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

by Ina TolentinoPhoto of Ina Tolentino

Ina is a double major in nursing and psychology from Elk Grove, CA. Ina “always had trouble embracing myself with the way masculinity and femininity are pitted against each other” and found meaning in writing this essay, as they believe “there’s so much value in painting ourselves however we want … regardless of the expectations of gendered roles.” As a non-binary individual, Ina feels that writing this piece was a healing experience and a reminder to embrace all aspects of who they are. They love reading and writing, which has led to a bedroom flooded with different kinds of books. Now and in the future, Ina hopes to reach people and help them, whether it is through the medical field, psychology, or writing. They note that “life is full of people, relationships, and stories worth sharing, and there’s something very special about being a part of that process—giving or receiving.”

Pink and blue. Sparkly and strong. Through these common oppositional stereotypes, gender is so easily understood as a dichotomy – perpetuating femininity and masculinity as mutually exclusive. This extreme divide of gender can be attributed to patriarchy, the principle that quantifies worth based on gender. bell hooks in “Understanding Patriarchy” defines it as “a political-social system that insists males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females” (1). The patriarchy’s sexist ideologies are upheld and enforced “through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence,” especially prevalent in medias with stigmatized depictions of gender expression (hooks 1). If these discriminations are internalized, an understanding and construction of one’s gender identity can easily become mutated. The goal of this paper is to expose the patriarchal undermining of femininity and analyze its effect in adolescent media on young girls in order to advocate for more inclusive, accepting, and even fluid gender expression.

hooks describes the patriarchal influence on her own childhood, specifically how her and her brother’s behaviors were expected to fall in accordance with a “predetermined, gendered script” that was commonly “assigned…as children” (1). This script establishes rules about gender expression that crucially hinder early enactment of identity, causing “confusion about gender” at a young age (1). The script’s basis on “patriarchal values and beliefs” forces children to be and act according to its definitions of gender, regardless of their own natural dispositions. hooks anecdotally shares a time she broke free from this script, aggressively playing marbles, “a boy’s game” (1). However, she was punished with both verbal and physical abuse by her patriarchal father for displaying masculinity; he belittled her as “‘just a little girl’” and repeatedly beat her with a board (2). She was “banished – forced to stay alone in the dark,” symbolic of the way she was diminished to and trapped within her “natural” place of patriarchal femininity (2). Because the patriarchy deems such strict standards for the “natural” roles of genders, females and males are diminished to the confines of feminine submissiveness and masculine domination. The indoctrination and reinforcement of these roles in childhood is traumatizing, and though hooks’s physical violence of the fifties might not be as relevant in today’s context, the psychological terrorism she describes still is.

hooks, quoting therapist Terrence Real, outlines the patriarchal destruction and convolution of views on gender: “‘Psychological patriarchy is the dynamic between those qualities deemed ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in which half of our human traits are exalted while the other half is devalued’” (6). By imposing what is “right” and “natural” against what is “wrong” and “unnatural” solely based on gender, the patriarchy uses gender stereotypes to dictate what identities are socially acceptable. On a fundamentally universal, human level, the patriarchy constructs stigmas of gender that deny wholeness of identity. This discrimination between the genders has been shown to create confusing relationships with identity, as scholar Adam Rogers, whose studies emphasize competence and gender development in adolescence, researched:

The subjective experience of oppression (e.g., discrimination) elicits feelings of social and psychological dissonance that are fundamentally distressing, and which demand a coping response from the individual. This coping response involves the reshaping of a person’s social identity as they try to make sense of their relationship to the systems of power in which they are embedded. (Rogers et al. 336)

Understanding, shaping, and claiming gender identity becomes a complicated process in a social context that not only emphasizes the rift between the genders, but places “greater inherent valuing of masculinity compared to femininity” (Rogers et al. 336).

Thus, if “to be immersed in any culture is to learn to see the world through the ideological lenses it validates and makes available to us,” immersion in a patriarchal culture involves enacting identity as a response to what is understood and validated by patriarchy (Scott et al. 48). Childhood and adolescence are crucial time periods for establishing identity within the context of ideology since gender is one of the earliest learned social constructs. Patriarchal gender portrayals, especially when popularized and perpetuated throughout childhood, then become key influencers for children to understand gender in the world and in themselves.

And one of the most popular and arguably patriarchal media targeted toward children is the widely accepted fan-favorite Disney Channel Original Movie, High School Musical (HSM). Its overwhelming success prompted two immediate sequels and a more recent television spin-off. Its millions of viewers leave no room for doubt on its substantial impact on 2000s tween pop culture (Keveney). The plot follows basketball jock Troy and nerdy brainiac Gabriella, “star-crossed” lovers bonded by a passion for singing, who must break free from the status quo of high school social archetypes to express their multifaceted identities. Its 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, since it has very different ways of embodying and quantifying femininity.

Sharpay Evans – pink “It Girl” and literal drama queen – is the story’s antagonist, actively combating Troy and Gabriella from invading the school’s drama program. Sharpay displays some typically masculine traits, such as aggressiveness, assertiveness, and strong-minded outspokenness, breaking the aforementioned patriarchal script (Stevenson 107). However, she does so with a conflicting, excessive performance of femininity to compensate, leading her to “serve a hegemonic rather than subversive function” (Stevenson 109). Sharpay’s outward appearance of the epitomized girl is actually so inflated that it is essentially treated as a source of absurd comic relief, since she is pointedly decked in glittery pink everything, including her microphone and locker. Especially when she’s placed in complete opposition against the film’s leading female, Gabriella, (possessing a quiet personality and more muted femininity), Disney’s intentions for gender portrayal can be challenged. Why does Disney’s polarization of femininity have to correlate to its protagonist-antagonist relationship? Why are their contrasting traits shown as good versus bad and right versus wrong, perhaps even natural versus unnatural? Even if Sharpay’s gender performance is an over-exaggeration, Disney’s acceptance of femininity can still be called into question. The High School Musical cinematic universe in which she resides, one often naively valorized by youth as the “dream” high school reality, reveals itself to be one that not only ridicules femininity, but antagonizes it.

Thus, as young viewers correlate antagonism with Sharpay, and Sharpay with hyper-femininity, discrimination against femininity can easily be internalized. Maura Leaden in her thesis, “Unlearning Disney,” speaks on her consumption of Disney Channel and its effect on her own gender identity. Leaden has described HSM as a treasured childhood “safe-haven” (24) but revisiting its themes with a feminist lens has complicated her attachment; she now realizes that it had “restricted…aspects of [her] femininity, sexuality, and emotions” (26). She recalls a confusing and discouraging “inadequacy” since her tween self did not know where to fall in comparison to Disney’s femininities (35). There was no compromise in Disney’s opposing portrayals; girls were either bashfully quiet or unashamedly loud, smart scientists or over-the-top fashionistas, “innocent maidens” or “sinister witches,” (35) so Leaden had serious difficulty choosing how to embody her femininity and sexuality:

The binary, being either [good or bad, right or wrong, natural or unnatural, alluding to Gabriella and Sharpay respectively] erases the possibility of anything in between. There is no image of young women negotiating a sexuality that is self-possessed and self-satisfying, yet also kind and loving and profoundly mutual. (51)

The messages HSM and Disney send have clearly had a prevalent effect in Leaden’s capability to understand her own gender identity, since her self-comparison, as a form of self-discrimination, has inhibited her from comfortably claiming femininity.

While Leaden’s anecdotal experience with HSM is highly personal, it is not necessarily exclusive. Common Sense Media, a research-based organization focused on educating parents about media/technology’s effect on kids, studied gender-typed television portrayals and how they contribute to children’s worldviews (Ward et al. 6). Their extensive research revealed that watching TV and movies that reinforce specific gender roles leads children to have much stricter beliefs about what their gender can and should do (Ward et al. 38). Overall, popular media consumption has shown to be a prominent force on ideology and identity formation of children. Taking this data and HSM’s popularity into account, Leaden’s experience with HSM can be read as more than just a singularity; HSM’s confusing and harmful ideologies about femininity could easily permeate the ideologies of all its younger viewers, like it did with her. Leaden’s experience can be seen as a microcosm, encapsulating something much larger about general tween culture surrounding Disney Channel.

Adolescent ability to claim femininity then becomes relative to mainstreamed views of patriarchal gender performance like HSM’s, since “the degree to which a [feminine] identity is stigmatised or valorised, seen as part of a wide spectrum of possible femininities or regarded as aberrant, will depend on the norms and understandings prevalent” (Paechter 24). If the most HSM has to offer in terms of femininity is just pink villainy, how can girls be expected to understand, lest embrace, their own femininity? Considering how Sharpay and everything she represents is antagonized, even accepting femininity can be a struggle since “girls who experience discrimination might come to perceive that identifying with femininity is a liability” (Rogers et al. 337, emphasis added). So, as a response to social spheres existing in reality, reinforced by patriarchal mass media which is constantly devaluing and opposing the feminine, girls might be led to relatively understand femininity as a hindrance, a burden, a fault–something to dissociate from. In fact, Adam Rogers, and other scholars focusing on gender socialization, conducted a longitudinal study with adolescent females to observe the effects of gender discrimination on gender identification. An inverse relationship was found between the two: “Girls who reported more frequent experiences with discrimination…reported one year later that…they felt less similar to other girls, and that they felt more similarly to boys” (Rogers et al. 344). It seems in this case; femininity has become an object to reject.

As girls navigate this negativity surrounding femininity, because there is so little gray in between the black and white of patriarchy’s masculine and feminine, it makes sense that these over-essentialized identities are all they have to compare themselves to. Carrie Paechter, who studied embodiments of femininities in elementary schools, describes how children’s understanding of femininity has been divided into two “co-constructed oppositional identities”: the girly-girl and the tomboy (225). With patriarchal standards that make femininity and girly-girl-ness so easily recognized as a liability, seeking refuge in masculinity, and enacting a tomboy identity becomes a coping mechanism of “psychological protection” (Rogers et al. 344). This rejection might even be viewed as an act of resistance from femininity’s patriarchal connotations; for example, being a tomboy might act as a way to reject the more traditional values of banishment (hooks was punished and banished for displaying masculine traits) or of hegemony (Sharpay covers her masculine traits with extreme femininity and is ridiculed for it); embracing masculinity might disprove the patriarchal stigma that girls are weak.

However, taking up a tomboy identity in spite of femininity only reinforces harmful patriarchal values. After all, the “central aspect of claiming [a tomboy] identity” (Paechter 228) is not just embracing the masculine, but also “embracing the expulsion of the feminine” (Paechter 231). Embracing masculinity is so harmful in this sense since it is constructed only in contemptuous relationship to femininity; femininity is further devalued, othered, and misunderstood. A binary then forms within the binary, further splitting genders and gendered traits into unnatural, seemingly irreconcilable divisions. Girls believe they “hav[e] to opt for one identity or the other,” since gender is perceived as mutually exclusive (Paechter 234). Psychological terrorism still persists, since “de-identifying with their gender collective may only serve to further isolate girls” from their emotional well-being and gender identity (Rogers et al. 345). This confusion, this dissonance within female identity remains a result of the patriarchal “‘tortured value system’” that cyclically contorts both genders (Real qtd. by hooks 6).

So perhaps the only way to claim natural-ness is through wholeness. Revisiting “Understanding Patriarchy” and hooks’s anecdote, she describes the marbles she saw while playing with heavy awe: “All sizes and shapes, marvelously colored, they were to my eye the most beautiful objects” (hooks 1). These marbles should be understood as a larger metaphor in hooks’s narrative, symbolizing the rich and colorful diversity that lies within gender, which should be accessible to all, regardless of whether they “belong” to one and exclude the other. hooks combats the patriarchal tyranny that denies access to this “openheartedness and emotional expressiveness that is the foundation of well-being” (6). She suggests the only way to be free from the unnatural oppression of the patriarchy is by accepting natural identities, discarding the expectations and even existence of gendered roles, and accepting all forms of gender expression. It is paradoxical to create through destruction, so gender should not be constructed through denying or rejecting, but through welcoming and embracing.

Patriarchy shatters identities, forcing their broken shards into dictated gender roles. Gender expression must be liberated to actively combat popular media’s patriarchal gender norms. Accepting gender unconditionally is the only way to achieve whole and natural inherency. We must pick up, recollect, reclaim the pieces of gender we’ve lost, the pieces patriarchy has taken from us, and piece ourselves back together.

Works Cited
hooks, bell. “Understanding Patriarchy.” Louisville Anarchist Federation Federation, 2010.

Keveney, Bill. “Can ‘High School Musical’ Do It Again?“. USA Today, 2017.

Leaden, Maura, “Unlearning Disney: Developing a Feminist Identity While Critiquing Disney Channel Original Movies.” 2020. Rollins College, Honors Program Theses.

Ortega, Kenny. High School Musical. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2006.

Paechter, Carrie. “Tomboys and Girly-Girls: Embodied Femininities in Primary Schools.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, vol. 31, no. 2, 2010, pp. 221–235.

Rogers, Adam A., et al. “Is My Femininity a Liability? Longitudinal Associations Between Girls’ Experiences of Gender Discrimination, Internalizing Symptoms, and Gender Identity.” Journal of Youth & Adolescence, vol. 51, no. 2, 2022, pp. 335–347.

Scott, Tony, et al. “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Styles. Utah State University Press, 2016.

Stevenson, Lesley. “‘Bad Bitch’ or Just a ‘Bitch’: The Mean Girls of High School Films.” Through Gendered Lenses, vol. 7, 2016, pp. 105–122.

Ward, L. Monique, and Jennifer Stevens Aubrey. “Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development.” Common Sense Media, 2017.

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

by Jillian SteevesPhoto of Jillian Steeves

Jillian is a history major from Danvers, MA. Her essay was inspired by an article she read in her composition class about how screens could damage cognitive functioning, and she thinks that “for a lot of people, myself included, overindulgence in tech is increasingly affecting our quality of life.” Jillian noted the irony of a history major writing about a current topic, but she “found there to be a lot of overlap between my history studies and the topic of my essay,” and she was able to “take many of the skills I’ve picked up as a historian — research, analysis, written communication — and apply them during my writing process.” She considers learning to be a lifelong journey, and “wants to continue exploring, researching, and acquiring knowledge long after I’ve graduated.” She writes that, “the more we understand about the world, the easier it is to use our knowledge to make positive changes.”

