just like how Villarosa identified her audience to be hostile to her opinions, we as BIPOC have to unfortunately identify our audience as being hostile to the way we speak. I agree with the approach that Villarosa takes to address this when she writes around the audience. She plays into the audience by avoiding the landmines while criticizing them at the same time, particularly the part where she writes, “Hamilton was a courtly Southern gentleman, a respected physician and…wealthy plantation owner who tried to use science to prove that differences between black people and white people… were more than skin deep…” (qtd. in Cantor). This shows how she knows the invocation of him being white would unnerve her audience. I would prefer that she did acknowledge the power dynamic of him being a white man in the 19th century, but I know that this is more effective in displaying the message to an audience who will discount the entire essay the moment that it is invoked.

When it comes down to it, I think that it’s reasonable for the voices of people of color to be heard in academic settings at the cost of potentially having to alter them. Prejudice affects every aspect of our society and affects the academic community. While it would be amazing for people like me to be able to speak the way we naturally do, we have to acknowledge that there may be consequences in doing so. Racism is built into the system and while racism is present, then I believe playing into the prejudice in academia is more harmful to your voice. Code-switching is useful in reducing the prejudice associated with BIPOC by using what we consider “standard” English. Why allow a prejudiced person to immediately discount the conversation because they dislike the way someone writes or speaks? You need your audience to engage with the material for them to fulfill the objective of the author’s writing. This may be difficult if your audience is not willing to listen, but I believe that presenting your arguments in a way your audience has a strong chance of not liking is self-sabotage. Code-switching is overall harmful, but the goal of writing should be for the benefit of the author, or who they are advocating for, and if code-switching accomplishes that goal it should be considered.

Works Cited 

Cantor, Quinn Gabrielle. “Race and Rhetoric: Examining How the Audience’s Race Creates Rhetorical Constraints and Influences Rhetoric.” Undercurrents: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Composition, 2022.

Robinson, Aneika. “The Marginalization of African Americans in Educational Institutions Through Race and Language.” Undercurrents: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Composition, 2020.

2022 Editor’s Introduction

In spring 2017, composition instructors Brittanie Weatherbie-Greco and Dan Messier proposed the creation of a website that published composition student papers once a year. It was a brilliant idea. After gaining administrative approval and assembling a small team of interested instructors and working out some key details (What would we call it? Where would we publish it? How will we collect submissions? Who will review them? Should the essays be copyedited?), Brittanie, Dan, and a group of their colleagues shepherded the first issue of Undercurrents online in fall 2018.

This year, the 2022 Undercurrents marks the fifth anniversary of a brilliant idea. Among the now-40 student essays that the journal has published since 2018, the works in this issue again represent the wide range of interests, voices, and talents that UMass Boston students share with us each year.

Quinn Gabrielle Cantor (“Race and Rhetoric: Examining How the Audience’s Race Creates Rhetorical Constraints and Influences Rhetoric”), Ina Tolentino (“Breaking Free from Gender Norms: Adolescent Constructions of Femininity Through the Patriarchy and High School Musical”), and Emma Kennedy (“What’s In a Name?: A Discussion of the Nature of Bilingual Education in the United States”) contend with fundamental questions that motivate the very existence of English and composition programs: How do rhetorical and narrative choices impact possibilities of being in the real world? How might a rhetor’s racial identity limit what they can say, and how, and to whom? How might a seemingly benign piece of adolescent media limit how children may choose to express their gender identities? How might labels for educational practices—and the students whom those practices serve—constrain important debates about language and literacy education, particularly for the millions of multilingual students in U.S. schools?

Likewise tackling weighty questions of the human condition, this time from a philosophical perspective, Anna Krasnoslobodtseva (“Moral Punishment”) wonders whether moral punishment is possible, or merely an oxymoron. Considering the morality of incarceration and capital punishment in the U.S., Krasnoslobodtseva suggests that if our judicial system remains built on an “eye for an eye” approach, we may want to “invest in some protective goggles.”

Alex Der-Kazaryan (“Textism and the Shift in English Writing”), Vance Naftal (“Fake News’ Negotiation of a Useful Education”), and Jillian Steeves (“Rage Against the Machine: How Screen Time Is Impairing Our Intelligence and What Can We Do About It?”) consider the consequences of digital technologies for language, learning, and intellectual development. Texting, social media, and the internet have radically reshaped social life in the 21st century, but not without residual consequences on human lives. Collectively, these essays provide instructors and students with an important reminder to take a critical approach to the rhetorical, political, and social effects of our immersion in digital culture.

Finally, Karina Silva (“The Brain, the Block, the Bummed Writer”) and Kylie Medeiros (“Your Teachers Are Bullshitting You”) provide highly relevant commentary on experiences that are all-too-familiar to student writers struggling to get the job done. Both essays offer solutions that students may find useful: a range of theory-based strategies for overcoming writer’s block and a rationale for why, perhaps, “bullshit” may be more strategy than scourge.

