Reggie Watts for Poet Laureate

So last night, my colleague and friend Amy buzzed me about a free comedy show at Upright Citizens Brigade. She is doing her dissertation research on stand-up comics in New York, so such locales constitute fieldsites for her. There would be other comedians, including Jeffery Joseph relating his experience teaching ‘at-risk youth’ from Riker’s Island, Ron Lynch playing an animatronic comedian of the future, Daniel Kitson on existential loneliness, and surprise heavyweights Louis CK and Jim Gaffigan.

The draw for me, however, was Reggie Watts. The man came out for the final set, when my lungs had already been effectively inverted from hard laughter by the preceding parade of absurdity. Watts burst through the flimsy curtain, his face hidden somewhere between the ‘fro clearly outta contro’ and complementary beard and pot-belly. He looks a bit like Lenny Kravitz if he let himself go, a lot. Only with much more of what the experts call ‘talent,’ no offense to LK or his devoted dozens of followers.

On stage he’s armed with two mics, one of which is plugged into a doo-dad on a stool with little knobs and switches. Mostly his weapon of choice is his voice, which he wields with unpredictable grace. The gizmo is to loop beats and modulate sounds beyond the limits of his larynx, which is expansive as it is. His show is part beat-box concert, with organic renditions of hip-hop- and soul-inspired music, part pastiche theater of impersonations. But not impressions of celebrities or political figures or cultural stereotypes. In rapid-fire, Watts channels the everyday speech patterns and lingo you can put a place but not quite a face to. Then suddenly he’s breaking into song again. It’s a linguistic and musical kaleidoscope that reaches trascendental ground: Watts in some moments seems to turn himself into a pure instrument of sound and vernaculars. I’d say he takes joy in reproducing, like scrambled ethnographic recorder stuck on play, words and beats, if it weren’t for the deadpan delivery that leaves the audience in wonder. I ought to report: while half of the audience giggled in delight at Watt’s virtuosity, the other half stared in bewilderment. I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter were the more intended reaction.

I try to describe this performance, but I honestly don’t know what to make of Reggie Watts. I only sense that an obligation to tell others about him, maybe to warn them maybe to claim that I saw him long before he got famous and sold out or jumped the shark. My first encounter with Watts was this meta-hiphop music video, F*ck Sh*t Stack, where he skewers, in successive verses, rap’s most cherished stereotypes: curse words, the objectification of women, and conspicuous consumption. But satire is not Watts’s modus operandi. It’s too sincere, in a way. (Although musically, he does have his intimate serious side.)

Rather, I direct you towards some of the philosophical and linguistic buffonery, like this clip where Watts opens with an Esperanto-esque gibberish monologue:

or this gig at Google headquarters that seems to go right over the poor egg-head employees:

Or this Max Headroom-esque mix:

In effect, he’s all very -esque. Watts has even faked his own death (and life) as an Exxon ‘maintenance man’ who donates his body to his employer to be turned into fuel (“I, I think I’d like to be a, uh, candle…”)

I suppose I present Watts to the emerging discussion on this site over the relationship between thought and language, content and style. How can language refer to absolutely nothing, yet carry so much meaning? To watch him shape-shift in front of your eyes so jarringly from Queen’s-English professorial cadence into Bed Stuy street slang makes one suddenly aware of the intimate relationship between language as a performed, public activity and cultural identity. It also makes one wonder at how Watts can so effortlessly assume these voices. And finally, there’s the phenomenon of humor at work here: it’s hilarious to speak through the idioms of others, while it’s not funny at all to speak about them, as I have done here.

Texting as Pet Peeve

In a faculty workshop on commenting on student writing that Diana and I facilitated last week, we discussed the feeling of being overwhelmed by such “lower order” concerns as spelling and grammatical errors and stylistic problems.  One technique to counteract this is WAC guru John Bean’s “pet peeve” approach.  Pick one or two of your own personal pet peeves about students’ writing, such as use of passive voice or subject-verb agreement, and restrict your lower order comments only to these pet peeves. You can even change it up every semester.

Now, when I first read about this approach, I immediately thought of my number one pet peeve: students’ use of texting lingo in their writing.  You know, “Marx wants u 2 throw off ur chains but Durkheim says those chains are solidarity LOL.”

But according to David Crystal, author of txtng: the gr8 db8, text-messaging is a new linguistic form that helps build literacy.  He writes,

All the popular beliefs about texting are wrong, or at least debatable. Its graphic distinctiveness is not a totally new phenomenon. Nor is its use restricted to the young generation. There is increasing evidence that it helps rather than hinders literacy. And only a very tiny part of the language uses its distinctive orthography. A trillion text messages may seem a lot, but when we set these alongside the multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life, they appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language. Texting has added a new dimension to language use, indeed, but its long-term impact on the already existing varieties of language is likely to be negligible. It is not a bad thing.