“It’s because you’re always on that phone.” Members of my generation will be all too familiar with this adage; it seems to have become a sort of mantra for older adults. Whenever a problem arises – mental health, social issues among peers, or declining performance in school – it seems to always be chalked up as just another side effect of smartphones and computers. For the modern teen, these concerns are usually brushed off as older generations just being old-fashioned.

But it is much to my chagrin that I have to admit: Mom and Pop may not be entirely wrong. Nicholas Carr, for one, certainly seems to think so. His article for The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” is what introduced me to the idea that the Internet could be rewiring our brains. In the article, Carr describes a process by which modern technology is reshaping our brains at the cost of many cognitive functions, such as reading comprehension and the ability to focus for long periods of time. The Internet exposes us to so many different things at once, he explains, that our brains have had to sacrifice cognitive quality for quantity.

Carr is not alone in this belief either. In recent years, evidence of this phenomenon has begun to emerge in the fields of psychology and neuroscience. A quick search into the relationship between digital technology and cognition turns up no shortage of scientific publications on the topic. One such study, titled “‘Brain Health Consequences of Digital Technology Use,” was published in 2020, in the journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Gary W. Small and the other authors state that, while computers and smartphones do have some positive effects, such as improved memory and multitasking skills, they come at the cost of many other skills. “Potential harmful effects,” the authors write, “of extensive screen time and technology use include heightened attention-deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, impaired brain development, and disrupted sleep” (Small, et al. 2020). Because you’re always on that phone indeed.

Carr’s outlook, and that of many of his neo-Luddite peers, seems rather bleak. In Carr’s original article, he writes of his fears that, “we will sacrifice something important not only in ourselves but in our culture” (Carr 2008). The consensus seems to be that, if screens really are making us stupid, then humanity must be doomed; as technology continues to progress, so will the downfall of humanity, until we are no longer able to practice in art, literature, culture, and deep thinking – those very things that make us human in the first place. But is this pessimistic frame of mind a reasonable one? Are these changes to the brain causing irreversible damage? Will the end of human intelligence really be brought about by the advent of the smartphone? Probably not.

The idea that excessive screen time can alter our brain wiring is based around the idea of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity can be described simply as the brain’s ability to change its structures and functions in response to new situations. Because the Internet provides information and sensory stimuli in a different way to other forms of media, the neural networks of our brains will inevitably change in order to better process this information. This physical restructuring and rewiring of the brain’s biology is what accounts for the cognitive changes associated with Internet usage.

However, what Carr fails to mention is that neuroplasticity is not a one way street. If the brain can rewire itself in response to the Internet, it can also rewire itself in the opposite way. The key to reversing the cognitive effects of technology seems to be reversing the behavior that caused them in the first place. To put it simply: if it’s the Internet that is causing the problem, then logging off the Internet is the solution.

This principle is not mere speculation either. While research on the topic is still in its beginning stages, there are a few studies which have examined case studies related to decreasing technology use. One such study, published in the American Journal of Family Therapy, examined twenty-nine individual case studies where the subjects had completed a “digital detox,” analyzing common trends between them. The authors reported that most, if not all participants experienced increased attention span, better sleep, and improved interpersonal communications during their period of unplugging. (Morris and Cravens-Pickens 2017). Overall, the outcomes yielded mainly positive results.

While the scientific research looks promising, it is also somewhat underdeveloped, due to the relative newness of the subject. With this short supply of research, many individuals have taken the matter into their own hands, experimenting with eliminating digital technology from their own lives. For instance, journalist Johann Hari has recently published an article in The Guardian, documenting a three month vacation from technology. While he struggled to adjust to tech-free life at first, he writes that, “Within a few days, I started to flow, and hours of focus would pass without it feeling like a challenge…I had feared my brain was breaking. I cried with relief when I realised that in the right circumstances, its full power could come back” (Hari 2022).

The student-directed documentary Disconnected turned out similar results. The film follows the day-to-day life of three Carleton College students, who were challenged to give up computers for one month as an experiment for a class. Much like Hari, the students – Andrew, Chel, and Caitlin – found themselves struggling at first; the students had to teach themselves how to use a typewriter, a library card catalog, and even how to send snail mail. However, after the period of initial adjustment, the positive side effect of the technological detox became apparent. In a talking head, Caitlin explains that, “it’s just kind of an inconvenience. But at the same time, I’m finding myself spending more time on things that I should have been doing. Like homework” (Disconnected 24:33–41).

It is worth noting that, despite how different the subjects of each case study are, the results are strikingly similar. Hari, born in the late 1970’s, would not have been introduced to computers until his brain had fully developed, and smartphones until much later still; the Carleton College students, on the other hand, were born and raised in the digital age. And yet, their technological upbringings had seemingly little effect on how easily they were able to adapt to a tech-free life, and to restore their attention spans, productivity, and deep thinking skills. The principle of the technological detox seems to work both for those wanting to return to a previous state of mind and for younger people wanting to achieve an entirely new one. The verdict is clear: eliminating technology from our lives is the key to increasing our intellectual capacity.

So, this means that we should all completely banish modern technology from our lives, right? Well, that’s easier said than done. Even if you do believe in this anti-technology solution, I’m willing to bet that nobody is leaping up to throw their smartphones and computers away. We have school assignments, work-related documents, and bills to pay that simply aren’t accessible without the Internet. While using the Internet may come at the cost of our intelligence, the cost of not using it at all is even greater. To eliminate modern technology from one’s life may come with the cost of a good grade or a job. There’s no easy way around it: our lives exist online. This all-or-nothing solution takes the original dilemma, of intellectual quality being sacrificed for quantity, and turns it on its head. Digital technology definitely can be helpful, and without it, we would be forced to resort to tasks that are time-consuming and inconvenient, if we are even able to do said tasks in the first place. It becomes just as problematic when intellectual quantity is sacrificed in the name of quality.

However, this either-or approach to intellectual quality and quantity presents a false dichotomy. If our goal is not to focus in on one or the other, but rather to achieve a balance between both, it becomes possible to reap the benefits of both worlds, relearning certain brain functions without having to give up the convenience of modern technology. The solution, then, is not to eliminate smartphones and computers, but simply to decrease the amount that we use them.

There are a few ways that we can go about decreasing our screen time. In an article for Time Magazine titled “9 Ways to Finally Stop Spending So Much Time on Your Phone,” author Catherine Price describes some techniques to help keep us off of our devices. The first is to set specific goals when it comes to using technology. “Before you do anything else,” Price writes, “ask yourself: What things do you do on your phone that make you feel good? Which activities make you feel bad? What behaviors or habits would you like to change?” (Price 2018). Turning on the computer or cell phone with a goal already in mind helps to prevent mindless scrolling. Instead, you can log in, focus on the specific task you need to accomplish, and log out. Setting specific goals might also look like limiting screen time. This applies more to technology’s recreational functions. If you don’t want to give up social media altogether, it is useful to set a limit for yourself so that you know when to stop.

The second technique is to create a schedule for your time spent offline. This will help to prevent you from feeling bored and keep you from turning on your device as a means of curing your boredom. Price suggests creating a list of activities to keep yourself occupied without looking at your screen. She explains, “You’re also likely to find yourself with longer periods of time to fill. In order to keep yourself from reverting to your phone to entertain you, it’s essential that you decide on several activities you’d like to use this time for” (Price 2018). This includes typical to-do list activities, such as work and school assignments, or household chores, but it also includes potential hobbies. Having a list handy with alternative, non-digital forms of entertainment will stave off the urge to check your phone out of boredom.

Finally, Price recommends eliminating technological distractions. This means purging your smartphone of any apps that are known to distract you, especially social media. Even if you don’t delete every social media app on your phone, it is still helpful to reduce their number – for instance, one may decide to keep Facebook, but delete Snapchat and TikTok. Reducing distractions also means turning off notifications. Turning off the notifications for particular apps ensures that only the most important messages get through to your phone; a text message, for example, could be important, while a notification from Instagram is an unnecessary distraction. Putting your phone on silent mode during periods of extended focus, such as while working on homework assignments, can also help to improve concentration.

It won’t be easy, and it will certainly require some difficult sacrifices, but with a little hard work, it is possible to rewire our brains. Our attention spans, decision making abilities, communication skills, and all of our other various cognitive capabilities are not, as Nicholas Carr suggests, a lost cause. Our brains’ neuroplasticity means that we can make deliberate lifestyle choices that affect the way we think and behave. There is hope for humanity’s intelligence yet, and the solution lies in what our parents have been telling us all along. Structure and schedule the time you spend online, so that you don’t overdo it. Occupy yourself with hands-on hobbies, like reading (real books) or playing sports. And for goodness sake, get off that phone!

Works Cited
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?The Atlantic, Jul.-Aug. 2008.

Disconnected A Month Without Computers. Directed by Reed Langton-Yanowitz, et al. APT Worldwide, 2010. Film.

Hari, Johann. “Your Attention Didn’t Collapse. It Was Stolen.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Jan. 2022.

Morris, Neli, and Jaclyn D. Cravens-Pickens. “‘I’m Not a Gadget’: A Grounded Theory on Unplugging.” The American Journal of Family Therapy 45.5 (2017): 264–282. Web.

Price, Catherine. “9 Ways to Finally Stop Spending So Much Time on Your Phone.” Time, Time USA, 8 Feb. 2018.

Small, G. W., Lee, J., Kaufman, A., Jalil, J., Siddarth, P., Gaddipati, H., Moody, T. D., & Bookheimer, S. Y. (2020). “Brain Health Consequences of Digital Technology Use
.” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 22(2), 179–187.

The Brain, The Block, The Bummed Writer

by Karina SilvaPhoto of Karina Silva

Karina is a psychology major with a biology minor from Winthrop, MA. Karina says that writer’s block has “always been an obstacle for me, especially whenever I have to write papers for classes.” She notes that this paper was one of the first that she felt passionate about writing, and she feels that “researching the neurology behind writer’s block” enabled her to “further appreciate the wonders of the brain” and “develop an interest in research surrounding neuroscience and psychology.” Karina is a Brazilian-American who speaks Portuguese as well as English. Her hobbies include drawing, and she notes that art helps her “describe any thoughts that I am unable to describe in either English or Portuguese.” Her art and writing have helped her take note of “how much I’ve learned and developed throughout my time at UMass Boston so far.”

Karina’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.

There is no doubt that writing can be frustrating. Writing a story is similar to a love-hate relationship. There is a time where you feel like blessing the pages you write with your creativity. The other times, you want to rip out pages because of the pure frustration coming from the mere lack of ideas. Writer’s block is seen as a vile disease, and many individuals suffer from it. You’re probably one of those people, and that’s why you’re reading this. Therefore, looking into some theories on how to cure writer’s block may help you come across a solution.

Understanding The Neuroscience Behind Writing
When developing a vaccine that fights against viral diseases, researchers look into the viruses themselves and examine how they impact our cells. While writer’s block isn’t a biological condition, there is some psychology that underlies the matter. So before reviewing some methods, knowing the reasoning behind writer’s block may be essential in the evaluation process.

Writing has been a human skill for centuries, but the physical ability to write is not the only way our brain is involved in writing. James Levy reviews Dr. Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, and he draws attention to an argument in which Flaherty makes about the development of writing: “ …human beings have been able to engage in verbal communication for an estimated 100,000 years or so […] On the other hand, we are not hardwired to write […] In evolutionary terms, a widely accepted theory posits that human beings acquired the ability to write only within the last 5,000 years or so” (2). Compared to speech production and comprehension, the human brain has only recently adapted the ability to write – hence the development of the frontal lobe and even part of our temporal lobe. The ability to speak and participate in communicating is due to the fact that we have specific regions in the brain called the Broca’s and Wernicke’s area. “The Broca’s area is involved in speech production while the Wernicke’s area functions in verbal comprehension.” (Guy-Evans) However, writing is considered to be a skill to our brain since it involves making judgements and organizing thoughts. Even though taking part in writing can activate a majority of the frontal lobe, it still requires practice, due to the fact that humans do not have a neurological predisposition towards writing.

Now, even though writing is a newly adapted skill, there are certain features of writing that are considered unique and can explain the sensations that we face during our writing process. Researchers from the University of Greifswald held an experimental study consisting of volunteers writing a continuation of a short story for two minutes. In those two minutes, Martin Lotze, who was one of the researchers, found brain activation in the occipital lobe and hippocampus for beginner writers. For expert writers exclusively, who practice writing frequently, they found activity in the speech areas (Zimmer). Zimmer explains that low activation levels in these brain areas may be the reasoning behind writer’s block.

In summary, there are certain areas of the brain that are activated when we write. The more we practice writing, the more we are able to become fluent and our brain can even draw connections to speech articulation and comprehension. 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.

Joseph Jacotot’s “Everything is in Everything”
The “everything is in everything” theory by Joseph Jacotot, which Geoffrey Carter refers to in “Writer’s Block Just Happens to People,” states that “it is always easier to utilize what [learners] already [know]” (Carter 101). Jacotot’s theory states that by using real-life examples that relate that person or a specific background, learners are able to further comprehend what is being taught to them. In writing, and more specifically in literary analysis, you may see objects as emblems or even as a turning point. However, Carter states that “it might be useful to experiment with playing with names to get one’s writing process underway” (101). In order to generate ideas and facilitate writing, we should embrace the blank page, and observe the names of objects and how they relate to a storyline. These real-life examples can even include names, and by playing around with their names, they eventually inspire writing (101).

Geoffrey Carter’s take on the “everything is in everything” theory can slowly help the frontal lobe activate – as one is consciously naming objects and making judgements up until one relates them to the story being written. Due to the fact that we are relating whatever we brainstorm to concepts that we use daily, our ideas will be easier to remember. It’s similar to how mnemonics work.

