Thursday, September 30, 2010


A Basic English story:

I'm holding conferences this week in Basic English. The assignment is pretty straightforward -- pick an advertisement from a magazine; identify the audience as specifically as possible; analyze how the ad's strategies and appeals work and why they're appropriate for that audience. You know, the sort of warm-up, learning-to-think-about-rhetoric assignment most instructors give in the first few weeks of freshman comp. In Basic, we spend most of the semester on it.

So, one of the students picks an ad from a parenting magazine. OK. In an effort to get her to define the audience more specifically than "parents," I pull up the magazine's web site on my computer. And we are in Glossy-Magazine-Land: a world where practically everyone is white; all parents are slim, good-looking, neatly attired thirtysomething professionals; and all the kids are clean and cute. Where parents spend hours making elaborate costumes for Halloween and fancy cakes for birthdays, and where they can have their pick of jobs at the 100 most family-friendly companies in America. You know, the world the media tells you is normal.

"OK, what sort of parents do you think would be most likely to read this magazine?"


"... What makes you say teenagers?"

"Well, lots of teenagers are having babies nowadays."

I don't know how to deal with moments like this. I think I would be able to find something to say to a student who was saddened or outraged or just plain bewildered at the gulf between Glossy-Magazine-Land and her own lived experience. I don't know what to say to one who is unconscious that the gulf exists. There is no decent way to point it out, for the truth is not decent. I think I floundered a little, pointed out that most teenagers are not looking for corporate jobs, evaded the real issue.

I have the knowledge to teach Shakespeare. I don't have the wisdom to teach Basic Comp.


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Ugh... so WITH you. The things that my comp students come up with!? I just don't even know what to say.

my word verification is faliero - makes me think of failure-o. (And I just wrote about failing...)

Bardiac said...

Yep, it's so difficult!

Many of my white students have trouble "seeing" that people of color exist. So they wouldn't even notice the whiteness of the magazine.

And you're absolutely correct: the truth is not decent. Well said.