So, am I being a technophobic Luddite every time I want to circle in bright red pen every single instance of txt-speak in my students’ papers?  You can read an excerpt of his book and hear Crystal expound on this more at NPR’s Talk of the Nation.

So yeah I was like you know

I can’t stand overhearing people on their cell phones. I can’t stand overhearing people having conversation. It’s not so much that I mind the invasion or the fact that people usually talk about private (rather private, sometimes too private) concerns in public, but rather the fact that all I hear is: “So yeah I was like you know and so I like you know told him yeah so and I was like so yeah like you know and he was like yeah so like yeah you know what I’m saying?”

I have no idea what language this is. This language seems to have its own rules and method of meaning, but it’s not one I want to learn or be around. It makes me angry.

What makes me more angry is hearing my neighbor’s rather lame attempts to play guitar when I’m trying to work in my office. I just blast my Glenn Gould. I figure that hearing real music might help him play real music. My other neighbor, on the other hand, is a professional pianist; I don’t mind hearing him at all. I welcome it.

I suppose I wouldn’t mind overhearing conversation if it were real conversation.

In so many classrooms, so many students raise their seemingly enthusiastic hands to say, “Uh, miss, do you like really want like our thesis to like you know be like that because in my like other class you know with my other professor you know like that would be like my professor like you know wanted the thesis to like be to the point like you know and that thesis is like you know what I’m saying?”

No, I have no idea what you’re saying.

Instead of interpreting this non-language, we should ask the student to clarify and speak intelligently.

My ancient Greek professor banned the expression “okay” in class. Expressions I would ban: so like yeah, you know, like, so like, yeah, but miss (why “miss” and not “Professor so-and-so?”), you know what I’m saying, and I was like so like.

I think you get my point.

Teaching effective oral communication should start at the most basic level. Don’t encourage students because they are asking questions; encourage them to ask intelligent questions intelligently. Don’t interpret them; force them to clarify.

Conservatism of Style

I have been thinking along the following lines in the run-up to the New Rules Symposium:

It can be difficult to keep up with the evolving etiquette of smiley faces, exclamation points, or appropriate 21st-century saluations and signoffs — something might not have been acceptable a year ago but is commonplace today. I would propose however, that there are two rules that always remain relevant, rules that will point any writer in the right direction whether in 1807 or 2007. Those are: clarity and correct perception of context. Is my meaning transparent? Is what I am writing likely to distract or offend the reader?

If those are the questions we ask each time we hit “send” then we will tend to phrase our writing conservatively, which is a good thing. No boss who receives your memo is going to care if you’re the very last person to employ emoticons, but he sure might if you’ve chosen to be part of the emoticon avant garde. This of course does not mean conservative thinking. The idea is only to decrease the chance that your style distracts from the thought you wish to convey.

Pikelets, crumpets, dialects and accents


I have just found Sounds Familiar?, a fantastic website and have spent much time playing with it. It reminds me of the George Mason University Speech Accent Archive.

The site contains numerous recordings from the British Library of regional accents and dialects from every corner of the UK–some recorded as far back as the 1950s and many recent recordings up until 1999. There is a section on phonological, grammatical, social, and lexical variation: this means you can pick a region on the map and hear and learn about how a given pattern of speech developed, or how it fits with the language spoken in the rest of the UK. You can submit to the database and analyze your own accent, if you are British. You can spend hours clicking on the map of the UK to hear how words are pronounced across the region and how dialects change over time and space. Apparently, there are more than 150 audio clips of Geordie – the dialect of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – arguably one of the most recognizable dialects in Britain. You may want to hear how ethic minorities pronounce British English (check out the sound files for Asian English Phonology), or practice your Received Pronunciation, if you are feeling proper.

It is an interactive site allowing you to investigate how the language changes and progresses over time, using learning modules suited to college or high school students. In fact, the entire site is nested in the website of the British Library, and if you venture into the rest of the site, you’ll find all kinds of treasures.

The Sounds Familiar site is fairly new, hence this Guardian story about it.

The article ends with this passage:

Language evolves for many reasons – even something as superficial as the hegemony of supermarkets, as any Midlander trying to buy a pikelet will tell you. In Sainsbury’s it’s a crumpet or nothing. But change is not something to be judged or mourned; it’s something to be observed and understood. The purpose of the website is to document the history of language – with schools and universities invited to become part of the process by sending in their own regional recordings. As Upton says, “We’re not in the business of preservation. The only language that doesn’t change at all is a dead one.”

I know that there are some for whom this is not a self evident truth and in fact this statement invites controversy. But for those of us who accept it, I think it has implications for how we teach, communicate, and think about pedagogy, especially in a universe as diverse as CUNY and Gotham. Doesn’t it?

And for dessert, and since we are talking about accents, check out this truly bizarre, yet funny, (?) clip:

American English as a Second Language?