The “everything is in everything” theory does not guarantee that someone would understand the extent to which their idea may be significant, or even contradictory, to their writing. Bartosz Czekala states that “Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding. Learning with mnemonics lacks context” (Czekala). Similar to how mnemonics functions, working with the “everything is in everything” theory leads to the generation of ideas, but they are unable to provide any significance behind these ideas. For example, let’s say that I think of a flower and then relate it to a relationship I am writing about with the “everything is in everything” theory. With the “everything is in everything” theory, I can only make the comparison between the flower and the relationship. I can’t come up with an explanation as to why the relationship I am writing about is like a flower. Is it blossoming? Can it easily fall apart? Is the appearance of the relationship like a flower?

Overall, the “everything is in everything” theory relates to writing as it indirectly states that metaphorizing real life examples to our stories is a way of brainstorming. The process of comparing and contrasting objects to the story one is writing can help cure writer’s block, but only to an extent. This extent includes brain activation; however it does not include contributing to the significance of a text, which is a goal writers consider important but may be struggling with.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow Theory”
Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi explains that while we are doing an activity that we enjoy, such as writing, we enter a state called optimal experience. “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding” (Csikszentmihalyi 68). Csikszentmilhalyi’s definition of “optimal experience” is when we are able to concentrate on the activity and therefore, we gain experience from which we find to be rewarding. Certain skill sets that one may find beneficial may be different from what others think. When we usually write, especially based on an idea we are passionate about, we encounter the optimal experience even when it is for a short period of time.

The optimal experience in which Csikszentmilhalyi refers to is similar to the high concentration of neurons firing in the frontal lobes, releasing dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that allows us to feel motivation. “At the broadest level, dopamine facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things, in both behavior and thinking” (Kaufman and Gregorie). During the surge of dopamine, our abilities to make judgements are enhanced due to our neurons changing the network connections.

So, what does the flow theory suggest we do about writer’s block? When we face a writer’s block crisis, the chances of getting motivated are low. Rather than focusing on generating ideas, like the “everything is in everything” theory, flow theory is about regaining the willingness to write.

When you look up flow in the dictionary, it is defined to be the continuation of something. In flow theory, flow is the process of “[keeping] the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication” (Csikszentmihalyi 54). In simple terms, flow is the duration of an optimal experience. Through Csikszentmilhalyi’s flow theory, we can achieve flow through our body, mind and memory. We can use our bodies by participating in physical activities and discovering our body’s potential. By using our mind, we can hyperfocus on the stimuli that we endure daily and use them to describe the sensations we experience. Using our memory to achieve flow is similar to retrieving past experiences, including explicit knowledge. (Csikszentmihalyi 33). One may argue that the sensations we endure with our mind, memory, and body can be used to brainstorm ideas. In terms of the writing process, flow theory can be helpful due to the fact that we can easily explore ourselves and the associations we encounter daily.

Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development”
If you’ve taken a psychology class, whether in high school or during college, you may have heard of the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development theory states that there are three circular regions, as which the middle one is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky 86). There is a criterion of skills that we are able to master because we have the knowledge required. However, we are unable to execute the skill because we don’t know which manner the knowledge should be applied in. By having another individual guide us, we will be able to master the skill and therefore know how to use the information that we know in order to demonstrate the skill.

Most times, you have the ideas for your writing, but you are unable to find the right method for expressing them. The “zone of proximal development theory” is related to writer’s block to the extent in which writers that are dealing with the condition require a peer to help them express their ideas on paper. More specifically, the writer should receive guidance from “[the] presence of someone with knowledge and skills beyond that of the learner” (McLeod). This is so that the writer will be able to find the most effective way to express their idea, without being strayed away from the story’s message. The zone of proximal development not only breaks away writer’s block but also allows for a writer to express their full potential due to the fact that they have external support and source for critiques.

The only limit of the zone of proximal development is that in practice, one may not always have a mentor to guide them and there is a chance, regardless of how experienced the mentor is, that the writer might be misled. Also, the theory requires one to have judgments developed as it revolves around placing these judgements in order rather than creating them. Therefore, it does not correlate with activation in the frontal lobe to a high extent like the “everything is in everything” and “flow theories.” Overall, the zone of proximal development focuses on the positive effects on collaboration as a solution to writer’s block.

So, is There an Effective Solution to Writer’s Block?
In simple terms, there is not an effective solution to writer’s block. Several theories that revolve around getting rid of writer’s block focus on very specific aspects. The loss of these particular features can be considered the symptoms of writer’s block. The “everything is in everything” theory focuses on regaining the ability to brainstorm while “flow theory” emphasizes on utilizing our bodies to gain motivation. The “zone of proximal development” discusses how we can use collaboration as a way to break out of writer’s block.

Though contrasting in various ways, most of these theories relate back to our brains as they participate in helping the frontal lobe activate. Both the “flow” and “everything is in everything” theories allow us “metaphorical thinking, which is at the root of all human artistic activity [and] is a complex function involving several regions of the brain. Some people are better at it than others because of their particular brain ‘wiring’” (Levy 3). Most of the judgments, if not all, that are involved with the “everything is in everything” and “flow theory” are versions of metaphorical thinking. With metaphorical thinking, these theories allow for frontal lobe activation and therefore the rewiring of neural networks that allow for advanced thinking. On the other hand, the “zone of proximal development” can allow for frontal lobe activation, but only indirectly. This is because one would already have judgments before collaboration. However, collaboration can allow for judgement revision and therefore also allow for neural networking. Just not to the extent in which “flow” and “everything is in everything” would allow.

Many writers and psychologists will theorize effective ways to cure writer’s block. There will always be limitations that come with these theories. The main takeaway that you should obtain is that certain techniques may be helpful for others but not for yourself. The “everything is in everything” theory may help you when you are dealing with brainstorming troubles. On the other hand, the “flow theory” can provide support on how to gain motivation. The “zone of proximal development” theory can allow others to help you along your writing journey. Whatever aspect of writer’s block you are dealing with, there is always a theory available. Our minds are advanced and require specific treatments for neural network reorganization. Do not be frustrated if something may not work as much as you hoped, instead try to gain insight from what you have learned.

Karina’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.

Works Cited
Carter, Geoffrey V. “Writer’s Block Just Happens To People.” Bad Ideas About Writing. West Virginia University, 2017.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row, 2009.

Czekala, Bartosz. “The Truth About Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning.” The Universe Of Memory, 28 May 2020.

Flaherty, Alice. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Guy-Evans, Olivia. “Wernicke’s Area Location and Function.” Simply Psychology. 2021.

Kaufman, Scott Barry and Carolyn Gregorie. “How to Cultivate Your Creativity [Book Excerpt].” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Jan. 2016.

Levy, James. “A Neurologist Suggests Why Most People Can’t Write – A Review of the Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.” Review of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. 2004.

Mcleod, Saul. “The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.” Simply Psychology, 2019.

Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Edited by Michael Cole et al., Harvard University Press, 1978.

Zimmer, Carl. “This Is Your Brain on Writing.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 June 2014.

Fake News’ Negation of a Useful Education

by Vance NaftalPhoto of Vance Naftal

Vance is an international relations Major from Baltimore, MD. Vance chose to write about the negative effects that misleading/false news stories can have on an individual, especially when in college, because he “sees society moving farther and farther away from truth and leaning more into sentiments based on emotions — which is directly at odds with the point of a higher education.” Vance started college at 16 years old. At 17, he decided to take a gap year (which became a gap of 4 years) to enter the workforce. At 21, he found himself yearning to be a part of an academic institution again and transferred to UMass Boston, as he “missed learning in a social setting surrounded by peers with different opinions and cultures.” He writes that “transferring to UMass Boston was the best decision I’ve ever made” and that “the community at UMass Boston is truly an accurate picture of what the community of Eastern Massachusetts looks like, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

During the events leading up to the presidential election of 2016, many of the problems endemic to the early 21st century were unearthed and displayed for all Americans to see. On one side we had cold hard facts, and on another side, we had a full-scale attack on those facts and the people that benefited from them. The campaign of Donald Trump suspended the neoliberal era style of policy debate and replaced it with unorganized attacks on credibility. The election of Trump may have been a shock to many Americans, but his disregard of facts in order to appease a voter base largely uninformed on the issues of the election was an example of opportunism within the new media environment that politicians should have started paying attention to long ago.

The reality of the modern era is that the bulk of an individual’s free time is spent on the internet. The internet does not treat all people equally. It has been crafted so that each person’s experience is tailor-made specifically for them. A series of algorithms show content to consumers that makes them feel comfortable and does not at any point challenge their beliefs. This means that if a person starts using the internet with a certain political stance, their internet experience will revolve around content that shares those same views. This, more often than not, leads consumers to absorb poorly sourced, false information or “fake news.” This fake news is seriously harmful to society and in many cases negates or skews the knowledge students absorb while undergoing higher education which has led modern society to become more polarized than ever.

Let me present an example of how fake news exists within a conversation with the average person. Last week, while I was working my shift managing a CVS, I had a conversation with an older woman who was very concerned for her safety. Upon inquiring why she was concerned, she informed me that there were thousands of Haitian “drug traffickers” at our Texas border on the verge of invading our country. I respectfully declined any further talk of this, I could tell the conversation was about to take a racist turn for the worse, but I couldn’t help but find myself curious at the notion of thousands of invaders at the Texas border. Upon researching this topic further, I found that around 12,000 Haitian refugees are seeking asylum, at the time of me writing this, and this is a result of significant civil unrest following the assassination of the Haitian president (Alden). As a member of the United Nations, the United States guarantees the right of asylum to refugees, so why was this event framed as an “invasion” by this frightened woman’s source? The simple answer is fake news. Unfortunately, the infiltration of fake news within society does not stop with people who have never received a higher education. Fake news has, in fact, rooted itself within the minds of students, who should theoretically question these sources as well.

People have always found ways to exploit the gullibility of the masses to their benefit, but this is far simpler in the 2020s than it has ever been before. We now live in a world where most people learn the bulk of their common knowledge from informal online sources rather than peer reviewed journals. Stephan Lewandowsky writes in an article published by Science Direct, “In this world, power lies with those most vocal and influential on social media: from celebrities and big corporations to botnet puppeteers who can mobilize millions of tweetbots or sock puppets… experts are derided as untrustworthy or elitist whenever their reported facts threaten the rule of the well-financed or the prejudices of the uninformed.” (Lewandowsky et al. 355) Simply put, the political/social climate has become so that to disagree with a galvanized individual using facts is equal to arrogance, while simply believing whatever your news source of preference provides you is “free thought.” While being inherently backwards, reason has nothing to do with it. This is a result of an American populace that has experienced more crises in recent memory than it can keep track of. Most people often have very little conception of the roots of these crises, so they turn to news sources that make them feel comfortably informed.

In order to understand the context in which modern American students live within, we must first discuss the standard of information accepted as knowledge in the 2020s. So how does an uninformed person find a source, and why are many of these sources harmful? The answer to this question lies within a phrase that has become an idiom within the last 20 years: Google it. Nowadays, when most people do not know something, they simply conduct a Google Search to find an answer. For questions with simple answers like “How many feet are in a yard?” or “What year did World War II begin?” there will be pretty unanimous answers. On the other hand, in cases where answers tend to involve multiple, at times subjective factors, like: “Why did Russia annex Crimea in 2014,” or “Was Abraham Lincoln an honest person?” Googling something leads to often convoluted, opinion-based answers.

The problem with this is not rooted in the fact that there is bad information. There has always been bad information out there. In fact, many of the presidential elections of the late 19th and early 20th centuries resembled the chaos of the 2016 election. The issue is that, in a world where nearly all people have access to information that is correct, false information still finds a way to prevail. This is a result of something called “search engine optimization” or “SEO.” SEO is essentially a term used to describe the way that algorithms figure out what content people “should” consume on the internet. Search engines like Google are companies; they are not charities. While many people may assume that the ease of access to Google means that Google does not draw profits from simple searches, that is not entirely correct. Google’s search engine profits are mainly derived from ads that companies submit to be displayed to people using Google. Companies want to see profits coming in from their Google ads in order to continue paying Google for their services. In order for those companies to have a higher chance of making a sale from their ads, Google has to do some leg work. This is what the algorithms are used for. Google ads are not going to try to push swim trunks to someone who lives in Alaska. They would instead display ads prioritizing cold weather items like road salt or antifreeze (Pennycook and Rand 2522).

This works the same way for news services. Chances are that if someone uses Google to read left-wing news sources like NBC and CNN, they would stay away from right-wing news sources like FOX. Google knows this. If someone regularly reads FOX articles, Google will advertise more right-wing sources giving a consumer a very one-sided view on how the world works, eliminating all unsolicited access to alternative opinions. At first, this may not seem like an issue. After all, if someone likes FOX, chances are they would never click on NBC or CNN anyways. I would tend to agree with this too. The problem begins when the news service advertisements gradually become more and more polarized leading people towards sources that are downright conspiratorial – which is exactly how the Google algorithm is programmed. When this becomes the standard of information that floods a person’s Google search, quick Google searches no longer provide factual answers to somewhat ambiguous questions. They instead provide highly partisan, often poorly sourced answers that hold no bearing in the realm of academia or truth in general (Pennycook and Rand 2523). This will not be apparent to the consumer though. They will think that their sources are as accurate as an academic journal. They looked for an answer: they Googled it! That is the standard of finding answers in the 2020s.

One such fallacious source is the popular right-wing outlet called Prager University or PragerU. Despite the name, PragerU is not an accredited institution and does not provide any sort of academic classroom setting online or in person. Its main message opposes immigration and downplays crises like the Coronavirus, climate change, and institutionalized discrimination. These political motives result in PragerU essentially being a right-wing tabloid rather than a credible news source. University of New Mexico PhD student/historian, Joseph Hall-Patton, who has an MA in History from California Polytechnic State University took an in-depth look at one of PragerU’s videos about “myths” commonly associated with slavery. Within his observation of the video in question, Patton pointed out that nearly every point that was made in the video was historically incorrect and strewn with made up facts or fake news. One of Hall-Patton’s major points was that PragerU’s sources were either nonexistent or lacking credibility altogether. For example, one source claimed to be referencing a “renowned historian” who Hall-Patton, a professional historian, had never heard of. Upon looking up the historian, he found that their source was a highly controversial figure with little renown to speak of within the academic community. Another issue Hall-Patton ran into while checking PragerU’s sources was that they had sourced material that was completely irrelevant to their video claiming that it backed up the facts stated (Hall-Patton). For example, let’s say that I was talking about Amazonian army ants for a nature video, but when looking at my sources for said video, it was discovered that I sourced an academic journal about North American fire ants. For an individual rushing to finish a high school paper, that may be understandable if not forgivable, but for a self-purported news source, that is an unacceptable error that dismantles academic integrity and prestige.