While these students’ work rightfully claim center stage, I want to dedicate this 5th issue to the past and present volunteer composition instructors who have served as members of the Undercurrents editorial board. Like the mitochondrion that I once diagrammed in loving detail for my 8th grade biology project, the editorial board is the powerhouse of this organization. Over the years the board has reviewed hundreds of student essays, and each and every one is read by at least three board members. These independent reviews are then brought to the table (a literal one in pre-COVID days, usually holding French fries along with laptops) for lively board discussions, as members collaboratively review each pool of submissions in order to reach a general consensus on the year’s honorees. After these hours-long discussions result in the year’s list of finalists, the team gets to work on confirming with authors, editing, and finally publishing the issue. This work, which largely happens in the summer months, is done with love, care, and a collaborative spirit. Through this process, students’ work—even the submissions that are not ultimately selected for publication—are read in earnest by an audience beyond their own instructors and peers.

These five years of Undercurrents would not be possible without the innovation and leadership of Editorial Director Brittanie Weatherbie-Greco and Digital Editor Dan Messier. There is not one detail of the Undercurrents process that has not been championed by their efforts: from soliciting submissions, to organizing the board review process, to circulating print materials, to throwing celebratory receptions, Brittanie and Dan have made Undercurrents so much more than a “website that publishes student papers once a year”: it is an annual celebration of student writing, and a reminder of why the more than 60 instructors who teach composition at UMass Boston do what they do.

On behalf of the current editorial board—Brittanie Weatherbie-Greco, Dan Messier, Susan Field, Natalia Scarpetti, Itai Halevi, and Clarissa Eaton —we hope you will enjoy this issue and join us in celebrating five years of Undercurrents at UMass Boston.

-Lauren M. Bowen, Editor-in-Chief of Undercurrents and Director of the Composition Program

2022 Honorees

The works below were written by first-year students in the Composition Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, selected for publication by Composition Program faculty serving on the Undercurrents editorial board. Please see our Editor’s Introduction to learn more about our 2022 issue, click About the Journal to learn more about Undercurrents, or click the links below to enjoy our 2022 selections.

Photo of Quinn Gabrielle Cantor

Quinn Gabrielle Cantor’s Race and Rhetoric: Examining How the Audience’s Race Creates Rhetorical Constraints and Influences Rhetoric

“Villarosa uses her awareness of the genre of scientific writing, as well as her knowledge of the white audience, to successfully accomplish her purpose of informing white audiences about racial myths in healthcare without offending or alienating them.”

Photo of Alexander Der Kazaryan

Alex Der-Kazaryan’s Textism And The Shift In English Writing

“Common sense tells us that practicing something the wrong way will not help us but harm us by creating a ‘bad’ habit, but what we see here is that there may be some exceptions to that rule.”

Photo of Emma Kennedy

Emma Kennedy’s What’s in a Name?: A Discussion of the Nature of Bilingual Education in the United States

“Despite a general consensus that language education is essential, there is quite a lot of disagreement about who should receive what instruction, and how it should be given.”


Photo of Anna Krasnoslobodtseva

Anna Krasnoslobodtseva’s Moral Punishment

“We want revenge; we want evil people to rot in hell because it makes us feel better and morally superior. Revenge is a natural human emotion, but just because it is natural does that make it correct?”

Photo of Kylie Medeiros

Kylie Medeiros’s Your Teachers Are Bullshitting You

“The entire premise of bullshit is to convince the audience of your knowledge and authority, and if the teacher has seen through that, then you have done a bad job, either in the linguistic aspect or in the rhetorical aspect.”

Photo of Vance Naftal

Vance Naftal’s Fake News’ Negation of a Useful Education

“The reality of the internet is that it strives to put everyone within a box to drive profits within its own sector. With the exponential growth and pull towards fake news outlets, this has begun to create a closed-minded society.”


Photo of Karina Silva

Karina Silva’s The Brain, The Block, The Bummed Writer

“When we undergo writer’s block, certain areas in our brains are not as activated as they should be while we are writing. Most, if not all, techniques and solutions may revolve around increasing levels of activation in the frontal and occipital lobes.”

Photo of Jillian Steeves

Jillian Steeves’s Rage Against the Machine: How Screen Time is Impairing Our Intelligence and What We Can Do About It

“It’s possible to reap the benefits of both worlds, relearning certain brain functions without having to give up the convenience of modern technology. The solution is not to eliminate smartphones and computers, but simply to decrease the amount that we use them.”

Photo of Ina Tolentino

Ina Tolentino’s Breaking Free from Gender Norms: Adolescent Constructions of Femininity Through the Patriarchy and High School Musical

High School Musical‘s overarching message is one of liberation, urging the audience to dissolve clique-y, stereotypical perspectives. Yet, this theme questionably does not seem to apply to gender.”