I just finished running a psycholinguistic experiment for my dissertation research. I am working in the field of sentence processing, which looks at how one ‘parses’ the sentences they hear and how to resolve potential ambiguity they might encounter. My project is on English and I am targeting native speakers of English, more precisely those of American English. The participants are undergraduates at Queens Collee who are enrolled in Psychology 101, and they were doing this for a course credit.

This is how the experiment goes. You read a mini dialogue, proceeding from one ‘frame’ to another with the button press, and your task is to choose the answer choice that best fits the dialogue in the third frame. For example,

<start dialogue>
1. Until Frank got the fancy job
that he was just bragging about,
2. how much money was he making?
3. He earned far less than you. OR He earned more than anyone.
<choose Left or Right>

Obviously the right hand answer would best fit the dialogue if you carefully
read and understood the content of the whole dialogue.
I won’t go into details of what we are interested in testing, but it suffices here to know that although students tend to think that they are only being tested for the question-answering accuracy, we also measure how long it took to move through the dialogue, and compare the ‘reading times’ across different constructions.

After running the experiment, we evaluated their performance, since if the participants are reading too slow or making too many errors, we need to discard the data. And an interesting thing I noticed was that most of the data that we had to throw away come from people who were recent immigrants from other places where English is spoken but that English is a dialect that is not American English (for example, Jamaica or Trinidad). They were all ‘prescreened’ by the research management system as native speakers of English. But it fascinated me to know that it showed such a systematic difference in performance between people who are early immigrants (came to the US in their infancy (0-6)) and those who came later (9 or later, when according to a theory the learning of a second language will become dramatically more difficult).
As I interacted with them as the experimenter, they speak good English and they look and behave reasonably smart – it’s not like they forged their background information or they are not part of the smart bunch. I can see them contribute good ideas to the class and write good papers. But in the world of milliseconds in an intricate reading experiment like this, the difference shows up. Their reading speed was almost as if they were second language speakers of English, though highly proficient ones.

Although we are not looking to research on this issue, I brought this up in the meeting I had with one of my advisors and we agreed that the dialectal difference between American English and their English is so huge that we just can’t view them as the kind of ‘native speakers of English’ that we are targeting for.
It has definitely proven something to me. The students who speak certain dialects of English, though treated the same as other American native speakers, they might have more in common with advanced ESL population than we think. And, from my experience of interacting with them, it is definitely not the matter of intellect, or their ‘broken’ English. Though this point may be obvious to some people, I feel like I truly learned something about the variety of Englishes.

Culture-specific forms of narration

This may sound naive to some people, but I only recently learned (from the chapter “Language and Literacy in the School years” by R. Ely, in “The Development of Language”) that there are two major forms of narrative: topic-focused narrative and topic-associating narrative. In fact, there may well be more forms, but I am not aware of them.

A topic-focuses narrative is a story about a single person or event that has a clear beginning, middle and end.

A topic-associating narrative is a story that links several episodes thematically, and these episodes may involve several principal characters and shifts in time and setting.

It is stated in this chapter that the former are mainly used by many middle-and working-class European-American children, while the latter are often used by working-class African Americans. While I did hear oral topic-associating narratives, I have never seen an essay written in this form. I was wondering if any of you did read such essays, and what would you tell the student in this case? Because on the one hand, we should not discourage creativity and personal style, but on the other, we want to help students learn to write in a way that would be appropriate for their future workplace. This seems to be almost like a vicious circle.

The Vernacular Divide

John R. Rickford’s article “Suite for Ebony and Phonics” contains an interesting discussion of Ebonics, the “vernacular or informal speech of many African Americans.” Rickford’s project is to explain how the Linguistic Society of America came to support the Oakland School Board’s resolution recognizing Ebonics as “the primary language of African American students.” In brief, the society considers Ebonics not “lazy English”–a common misconception (to put it kindly)–but rather a bona fide, i.e., systematic and rule-governed, dialect.

The upshot of the resolution is that the Oakland School Board adopted an approach to teaching Standard English that takes “students’ vernaculars into account,” rather than “ignor[ing] the vernacular altogether,” as conventional approaches have done. The success rates of this approach have been impressive: the “Contrastive Analysis approach in which SE and Ebonics features were systematically contrasted through explicit intruction and drills showed a 59% REDUCTION in [students’] use of Ebonics features in their SE writing after eleven weeks, while a control group taught by conventional methods showed an 8.5% INCREASE in such features.”

There are some striking parallels here to the arts. I don’t know if Rickford intended to imply such a connection through his title, but there is certainly an Ebonics/SE kind of tension between, say, African American “vernacular” musics (jazz, rap) and the canonic “Standard” still commonly offered in introductory music classes for the non-major. Does anyone out there have any experience in (or ideas about) applying the Contrastive Analysis linguistic approach to other disciplines?