When it comes down to it, what does this mean for the college student of the 21st century? Well, a Boston based news station, WGBH, surveyed a sample group of students and found that 59% of them believed that there was a partisan divide on campus. Of that 59%, 77% identified as liberal and 15% identified as conservative (Parker). These students did not develop their political views on campus. They arrived with them. Before even stepping foot on a college campus, they had been fed by Google’s revenue driven algorithm to read the material that had led them to their current political stance. There is one major reason why this is problematic. University is supposed to be a space where learning is nurtured and grown, but when students arrive with closed minds (no matter how open-minded their sources tell them they are) unable to receive any information to the contrary of what they have absorbed as literal children, they are unable to nurture or grow any new perspectives at all. While news has always been highly partisan, we are now living within an era in which the tools we use to obtain news are programmed to push a malleable mind further and further away from reason into a realm of conspiracy (Rhodes 14).

Let’s take a look at the subject of international relations as an example. There are three main political theories within international relations: Liberalism, Realism, and Marxism. Liberalism tends to be a moderate to center right perspective, Realism is conservative, and Marxism is far left. The goal of an international relations curriculum would be to adequately teach the functions, roles, and beliefs of all of these theories as objectively as possible leading students to eventually discover their own beliefs at some point, but when students arrive with fallacious notions of what these theories actually are and have already shut down any desire to engage in discourse on the matter, the purpose of education has essentially gone down the drain.

The thing about polarity is that it eliminates opportunities for innovative compromise. Universities are supposed to be places that create a safe space for thinking outside of the box before one enters the professional world. Many times, these thoughts can lead to relationships and innovations that can shift the way society functions for the better, but this can only occur if the student body as a whole is open to think outside of the box. 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 without any real desire to change its bad habits and commence social progress. I believe that if this trend of polarization does not change soon, constructive education may enter a dark age where very few actually receive any benefit from higher learning at all.

Works Cited
Alden, Edward. “Why Are Haitian Migrants Gathering at the U.S. Border?Council on Foreign Relations, 1 Oct. 2021.

Hall-Patton, Joseph. “Debunking PragerU’s ‘History of Slavery’ With Candace Owens.” YouTube, uploaded by The Cynical Historian, 14 Oct. 2021.

Lewandowsky, Stephan, et al. “Beyond Misinformation: Understanding and Coping with the ‘Post-Truth’ Era.” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, vol. 6, no. 4, 2017, pp. 353–69.

Parker, Kim. “The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education.” Pew Research Center, 2019.

Pennycook, Gordon, and David G. Rand. “Fighting Misinformation on Social Media Using Crowdsourced Judgments of News Source Quality.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 116, no. 7, 2019, pp. 2521–26.

Rhodes, Samuel C. “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Fake News: How Social Media Conditions Individuals to Be Less Critical of Political Misinformation.” Political Communication, vol. 39, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1–22.

Your Teachers Are Bullshitting You

by Kylie MedeirosPhoto of Kylie Medeiros

Kylie is a biology major from Fairhaven, MA. Because she was specifically told for this assignment that students “couldn’t bullshit this essay,” she was reminded of all the times throughout her academic career when other teachers said things of a similar nature. “Being short on time, and desperately in need of a research topic,” she found that it would be “incredibly ironic to bullshit my paper in the form of a research on the topic of BS itself.” While writing her essay Kylie found it interesting how much creative freedom she was given to research and write about something she truly cared about. This essay is special to her because of its significance in her life and the ways in which it can be meaningful to others. Kylie is extremely passionate about science and is looking forward to becoming a forensic pathologist in the future. She looks forward to meeting new people from all walks of life during her time at UMass Boston.

Teachers are known to be infamous bullshit detectors; every student in their academic career has heard the familiar phrase “we can tell when you write bullshit” from at least one of their professors. As students, we are told that we can’t do a number of things when it comes to our assignments and more specifically, our essays. You can’t write an essay the day before it’s due, you can’t write a paper on something you aren’t interested in, you can’t go into a project blind. Throughout my years in school, I have heard each and every one of these excuses. And to that I have always said…watch me.

On Friday, March 25, 2022, I found my exigence for our biggest writing assignment yet. Earlier that same week, the assignment was introduced to us; it was a research paper. And that was it – we the students got to choose our research topic as long as it fell within the realm of linguistics. It was an attempt to make the project easier on us, following the concept that if we chose our own research topics, we may be more motivated and interested in the copious work that goes into a research paper. While the sentiment was there, for indecisive people like me, it felt like a nightmare. What was I passionate about? What did I thirst to learn more about? Quickly I could feel myself spiraling downwards into a pit of questions that I knew would only trap me further in writer’s block. The sinking feeling was all too familiar and with research needing to be at least started for homework, I was beginning to feel desperate for a topic – until I thought about my past writing experiences in depth. I thought about how my most recent piece of writing was so different from any other English piece I had done before, and it was because of my teacher and the relationship promoted in the classroom – we were encouraged to be ourselves in our writing and to be bold in our writing decisions. And so, I wondered, how does the relationship between a student and a teacher impact the quality of a student’s writing, if at all?

Finally! I had done it – I had my inquiry. With the basis of my research discovered, I set forth using the library’s database for scholarly articles in search of sources to act as secondary research. In doing my research for homework, I soon realized that I had come to an issue: there was a significant lack of sources on any usable type of data. I could find nothing that would help me formulate an essay in the coming weeks. I made an effort to find the most relevant articles to my inquiry, to get my homework done at the very least, but I knew I could not continue. My topic had to change.

After watching a presentation in the library about how to search for the best sources in the easiest ways, I felt taunted, knowing that I would not be moving forward in my search, but back to square one, thinking about my topic. When I expressed my issues to my professor, she sympathized and offered help by asking what I was passionate about or things I found interesting. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to know, I couldn’t pinpoint a topic that could hold my interest for the coming weeks. “You can’t write about something you’re not passionate about,” my professor said after I voiced my lack of interest. Well, that certainly wasn’t true; I knew I could write a paper on a topic I didn’t find interesting, in fact, I had done it many times before and likely would again. Her statement got me thinking about the copious amount of times I had heard teachers assume that we can’t write papers on books we didn’t read or write papers about topics we barely understand; they assume we can’t bullshit our way through it. Once again, I felt the cerebral glow of an idea forming and realized I had found another inquiry, “How can a teacher tell if a student is bullshitting, if they can at all?”

Bullshitting to get through an essay isn’t a rare occurrence: it’s something that nearly everyone has done or will do, whether it be babbling to reach word counts or lying about the amount of information known about a topic. In fact, when asked, 30 out of a total of 36 people (83.3%) admitted to having bullshit a paper before, much like me (Medeiros 2022). So, if bullshitting is so common, surely teachers mean it when they say they can tell? But it may not be so simple. If teachers were certain in their bullshit detecting abilities, students who do it should, in turn receive lower grades on their essays. This, however, was not continuous with the data collected in my survey, or my past grades, which received average grades of A-B (87.9% of students). Why then, if bullshit is so discouraged, do teachers continue to reward those students with good grades? Would that not only incentivize them to keep doing what they are doing? Maybe the truth is that teachers aren’t so sure what bullshit means to them.

Bullshit is certainly a difficult term to define, especially when it’s more of an idea or concept that varies from person to person rather than a concrete adjective that can be used to explain the quality of a paper. In “Antecedents of Bullshitting”, the author John Petrocelli, as he searches for the cause of B.S. writing, offers insight from philosopher Harry Frankfurt to create a partial definition of bullshit. He states: “…bullshitting is defined here as communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge. When people intentionally or unintentionally express ideas or information in ways that are disconnected from a concern for evidence or established knowledge, they are in essence bullshitting” (Petrocelli 250). This idea is further explored by Joshua Cruz, a Texas professor, when he concurs that “…students play by the rules of the classroom and produce a piece of writing that meets academic standards, but they care nothing for the topic that they have chosen to write about,” (Cruz 8). It has been inferred that bullshit is what the author believes the audience wants to hear and the process of writing it is centered around convincing the reader to believe them. Essentially, bullshit is a type of falsification in which the author must appear to be more credible than they actually are to form an opinion about something. This is a researcher’s definition though, so what do the students qualify as bullshit? What exactly do they believe makes their essays “bullshit”?

To gain a better understanding of the concept, I asked the bullshitters themselves (college students mostly) what was considered bullshit. Based on the survey I conducted, to garner how students actually view bullshit, I found that they tend to believe that bullshit writing is work that is passionless, unrevised, and is likely done with little to no preparation or even before class. There seemed to be a general consensus that bullshit was not synonymous with poor writing and that bullshitting did not include plagiarism. In a sense, bullshit writing is the final solution and is written with little concern for the truth of the information presented and focuses more on convincing the reader that they know what they are talking about. The survey revealed that 18 out of 36 students (50%) focused more on what the teacher, who is also the audience, wanted than the actual information they were presenting or directly applying what they had learned. (Medeiros 2022).

Unsurprisingly, the definition of bullshit provided by a few anonymous teachers varied from the student definition and did not hold the same sentiments. Educators tended to interpret bullshit as “good at first glance” but lacking structure, flow, and substance, with one teacher stating, “Often bullshitters connect ideas from different sources but there is no flow to the paper. Also, the evidence may not support the idea because there is little understanding of the topic” (Medeiros 2022). While there may be some truth, it is not unlikely that a bullshitter would be able to provide evidence that supports their idea. In fact, Emily Wilburne shows how bullshitters may even change their initial claim to match the reports of the evidence they have chosen, in “Pulling Essays From Your Ass: A Guide on How to Bullshit Your Way to an A.” It is possible and likely that there is not only one way to bullshit, but the way in which most students do tends to follow a pattern of trying to impress the audience for a good grade, rather than simply trying to fill a page, regardless of the sense it makes. Having a better idea of what bullshitting meant to the perpetrators and victims alike, I could dive deeper into the phenomena, which had me wondering – why do they do it? Despite the deterrent that teachers use, telling students they’ll know what is bullshit, the students take that risk, so why?

Why anybody does anything is a challenging thing to determine, especially with variety in situations and differences in the way people think; even so, there tends to be trends in behavior. Bullshit appears to be a defense mechanism of sorts – a last ditch effort for a situation. In “Understanding Undergraduate Bullshit as a Function of Language and Subject Position,” Joshua Cruz, a professor at Texas Tech University and Doctor of Education, offers the idea that bullshit happens as a result of lack of knowledge or interest. He states that, “several empirical studies contain interviews with students who openly admit to bullshitting an assignment when they felt they simply could not respond in any other way…” and “bullshit is a response to something that perhaps we do not want to admit as educators: we can be boring” (Cruz 2). Because students are generally uninterested in the material they are being forced to write about, as well as tend to be substantially uniformed about the topics they are forming opinions on, bullshit is produced to fill in the gaps. The reasons provided by Cruz are strong possibilities and I agree with them to be the primary causes of the bullshitting. When I asked college students about the reasoning behind their own experiences with bullshit, most motive to do so came from the fact that they felt forced. While individual responses varied from procrastination to lack of interest, to poor understanding, the broadness of explanations could be boiled down to the simple fact that they felt obligated to turn something in.

Writing bullshit to complete an assignment is still taking the effort to complete the assignment; in fact, bullshitting and trying to make it look like one knows what they are talking about sounds incredibly difficult. If so, is there a possibility that bullshit may be useful in some ways? Journalist Emily Wilburne in “Pulling Essays From Your Ass: A Guide on How to Bullshit Your Way to an A” explains how to properly bullshit a paper and shows that it is more work than one may think: “By the time you stop writing, your goal is to have a set of complete body paragraphs. Each paragraph should be focused on one idea and should contain all the information and quotes that demonstrate that idea. Again, your writing does not have to be fancy, it only has to be able to explain your ideas to anyone who reads it” (Wilburne). Her article shows that bullshitting is a skill in itself and takes its own type of thought. Because of the manipulation of information and knowledge of the rhetorical situation used to formulate good bullshit, it can nearly be compared to rhetoric. Cruz backs up this idea, claiming that the use of bullshit as rhetoric comes from an absence of power in the students and that “the use of bullshit itself is a gesture of power” (9). Surprisingly, in the survey I conducted, the opinions of the students on how beneficial bullshit could be were extremely varied, despite over half of them already having admitted to bullshitting before. Even more surprising was that 18 out of 30 responses were certain that bullshit had the opportunity to be useful (Medeiros 2022).

Using this information, coupled with my sources and prior experiences, I have determined that bullshit is a form of rhetoric and can be very advantageous. As indicated by Linda Flower and John Hayes in “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem,” the best writers are those that consider the audience: “This difference matters because, in our study, one of the most powerful strategies we saw for producing new ideas throughout the composing process was planning what one wanted to do to or for one’s reader.” (Flower and Hayes 27). The authors believe that manipulation of the audience for a specific literary goal is an example of rhetoric due to the awareness of the entire rhetorical situation that is necessary to do so – much like when bullshitting. Because writing coherent bullshit requires the author to use information to formulate an opinion that can convince the reader that the author knows enough about the topic and requires knowledge of the project’s rhetorical situation, it can be used to show one’s understanding or to develop a better understanding of rhetoric.

Having a better idea of what exactly bullshit is, and under what circumstances it tends to occur, leads me back to my initial inquiry: How do teachers know when students bullshit? To put it simply, they don’t. Bullshit has become a word synonymous with laziness and a lack of effort; it can mean many things, but at its core, bullshit is a falsity, whether it is done well or not. Teachers are not able to detect bullshit, they are only able to detect poor writing and poor skill; just because a paper was bullshitted, doesn’t mean that it is bad, in fact the point of bullshit is to be good! 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. Bullshitting is forming an opinion on the basis of knowledge that is assumed to be true, rather than proven, meaning that in order for a professor to fully be able to detect bullshit, there must be an inherently correct answer. As long as the paper contains data necessary to back up one’s claims and provides appropriate reasoning in a well-written and effective paper, a teacher will not be able to detect bullshit. I am a firm believer that teachers should seek out poor understanding of the rhetorical situation and weak writing abilities, rather than “bullshit.”

Works Cited
Cruz, Joshua. “Understanding Undergraduate Bullshit as a Function of Language and Subject Position.”, Sept. 2018.

Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes. “The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 31, no. 1, 1980, pp. 21–32,

Medeiros, Kylie. “Bullshit!” Student Questionnaire. 6 April. 2022.

Petrocelli, John V. “Antecedents of Bullshitting.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 76, 2018, pp. 249-58.

Wilburn, Emily. “Pulling Essays from Your Ass: A Guide on How to Bullshit Your Way to an A.” Medium, Medium, 11 Jan. 2018.

Moral Punishment

by Anna KrasnoslobodtsevaPhoto of Anna Krasnoslobodtseva

Anna is a biochemistry major from Milton, MA. She decided to write about the prison system and punishment because of conversations about morality during her Composition II class, and because she believes “the prison system in the United States is often discriminatory and does not work toward the rehabilitation of people like it should.” She felt that writing this was “more free than a traditional structured high school essay” and that it “involved a lot of learning, by means of stepping outside of what I am comfortable with writing and exploring new research methods, going to the library, and taking on a voice.” Anna speaks three languages and loves to spend time outside, walking, hiking, and exploring. She is inspired by nature and has a goal to visit all the National Parks and hike the Appalachian Trail.

I’m sure we have all heard the famous saying or notion, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” We all inherently understand and want for people to get what they deserve; it is the basis of our justice system. Well, Gandhi is credited with adding a key idea to the phrase: “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” If we return someone’s pain directly back to them, everyone suffers. And yet, if someone punches us our only natural instinct is to punch them back, or even punch them back harder, knock out a few eyes or teeth. That want for vengeance is a part of every human, especially those with siblings. In his essay “The Moral Instinct” Steven Pinker cites Bertrand Russell who said, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists— that is why they invented hell” (2). 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? If someone does something morally wrong, then others cannot do something morally wrong to punish them. How do we punish someone in a moral way and do they deserve to be punished in a moral way?

Before examining how to punish someone, we must analyze why humans punish in the first place. As Russell puts it, punishment is just a delight to moralists, just a fun activity, like going to an amusement park. However, I think the idea is a little more complicated than just wanting a fun excuse to feel morally superior. Punishment can be a source of vengeance and wanting justice, but is there more to the story than just this idea? If you ask a parent why they put their child in time-out, they will likely tell you it is because they did something wrong and need to learn their lesson. The same logic applies to our justification for punishing adults and criminals. In her book The Case Against Punishment, Deirdre Golash questions our foundations of punishment, and if it is even necessary. Golash explains, “The idea that punishment does more good than harm corresponds to the purpose of preventing crime. And the idea that punishment benefits the offender corresponds to the purpose of making the offender a better person” (5). We like to justify that the reason someone gets punished is so that crime can be prevented. Or, to make the offender a better person by helping them “learn their lesson.” It makes sense, if you ask anyone to justify why they are punished or punishing someone they will lively explain using the same words. But is this justification the true reason for why we punish or is it merely a justification?

Think again about the punching example, if your fists are not too tired. Our innate response to being punched is to punch back. We would even do it without thinking or justifying it. It is a purely emotional, even animalistic response. Maybe in our response to wrongdoing, punishment is more emotional, rather than a calculated response like we want to believe. Rob Canton comes to the same conclusions. In his article, “Crime, Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Righteous Minds and Their Attitudes Towards Punishment” Canton rationalizes that, “Since there are no adequate grounds for punishment, he looks for origins instead and finds them in innate ‘retributive emotions’ that favour reciprocity and tit-for-tat, and in the social and cultural adaptations that modulate and refine these inherited and ‘hard-wired’ dispositions” (57). Retributive emotions. We all have them. We punch our sister, and when she starts to cry we tell our parents that she punched us first. First we act, then we justify. Another important issue arises when Canton says, “there are no adequate grounds for punishment.” But what about murder, rape, and kidnapping? Do none of these crimes require punishment? If nothing requires punishment, then why do we require prisons?

You might be thinking, well of course we need prisons, where do we put those who are dangerous to our society? Prisons are necessary and important for punishing those who did harm, keeping immoral people out of society, and teaching them morality. We may believe that prisons are meant to teach morality to those who are incarcerated, to teach them their lesson and make them into better people. But this is all unfortunately a dream. James Logan questions the need and effectiveness of the United States prison system in his book Good Punishment. Logan notes, “Each year some 644,000 persons are incarcerated for various offenses while some 625,000 are released onto the streets. It is widely estimated that about 50 to 75 percent of released inmates will be returned to prison within a few years” (62). Recidivism is a big issue with the prison system as those who commit crimes may commit new crimes and are placed back into prison. If the prison system was working properly and teaching people their lessons on how to be more moral, then there would be no problem of recidivism. But, as shown by the statistics, more than half of the people going to prison do not learn their lesson and gain a new sense of morality as we would like to assume. This is only further proof of the retributive emotions that Canton explains. Prison does not work to better people but rather to make those who put them there feel better.

Recidivism might not seem like a large issue. If someone did not learn their lesson the first time, then they can try again. After all, they are getting a second chance to be a better person, right? Wrong. Logan explains, “A serious social consequence of all of this is that a significant fraction of offenders will find the obstacles to obtaining basic shelter, education, and employment (all of which enhance the establishment of stable family, communal, and societal relationships) insurmountable” (95). Prisons do not help to rehabilitate people in the slightest. It seems that they do quite the opposite, leaving those previously incarcerated homeless, illiterate, and even less productive members of society than when they were locked up. Is it moral to force people to pay such a high price for a crime that they committed? If someone made a bad decision, does that mean they deserve to be confined to a life of suffering even outside of prison?

If the reason for prison is not to morally correct someone, then the true reason for prison is the want for justice. We can look at the famous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), which was conducted in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo in a mock jail in the Stanford University basement. The experiment involved creating a simulated prison with college students acting as prisoners and guards. The guards quickly turned violent, abusing and torturing the inmates. The results of the experiment can reveal much about human psychology regarding prison and the treatment of inmates. In her essay, “The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Torture Hermeneutics: Difference and Morality in the US University, 1968 to 9/11,” Danielle Bouchard reasons, “By Zimbardo’s own reckoning, the SPE demonstrated that evil is not a phenomenon of individual pathology, but rather of extreme social situations that could cause anyone (or those Zimbardo refers to as “good people”) to engage in acts they would otherwise find abhorrent” (407). The college boys who were chosen to be prison guards eventually torture the prisoners because of their positions of authority. So much so that the experiment needed to be ended prematurely. It shows that high positions of authority and feelings of superior morality can lead even ”good people” to do unthinkable and immoral things. The guards’ quick turn to torture demonstrates that prison is not entirely about correcting and making people better, but also about revenge. As Golash observes, “Justice is not limited by personal responsibility or proportionality to the original offense; it is enough that the person on whom vengeance is taken is on the side of the enemy” (6). We want to punish those who have taken the side of the enemy, not just those who have done something morally wrong per se. Many times prisoners are viewed as the enemy because they acted in a way that our own morality would not allow us personally to do. They are seen as the “other,” and we ourselves feel morally superior to them.

The question is: are we truly morally superior to the prisoners? Bouchard examines this question by stating “[a]ny deed that any human being has ever committed, however horrible, is possible for any of us under the right or wrong situational circumstances” (410). It is a terrifying thought that anyone, or even you yourself, could commit a terrible crime. It begs the question of the existence of free will, but we will not venture into that dark corridor. Instead, I think it is important to understand that although we may not be currently in a prison, we are not morally superior to those who are. It may be delightful, as Russell asserts, for moralists to inflict pain with their good conscience, but our consciousness is no better than those that we may view as immoral. You or I may not be any better or superior than someone currently locked up in prison; we may have just stumbled into this place through the alignment of correct circumstances. That is to say that in punishing others, we should have no moral superiority or want for revenge guiding us in our actions, but rather a want for the person incarcerated to become a better or more moral person than the one they came to prison as. As hard as it may seem, we must abandon our retributive emotions because the second we get a sense of moral superiority is the second that we become the prison guards in the SPE torturing those below us because chance decided that we would be above and they would be below.

What and how must we do to fix the prison system so that it rehabilitates those in it instead of simply punishing them? Prisons in the United States, as they are today, are not a good solution; they simply do not work to rehabilitate and teach people morality as we all hope for. There must be a better system that actually works to rehabilitate prisoners. Halden Prison in Norway is designed to be a more humane prison. A video created by Christophe Haubursin highlights the ways in which Halden Prison is designed. The design is chosen to be more humane for the prisoners, ultimately for it to feel less like a prison. Designers choose more natural materials that are less rugged, like glass. Halden has a campus design with many windows that take advantage of the natural lighting. It’s designed so that there is less conflict between the prisoners and more interactions with the guards. The video explains, “Being imprisoned is the punishment, the architecture does not have to be” (Haubursin). Just because someone is imprisoned because of a crime, they already do not have a normal human life, trapped in an establishment. The least they can get is a little dignity to feel like they are in a nice place and not a concrete barricade. Not only does the prison look and feel less prison-like, but it also works. Norway’s recidivism rate dropped to 20% from the 60-70% high seen in the 1990s (Dorjsuren). Bolorzul Dorjsuren highlights the successes of Halden and similar prisons in Norway in his article, “Norway’s Prison System Benefits Its Economy.” Dorjsuren remarks, “The main reason for these statistics is due to a focus on “restorative justice,” an approach that identifies prisons in the same category as rehabilitation facilities” (Dorjsuren). Where prisons are a place of rehabilitation instead of a place of punishment or the assertion of dominance over prisoners rather than the permanent or long term confinement, which results in the inability of the prisoner to reenter society as seen in the United States. If the prison system in the United States is changed, to be more like the one in Norway, prisoners could emerge as better and more moral people. Which is what I, for one, want for those who committed a crime – everyone deserves education, and a second chance at life.

Even if some people can and will be rehabilitated in Halden Prison, some people might not “deserve” this treatment. The problem still stands: what do we do for the serial killers, the murderers, the child rapists, and those who kill and torture. Do they deserve the same treatment back? Currently, 27 states say yes, poke them with a needle or electrocute them ( Or as the prisoner Richard Moore in South Carolina has recently chosen, a firing squad (Bogel-Burroughs). Moore killed a store clerk by shooting him in the heart, and now Moore will receive the same treatment at the hands of state correctional officers. This brings us to the original question of “an eye for an eye?” Does Moore, or any other prisoner on death row, deserve to die because they killed someone? And is it moral to kill someone under any circumstances? Do the correctional officers deserve to go on death row because they also killed someone, or is it all fine because Moore killed someone first? Most people would say yes. A report from the Pew Research Center on the matter found that, “Among the public overall, 64% say the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder, while 33% say it is not justified. An overwhelming share of death penalty supporters (90%) say it is morally justified under such circumstances, compared with 25% of death penalty opponents”(Pew Research Center). Over half of the people polled say that it is not only okay, but also morally justifiable to kill someone if they killed someone else. Most people, myself included, would say that killing is immoral. But in the case of someone who has done something immoral, most people also say that killing the criminal is not only okay, but morally justified.

Talk about an eye for an eye. If you kill someone, people then consider that it is okay to kill you. So in what ways do our morals influence our decisions of lethal importance such as capital punishment? Capital punishment is supposed to be about fairness. In his article, Canton explains this using psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work explaining human foundations of morality. One of Haidt’s six pillars of morality is fairness/cheating, which explains our approval of capital punishment. Canton observes that, “‘The language of balance, equilibrium, and geometry pervade analyses and descriptions of retribution.’ While what counts as proportionate punishment varies across cultures ‘what is clear is that the principle of retribution is tied to a principle of proportionality” (63). As humans we want the punishment to be fair, we want the offender to receive the same treatment as they gave. We have a lot of words for this like: the golden rule, a taste of their own medicine, or “an eye for an eye.” It is an inherent understanding of humans and one of the pillars of our moral foundations. According to Dorjsuren in Norway, however, the current longest prison sentence for a case of murder is only 15 years. In Norway they feel that 15 years of life is enough punishment; it is fair enough for murder. So, maybe the capital punishment system is incorrect in the United States. Maybe our system needs to be abolished, and people should not need to pay for a crime with their life. Indeed capital punishment might not be correct but it is important to understand that it is only human – justifiably moral even. Capital punishment, a seemingly immoral practice, can be justified with the moral foundations. And in our eyes, even if killing is seen as immoral, our moral pillar of fairness often overrides this for the sake of equity.

Moral punishment: the statement almost seems contradictory. It seems almost impossible to punish someone in a way that is seen as moral. Prisons ultimately cause more harm to the inmates and leave them unable to rejoin society, and recidivism shows that punishment does not help at all to improve a person’s morality. In Norway, by contrast, prisons are designed to rehabilitate the inmates rather than punish them, which works to reduce the rates of recidivism. However, prisons in the United States are not likely to change anytime soon because of our retributive emotions and the pillars of morality. It is a human idea to want fairness even if it means something morally wrong is being done. We can create a laundry list of reasons why it is okay to kill someone; we can morally justify almost anything. But ultimately, our reason for wanting to punish is our feeling or retributive emotions, our want for revenge. It’s time to invest in some protective goggles because we will still want an eye for an eye, even if it means the whole world will need to be blind.

Works Cited
Bogel-Burroughs, Nicholas. “South Carolina Prisoner Chooses to Be Executed by Firing Squad.”
The New York Times. 15 Apr. 2022.

Bouchard, Danielle. “The Stanford Prison Experiment’s Torture Hermeneutics: Difference and Morality in the US University, 1968 to 9/11. Journal of American Studies, vol. 53, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 401–27.

Canton, Rob. “Crime, Punishment and the Moral Emotions: Righteous Minds and Their Attitudes Towards Punishment.” Punishment & Society, vol. 17, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2015, pp. 54–72.

Death Penalty Information Center. State by State. (2021).

Dorjsuren, Bolorzul. “Norway’s Prison System Benefits Its Economy.” The Borgen Project. Jan. 2021.

Haubursin, Christophe. “How Norway Designed a More Humane Prison.” YouTube, Vox, 12 April 2019.

Golash, Deirdre. The Case Against Punishment : Retribution, Crime Prevention, and the Law. New York University Press, 2005.

“Learning English – Moving Words Mahatma Gandhi.” BBC News, BBC.

Logan, James Samuel. Good Punishment? : Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008.

Most Americans Favor the Death Penalty Despite Concerns about Its Administration.” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy, Pew Research Center, 13 July 2021.

Pinker, Steven. “The Moral Instinct.” The New York Times, 2003.

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

by Emma KennedyPhoto of Emma Kennedy

Emma is a Latin American and Iberian Studies major with a minor in Secondary Education from Ipswich, MA. She has always been intrigued by languages, language barriers, and language learning throughout her studies. She was intrigued to “read about people who have the opposite perspective, who oppose multilingual education, and want their children to focus on perfecting their English.” Emma wants to be a teacher, focusing on multilingual students. She feels that her paper’s connection to her career “made the researching and writing process feel more interesting and relevant to her real life.” Emma enjoys reading and uses it as a way to practice Spanish — she is now using the same tactic for French. She loves to try new foods from all over the world and bake sweets from different countries. In her spare time, she likes origami and has made several thousand origami cranes throughout the years.

Education has always aroused great passions and debate. As one of the fundamental pillars upon which our society is built, a system to which each and every one of us must dedicate more than a decade of our lives, it is impossible for it not to take a central role in our country’s discourse. And yet, sometimes it feels like we have lost sight of the bigger picture and turned education into the battleground for a culture war. From what to teach, to who to allow in, all aspects of American public education are up for debate, and language education is no exception. Across the country, millions of students are learning English as a second language, and millions more students are studying languages other than English. Language education has always been a part of American education, but, as the cliché goes, in today’s increasingly globalized world, it is more important than ever. I, for one, went to a monolingual school and never had the opportunity to study a second language until I was much older, and I’ve always regretted this. Now, as I am studying education and hoping to become a public-school teacher, I have come in contact with the other side of the issue – which is that many non-English speaking students are underserved by our education system. It is society’s responsibility to ensure that our students, all our students, are given the tools they need to be successful in today’s globalized world, and it seems to me that we are failing in this essential mission. 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. These are questions we need to answer in order to begin addressing the problems in our society.

When we discuss language education in the United States, we usually sort students into two categories: children from immigrant families who are learning English, and children from native English-speaking families learning other languages. While both groups are language learners, their circumstances are vastly different, and consequently they have very different needs. First, let’s look at English language learners (ELLs). ELLs can be classified in many different ways, but they are usually immigrants, or the children of immigrants, who learned a language other than English prior to entering the American school system and are not considered ‘proficient’ or ‘at grade level’ in English. Legislation dating back to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s requires that schools provide support for ELLs, which usually takes the form of some type of ‘bilingual education,’ but the exact approach, and the reported success or failure, varies widely depending on the district or even the individual school.

But what, exactly, is bilingual education? Well, the answer depends on who you ask. Ellen Bialystok, a researcher in the field of bilingual education, gets to the essence of the issue in her article titled “Bilingual Education for Young Children: Review of the Effects and Consequences.” This article, published in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, synthesizes a multitude of previous studies to discuss the pros and cons of bilingual education, as well as the factors that interfere with its study. She points out that, for one researcher whose work she reviewed, bilingual education means “education that aims to promote bilingual (or multilingual) competence by using both (or all) languages as media of instruction for significant portions of the academic curriculum” (Genesee qtd. in Bialystok 667). But for another, it means “teaching non-English-speaking students to read and write in their native tongue, teaching them content in their native tongue, and gradually transitioning them to English over a period of several years” (Rossell and Baker qtd. in Bialystok 667). According to the latter definition, the goal is fluency in English, while according to the former, the goal is fluency in English and another language. These are two very different goals, and they imply very different approaches, to the extent that I would argue we need to be using two different terms, lest we get confused. For this reason, I propose the use of two different terms, dual language education for the former (when the goal is fluency in multiple languages) and transitional language education for the latter (when the goal is fluency in English), with bilingual education being the umbrella term used to refer to the education of anyone who speaks, or would like to speak, two languages. While both “dual language education” and “transitional language education” are both terms already in use, this use is very limited, and I think it would be appropriate for everyone to adopt them. This way, we can be precise in what we are referring to, which will help avoid harmful misunderstandings resulting from ambiguous and confusing terminology.

Because, people do get confused! In an anonymous survey on K-12 educational experiences that I conducted in April 2022, of 44 undergraduate students at UMass Boston, 17 of 44 said that there were “multiple languages of instruction” at their school, meaning that non-language curriculum was taught in more than one language. This is what most people, regardless of what they believe the goal of bilingual education should be, would consider a bi/multilingual school. However, when these same 17 were asked: “What was the percentage of classes delivered in English versus another language?” and given a scale (from 1 to 5, with 1 being “all English” and 5 being “all another language”), 9 respondents selected 1 (“all English”) and 1 selected 5 (“all another language”). Only 3 of the 17 selected 3, which would represent an equal split between two languages (Kennedy 2022). These respondents considered their schools bilingual schools, and yet, under the official definition of bilingual education that is used by federal, state, and local governments to make policy and allocate funding, there is usually a requirement that the split between languages of instruction be something along the lines of 50%/50% or 40%/60%. These percentages acknowledge that the exact terminology and phrasing varies, just like all other aspects of this topic seem to. Further complicating this discussion, I find it very interesting that people’s understanding of what is or is not considered bilingual education is so variable. The survey participants come from one small group of college students, and yet even within these 17 people there is a wide variety of understanding about what ‘bilingual education’ is. As someone who would like to work in bilingual or language education in the future, I would like to know exactly what type of school I am applying to before I show up on the first day – since clearly ‘bilingual’ doesn’t tell me much. This is why I propose the widespread and standardized usage of different terms, such as dual language education and transitional language education, for different approaches and goals.

It is my belief that this ambiguity regarding what the term ‘bilingual education’ means, and what its goals are, is a main reason that the research on bilingual education is so full of contradictions. For instance, I saw firsthand how the discrepancy in understanding what bilingual education means can affect research when I made my survey. To me, bilingual education means dual language education, with students who are actively taught two languages, and then these two languages are used to teach non-language curriculum, such as history or math. In my mind, being ‘bilingual’ also implies a measure of equality between the two languages, meaning that similar amounts of time and energy and prestige are dedicated to each…although, now that I think about it, I’m actually not sure why I feel this way, since when I think of a bilingual person, I don’t necessarily think of someone who carries out exactly half their day in one language and half in another—it’s just someone who is able to use both but may choose not to. This makes me wonder, should we have yet another term to describe education that is equally split between two languages, since bilingual education in itself doesn’t necessarily mean this? Or is simply adding “50/50” or “40/60” to the name sufficient? I don’t have a definitive answer for this question, there is such a thing as having too much jargon after all, but I think it is something for researchers, educators, and other stakeholders to explore further. In any event, there is no doubt that the definition of bilingual education that I have in my head affected the way I organized and worded my survey, which undoubtedly affected the results I got. For example, I neglected to define what I meant by ‘bilingual,’ and ‘multilingual,’ and so people responded according to what their definitions were, which may be different than mine. I assume this was why I got such confusing responses, such as the aforementioned group that said they went to a bilingual school but had all their classes in English. Perhaps if society had already adopted different terms for the different models, I would not have had this issue.

In any case, while some of the issues with my survey are no doubt due to my inexpertise in research and survey creating, I have good reason to believe that misunderstandings related to what bilingual education is, and what it should do, are a common plague in research and discourse relating to the topic. Indeed, when writing in the journal Educational Review, Yoon Kyong Kim, Lindsey A. Hutchison, and Adam Winsler, who have done extensive research in the field of bilingual education, include a sort of ‘disclaimer’ in the introduction to their article, titled “Bilingual Education in the United States: An Historical Overview and Examination of Two-Way Immersion,” which provides a review of the history and effectiveness of two-way immersion (a type of dual language education). They state that “wide variability in educational services for ELLs creates difficulty for researchers and practitioners attempting to assess the effectiveness of these services” and point out that “programs in which ELL children are mainstreamed into all-English classrooms, programs where ELLs receive instruction in both English and Spanish, and programs in which all students (both ELLs and native speakers of English) are instructed in both English and Spanish, are all described as ‘bilingual education’” (Kim, et al. 237). These authors capture in words what so many other studies dance around or only hint at, perhaps fearing that admitting uncertainty or ambiguity would lessen their credibility or the validity of their research. Although I would argue the opposite: that not admitting the presence of ambiguity and/or uncertainty hurts their study far more, since the result is that we end up with a bunch of studies that claim to have studied ‘bilingual education’ (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and that all have totally different, and often contradictory, conclusions about the effectiveness of the practice which arises from the fact that neither the definition nor the goal is clearly and universally defined. This type of inconclusive research, resulting from issues with terminology, is, at best, a waste of money, and at worst, harmful, as it leads people to draw incorrect conclusions about the best way to educate people.

So, if our inability to agree upon an exact definition for bilingual education affects the way we do research and the purported outcomes of that research, now we must wonder, does it affect anything else? The answer is, without a doubt, yes. One observation of particular interest is the inconsistency between what the researchers and educators say and what the parents and politicians say. Of course, these groups are not homogenous, and there is crossover and differences of opinion between them, especially in the case of parents. Nevertheless, overall, there seems to be a tendency for researchers to favor dual language education, while many parents, particularly Latinx and Asian parents, prefer more of an emphasis on education in English or transitional language education only (Pedalino Porter). This is a complex issue and there are undoubtedly multiple factors at play, but at the heart is the years-old debate over whether learning another language hinders students’ development in English. The research tends to say no, at least when separated from other confounding factors such as socioeconomic status, but parents are still worried. As Arthur Vasquez, a parent of two, puts it, ”I don’t deny my heritage as a Mexican-American, but the reason that we have achieved what we have in this country is that we speak English” (Fiske). Vasquez, and parents like him, believe that English is the key to success in this country, and therefore they worry that studying a heritage language is a waste of time that could otherwise be used to improve their children’s English. However, researchers reject this conclusion. Bialystok, for example, refutes this idea quite strongly in her meta-analysis of a multitude of studies regarding outcomes for students in monolingual and bilingual programs, finding that:

Scores on the English proficiency test were higher for both ELL and EP students who were in the bilingual programs than they were for children in the mainstream English programs. Similar results were found for scores on the mathematics test. Overall, students in the dual language program in this low socioeconomic status (SES) community achieved at least as well and in some cases better in both English and mathematics than did comparable students in a program in which all instruction was in English. Students in the bilingual programs also made more rapid progress across the grades in these tests than did students in the English program and, therefore, were more advanced in their trajectory to close the achievement gap with statewide norms for these tests. (Bialystok 668)

In other words, students’ English did not suffer as a result of being educated bilingually, and the cognitive and educational benefits of bilingual programs were actually greater than those of monolingual programs.

In light of this, both Vasquez and Bialystok’s points are valid. As Vasquez points out, there is no doubt that English, as the majority language, is an important tool for success in the US—and researchers agree on this point; certainly no one is arguing against the teaching of English. Instead, what the researchers are arguing is that, since dual language education in itself, when separated from socioeconomic status or years in school, does not harm, and may actually support, students’ abilities in English in the long run. The fear of weaker English proficiency is not a valid reason to oppose it. On the contrary, seeing as dual language programs lead to equal amounts of learning in math and English as monolingual programs, students in these programs end up with the advantage of being fluent in multiple languages, a coveted ability in our multicultural country and world. Therefore, researchers stress that, while not perfect, one could argue that nothing in our current education system is perfect, dual language education provides a net benefit over monolingual education. This conclusion is substantiated by every research study and scholarly article I have reviewed.

And yet, parents still worry and, as a result, politicians still claim that dual language education is harmful. I would argue that these concerns are not the result of an actual failure or inherent fault of dual language education, but rather a collection of problems in implementation that generates the appearance that dual language education is harmful, when in fact it in itself is not the culprit. For instance, Edward Fiske, while arguing against bilingual education in a New York Times Op-Ed titled “The Controversy over Bilingual Education in America’s Schools; One Language or Two?,” mentions cases of “Vietnamese immigrants being put into classes where the teaching language was Spanish” and “English-speaking students whose real need is remedial help in their native language [which is English] being forced to learn in a strange tongue” in a dual language program. Fiske, as well as Rosalie Pedalino Porter, a writer for The Atlantic who penned another article opposing bilingual education called “The Case Against Bilingual Education,” cite a multitude of instances of school administrators forcing all students from Spanish-speaking families into dual language programs and even refusing to teach reading and writing in English until they had ‘mastered’ Spanish in late elementary school, even if the students were native English speakers and their parents wanted them in the monolingual program. These types of occurrences, from bungling student placement to deliberately and obstinately going against parents’ wishes, simply do not endear schools, and the programs they implement, to parents, and so it makes sense that parents oppose them. In cases like this, it is not what is actually happening that is important, but rather what people think is happening. Education is a topic that brings out people’s passions, and in this case, it seems that people’s passionate concern for their children’s education may in fact be getting in the way of that education.

In short, there is no doubt that we, as a society, must make the effort to educate all of our students equitably. What is up for debate is how we should educate our students, especially language minority and ELL students, who face additional barriers to receiving an adequate American public education. It is the how we must figure out if we wish to keep moving our society forward into the 21st century and give our students the tools they need to succeed in our world. One way we can do this is by bringing some form of bilingual education to them. As a person who grew up monolingual and feels very regretful about that fact, it is my hope that one day all students will have the opportunity to access the benefits of dual language education, no matter if they come from an English-speaking background or another language background.

Works Cited
Bialystok, Ellen. “Bilingual Education for Young Children: Review of the Effects and Consequences.” International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, vol. 21, no. 6, Routledge, 2018, pp. 666–79.

Fiske, Edward B. “The Controversy Over Bilingual Education in America’s Schools; One Language or Two?New York Times, 10 Nov 1985.

Kennedy, Emma. “Multilingual Education.” Student Questionnaire. April 2022.

Kim, Yoon Kyong, et al. “Bilingual Education in the United States: An Historical Overview and Examination of Two-Way Immersion.” Educational Review (Birmingham), vol. 67, no. 2, Routledge, 2015, pp. 236–52.

Pedalino Porter, Rosalie. “The Case Against Bilingual Education.” The Atlantic, 1 May 1998.

Textism And The Shift In English Writing

by Alex Der-KazaryanPhoto of Alexander Der Kazaryan
Alex is a management major with a concentration in accounting from Belmont, MA. While writing this essay, Alex wanted to investigate “how our writing has evolved over the last thirty years or so.” Noticing a “retraction of socialization from other people,” since we introduced ourselves to new technologies, Alex focused this essay on the common complaint that “texting has only done damage to formal writing.” Alex has also come to enjoy writing as a way of self-expression and writes that it “can now be used in a way that benefits me.” Alex is also a huge history buff and has recently gotten into woodworking.

Before the cell phone, communication was fairly limited in that you couldn’t just pick up a phone and get to whomever you wanted to talk to. You could leave a message for them to call you back, or you’d call their pager and leave your number so they know who to call back, and maybe if you were really smart, you’d make a collect call to your parent and instead of saying your name you would tell them as fast as possible where they could pick you up from. These limited communication issues were essentially solved with the advent of the cell phone. Calling anyone you wanted, at any time and anywhere, became possible instantaneously.

With the advent of cell phones came the phenomenon of texting, a short messaging style similar to email. Early texting wasn’t what it is today, early flip phones had an alphabet embedded in the dial numbers, but there was a little problem – to get 26 letters onto 12 buttons was a challenge. This was remedied by putting 3-4 letters on each button, excluding a few. To get the letter C, you would have to press the number 2 button three times, and for the letter U, it would be the number 8 button twice.

This poor design flaw led to what is now known as “textism.” People prefer convenience over most other things and when it comes to texting, pressing 10 different buttons a total of 40 times isn’t exactly the best form of convenience. Instead of writing out words in full, people would instead abbreviate them, allowing them to send messages faster than typing out words completely. ‘You’ became ‘U’ and ‘are’ became ‘R’. It seems that nowadays, everybody uses some form of textism when sending messages to one another, whether it’s a simple ‘lol’ (laugh out loud) or a full sentence such as ‘c u tmrw @ 8’ (See you tomorrow at eight). These word adaptations and abbreviations are really easy to type up, especially when you are in a rush, and oftentimes it feels like second nature. Sometimes we even just type them because we are too lazy to move our fingers the extra inch. Textisms are often created and used by adolescents, and today it seems that sometimes the best answer you can get out of someone young is ‘k’ (OK).

Because of young people’s perpetual use of textism, many people think that students’ writing abilities have been slowly eroding, as younger and younger generations become more involved in technology use. Jean Parrella, Holli Leggette, and Tobin Redwine note that “75% of high school teachers believed texting negatively impacts students’ writing skills,” and who would blame them for thinking that (Parella et. al 2)? How could spelling words incorrectly, word adaptations, and other transmutations help students in the slightest? But according to some researchers, it does help. Beverly Plester, Clare Wood, and Puja Joshi found a positive correlation between students’ use of texting and their reading and writing abilities, highlighting that texting may have its advantages when it comes to helping students learn how to write (Plester et. al 155). In contrast, Drew Cingel and Shyam Sundar found a negative correlation between texting and adolescent grammar skills in their study, showing us that there may be circumstances where texting and social media could provide both a positive and negative when it comes to writing (Cingel and Sundar 1316). 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.


One area where textism may influence writing skills is in the practice of informal writing. Early in school, we learned that there are certain assignments where we can be less formal in our approach, especially when it comes to writing. This clicked with me when my teachers would make us buy a journal for daily writing but then, they never checked to see what we wrote. At first, I kept to the assignments but after a while, my writing looked completely different, it was filled with misspellings and abbreviations. However, the formal assignments that I turned in never saw a single one of those misspellings or abbreviations. This logical separation of formal and informal writing is very important in life and for many of us, it helps in our future careers.

Parella and her colleagues studied the separation of formal and informal writing and learned that “college students could differentiate appropriate and inappropriate instances of textisms in their writing” furthermore the “students knew which language to use for formal and informal contexts” (Parella et. al 3). Seemingly, we can see that textism has no effect on the differentiation between formal and informal writing. This I found interesting because there is evidence to show that textism can affect writing abilities negatively, and because of that I expected that students’ differentiation between formal and informal would become more blended, resulting in the deterioration of the distinction between the two types of writing. BUT…

Certainly, I didn’t think that writing formally would disappear altogether but rather that the constraints in formal writing would become loosened. With a further investigation, I found that Cingel’s and Sundar’s study of textism’s effect on adolescents exposed that 60% of adolescents don’t view online writing as “real writing,” and a further 64% of adolescents say they use informal writing online (Cingel, and Sundar 1306-1307). This told me that, though adolescents did not view online writing with the use of textism as “real writing,” they did differentiate it from a formal type of writing which provided an interesting contrast in thought process. This differentiation shows that in Cingel’s and Sundar’s study most adolescents viewed informal writing as not real, making me believe that possibly texting and social media could have a positive effect on how students learn to differentiate between formal and informal assignments.

Interestingly though, Cingel and Sundar come to the conclusion that, for the most part, adolescents were not able to switch between writing text messages and using correct English grammar for assignments (Cingel and Sundar1316). The findings from Parella, and others, tend to match what Cingel and Sundar conclude when they write, “Students who did incorporate textisms into their work, however, lacked proficiency in the English language and had extensive spelling errors, suggesting that the carelessness for the proper spelling of TM [text messaging] may negatively influence students’ ability to recall proper spelling when necessary” (Parella et. al 3). From what we see here I think it’s fair to say that the differentiation between the two styles of writing doesn’t play a large part in helping students with grammar skills though there may be some benefits to linguistic flexibility.

Some things that I found interesting, based on the studies I observed here, is that students can make the differentiation between informal and formal writing, but at the same time their grammar and basic English writing skills remain the same throughout. This can mean two things, either textism has negative effects on students’ grammar and basic writing abilities, or the way English grammar and basic writing skills are taught in early elementary schools is not sufficient enough for students to hold on to that information. If the latter is true then teachers will need to find new ways to help teach students proper English grammar and basic writing skills, if it’s not true then we should figure out how to limit the effects of textism on students’ grammar and basic writing skills. Either way, there is plenty of work on educators’ part in the ways of incorporating this new form of writing into classroom education. This incorporation of texting and social media use in the classroom is important because as there are more and more adolescents using this type of communication, engaging them becomes harder if teachers don’t have the correct tools to do so.


Texting and social media are often frowned upon in the classroom, however, it seems that these two mediums for communication are much more effective in drawing students’ attention. Something that is overlooked far too often as a teaching tool is texting and social media. These can be used in a variety of ways to help students engage with about a multitude of topics that they are interested in. If students become interested in the things that they write about, then surely there will be an increase in the quality of their writing because they won’t be dreading the assignments that they are tasked with. The platform used to engage students shouldn’t matter because students by themselves determine what interests them and teachers should use methods that students engage in rather than following a curriculum that doesn’t have student interests in mind.

While I was in high school, I always felt that my English assignments never piqued my interest. We would be asked to write about movies, books, stories, poems, and articles, but even though we were given a variety in the type of media I never felt that the topics of these media forms were interesting to me at the time. As a student, I would complete the assignment for the grade and I never considered myself to be improving my writing, I was just writing for the sake of the assignment. Though this may have given me lots of practice composing, it never sparked my interest in writing, I never felt like this was something I wanted to further immerse myself into.

This is where texting and social media come in. When texting, and on social media, you can not only find forums about any topic imaginable, but you can also create forums for topics that you think are interesting. Social media is one of the places where a lot of these forums reside. Twitter is one of the biggest melting pots for ideas and a lot of different discussions can be held at once between members. You can talk about religion, politics, sports, cars, general news, and even the weather if you wanted to. Lots of students, including myself, think of texting and social media as one of the best ways to explore topics that are interesting to us and to write about things that we enjoy writing about.

Sarah Galvin and Christine Greenhow explored how social media helps engage writers and found that teens felt that social media was less restrictive than their classroom composition and that the open expression and social interaction afforded to them by social media made writing more enjoyable (Galvin and Greenhow 57). This contrast of how teens feel about writing on social media, versus classroom composition, provides us with an idea of how writing online can be used to help get students interested in the topics they write about. Sheelah Sweeny agrees when she writes, “Texting or IM [instant messaging] can be used to create a community of writers where their ideas and writing struggles are shared…” (Sweeny 128). Galvin, Greenhow, and Sweeny all note how technology, specifically in the forms of social media and texting, can be useful in engaging young people with writing. Sweeny also notes that writing in the form of texting is a really important part of teenagers’ day-to-day lives. I believe that if there is something that encourages and engages someone to do something then there’s a good reason for it, and if texting and social media are what encourage teens and adolescents to engage in writing then I think teachers should take more advantage of something that is already part of students’ lives. If students are willing to spend hours outside of school texting and using social media, who says they won’t jump at the chance to do it in school?


We face many issues when it comes to how texting and social media affect writing. However, I think that the main problems are that the style of writing portrayed in informal writing has been slowly bleeding into formal writing in the form of bad grammar and poor basic writing skill, and at the same time, we see that students prefer their writing to be more informal because it allows them to be more confident in their writing. I think that fixing the grammar in the context of formal writing will be an easier issue to fix in that there are multiple solutions that are available for educators to try, like more grammar and basic writing skills being taught in the early elementary years. The bigger issue I see for the future of writing is that students feel more comfortable and more confident in their informal writing, which is not a bad thing, but when we compare that to how informal writing affects formal writing we might first need to reverse the effects of textism on formal writing, before we can find solutions.

Texting and social media are great places for informal writing, and as we’ve seen, those forms of communication are much more preferred by adolescents. But how can we ensure that their use of informal writing doesn’t bleed into their attempts at formal writing? Adolescents will only continue to use texting and social media, so it is important that we can figure out how we can make sure that students’ English writing abilities do not erode, while at the same time making them feel comfortable in their writing.

Works Cited
Cingel, Drew P., and S. Shyam Sundar. “Texting, Techspeak, and Tweens: The Relationship Between Text Messaging and English Grammar Skills.” New Media & Society, vol. 14, no. 8, 2012, pp. 1304–20.

Galvin, Sarah, and Christine Greenhow. “Writing on Social Media: a Review of Research in the High School Classroom.” TechTrends, vol. 64, no. 1, 2019, pp. 57–69.

Parrella, Jean, et al. “Measuring the Correlation Between Digital Media Usage and Students’ Perceived Writing Ability: Are They Related?Research in Learning Technology, vol. 29, 2021, pp. 1–14.

Plester, Beverly, et al. “Exploring the Relationship Between Children’s Knowledge of Text Message Abbreviations and School Literacy Outcomes.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, Received 27 June 2007; revised version received 8 May 2008, vol. 27, no. 1, 2009, pp. 145–61.

Sweeny, Sheelah M. “Writing for the Instant Messaging and Text Messaging Generation: Using New Literacies to Support Writing Instruction.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, vol. 54, no. 2, 2010, pp. 121–30.

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

by Quinn Gabrielle CantorPhoto of Quinn Gabrielle Cantor

Quinn is a mathematics major living in Jamaica Plain, MA, but born in the Philippines. Quinn rhetorically analyzes Linda Villarosa’s essay from the 1619 Project by The New York Times by investigating how Villarosa’s “intended audience and purpose ultimately culminated into her published essay.” Quinn says her analysis is supported both by the rhetorical knowledge gained in her Composition I course and by a history class she took in high school that investigated race relations and discrimination. Quinn’s experiences as a student in both the Philippines and the United States has made her “deeply care about the importance of a high-quality and affordable education.” She writes that the quality of any education “should not be determined by the amount of money that people can afford to spend” as it allows us “to have a good job, create a better life, and even improve our community as a whole.”

Quinn’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.

The 1619 Project is a project from The New York Times dedicated to examining the legacy of slavery in the United States. The New York Times Magazine states: “The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Most of the writers for the project who were carefully selected to write about a specific topic are black—a deliberate choice as part of the project’s goal to put black voices and culture at the center of American history. Linda Villarosa, one of the first selected writers for The 1619 Project, wrote an essay entitled “How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today.” In the essay, Villarosa delves into the medical abuse black enslaved people suffered from white doctors who experimented on them to study the “racial myths” that black people have a higher tolerance for pain, have weaker lungs, have thicker skin and many more. Villarosa explains the connections between these medical abuses and the justification by slave owners to cruelly mistreat their black enslaved people, as well as how these racial myths still exist in our modern American healthcare system, thus creating further racial inequality. However, one of the problems that The 1619 Project, as a whole, faces is that slavery is a highly divisive topic – particularly in the context of a country such as the United States where political, racial, and economic divisions are growing and deepening. Thus, Villarosa’s main challenge becomes: How can she persuade her audience that the legacy of slavery still exists in our societal structures and systems using the least divisive language? In this essay, I am going to discuss how Villarosa’s audience creates rhetorical constraints, as well as how her audience contributes to her purpose.

Establishing the Audience
First things first, who is the audience? According to Halevi, the audience is “the intended recipient of your rhetoric.” In other words, they are who the rhetor is trying to persuade. Some people might immediately think that Villarosa’s audience could be black people—after all, The 1619 Project is about the connections between slavery and modern racial inequalities. Others might think that the audience are people who are not on the conservative end: liberals, progressives, independents, and non-partisans. Since the goal of The 1619 Project is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” which directly challenges the notion many conservatives hold that the history of our country began with the signing of The Declaration of Independence in 1776, or perhaps the arrival of the European settlers in 1492, thus it might not cater to Americans who are politically aligned with the right.

However, in determining Villarosa’s audience, we must consider that one critical connection with the audience is the rhetor’s purpose, or the “intended goal of your communication” (Halevi). As Halevi further defines, the audience “has to be someone who is capable of helping you accomplish your purpose.” Villarosa’s essay clearly intends to inform the audience that racist ideologies still exist with the healthcare system, and that these racist ideologies were rooted in slavery. Keeping these purposes in mind, the audience are most likely not black people because compared to any other racial groups, they have the most connection with slavery and the perpetuating racial inequalities that arose from it. In other words, most black people are already aware of racism within healthcare.

On the other hand, white people, regardless of their political alignment, are likely to have the biggest disconnect with experiencing racism. Villarosa provides an example of this in her essay: “A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.” The results of this survey establish that many white medical students still believe myths about black people’s health and physiology. It is clear that this racial myth, in which black people have a higher pain tolerance than white people, is racist, as it implies that black people’s skin is inherently different than white people’s, and it falsely leads to the assumption that black patients don’t need as much help managing pain as white patients since black people are “less sensitive.” Although healthcare is only one sector of our society, Villarosa’s point shows that black people, compared to white people, experience more racism in our country generally. And although American society has become much more progressive over time, many white people are still unaware about the true extent of slavery and, by extension, the racism black people still face today.

Furthermore, historically, white people were often the perpetrators of racist acts in our country, exhibited by things such as owning black enslaved people, convict leasing, lynching black people, and many others. In fact, Villarosa provides examples of people in her essay who were enslavers and doctors—such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Moseley, and J. Marion Sims—all of whom were white, and all of whom believed in racial myths and used those myths to justify mistreating black people. Villarosa’s purpose then, is to not just inform white audiences about the racism black people faced during the time of slavery and still face in modern-day healthcare, but also to make them understand that they are significant players in the history of racism in our country. This gives her white audience a direct responsibility to acknowledge and confront the racist legacies of white people and their very own racial myths—a chance to help Villarosa “accomplish her purpose” (Halevi). Thus, I believe that Villarosa’s audience members are most likely white people.

Villarosa’s Rhetorical Strategy: “White” Omission
Now that the audience is defined, Villarosa’s biggest challenge has yet to be addressed: How does Villarosa discuss the topics of racism within healthcare and slavery to inform her white audience without offending them? In order to do so, Villarosa understands and makes use of multiple rhetorical constraints, or the “guidelines or limits on language that shape your language when you deliver your rhetoric” (Halevi). In other words, these rhetorical constraints determine the rhetoric, or “persuasive language,” and are used according to things such as the audience or the context. In Villarosa’s case, her white audience creates the constraints of her essay. One rhetorical constraint Villarosa uses is she does not directly mention white people as perpetrators of racist acts and ideologies. In Villarosa’s introduction of a white enslaver owner named Dr. Thomas Hamilton, who used his enslaved person, John Brown, for his abusive medical experiments, Villarosa writes:

Hamilton was a courtly Southern gentleman, a respected physician and a trustee of the Medical Academy of Georgia. And like many other doctors of the era in the South, he was also a wealthy plantation owner who tried to use science to prove that differences between black people and white people went beyond culture and were more than skin deep, insisting that black bodies were composed and functioned differently than white bodies.

Villarosa noticeably fails to mention that Hamilton was a white man, although the audience can assume he is from his status. This lack of a direct statement of his race is no coincidence. Villarosa is most likely aware that any clear mention of enslavers as being white would implicate white people in general, as being racist and abusive, no matter how unrelated they are to Hamilton or his ideologies. Villarosa has a strong understanding of her audience and their possible reactions to her main ideas—a key component in using rhetorical strategies. Halevi writes, “We adjust our language according to who our audience is as well as the nature of our relationship with them”. Because Villarosa intends to reach white audiences as part of her purpose, she “adjusts” the rhetoric of her essay by eliminating any overt mention of white people as racists despite the significant role white people played in black people’s slavery and current racial inequalities.

Villarosa uses the same rhetorical strategy throughout the essay, usually by simply mentioning the white person’s profession as an indicator they are white without saying so overtly. For example, Villarosa writes that J. Marion Sims used “misconceptions about pain tolerance…to use black women as subjects in experiments that would be unconscionable today, practicing painful operations (at a time before anesthesia was in use) on enslaved women in Montgomery, Ala., between 1845 and 1849.” Just like Dr. Hamilton, Villarosa only introduces Sims by describing his job and beliefs; as a “pro-slavery advocate… physician…father of modern gynecology”—not once mentioning that he is white. This is true for every other figure Villarosa mentions in her essay, whom she would describe by simply explaining their relation to the misconceptions about black people’s physiologies, whether that be by being a doctor, a physician, or someone who wrote medical “myths” about black people’s health (Villarosa).

In fact, the only time Villarosa ever mentions white people as perpetrators of racist ideologies/acts was with the mention of a scientific study: “A 2016 survey of 222 white medical students and residents published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that half of them endorsed at least one myth about physiological differences between black people and white people, including that black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than white people’s.” Here, Villarosa directly implies that a lot of white doctors-to-be still hold notions about black people’s pain tolerance that are clearly false and rooted in racist myths. However, although Villarosa is directly calling the students out as being white, she presents it as a statistic from a study, as evidence that the implication that white people are racist is not directly coming from her, but rather from an academic survey.

Villarosa’s Rhetorical Strategy: Scientific Objectivity
Another rhetorical strategy that Villarosa uses to not alienate white audiences is through the lack of personal connection within her essay. Villarosa does this by not using any “I” within her essay. This might be understandable, considering that the genre of the essay is scientific writing. However, I believe that Villarosa is actually using the essay’s genre to create the “appearance of objectivity” to appear more credible to the white audience (Allen 94). Allen discusses this strategy in which, combined with the general assumption that scientific writing is an “unbiased vessel for transmitting truth”, scientific writers themselves use “rhetorical strategies that contribute to the appearance of objectivity.” Allen defines one rhetorical strategy scientific writers use, which is the lack of any active agents. He writes, “The editors of Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage point out that while the active voice is generally preferable, ‘a few [usage] commentators find the passive useful in scientific writing (one even believes it to be necessary) because of the tone of detachment and impersonality that it helps establish’” (Allen 98).

Villarosa similarly creates a sense of “detachment” by not using any personal “I” and simply reporting scientific studies. In effect, this creates the appearance that 1) Villarosa’s essay is credible because it is entirely objective, and 2) Villarosa is not personally attacking a white audience that might get offended or feel guilty because of her essay. In the previous example, of the 2016 survey, Villarosa uses a strategy of impersonality and the appearance of objective reporting – allowing her to get away with mentioning white people because it is in accordance with the genre of scientific writing. Thus, even though the survey clearly implies that many white medical students still hold racist notions, white audiences are less likely to be offended or feel attacked because Villarosa masks it with scientific objectivity. As Dirk writes, “knowing what a genre is used for can help people to accomplish goals” (253). 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.

Villarosa’s Rhetorical Strategy: The Collective “We”
Interestingly, at the very end of the essay, Villarosa suddenly changes rhetorical strategies, going from objective scientific writing to making an overt persuasive statement: “Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago, we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage and ill treatment.” What is interesting here is that despite the use of “we”, which directly opposes the expectations of objective scientific writing, Villarosa still tries to avoid offending white audiences. The first statement in the sentence clearly refers to the white doctors today and of the past: “Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability [referring to white medical students] because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago [referring to the white doctors of enslaved people and white enslavers]…” (Villarosa). The sentence is a direct call-out to the white medical students who still believe in racial myths about black people’s physiologies that were falsely established by white doctors and enslavers, all of which Villarosa has presented previously in the essay as evidence. And yet, the sentence does not seem like a call-out because Villarosa does not directly refer to white people anywhere in the sentence.

Moreover, the second half of the sentence, in which Villarosa uses the personal language: “we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage, and ill treatment” actually helps the entire sentence appear less directed at white people. Now, with the added language of “we”, the entire sentence reads as: “Rather than conceptualizing race as a risk factor that predicts disease or disability [referring to the collective “we”] because of a fixed susceptibility conceived on shaky grounds centuries ago [still referring to white doctors of enslaved people], we would do better to understand race as a proxy for bias, disadvantage, and ill treatment” (Villarosa). In this new meaning of the sentence, Villarosa is calling out to all of us, regardless of race, to examine our own notions about black people’s health and to look deeper into how racial bias in healthcare came about and how it still lives on today. This effectively gets Villarosa’s message across, despite venturing from scientific objectivity, as white people are less likely to feel implicated and guilty, and thus more likely to believe in Villarosa’s final message.

Although writing for a target racial demographic in a context where people are still heavily racially divided is tricky, Villarosa effectively gets her message across through the use of multiple rhetorical strategies determined by the constraints her white audience creates. Villarosa uses her knowledge of the audience to determine what rhetoric is the most appropriate, the least offensive or alienating, and the most likely to get her message across. In this case, Villarosa avoids referring to white figures as being white when discussing them as people who held racist notions, effectively putting fewer implications on the white audience as a whole. Villarosa also uses genre awareness by becoming as impersonal as possible and mostly reporting scientific evidence, to appear more objective and thus more credible to the white audience. Finally, Villarosa’s message calls out to all of the audience, regardless of race or political alignment, as a way to create less of a targeted responsibility for white people. Villarosa’s strategy allows her to not only inform white audiences about intentional and unintentional racial notions they might have, but it also gets the message across to the white audience. As Halevi writes, “understanding the rhetorical constraints of a given situation can also give us a lot of power and opportunity for creativity to shape our language in pursuit of our purposes.” Villarosa shapes her rhetoric so that she does not end up alienating white people but her message is strong enough to imply that white people have a responsibility to challenge systemic racism. In this way, Villarosa ends up fulfilling her purpose without sacrificing her audience.

Quinn’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.

Works Cited
Allen, M. C. “The Rhetorical Situation of the Scientific Paper and the ‘Appearance’ of Objectivity.” Young Scholars in Writing, Vol. 2, Sept. 2015, pp. 94-102.

Dirk, Kerry. “Navigating Genres.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing. E-book, Parlor Press, 2010, pp 249-262.

Halevi, Itai. “Rhetorical Situations: An Introduction.” Google Classroom, University of Massachusetts Boston. Accessed 16 September 2021.

Silverstein, Jake. “Editor’s Note.” 1619 Project, a special issue of New York Times Magazine, 18 Aug 2019, pp. 4-5.

Villarosa, Linda. “How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today.”1619 Project, a special issue of New York Times Magazine, 18 Aug 2019, pp. 56-57.

The 1619 Project.” New York Times Magazine, 18 Aug 2019.

2020 Editor’s Introduction

As I draft this introduction on a mid-pandemic August afternoon, from a small corner of the small room that, in just a few days, will become the backdrop of my virtual university classroom, Louisiana residents recover from a Category 4 hurricane; Californians inhale smoky air from wildfires; and Jacob Blake, a Black man in Wisconsin, lies handcuffed in a hospital bed, despite being paralyzed from the seven shots fired into his back by a White police officer. We like to remark on this as an “unprecedented” time, but to call it so is to willfully ignore the many, many precedents that bring us precisely to this moment. This issue of Undercurrents captures undergraduate students’ efforts to use writing and inquiry to do otherwise, as these authors pay close attention the conditions of their social and, especially, academic worlds. A small but visible spark of hope, the work of the eight students in this 2020 issue of Undercurrents provides striking examples of how writing and inquiry, with true openness and curiosity, may yet lead the way toward better futures.

Several contributors to this issue see the possibilities for a more just and equitable future through a robust education in language and rhetoric that is sensitive to culture and identity. Callia Chow’s experiences in a multilingual household, in which she learned to appreciate that “every single language has its own beautiful story,” led her to a conclusion that captures essence of this 2020 issue of Undercurrents: “Language can influence and shape the way we look at things, how we connect with others, and make our experiences in life more fulfilling.” Hoping to use language to make a world that is not only fulfilling, but truly accessible, Aneika Robinson traces a scholarly debate about code switching in the English classroom, and urges literacy and language educators not to teach students to “switch” varieties of English between home and school. Doing so, she argues, effectively tells African American students, “your dialect does not belong here.” Instead, students should learn “how language functions within and from various cultural perspectives.”

Similarly championing the study of rhetoric for educational equity, Whitney Posada reflects on how her lack of rhetorical awareness may have disadvantaged her college application essays. As a first-generation college student, she notes that she lacked rhetorical awareness of the “academic game” of college applications, putting her at a distinct disadvantage—a limitation she hopes early rhetorical education can change for future applicants. Making up for his own lack of rhetorical knowledge about a common genre in his discipline of chemistry, Cooper Wilkinson narrates his efforts to understand—and ultimately question—the conventional use of third-person passive voice in chemistry lab reports. While initially coming to realize that the passive voice can, in some circumstances, make abstract knowledge more legible, he also notices that this convention presents a disadvantage to global English speakers and writers, for whom grammatical and stylistic variation can be interpreted as lack of scientific merit.

Other students see a need for change in something even closer to home: the mind. Sarah Dickinson notes that, in the age of standardized testing, early childhood education has severely reduced opportunities for play in its core curriculum. She argues that the consequences of this loss are serious, as children miss out on crucial opportunities to reach cognitive and social milestones. Similarly concerned about the limitations that environments have placed on developing minds, two authors consider the impact of digital media on their lives as writers and thinkers. Adil Shahid uses survey data to explore the challenges students face when they are “consumed” by the digital mediascape, which—he hypothesizes—leaves no room for the pleasures of sustained reading and writing activity. Similarly concerned about the interference of digital life, research by another student author (who prefers to remain Anonymous) comes to the bleak conclusion that, as a storehouse of information, the Internet makes memory “obsolete”—echoing a similar complaint by Socrates, who lamented that writing would “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it.”

How, then, during a time in which these students perceive the systemic exclusion of their languages and identities alongside the erosion of their agency and access, do we resist social “forgetfulness”? How do we move from a sense of loss and exclusion to positive change? Michael O’Shaughnessy offers a radical proposal: “it is our civic and societal duty to be offensive.” Taking offensive to mean challenging the status quo rather than seeking to harm others, he makes the impassioned plea that we speak up and, perhaps more importantly, that we listen. The Undercurrents staff is, perhaps now more than ever, grateful for these students’ efforts to “be offensive” and to share with us these lessons about how they see the world, both as it is today, and as it might yet be.

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